Rory Stewart and the Crisis of British Conservatism

Rory Stewart speaks to the media in Westminster in London, England, June 19, 2019. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)
When many no longer consider a man such as Stewart conservative, the Conservative party must surely be at a crossroads.

Yesterday, Rory Stewart was knocked out in the third round of the British Conservative party’s leadership election. When he announced his bid, his chances were placed at 150 to 1. He had spent one day as a cabinet minister and nobody expected him to get past the first hurdle. Two months later, #rorywalks — the hashtag denoting viral selfie-style videos of Stewart wandering through Britain’s streets and talking to voters — was trending on Twitter. He’d attracted hundreds to his campaign rallies from across the political spectrum, many of them disaffected Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters saying they wanted to vote Tory for the first time.

Commentators are now labeling “Rorymania” a blip in the pan. Unfortunately for the Tories, their crisis may be only just beginning. The party’s base is fundamentally at odds with its parliamentary leaders, and some Tory MPs are so disillusioned that they are refusing to vote for a single one of the candidates remaining in the race. This is all on top of an already weak majority in the House of Commons and a disastrous showing in the recent European elections. If the party wants to survive, it would do well to look at Stewart’s rise.

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I  first came across Stewart roughly six months ago, when he appeared on an edition of the BBC’s Question Time. I expected to see another Tory minister peddling the government line with prefab soundbites. Instead, I encountered a decent man trying to honestly explain the difficulty of his country’s political situation.

Impressed, I decided to do a little Googling. And like anyone who has read a profile of Rory Stewart, I found myself struck by his life story. Son of a spy. A childhood spent in Hong Kong. Five years as a diplomat in Indonesia and another five in military service in Iraq and Afghanistan. A 6,000-mile trek through Asia. The founder of an NGO in Kabul. Lecturer at Harvard, best-selling travel writer, and a profile in The New Yorker nine years ago that inspired Brad Pitt to snap up the movie rights to his biopic.

But what has continued to strike me most about Stewart is the constants throughout his life: a commitment to democratic government and a respect for the ordinary voter. Yes, these are platitudes — but platitudes put into practice.

What do I mean? On Monday afternoon, Stewart held his final campaign rally. Another rousing speech to a packed-out crowd of supporters from all Britain’s major parties — most of whom, due to the current political quagmire, won’t be picking the country’s next leader. But this time, midway through the Q&A session, a young man from South London picked up the microphone:

You lot in government are talking about all this bullsh**. You’re living a nice life in the country house, but I’m seeing young kids having problems [with] . . . suicide . . . gangs . . . homelessness. I am dealing with so much in my community and everybody is asking me about fu**ing Brexit.

It’s become a common sentiment. Brexit has consumed the country, and it’s not a stretch to wonder whether there’ll be a country left after it’s all over. Massive numbers view the government as a group of indecisive, privileged, petulant schoolchildren. Stewart, unfazed, waited for the man to finish and tried to reply.

But the man kept heckling. More shouting. More anger. More fury. More disdain for a political class that he considers completely oblivious to the suffering faced by its constituents. Stewart spent another minute trying to respond, and then moved on to the next question. But the man only grew louder, until the crowd started to jeer. At this point, most politicians would have asked a security guard to escort the man out. But Stewart got down from the stage, walked over to him, looked him in the eyes, put an arm on his shoulder, gave him a hug, and asked if they could sit down and have a conversation. He said he understood the rage and was here to listen — that they could talk about gang violence and go through the details together. Afterward, the young man told Rory he loved him. And at the end of the event, the two met again and arranged a time and place to have their talk.

To many, this was mere posturing — the kind of quaint little campaign stunt that has turned Stewart into a media darling. I understand their cynicism. Politics is not about being a nice guy. But democratic politics is built on the electorate’s trust of its representatives. Currently, that trust is at an all-time low, and every month a new book is written about the possible demise of democracy. In Britain, the Brexit party built mass support by telling citizens that their vote was being ignored and that the political elites think they’re stupid. Hence, the Brexit crisis personifies the crisis of representation: It has become a vehicle to propagate hatred for the political class. Solving the impasse will help, but the problem runs deeper. It is not only Brexit-party voters who feel alienated by their politicians, but voters across the political spectrum.

It remains to be seen whether the Conservative party will manage to implement Brexit. If it doesn’t, it is likely finished. But if it does, serious problems will remain. Fewer young people are voting conservative than ever before. The candidate most likely to become leader is trusted by less than 10 percent of the public. And if that candidate does lead the country out of the EU without a deal, he and his government will have to bear the inevitable economic consequences. If Conservative MPs want their party to survive the year, let alone beyond, they might do well to pay attention to the nice guy. His story is worth examining for anybody who wants to understand the British political landscape.

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So, who is Rory Stewart really then? I’ve spent hours watching his speeches in Parliament, talks about foreign intervention, and award-winning documentaries. All of it was deeply impressive. But a few moments stick with me, and they might go some way toward explaining the man who captured the British public’s imagination.

On the Desert Island Discs program in 2008, Stewart was asked to describe the moment his military team was shelled at its compound in Iraq. “I realized that we should never have invaded. We were unprepared, we didn’t know what we were getting into. It was a mistake and a failure, and I was completely wrong to believe that it would be a success.” While you can debate the merits of his position, you cannot doubt the courage to admit his mistake. The technocrats in government had spoken in abstractions, but the reality of sectarian conflict had taught him that he should have listened to people on the ground.

He went on to describe his walk across Iran, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nepal. He had taken a sabbatical from the Foreign Office and left home without a phone, going on to stay in 550 village houses, knocking on doors, asking for hospitality in local languages, and talking to people about their attitudes toward their government. Here again, he experienced the surreal gap between political rhetoric and lived experience — between lofty theoretical ideals and particular problems. He learned, in other words, the true essence of his conservatism: respect for tradition, suspicion of bureaucracy, and belief in protecting the rights of the individual. Honesty, moderation, realism, localism.

He wore the shalwar kameez and a Peshawari cap, hid money behind cushions in people’s houses, and adopted the same level of piety toward the countries’ peoples that you can see in his interactions with Brits today. Scroll through his campaign videos and you’ll see very few rehearsed, cookie-cutter speeches. Instead, you’ll see him wandering from Woking mosque to a Brexit party rally in Peterborough, showing up and talking to citizens on the street.

Another thing about Stewart is that he’s absolutely and unapologetically ridiculous. His disc picks were Gilbert and Sullivan’s hilarious “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” a popular dance hit from the Jakarta nightclub scene, and some Schubert he’d played to the members of his team while they were under siege in Iraq. On the Political Party podcast, Stewart was asked why so many Tory candidates had put themselves forward in the party’s leadership race. His response? “I think it’s somewhere between our enormous egos and the praise of our mothers.” No hubris, no rehearsed speech. Just an honest joke. He’s unashamedly ambitious but isn’t afraid to admit it. Watch his Twitter clips, and you’ll be greeted with a wide-eyed, spindly soul who says “Thank you” with the kind of enthusiasm you’d expect from a posh cartoon character. He clenches his teeth when he’s listening and closes his eyes when he’s speaking. He exclaims “Brilliant!” “Fantastic!” and “Great!” so many times that you can’t help but wonder if he’s making up for never having had many friends.

But that’s exactly why he’s a fascinating character: He momentarily managed to put a human face on the Tory party. In this vein, Stewart has more in common with Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage than Theresa May — he doesn’t shy away from public engagement, but thrives off it. It’s a power that, ironically enough, Boris Johnson once had in his back pocket.

Seeking to explain away Stewart’s success, some have dismissed him as a London-centric politician, because most of his campaigning over the last few weeks took palce on the streets of London. Others, such as National Review’s own John O’Sullivan, have labelled him the “media candidate” — a quaint, charming chap, but devoid of any real substance. Both accusations have little to substantiate them. Stewart wrote a book about a walk through the North of Great Britain, represents a constituency on the England–Scotland border, and is one of the fiercest unionists you’ll ever meet. He had to balance a campaign with media and job commitments in Westminster, and yet still managed to make it to across parts of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. As for the second charge, Stewart made his name on social media, and social media relies on user interaction. As prisons minister, he promised to reduce crime in prisons and fulfilled that promise before he moved into the cabinet. The first MPs who backed him — David Gauke, Ken Clarke, and Nicholas Soames — have some of the best records in delivering successful policies.

Here are a few others who have showered heavy praise on Stewart: Scientist Brian Cox, conservative historians David Starkey, Tom Holland, and Niall Ferguson, ex-footballer Gary Lineker, leftie academic Peter Sarris, conservative commentators Andrew Sullivan and Camilla Cavendish, ex-soldier Jonny Gray, arch-Remainer James O’Brien, long-time Brexiteer Isabell Oakeshott, and A. I. expert Jamie Bartlett. It is an eclectic group — one that could only be assembled by somebody with a vision, a leader at a time when British politics is sorely lacking them.

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One of the greatest ironies of the United Kingdom’s current political debacle is that the Conservative and Unionist party has long stopped being conservative or unionist. According to the latest polling, its members would now prefer to damage the economy or risk the union between England and Scotland than risk not implementing Brexit. Most candidates have brandished their so-called conservative credentials by peddling standard anti-Marxist rhetoric, un-costed tax cuts, and outrageous spending promises. The only coherent identity of the conservative party is a common antagonism toward Jeremy Corbyn.

Curiously, the common consensus among party members is that Stewart is not a proper conservative. The great irony of this charge is that it’s leveled at a man preaching patriotism, limited government, restraint abroad, and fiscal prudence. Stewart represents what was Tory orthodoxy for decades, only he offers it in such a way that people actually trust him. Of the candidates left in the race, Saajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt come from the Thatcherite wing of the party, prioritizing economic growth above almost everything else. Johnson’s constant flip-flopping makes him hard to pin down, but he is certainly a pro-business, one-nation conservative. Michael Gove is a smart, modernizing, liberal conservative, but he is detested by the public — and has not exactly helped change their minds over the last few years.

Stewart, by contrast, belongs to a long-forgotten part of the British conservative tradition: He is a romantic, centrist Tory, not a free-market buccaneer. He was the first and only candidate besides Gove to sign a fiscal-responsibility pledge and is strongly tied to the Anglo–American relationship. He has serious expertise in state-building but warns against reckless foreign intervention. He wanted to expand Britain’s car-manufacturing industry, whereas Patrick Minford, one of the main economists supporting a no-deal Brexit, seems happy to do away with the industry and others like it entirely. Stewart made his top priority a reformation of social care — the same mission that his party embarked on in the 2017 election. Back then, it arguably cost the Tories their majority and set in motion the horror show that has been the Brexit negotiations. Yet this previously little-known oddball managed to make thousands see it as a winning pitch.

Most remarkably, he built his entire campaign on a message of local stewardship: His charity in Afghanistan focused on removing street litter and cleaning public facilities, and he went on to help dramatically improve the conditions of British prisons at home. His campaign promised to do the same with hospitals and schools — and while he was at it, he made a conservative case for action on automation (through mid-life retraining) and climate change (not through a lurch toward socialism, but through research funding, nuclear power, and cooperation with larger nations). He wanted to build beautiful homes, plant thousands of trees, and heal the North/South divide. He sees a Britain renowned not for her military might, but for her wisdom, realism, and humility. In other words, he is a traditionalist Burkean conservative — not a Republican governor.

When many no longer believe that a man like Stewart belongs in the country’s Conservative party, British conservatism must surely be facing an identity crisis. He has thrown himself in with the “remoaners,” his critics say. He’s a “traitor,” because he voted Remain in the referendum three years ago. Never mind that Stewart wanted to honor the democratic vote to leave the European Union, and that his plan was the only one that provided the slightest possibility of leaving before November without peddling fantasies. What is truly incredible is that those equating hardline Euroscepticism with British conservatism are often the same people who label the Marxist Jeremy Corbyn a staunch Brexiteer.

This split threatens to divide the Tories in a manner not seen since the 1846 Corn Laws crisis. If they are to emerge from Brexit intact, they will have to incorporate Stewart’s brand of conservatism into their ranks. And, more importantly, they will have to recognize the roots of his campaign’s success. The Conservative party has won only a single majority in 25 years. Beneath the Brexit charade, its helm remains occupied by liberal conservatives. But alarmingly, its own membership doesn’t follow suit. As the same polling demonstrates, Conservative-party members are far closer to Margaret Thatcher than David Cameron. They would sooner see the destruction of their party than risk any delay to Brexit.

If the party is to come into alignment with its membership, its membership will need to expand. Stewart’s leadership run showed a path toward such an expansion: a grassroots campaign that makes a positive case for realism, pragmatism, and compassionate capitalism. Even better, he offered a blueprint for how to go about it: Take the conversation away from rehearsed, abstract policy soundbites and toward a more active collaboration between the electorate and the elected. It is not a coincidence that the Brexit party is currently following that exact tactic. As Stewart himself has pointed out, Tory MPs are worried about the next 15 days, but they should be equally concerned about the next 15 years.

Now that the Labour party has lurched to the far left, there is a gaping space in the center of British politics. Even if the Conservatives reclaim Brexit-party voters, there will not be a majority waiting for them unless they seize that middle ground. Stewart’s campaign success outside the Tory Westminster bubble proved that the right leader can do so. But with the favorite Johnson promising all things to all people while the country hurtles toward either no-deal Brexit or a general election, the party risks cutting itself adrift before it can heed the call.

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