“This is what I live and breathe in Cumbria. It’s the most exciting part of it!” Rory Stewart MP is enthusing about localism and his job as a rural Tory backbencher. This is from a man who has been a solider, a diplomat and a Harvard professor, and founded and run a charity in Kabul. Stewart has also written two bestselling books: The Places in Between, about his walk across Afghanistan just after the fall of the Taliban, part of an 18 month, 6,000 mile trek across Asia; and The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq, an account of his stint as an Iraqi provincial governor following the US invasion.
Brad Pitt has even bought the rights to a film of Stewart’s life, rumoured to be starring Orlando Bloom (although Stewart, who is having nothing to do with the script, says things have gone a bit quiet on that front recently. “Perhaps they’re waiting for a twist in the tale, or a Deus Ex Machina moment for their plot,” he says wryly.) So I am a little surprised to hear Stewart gushing about affordable housing and high-speed broadband.
When I press Stewart on how he would answer the people who say that he has taken a demotion to become a local MP he seems unsure, where before his answers were flowing. “I think the other things sound grander because they…” Stewart stumbles a little. “I don’t know why.
“Being a Harvard Professor, for example, which is what I did immediately before this, sounds grand. And a lot of my colleagues at Harvard said, ‘Oh no, don’t whatever you do become a backbencher. It’ll be humiliating.’ But actually this is… I find this much, much more intriguing. I meet a much greater variety of people. I mean my Harvard students are like Oxford students.”
Hesitant Stewart may be, yet I can’t help but believe that he is genuine. That he has decided that, for the moment at least, being an MP really is where he can make the most difference. Instead of taking a seat in the Oxford Union’s Gladstone Room, where we hurriedly conduct the interview at President’s drinks, after Stewart spoke in opposition in the 80th anniversary ‘This House Would Not Fight For Queen and Country’ debate, Stewart perches on the table. The edges of his suit jacket are frayed in places, his dark hair crumpled. Stewart seems at ease with the media (he’s made documentaries too), yet removed from your average, spin-doctored politician.
Asked why he decided to move into politics, Stewart tells me, “In Iraq and Afghanistan I saw what I thought was a fatal gap between politicians, policy-makers, the way they talked about things, and what was actually going on… They would say, ‘Every Afghan is committed to a gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic centralised state based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.’ And there I was on the ground thinking, ‘I don’t even know how to translate that into language that this man I stayed with would understand.’”
“I became a politician because…” Stewart searches for the right words. “To try and see if it’s possible to bring a little bit of reality, a little bit of complexity, a little bit of knowledge into politics.”
Stewart is a child of the establishment, yet seems to have struggled to find a role within it that he believes is truly worthwhile. Born in Hong Kong to a diplomat father and academic mother, he was raised in Malaysia, and educated at Eton and Balliol, Oxford, where he studied history and PPE. Stewart spent his gap year in the Black Watch regiment, which he thought would be a “heroic life” but found frustrating. Next was the Foreign Office, where Stewart rose to become second secretary in Indonesia within two years, and then served in the Balkans, only to pack it all in to walk across Asia.
The Places in Between is evocative of Afghanistan’s epic, snow-covered peaks and valleys, yet the prose seems disconnected – the only emotional connection that you feel Stewart makes is with a dog who joins his walk through the mountains. “I was alone day in-day out, hour after hour, walking 9-10 hours a day, sleeping in strangers’ houses. And I think it put things in perspective,” Stewart observes.
“When I was at Oxford I very much thought that I was the centre of the universe. But when I was walking, I realised that in every village I stayed in there were men – generally men – who thought that they were the centre of the universe.”
Stewart admits that his writing was “rebelling against what I hate about travel writing, which is the sort of romantic, personal, ‘Isn’t this an amazing ancient civilisation?’” to capture the “lonely, boring, bewildering, frustrating” reality of travel. Why, I want to know, would you choose to spend almost two years of your life subjecting yourself to that?
“I was spending a lot of time in embassies in cities, and therefore very much talking to elites in urban areas,” Stewart says frankly. “What was defining the future of these countries was what was actually happening in the rural areas.” A strange mix of pragmatism and idealism seems to have motivated Stewart to both withdraw from politics and return to it.
Whilst Stewart waxes lyrical about the experience of an elected representative, he is passionate about the dangers of Western military intervention, and there is more than a hint of frustration. Stewart had argued the case for a just war during the night’s debate, so I ask him: What makes for a successful intervention?
“I think the core of it is humility. It begins with the West understanding its knowledge is limited, its power is limited, its legitimacy is limited. That we go into a situation which is intrinsically chaotic, unpredictable and uncertain.” Stewart hammers on the table to emphasise his point, “But when things go wrong, we go and get out!” He likens intervention to mountain rescue – you wouldn’t keep going in a blizzard.
On Afghanistan Stewart is bleakly pragmatic. “We’ve been there ten years. If we haven’t achieved things by now, then we’re probably not going to achieve them.” We are also far too late to intervene in Syria, and certainly can’t bring order to the “ungoverned space in Mali”.
Rory Stewart for Foreign Minister, perhaps? I press him on whether he has higher political ambitions and he, unsurprisingly, puts in “lots of qualifications”, including luck and a 10- 20 year time frame. However, Stewart’s idealism seems to have turned inwards towards Britain. He speaks enthusiastically but vaguely about localised democracy, reforming Parliament and getting people excited about politics, whilst admitting that he could not effect such apparently ambitious change from the backbenches. Will Stewart be frustrated again? Maybe this time, only time will tell.