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<nettime> Rory Stewart MP: The secret of modern Britain is there is no
Patrice Riemens on Tue, 7 Jan 2014 04:14:03 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Rory Stewart MP: The secret of modern Britain is there is no

>From our 'audi et alteram partem' department. Any pronouncement by Rory
Stewart MP that might apply unchanged to the world of art/cult/academia is
of course purely coincidental ...

Original to (4 interesting links):

Rory Stewart: 'The secret of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere'

Tory MP Rory Stewart's career has included tutoring royal princes, a
6,000-mile trek through Afghanistan and a stint in Iraq. He says foreign
intervention doesn't work. Can he be any more effective back here in the

Decca Aitkenhead
The Guardian, Friday 3 January 2014

"Anybody running a small pizza business has more power than me"
- Conservative MP Rory Stewart.

If the 15-year-old Rory Stewart could see himself today at 40, "he would
think I was a bit pathetic". He would see at once "all the ways in which
I've compromised, and sold out. And he would be absolutely right." What
would he have made of his decision to be a Tory MP? "Really confused, I
think," Stewart smiles. "Yes. Really, really confused."

A lot of other people have been, too. Stewart is a Scot born in Hong Kong,
raised in Malaysia and educated at Eton, who studied PPE at Oxford while
tutoring Princes William and Harry in his spare time. On graduating he
joined the foreign office, posted first to Indonesia to help sort out East
Timor, and then to Montenegro to deal with Kosovo. Between 2000 and 2002
he walked 6,000 miles through Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, staying in
villagers' houses, before being dispatched to Iraq to take charge of two
provinces and to help write the country's new constitution. He wrote two
bestselling memoirs about his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, Harvard
made him a professor, and he founded a charity in Afghanistan at the
request of its president and the Prince of Wales.

By 35 he had led so many adventures that Brad Pitt's production company
bought the rights to a biopic of his life. And then he came home to become
the Tory member for Penrith.

We met once before, about 10 years ago, and he struck me then as a
character from another century, or possibly a Flashman novel. He remains
hugely appealing: self-deprecating, funny, open, curious and kind. So what
was he thinking to give up his former life for the tedium of the
backbenches? His explanation turns out to be the most convincing analysis
of foreign interventions and domestic politics I can remember ever hearing
from a Conservative MP.

Stewart came home when he realised that even the least-educated Afghan
housewife in a mountain village knew more about the country than he did.
Fluent in Dari, along with nine other languages, he'd thrown himself into
the coalition mission with great conviction, but had to conclude that: "In
the end, the basic problem is very, very simple. Why don't these
interventions work? Because we are foreigners. If things are going wrong
in a country, it's not usually that we don't have enough foreigners. It's
usually that we have too many."

Ten years ago he would have listed 10 things Afghanistan needed to build a
new state: rule of law, financial administration, civil administration and
so on. "And, then you would say, well, how do you do that? Well, I'd say,
by a mapping of internal and external stakeholders, definition of critical
tasks -- all this jargon talk. And I've only now just begun to realise
these words are nonsense words. I mean, they have no content at all. We
should be ashamed to even use them."

They are nothing more, Stewart now acknowledges, than tautologies. "They
pretend to be a plan, but they're actually just a description of an
absence. Saying 'What we need is security, and what we need to do is
eliminate corruption' is just another way of saying: 'It's really
dangerous and corrupt.' None of that actually tells you how it's done."

Stewart is one of those rare people who talk in perfect sentences. He goes
on: "Our entire conceptual framework was mad. All these theories --
counterinsurgency warfare, state building -- were actually complete
abstract madness. They were like very weird religious systems, because
they always break down into three principles, 10 functions, seven this or
that. So they're reminiscent of Buddhists who say: 'These are the four
paths', or of Christians who say: 'These are the seven deadly sins.'
They're sort of theologies, essentially, made by people like Buddhist
monks in the eighth century -- people who have a fundamental faith, which
is probably, in the end, itself completely delusional."

Whenever Stewart took one of these ideas, such as rule of law, to an
actual Afghan village, it became meaningless. "None of the things that I'm
looking for exist. There obviously isn't police, or a judge, there isn't a
legal code, there isn't a prison. There's a bunch of guys with white
beards sitting around, and their system of doing that might be quite
different from the next-door village. So then how do you get from there to
here? Well, it can be done, but it's not going to be done by a foreigner
who barely understands any of that."

But if he were an MP in his own country, he figured he'd at least
understand what he was doing. What he hadn't anticipated was the
conclusion he would reach after four years in Westminster. "I think
British democracy at the moment is really struggling to work."

Part of the problem is the unprecedented nature of the problems facing us
today. "You have to ask yourself what a country that was the first to
industrialise, and the first to de-industrialise, does with itself. What
is our civilisation? What is our democracy? Who do we want to be?" But
almost no one else in parliament appears at all interested in these
questions. His colleagues tease him, telling him they're for thinktanks,
not politicians, and that "people will think you're a sort of nutty

Westminster works much better for career politicians, Stewart soon found,
than for a newcomer with intimate experience of the world it legislates
on. "It's such a weird profession, with such specialised rules and such a
strange anthropology, that people who've been in it for a long time have a
huge advantage. This is just such an eccentric institution that it's
difficult for an outsider to really understand what we're doing." Does he?
"No, not at all. Not at all, because a lot of what we do day-to-day is
very difficult to make sense of."

When the house first sat after he was elected, he remembers everyone
waving their order papers and jeering and cheering, and he said to Chuka
Umunna, a newly elected Labour MP: "We're not going to get pulled into
that, are we?" It seemed plausible that the new intake could rewrite the
rules. And yet MPs' obsession with "who's up and who's down" is
contagious. "You can't spend three and a half years in here without being
changed profoundly. I mean, I'm not who I was when I first came here."

Cumbria is a long way from SW1, which may help to explain why Stewart is
convinced that a radical new localism is the only way to revive democracy.
"We have to create a thousand little city states, and give the power right
down to all the bright, energetic people everywhere who just feel
superfluous." A huge fan of the Big Society, he calls it "the fundamental
insight" and "the big idea", and valiantly maintains that it has not been
ditched by Downing Street. He also believes what we need now is a brand
new written constitution.

"In some sense I'm a romantic. I like the idea of organic history and
tradition. But I think Britain is such a different place now, and changing
so quickly, that I'm coming slowly, painfully, to accept that we need to
start again."

Stewart would separate the legislature from the executive, slash the
number of MPs from 650 to 100, introduce powerful locally elected mayors,
and impose greater transparency and controls on the security services. He
thinks the US public have been much more upset than the British by Edward
Snowden's revelations because of the cultural legacy of the first
amendment, and he would introduce something similar here.

"We've relied for 400 years on an informal faith in our own common sense
and sanity and Britishness, and thought that would all be all right. But
those things are very fragile in a new world, and so you need to begin to
write things down." But of course, all this is a tall order. "This is
where the gap between my theoretical desire and practical politics comes
in," he chuckles. "How do you get 650 people to vote to lose 550?"

It strikes me that being a backbench MP in Cumbria is probably the least
powerful job Stewart has ever done. He laughs. "I like that, yes, that's
true. Anybody running a small pizza business has more power than me. I
mean, in four years, what have I done?" He says he has "maybe influenced,
in a small way" the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan; led a Commons
motion obliging mobile phone operators to increase rural coverage from 87%
to 98%; had some minor influence over the technical details of the way
rural broadband is rolled out; "might" have changed the way the foreign
office analyses language skills when it runs its promotions boards; and
saved the local cinema. "And I might, if I'm lucky, have got a lift at the
train station in Penrith. But that's about it."

In a way, he says, ordinary Afghans are far more powerful than British
citizens, because at least they feel they can have a role in one of the
country's 20,000 villages. "But in our situation we're all powerless. I
mean, we pretend we're run by people. We're not run by anybody. The secret
of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere." Some commentators, he
says, think we're run by an oligarchy. "But we're not. I mean, nobody can
see power in Britain. The politicians think journalists have power. The
journalists know they don't have any. Then they think the bankers have
power. The bankers know they don't have any. None of them have any power."

And this from a man who only two years ago attended the Bilderberg
conference, a highly exclusive and secretive gathering of the world's most
powerful bankers, politicians and businesspeople?

"Well there we are, you see," he smiles. "I can tell you, there is nothing
there. It's like the wizard of Oz. This is the age of the wizard of Oz,
you know. In the end you get behind the curtain and you finally meet the
wizard -- and there's this tiny, frightened figure. I think every prime
minister has sort of said this since Blair. You get there and you pull the
lever, and nothing happens."

But that doesn't mean he thinks he's wrong to be an MP, and he doesn't for
a minute regret it. In fact he is remarkably cheerful, plans to do the job
for at least a decade, and hopes for a ministerial post. "I'm not
depressed or disillusioned -- I want to be here to see if I can change it.
I'm desperate to try to use my life to engage with the spirit of the age,
and in the end the thing I grumble about -- powerlessness -- is the essence
of the spirit of the age. So the thing I'd be really proud of would be to
change the British constitution in a way that unlocked all that untapped
energy in this country."

He caused a bit of a stir recently with an article arguing that children
have become "the opium of the masses", worshiped to the exclusion of all
others. Stewart is still childless, having recently married an American he
met through his Afghan charity. Does he think he might change his mind?
"As every one of my friends who complains about kids behaves exactly the
same as everybody else as soon as they have kids, I presume I'm going to
be the same," he grins. What will he make of his article when that
happens? "I anticipate thinking that I was probably right, and I could see
more clearly before -- just as I think I was probably more right about
parliament before I was in parliament, and just as I think that when I was
15, and was very judgemental of 40-year-olds, I was right."

As we're saying goodbye I ask what became of the biopic. Rumour had it
that Orlando Bloom was lined up to play the part of Stewart. "I think," he
says, "becoming a Tory here didn't help." Did that spell curtains for the
project? He bursts out laughing. "Yes, I think it's just a phenomenally
bad end to a film."

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