May 28, 2019


The refreshing ridiculousness of Rory Stewart: An unusual would-be leader is on a strange quest to take over Britain (Alex Massie, May 28, 2019,The Spectator)

[T]here is a questing quality to Stewart that's both unusual and endearing. There are plenty of places in between in Britain and it's unusual to see a would-be Tory leader taking them seriously.

I fancy Stewart might be better-placed to become leader of a Tory party in opposition than in government but he is, nonetheless, the cleanest skin in this contest. He might fail but he would most likely fail in a more interesting way than some. I appreciate that's more useful and more appealing to journalists than to "ordinary" voters.

Still, there's a modesty too: Stewart has been one of the few ministers to bat for Theresa May's doomed withdrawal agreement. We need to deliver a manageable, deal-based, Brexit but we also need to look far beyond that. We need to have a real discussion about politics and what it can achieve and this needs to be done seriously. You can't get the right answers if you don't have the right, or at least interesting, questions. It's a great game but it's much more than a game; one reason why Stewart says he couldn't serve in a government led by Boris Johnson.

He considers himself a member of the lower-upper-middle classes which means - despite this accent - he's quite posh but not properly so. Eton and Oxford, yes, but also - if briefly - the Black Watch and, eternally, Scotland too. I suspect he thinks of himself as an outsider on the inside; a member of the club but in some vague way not quite a full, or born, one.

In one sense this is preposterous. Stewart's father was a big number in the Secret Intelligence Service and his own career has bounced from one elite posting to another. There was his recruitment as tutor to Princes William and Harry, a spell in the FCO - about which he is unusually coy - and another at Harvard. And that's before you get to his trek across Afghanistan after 9/11 or his spell as a governance-co-ordinator in post-Saddam Iraq. It's not your usual Tory CV.

There's a hankering for adventure and for greatness, certainly. Not many MPs these days are comfortable talking about Achilles; fewer could do so without seeming absurd. But Stewart is a rarity in British politics: an actual romantic, albeit one whose romanticism is tempered by an awareness of the limitations imposed by resources, commitment, and time.

That's at the essence of his Toryism, I think. On a practical level, he's not always been a Conservative. He's supported Labour in the past. But spiritually - if we can talk in such terms - he's obviously, abundantly, a Tory. A Unionist, too, which still matters for some of us.

During the 2014 independence referendum Stewart had the idea of building a new monument to the ties that bind Scotland and England (and the other parts of the United Kingdom) together. The Auld Acquaintance cairn, near the border at Gretna, would be, he hoped, "a lasting marker of our union, something that future generations will look back at and remember, with deep gratitude, the moment we chose to stay together". This was very Stewartish: slightly unworldly, romantic, and easily mocked. But even if Rory's Cairn has been largely forgotten now, there are reckoned to be 100,000 stones there, brought to it by people from all across the United Kingdom. And it is still there.

Which is another way of noting that unity and common purpose are not new notions for Stewart. When he talks about bringing people together he actually means it. Is that enough? In truth, I don't know but it feels refreshing at this moment.

Posted by at May 28, 2019 4:02 AM