A review of Politics on the Edge: A Memoir From Within by Rory Stewart.
Politics on the Edge: A Memoir From Within is supposed to be a book about 21st Century Britain, but what the country described here really reminds me of is Tsarist Russia – specifically, the Tsarist Russia of Leo Tolstoy. Parallels abound as our protagonist, Rory Stewart, makes his way through an extended bildungsroman, unlikely rise, and sudden fall. Rory’s Britain, like Tolstoy’s Russia, has exactly three social classes: a large and unwieldy bureaucracy; vapid and tittering courtiers in the capital; and an extended peasantry. Both societies are martial, wintry, and stiff: too many medals, too many ranks, too many epaulets; it is never quite clear where the military power should end and the civilian one begin.
Our hero, too, is a classic Tolstoyan male protagonist, and undergoes the same moral arc. There’s more than a whiff of Levin or Pierre Bezukhov to Rory. Again, parallels abound. Rory, like Lev and Pierre, arrives in the capital nervous and full of ideas. But disillusion soon sets in; their earthy seriousness doesn’t gel well with the complacent levity of their peers, and each become figures of fun. Then there’s the retreat to the countryside, in which each hopes to find renewed purpose, and a refuge from the corruption of the capital – in Rory’s case, this narrative role is filled by his Penrith and The Border constituency in rural Cumbria. But their problems continue to dog them even here: schemes of rural improvement never quite pan out, and the salt-of-the-earth peasantry are not quite so innocent as our heroes had hoped. Marriage and children are not a pro forma milestone of early life, but come at the resolution of internal moral crises. In the end there is renunciation, domestic bliss and a return to the land.
Above all, Lev, Pierre and Rory are each in search of something to believe in, some big moral system to order their lives around. Rory is fortunate enough to discover one early on, and he sticks to it. For Rory, the great calling of his life is a defense of Britain’s traditions, along with a certain idea of old-school public duty.
But which traditions and which duties? For Rory, the answer does not lie in any particular examples. Rory is not so discerning in what he chooses to reify. Throughout our story, Rory leaps to the defense of anything that can present itself as stately, or dignified, or even just faintly old and mystical. An instructive example of this occurs early on in the book when Rory has to deal with a mob of travelers who descend on his constituency:
He told me that Billy Welch, whom some called the Gypsy King, had threatened to march 2,000 of his followers into the town in protest. He thought Billy was bluffing. He questioned whether he was a real gypsy. Let alone their king […]
In Iraq, I remembered, British officers had often questioned whether tribal sheikhs were genuine. It usually ended badly. I tried to suggest, as politely as I could, that neither the Chief Inspector nor I could claim to understand the exact influence of Billy Welch, but that it was dangerous to assume he had none. He ignored me; 2,000 gypsies appeared in the square.
To state the obvious, the British government does not recognise the office of Gypsy King. It in some way damages its own legitimacy – and does everyone else a disservice – when it chooses to give formal recognition to swollen, self-appointed brokers like Billy Welch. But for Rory, this local huckster is just another part of an ancient and perennial Britain, whose mysteries can scarcely be understood by the merely-elected. This is tradition with a capital T, tradition for its own sake. We find easy comparison here with Charles Windsor’s own perennialism, which is a devotion, not so much to particular monarchies, particular aristocracies, or particular religions – but to the forms of these things: all monarchies, all aristocracies, all world religions.
Needless to say, this worldview is the lodestar of Rory’s politics. Our author’s first ministerial role is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Water, Forestry, Rural Affairs and Resource Management. Fresh on the job, he has a meeting with his new boss, Liz Truss, who wants to cut the size of the rural affairs team:
“But the rural affairs section of the department already hardly exists. It is down to half a dozen people. If you cut it further how can we claim to be the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?”
“I don’t believe in rural affairs, Rory. I think there is no relevant difference between rural and urban populations.”
David Cameron, I was beginning to realise, had put in charge of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs a Secretary of State who openly rejected the idea of rural affairs.
One bridles at this passage. Again, there’s the reification of empty signifiers, and of manufactured traditions. The names, briefs and personnel of Whitehall departments change roughly every three minutes, but here Rory is elevating what is a minor administrative change into something approaching a constitutional crisis. Liz is perfectly entitled to believe whatever she likes about the countryside, and, as an elected politician, to act on these beliefs. But for people like Rory everything is so wearyingly sacred: Britain is not so much a country whose constitution is unwritten, but one in which everything is written. In his awe for the bodies and forms of the status quo, Rory has been a trendsetter. After 2019, it’s become a commonplace for people in British public life to talk of being ‘pro-institutions’. Once again, this isn’t about any particular institution, but Institutions as a concept, writ large, as the things that hold society together. It’s this kind of sensibility that now leads people to, for example, cast attempts to sidestep the Office of Budget Responsibility (est. 2010) as a prelude to dictatorship. The hysterical search for norms and traditions will define British politics in the 2020s; and Rory Stewart is the founder of this trade.
Rory’s worldview, as we’ve seen, lends itself to a particular idea of Britain: it’s a country that is defined by a respect for duty and tradition, especially its ceremonial, rural and martial ones. This national sketch, now well-rehearsed, only really emerged in the post-war era as an accompaniment to British decline. As a national idea it’s a fairly impoverished one: narrow, torpid, Ruritanian. It casts Britain as a generic European monarchy on the pattern of Charles Windsor’s beloved Transylvania. None of even the most basic Macaulayite tropes about the freeborn Englishman are here. It captures nothing of a people always famous for their literacy and bellicose independence, who, for a thousand years, have been able to debate their own affairs in a highly-developed public sphere. There’s little room in Rory’s Britain for Oliver Cromwell, the Reformation, the Hellfire Club, or the Whig orgies at Holland House. There’s little room, even, for a sovereign parliament. The entire 17th and 18th Centuries are virtually unintelligible under this schema. In times of general disruption like ours, ideas of ancient deference are of course an apology for the status quo. Otherwise, this Ruritanian idea of Britain exists, as far as I can tell, largely for the benefit of tourists, and for the mental repose of columnists like Danny Finkelstein.
This idea of Britain allows Rory to distil national history into a series of pragmatic compromises. The key to all this muddling through, he argues, was the ability of our political class to get serious when it mattered. For Rory this is the real meaning of the failure of Brexit compromise in 2019: for the first time in history 650 MPs did actually fail to get around the table and sort something out. Rory despairs as the final crisis draws in. There’s no goodwill on either side, nobody is listening, and nobody even grasps the basics of the issue. Parliamentary colleagues are still asking him what a customs union is five minutes before the eleventh-hour vote on the Brexit deal.
To Rory this is a seminal failure. But curiously absent from the post-mortem is the other great factor of British public life that he describes: that is, the complete enfeeblement of the elected power, and the dominance of the civil service. This theme is always in the background of Politics on the Edge, as a kind of low-level buzzing noise. The criticisms Rory makes are all familiar; you’ll find them in The Crossman Diaries or Dominic Cummings’s The Hollow Men. Ministers cannot hire or fire anybody except for a handful of special advisors. They face entrenched consensus and can’t give orders in any recognisable sense. They are generalists with little knowledge of their portfolio; by the time they’ve acquired some they have already been safely reshuffled to a different department. Rory’s own career as a minister proves no exception. We see all the usual capers; these include a fruitless seven-month effort to stop international development money being sent to the local Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria. Ultimately, Rory concludes that to be a Minister is to be little more than a mascot. Rory then swings back to his old chestnut of unserious politicians, but he never sees fit to connect the dots between these two big problems. It’s never supposed that being glorified mascots might be what engenders a certain unseriousness in our politicians and that a Parliament which is mostly decorative might end up producing a frivolous class of legislators. Needless to say, Rory Stewart opposes any reform to the old Rolls Royce; as of 2023, the only political change he’ll countenance is – get this – a massive reduction of Parliament’s powers.
Always and everywhere, Rory’s quick fix for political seriousness is to substitute civilian politics with the rule of the generals. At every turn, Rory is always champing at the bit to bring brigadiers and colonels into the department; when these figures do appear they are always tediously old-world: tweedy, ruddy-faced, and walrus mustachioed. For Rory, this is more than a personal quirk. The last few years have witnessed the sudden political ascent of sundry individuals – Keir Starmer, Sue Gray and Rory Stewart – who were almost certainly part of the police or military intelligence services at one point in their lives. This is surely worthy of comment, or debate – but a strange pact of silence surrounds it. It really is no good for Rory to fob us off with the exclamation: “Even if I were, I couldn’t tell you!”
Otherwise, Rory defaults to his old style: empty reification. During the final death struggle over the Brexit deal, Rory makes much of the need for compromise, but it soon becomes clear that this is yet another floating signifier, like ‘Tradition’, or ‘Duty’. To Rory, ‘Compromise’ has nothing to do with any balance of forces, but is simply a moral good – compromise for its own sake. This can be seen in the endless conflation of the Brexit and Remain Ultras, most notably in a celebrated speech at the Oxford Union. But there was no comparison to be had. Only one side in this debate was out to overthrow a national election result. In the face of these attempts, one side had the right to be intransigent, the other didn’t. At several points in the book Rory reminds us that he respected the referendum result, was determined to carry out Brexit, and lost friends for doing so. But this is not quite the liberal concession that he imagines it to be. It represents a kind of bare minimum, and our author ends up giving too much succour to the ‘People’s Vote’ freakshow of summer 2019.
This determination to split the difference extends to the terms of the deal itself. Rory presents us with hard choices and invites us to face up to them. According to our author, Britain needed to remain in a customs union with the EU to avoid renewed violence in Northern Ireland; the alternative was a ‘cliff edge’ and economic ruin. Britain’s political class almost uniformly disagrees, and so the last chapters of Politics on the Edge are apocalyptic. Rory rushes around trying to forestall both a No Deal scenario, and, still more, the rise of Boris Johnson, who is an almost demonic presence in our story. In the end he doesn’t succeed and falls victim to Dominic Cummings’s purges.
This is compelling stuff, but its narrative power is severely undercut by what actually happens following the abrupt end of Rory’s career. There is no hard collision with reality, no disaster of statecraft. By early 2020, Britain’s negotiators do in fact manage to square many of the Brexit circles in a way that Rory insisted was impossible: Britain leaves the customs union and the single market, but erects no formal customs barrier between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. It was, ironically, exactly the kind of British fudge that Rory keeps telling us he likes. The eventual Brexit deal, and the Windsor Framework that has succeeded it, was a compromise in the true sense of the word. But it wasn’t a moral compromise; it was not one that involved any symbolic chastening of the Brexiteers, or of Boris. For this original sin, Rory Stewart will never quite forgive the British nation.
Politics on the Edge is a blood-in-the-bathwater book. It is raw. It is brooding. Rory doesn’t spare himself or anyone else. There are some fruitful reflections on the state of Britain’s prisons and what might be done to fix them up. Because of its favour for polysyllabic words, it will by default go down as a classic of Late Windsorite political memoir.
And, spy or not, Rory Stewart really does come across as a conscientious adult. Unlike many in public life, he’s no social cripple and doesn’t allow himself to plateau at the kind of high-handed mateyness often seen among Westminster insiders. He admonishes himself constantly; there are regular bouts of earthy despair and self-loathing. He briefly considers suicide after inadvertently insulting his constituents to the media. There is much pathos to Rory Stewart, but little pathology. We find in him none of the low insanity of Alastair Campbell, or of the Mayite berserker Alan Duncan – two other contemporary political memoirists. What Politics on the Edge does ultimately show us, though inadvertently, is that being an adult isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to just ‘get serious’; even those with admirable personal qualities are regularly found in the service of senile causes and bankrupt ideas. This is certainly the case with Rory, who, for all his talk of compromise and nuance, dismisses the idea of immigration restriction out of hand, as something that “couldn’t be done”. In national life there are real divides, real clashing ideas, real problems that can’t be solved through simple goodwill. These have to be reckoned with, and you cannot hocus pocus them away by assembling enough ‘grown-ups’ in a room together. This idea – the idea that politics can be replaced with process, norms and consensus – has always been an insipid one. Its current popularity among people like Alastair Campbell and Danny Finkelstein is a much greater sign of morbidity in the body politic than any of Boris Johnson’s antics. It is the greatest political immaturity of them all and it’s an immaturity that Rory Stewart continues to encourage.