Can Britain Learn From Its Era of Disastrous Politics?

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Rory Stewart entered the House of Commons in 2010 with a reputation as a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia (or, to his critics, Florence of Belgravia). He had walked across Afghanistan on his own. He’d helped govern an Iraqi province. He had written three excellent books — two about his exploits in the Middle East and one about his walks along with Scottish border with his father, a legendary spy.

Stewart’s career stalled under David Cameron because he opposed Cameron’s plan to abolish the House of Lords. He was given a succession of low-level appointments under Theresa May. Then he exploded on the national scene as the most articulate defender of May’s Brexit deal and as an insurgent candidate for the party leadership.

Politics on the Edge is Stewart’s memoir of his years in politics, and it offers an incisive analysis of what is wrong with the country’s political system. Call him what you want — egotistical, fey, conceited — but he is never for a moment dull.

Stewart provides memorable pen portraits of all the leading players of that disastrous era. David Cameron comes across “like a host of a pheasant shoot, rented only for the day.” George Osborne is an 18th-century French cardinal — wryly observant of colleagues and capable of breathtaking cynicism. Liz Truss is banal and robotic — she insists on cutting every department she moves to by 20%.

And what of Boris Johnson, Stewart’s fellow product of Eton and Balliol? At first sight, Johnson looks like a Regency Squire “fond of long nights at the piquet table at White’s,” Stewart says. But don’t be deceived: His “air of roguish solidity” is undermined by “the furtive cunning of his eyes, which made it seem as though an alien creature had possessed his reassuring body and was squinting out of the sockets.”

Stewart arrived in Westminster, like so many before him, with a grand sense of following in the footsteps of heroes only to discover that MPs had largely been reduced to bit players — pegged up in their crumbling Gothic Palace for the sole purpose of voting for the government. Power is concentrated in Downing Street with its army of juvenile special advisers, trend-watching spin doctors and number-crunching pollsters. Speeches are formulaic. The procedure is so opaque that MPs have to rely on WhatsApp messages to tell them what to do.

In Stewart’s recounting, ambitious young MPs devote their lives to flattering the prime minister and walking through the lobby at the right time. Older MPs who have either had their bite at high office or been passed over for good devote their lives to plotting, their early hopes congealed into poison and malice. Young and old are united by a pervasive sense of fear: a stray remark that might make it into the newspapers; an expense claim that might be misinterpreted; a personal scandal that might explode into national humiliation. 

Stewart spent an unusual amount of time in suspended animation because of his refusal to toe the party line. But when he finally made it into government, he discovered that the life of ministers can be as pointless as the life of backbenchers. Civil servants try to make all the important decisions themselves. Stewart is particularly acidic about the permanent secretary at the Department of Justice who drips with management cliches and reserves the biggest office for himself and his collection of modern art.

The Tory right has lately taken to demonizing the civil service as “the blob.” But Stewart’s account shows that Tory politicians especially have enabled the blob. Many politicians are happy to act as front-men — their real interest lies in climbing the greasy pole rather than running their departments. Cameron made a habit of choosing foreign secretaries or defense secretaries with no previous knowledge in order to prevent any challenges to his own priorities. There is no formal system of knowledge transfer from one officeholder to another. The endless reshuffles created by the chaos at the top of politics meant that ministers had no time to learn their new job before being whisked onward. Stewart himself had six ministerial roles in four years.

Many of these points have been made before, if less colorfully. But Stewart adds two arguments that lift his book to a higher level. The first is the case for focusing on the how rather than the what. Most ministers preoccupy themselves with broad policy and leave operational questions to the civil service. Stewart, famous for walking everywhere, focuses on the point where the boot hits the ground.

During his time at the Department for International Development (DFID), he found himself listening to officials who talked about “targets” and “delivery,” but who had never set foot in Iraq and Afghanistan. In one 400-page document, he found 125 references to “accountable” and “accountability,” 141 to “sustainable” and “sustainability,” and only one to “clan.” As prison minister, he spent as much time as he could visiting prisons — even sleeping in cells — rather than listening to jargon-laden waffle in London.

The second argument is for a more considered response to populism. Stewart is a proud champion of the One Nation brand of liberal conservatism. During his run for the Conservative leadership, he became the darling of middle-of-the-road people who disliked both the Brexit right and the Corbynite left. But he has rightly resisted the temptation toward liberal self-congratulation, a temptation that has only grown stronger during populism’s recent agonies. Stewart recognizes that the only way to address the problem of populism is to take populist complaints seriously.

He notes that the liberal regime that Cameron championed was failing large numbers of people. Liberal interventionists talked grandly about “making poverty history” while poverty put down ever deeper roots in “the other Britain,” and about remaking Iraq and Afghanistan while they couldn’t even remake the British prison service. Thanks to Cameron’s pledge to spend 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid, the aid budget doubled during the six years of austerity, while investment was being pared back on core services at home — reductions whose consequences are felt today in crumbling infrastructure and overcrowded hospitals. 

Stewart’s campaign for the Tory leadership eventually fizzled out. Johnson easily won and proceeded to do everything that Stewart had warned against — proroguing parliament, taking Britain out of the EU without a satisfactory deal, lying to all and sundry. Stewart briefly ran for mayor of London, resuming his habit of walking everywhere, but the election was canceled because of Covid. His book ends without him having a parliamentary seat or political party.

Stewart is currently reinventing himself yet again, this time as a political commentator. His “Rest is Politics” podcast, with Tony Blair’s former press secretary, Alastair Campbell, is so successful that the two perform a double act before packed-out audiences. But Stewart needs to avoid being crushed by the liberal embrace that he’s currently enjoying and remember why populism is still such a potent threat. The last thing we need is another Blairite striding the political boards.

He also needs to avoid becoming just another commentator in an overcrowded British marketplace and find some way back into politics. What Britain needs from Stewart is not more words on the air, but a couple of boots on the ground.  

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• The UK’s China Hawks Have Grounds to Be Wary: Martin Ivens

• London Dodges a Bullet With Arm’s US Listing: Marcus Ashworth

• Erdogan’s Putin Meeting Was More About Damage Control Than Grain: Marc Champion

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the Economist, he is author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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