Profile: Rory Stewart

The cerebral Old Etonian podcaster lacks the substance to be a great political leader


This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In dark times, man naturally seeks a saviour. We need guidance from the murky waters we have wandered into. In dark times for Britain, many of our fellow citizens have sought such guidance from the podcast The Rest is Politics — and, more specifically, from its cerebral host Rory Stewart.

Rory Stewart is a very serious man

Rory Stewart is a very serious man. Reading his memoir about his time in Parliament, Politics on the Edge, you almost find yourself worrying for him. How does he make it through the day? Deciding whether to boil or fry his morning eggs alone must reduce him to agonised introspection — and that is before he starts to think about Afghanistan, populism and whether his co-host Alastair Campbell is going to tweet something heinous and get their podcast summarily cancelled.

Of course, one should be serious about one’s responsibilities. That’s a virtue, not a vice. But there is a difference between serious thinking and serious thoughts. Stewart often seems to think that as the most earnest man in the room he is also the most insightful. But sincerity and wisdom are not one and the same.

Mr Stewart thinks with gravity — but gravity only keeps one on the ground. It doesn’t mean that one thinks deeper. A telling example from his book: he remembers a time when, as a local MP, a town was under threat — or felt under threat — from a crowd of rambunctious Gypsies. Stewart wanted to meet their “Gypsy King” but the local cops were dubious. “In Iraq,” Stewart recalls, “British officers had often questioned whether tribal sheikhs were genuine. It usually ended badly.” So, he met the man, who ended up being fairly reasonable, and the tensions settled down. 

“But Mr Stewart,” I was almost straining to ask, “It might have worked out in this case but hasn’t a policy of grim negotiations with ‘community leaders’ underpinned Britain’s multicultural failures for decades? And shouldn’t we want to avoid adopting the local customs of the Middle East?” Yet Stewart had moved on — satisfied with his surface-level wisdom.

Mr Stewart has been a man of an impressive variety of hats. An Old Etonian with a Chatwinesque impulse towards adventure, he has worked as a diplomat in Montenegro, as a governor in Iraq, as an author (his The Places In Between is excellent), as an NGO boss in Afghanistan, as an academic at Harvard, as an MP, as a minister, and as a podcaster. It has often been alleged that he also worked for MI6, though it’s difficult to tell how he could have the time. His CV must stretch to about the length of War and Peace.

Stewart did some solid work in government — as Minister of State for Prisons, for example, where his years of being around MPs must have provided valuable experience in dealing with hopeless and often violent people trapped in crumbling buildings in a decaying system. It was hardly his fault that he was shunted upwards before his aims for the role were really tested. Still, you have to wonder how long he could last in a single job without getting the wayward eyes and jogging knees of a teenager who has been forced to sit through a family meal.

For all the time he clearly spends thinking about world events, Stewart has a faintly messianic impulse that leads him to become SuperRory when he thinks disasters lie ahead. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it takes keen judgement — and a willingness to question oneself in the aftermath. Stewart aimed himself towards Number 10 with the desperate goal of averting a “no-deal” Brexit — but Boris ended up getting a deal anyway. He was among the first prominent figures to demand lockdowns in 2020, and was hailed for his foresight afterwards, but now we know — and I say “we” as someone who was also a COVID hawk — that lockdowns were far less effective and more damaging than had been expected, I wonder what he thinks about them.

For a worldly man, he has an air of transcendent innocence

For a worldly man, he has an air of transcendent innocence. He was annoyed when a Sunday Times interviewer focussed on his family background and relationships, for example, but he had talked to her about his family background and relationships. Did he really expect a click-hungry hack to home in on his thoughts about the parliamentary process? Again, when it comes to seriousness there is a difference between being earnest and being astute. 

We live in a time where people feel painfully disconnected from politicians and from politics. Stewart has attempted to bridge the gap. He is famous for his #RoryWalks, and on his quixotic attempt to become Mayor of London he even offered to sleep on people’s sofas. If elected, he planned to keep sleeping in people’s flats and houses, which would have been one way to avoid London housing costs.

But Stewart is also a staunch opponent of “populism” — not just in the sense of the demagogic style but in the sense of popular, traditional beliefs concerning issues such as immigration and internationalism. How to make sense of that?

It’s possible, in theory. One could be a man of the people who is leading them towards mutually favourable ends through unfamiliar means. But Stewart does not have a vision like that. In fact, he does not have much of a vision for the country at all. 

Yes, Boris Johnson was a moral hooligan (even if, given the nature of Stewart’s Rest is Politics co-host, this is a bit like someone denouncing cheats in sport while being best pals with Lance Armstrong). True, Parliament is riddled with dysfunction. But you could reform it with the sheer gusto of Mary Poppins cleaning an untidy room and you would still have an institution in search of answers. Good character is not enough. Say what you like about the great man theory of leadership but at least it’s not the nice man theory of leadership.

Here, Stewart’s combination of watery Scrutonian tastes and modernistic pragmatism has an air of seriousness which is not matched by substance. One can hardly disagree with his sense that British politics has gone very badly wrong. But that is what makes the vague desire for maturity in leadership so unsatisfying. 

Crack open The Edge of Politics and look for the contours of Stewartism. People concerned about Britain’s energy crisis will find one mention of renewables and none of nuclear. People concerned about the state of British multiculturalism will find that “terrorism” gets one mention and “Rotherham” none. “He had little to say about artificial intelligence, robotics, or nanotechnology,” writes Stewart about David Cameron — before going on to say almost nothing about artificial intelligence, robotics or nanotechnology. Granted, it is a memoir and not a manifesto. But it makes Stewart’s attitudinal centrism even less convincing than it might have been.

I wish you could be in government, Stewart and Campbell’s fans are always telling them (forming a cabinet presumably featuring Stephen Fry, Gary Lineker and Carol Vorderman). The dream is of political leadership which could combine intelligence with empathy. Toughness and tenderness. Forward-thinking and respect for tradition. It is a pleasant dream. It is clearly Stewart’s dream. But I doubt that it will be more than that.

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