It is distressing and sad that the world seems to be in such a poor state, and that Climate Change and possible disaster loom over us. I lament the wars that seem to drag on in Ukraine, Sudan and the Middle East. I am shocked by the corruption that appears to have put our government ‘in the pocket of fossil fuel companies’ [Al Gore]. And I am horrified by the damage done to our water systems, rivers, seas and the bills we pay to subsidise the dividends to water company shareholders; I am appalled by the physical state of schools and the quality of the education we provide for the children of our nation and around the world; I am in despair about the state of prisons and the conditions in which prisoners are obliged to live; and the official attitude to refugees appals me. And … and … How did it get to this? Since Covid I have been reading more non-fiction alongside my usual diet in an attempt to understand all this.
Politics on the Edge
I enjoy reading books that help me understand how we got here. I am interested, in particular, in why politics and politicians are not working towards answers at this time. What is the context that has created so many areas of dysfunction? What should we expect and hope from our political system and from our politicians? It does seem to me that the fallout from both Brexit and Covid-19 and earlier from the unresolved banking crisis of 2007-8 has meant that different rules, different norms new and lower standards have crept in. Once the banking crisis no longer threatened the viability of the western economic system, the bankers who drove the crisis, were not required to accept responsibility or to atone for their mistakes. Indeed, I am not aware that anyone, any person, any banking group paid any penalties for what happened. Crisis over, move on.
The referendum and the negotiations for a Brexit deal ushered in a new era of untruths, lies, misdirection and political skulduggery. The Conservative party was deliberately cleansed of those who proposed alternative solutions to the complexities of Brexit negotiations. Consequently, the Brexit-at-any-cost brigade could ignore dissent and the processes by which negotiations and legislation are improved: argument and discussion.
And Covid seems to have challenged most of the population and all our politicians. The Covid Enquiry is revealing that government, in particular decision-making and procurement, were out of control. It was far worse than we suspected.
Rory Stewart is an interesting man and his backstory is not typical of a man who went into parliament as a Conservative Party MP and into government for all that he attended Eton. He had experience of the army and the diplomatic service in Indonesia, the Balkans and Afghanistan. He also had experience of running charities in Afghanistan. Additionally he is a long-distance walker and learned more about Pakistan and Afghanistan through walking. He later did the same in his constituency in Cumbria as an MP.
In short, his life suggests that he is a man who wishes to make a difference to people’s lives. His experience forms the background to this book, which is focused on his political career.
He takes us through his attempts to be selected to stand for a seat in parliament, competing with others who have often done long years of service as local councillors, or as SPADs (special advisors). He was selected eventually to fight the 2010 election in Penrith and the Border, a huge constituency, far away from Westminster. He attributed his selection to the clear-out of sitting members following the expenses scandal. Having won he entered parliament, only to discover that the power and influence of a Conservative backbencher is to serve as lobby fodder: to vote in the divisions, to attend committees, occasionally to make a speech in the chamber, to expect nothing much for the constituency who elected you.
Those who made decisions about deploying MPs appear to have ignored his expertise, experience and enthusiasms that were rooted in his pre-parliamentary activities. This continued even when he was given posts within the government. He watched as ministers who knew Afghanistan from a few days’ visit made decision about the deployment of troops and the assistance.
The constituency work was hard, but despite the distance from the House of Commons, he made himself known to the people of Cumbria and tried to improve their lives in practical ways.
He was appointed to the Ministry of the Environment under Liz Truss. His account of his first day at the job is hilarious and shocking. The Civil Servants were careful to the point of obstruction and his boss required news points but no grounded action. And so it went on. He had positions in International Development, the Foreign Office, in Prisons and Probation. Ministers are moved around with such frequency that it is hard for them achieve anything productive.
My admiration for his work as prison minister is great. There are no votes in prisons, literally, but he was shocked by the state of many of them and set about trying to help the governors and officers improve conditions and work towards their purpose of rehabilitation.
And then Boris Johnson, for whom he reserves his most searing criticism, and his circle prevented Teresa May’s Brexit deal and there was a leadership election. Rory Stewart challenged Boris Johnson and made a creditable fist of it. But following his defeat, he left the party along with many others who in various ways challenged the new leadership. The Conservative Party in parliament lost a great deal of talent at that time.
As he relates this political journey, his disillusion becomes ours, the time serving, the lack of power, the need to temper ambition and intentions, the moving ministries to suit political purposes, and finally his ejection through challenging Boris Johnson. His characterisation of Boris as a liar, interested only in himself, is now familiar. As a result of reading this account I was depressed by the inability of the political system to used people of talent, to resist corruption, and failing to achieve much, including in local areas. It has continued under two further prime ministers. Such high hopes, so resolutely defeated.
I also learn a great deal by listening to the Podcast: The Rest is Politics with Rory Stewart and Alistair Campbell.
Politics on the Edge: a memoir from Within by Rory Stewart, published in 2023 by Penguin Random House. 454pp