Interview in The Times
Article first published in The Times on 24 August 2019 by Magnus Linklater.
In the days after Rory Stewart lost in his bid to be prime minister and watched Boris Johnson take the country in what he saw as a disastrous direction, he began to question why he was in politics at all.
He had, by general consent, performed well as a rank outsider, but the Johnson bandwagon was too powerful to be resisted. His appeals to moderation and good sense had fallen on stony ground.
“You catch me in quite a gloomy mood,” Mr Stewart, 46, confesses. “At the moment I tend to be worried when I wake up at three in the morning about whether this no-deal Brexit episode suggests there are people in government who either don’t understand what they are doing or don’t care. My whole project was based on compromise, and I thought I could win an argument that we could find the middle ground, and I could assert reasoned argument.
“But I failed. And so I have to then look at myself quite carefully and try to understand what it means to fail in that way. To what extent have I misunderstood the country, the public, myself; what am I really betting on over the next 20 to 30 years in terms of my ability to turn that around?”
He decided that he should set out on a journey across Britain to find out what the country really thought, not to easy and receptive places but to parts of the country where society seemed to be breaking down. He spent time in Northern Ireland, the north of England, and the East End of London, where he arrived shortly after yet another knife attack. “There were police cars and a white tent, a body and air ambulances,” he recalls. “But also simple things like being taken by a woman to the ladies lavatories and being shown a lot of men shooting up heroin, and just how disgusting and dirty they were.”
In Northern Ireland he found a fragile peace still holding, but signs of potential conflict everywhere. “It was an extraordinary eye-opener from the time I spent in Derry and Enniskillen because to see the 14ft brick walls that enclose the Protestant community still standing, the Parachute Regiment flags, and on the walls in the nationalist community the huge murals of Che Guevara and the rest. You got the sense that peace there is very fragile,” he says.
“Then in Enniskillen, realising that the entire farming economy was dependent on trade with the Republic — 85 per cent of the sheep went to abattoirs across the border. I suppose what I felt, in connection with Scottish nationalism, is a reminder that in a very brutal and obvious sense nationalism is about borders, the line on the map that says, ‘This is us; this is you’. That’s what I felt about Scottish nationalism: just deepening the line between Berwick and Carlisle was never going to help anyone.”
Mr Stewart is well used to difficult places and difficult conversations. His father, Brian, was a Scottish diplomat and Mr Stewart followed in his footsteps, working for the diplomatic service in Indonesia and Montenegro after a brief stint in the Black Watch. He was also deputy governor of two provinces in the Marsh Arab region of southern Iraq after the US and British invasion of 2003. From 2000 to 2002 he walked across Pakistan, Iran, Nepal, India and Afghanistan and wrote his award-winning account, The Places In Between.
Sitting in the conservatory at the Stewart family home in Crieff, wearing a kilt and sporran after attending the Crieff Highland Games, with his children playing next door, Mr Stewart seems a million miles from the troubles of the country. But he is determined to continue his journey of exploration.
“I’m spending the last week of August travelling around Glasgow, Hartlepool, Newcastle and Manchester, working in NHS hospitals, going out with the police, spending time with foster families, staying nights in council estates. Because what I’m really interested in is the sense that everyone has deeply neglected about 10 per cent of our population, whom I saw very directly when I was prisons minister — 50 per cent of whom had reading ages under 11, and 40 per cent of whom had been in care. I realised that nobody was really speaking for them, not just the Conservatives, not Labour either, because by definition most of these people don’t vote. In fact almost none of them vote.”
Mr Stewart, who was elected MP for Penrith and the Border in Cumbria in 2010, reckoned that if he wanted to make any difference at all he would have to stay in politics and take up the fight against a no-deal Brexit, which he believes will make life immeasurably worse for the poorest areas of the country — and then go on to make the argument for uniting rather than dividing Britain.
“The job in government I loved most was being prisons minister,” he says (he also served as international development secretary before resigning when Mr Johnson became prime minister). “Because there I really felt I was able to make a difference, identify problems, come up with a plan. We chose ten prisons and I had all the prison governors up to stay in this house for two and a half days. I visited all the prisons repeatedly, shadowed prison officers on the wings, went through every prison again and again, getting the figures, and we did reduce violence in prisons, and drugs, much more quickly than I thought we could.”
He had promised to resign if he did not succeed but statistics published this weeksuggest that he would have stayed on. Violence and drug use have fallen since last year at some of England’s “most challenging” prisons, according to the Ministry of Justice. Assaults fell by 16 per cent and failed drug tests also dropped across the ten prisons that were given extra security funding.
There is, however, a “sting in the tale”, he says. “The way government works is very odd. I was just 80 per cent through my prison reforms when they moved me to be secretary of state for international development. [Before that] I was just finishing my Africa strategy as Africa minister when they reshuffled me to become prisons minister. I had five ministerial jobs in four years. What does this tell you about [David] Cameron or Theresa May or Boris, do they really believe in ministers, do they respect them, or is it a sort of pantomime in which ministers are playthings designed to placate different parts of the party?”
So now Mr Stewart is returning to Westminster, with another project on his hands: stopping a no-deal Brexit. And not only stopping it but explaining what will happen if and when it is stopped. “I have to work with colleagues to resolve this fundamental question. I want an extension [to the exit date of October 31] because I believe the only way to heal the country is through a compromise: a moderate Brexit. But what is an extension for? There I have to gamble that Europe has no particular interest in throwing us out. But it requires patience and optimism of an immense sort on the part of Europe and everybody else to believe we can see our way through this conundrum.”
One approach he would like to explore is a citizens’ assembly, rather as was used in Ireland on the abortion issue. Scotland is planning now to set up a 120-strong assembly to debate “what kind of country we are seeking to build”.
On Brexit “it would be a way of having a bridge between the referendum and the parliament, of citizens randomly selected like a jury whose job it would be to sit for some weeks to look at the evidence very carefully, then come forward with a proposal”, he says. “Parliament isn’t set up to spend weeks sitting, going through detail; it’s a much more instinctual body that takes what it perceives to be the interests of party or constituents and translates them very rapidly into votes. It doesn’t have the memory of how to come up with a constructive proposal, it just knows how to say yea or nay.”
One way or another it seems that Rory Stewart has overcome his moment of self-doubt and is back in the political mainstream, trying to work out solutions for a country which he sees as broken but which he still believes can be fixed.
What book is on your bedside table?
Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, by Norman Ohler.
What music would you take to your desert island?
Mozart clarinet and flute concertos.
Who would you choose to have a week-long conversation with?
My best friend, Felix.
What was the best advice you were ever given, and who gave it?
Just get on with it — my father.
A week off: walking the hills or catching up on missed episodes of Line of Duty?
Walking the hills.
Sartorial choice: Savile Row or Campbell’s of Beauly?
Tell us a secret
I am completely unable to hold a tune.