Tag Archives: Brexit

Politics on the Edge by Rory Stewart

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.

 

The gates of HMP Dartmoor

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 

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The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman

What on earth can have brought this book to mind? In these worrying times, foolish people seem to have power, and foolish policies appear to be unstoppable, so my mind turns to The March of Folly. Sadly this book does not provide answers to how to prevent folly in policy. But it reminds us that power does not always reside with wise people, and we must be on our guard and maintain our democratic processes to counter folly. And the subtitle, from Troy to Vietnam, reminds us that the historical roots of folly are deep.

The Decades Project on Bookword has reached the 1980s. The project features non-fiction by women from each decade from the start of the 20thCentury. The March of Folly was published in 1984 and was written by an American.

The March of Folly by Barbara W. Tuchman

The argument of this history book is straightforward. Folly is frequently committed by policy makers. To qualify as folly she employs three criteria:

  1. the policy must be seen as counter-productive at the time,
  2. there must exist a feasible alternative, and
  3. the policy is promoted by a group of people, not an individual.

Barbara W Tuchman explores 4 examples of folly that meet these criteria, although she refers to many others.

Her first example is the decision by the rulers of Troy to move the wooden horse into the city. The siege of Troy was a story first told by Homer and then by other historians.

Troy falls at last after ten years of futile, indecisive, noble, mean, tricky, bitter, jealous and only occasionally heroic battle. As the culminating instrumentality for the fall, the story brings in the Wooden Horse. (43)

There were warnings and caution was advised. ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,’ warned Laocoon. They were advised to burn the horse, or throw it in the sea or at least cut it open. But instead it was pulled into Troy with some difficulty and when the Greek soldiers were released it was the means to the complete defeat of the Trojans.

She moves on to consider the actions of the renaissance popes in the face of rising dissention, which allowed the Reformation to split the Christian church. Next she explores England’s policy under George III towards the American colonies, which led to the War of Independence and to the loss of the colonies by the British. Finally, in the longest section, she considers American policy in Vietnam. The book was published in 1984. It was less than ten years since the US had pulled out of their bloody involvement in Vietnam.

To account for such policies of folly Barbara W Tuchman suggests that there must exist a certain amount of wooden-headedness or mental standstill, blindness to alternatives, deafness to criticism. Sometimes the group act with folly out of self-aggrandizement, or a lust for power, or are corrupted by having power. They may even have an excess of power, she suggests. Persistence in a false action can be the result of a difficulty in admitting to errors. And there may well be a lack of moral courage.

Having presented her four case studies she finishes on a downbeat.

Perhaps better men flourish in better times, and wiser government requires the nourishment of a dynamic rather than a troubled and bewildered society. If John Adams is right, and government is ‘little better practised now than three or four thousand years ago,’ we cannot reasonably expect much improvement. We can only muddle on as we have done in those same three or four thousand years, through patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavour and shadow. (486)

Barbara W Tuchman

Barbara W Tuchman was born in the USA in 1912 and before her death in 1989 she wrote many books of history for the general reader. She was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

It is no surprise that she was criticised by academic historians for not being academic enough. Her books were very popular however.

And although it can be satisfying to see events in history that one regrets as the result of folly, she has been criticised for not explaining the rise of folly.  Her examples are recounted in increasing detail, but the circumstances that allowed the policies to persist are really only explained by – well – folly.

In 1984 she commented:

It seems superfluous to say that the present study stems from the ubiquity of this problem [the folly of policy makers] in our time. (40)

As Britain continues on its path to Brexit folly, we too must fall back on explanations of power, self-aggrandisement and inability to admit errors. We are, I am convinced, engaged in a 21stcentury march of folly ourselves.

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W Tuchman published in 1984. I read Abacus edition published in 1985. 559pp

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women in each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

Elizabeth David’s books in the Kitchen(1950s)

Silent Springby Rachel Carson(1962)

84 Charing Cross Roadby Helene Hanff(1971)

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project