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Posted on 23 Apr 2024 in Non-Fiction |

RORY STEWART Politics on the Edge. Reviewed by Tom Patterson

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Rory Stewart’s memoir of his ten years as a Conservative MP reveals the instability of UK politics in the decade to 2020.

At the age of 36, after stints as the deputy governor of two provinces in Iraq, having founded a successful charity in Afghanistan, written a travel book described by the New York Times as a ‘flat out masterpiece’ and been a Harvard professor, Rory Stewart made an unusual career choice: he went home. There was no position waiting for him. Instead, as he explains in his memoir, Politics on the Edge, he was pursuing an idea:

Having dreamt all my life of quite different things – of being a soldier, a writer, an edgier sort of diplomat, an explorer (even, in my most pretentious moments, a philosopher or a monk) – I began to wonder whether the only way of effecting fundamental change in our states and societies was to become a politician.

For someone who had lived so much of his life overseas, Stewart’s concept of ‘home’ was not straightforward, as Kirsty Young discovered when she interviewed him for Desert Island Discs.

Young:       You don’t sound terribly Scottish. But you consider Scotland home?

Stewart:     I was born in Hong Kong and brought up in Malaysia, but I’m obviously not Chinese or Malaysian. So I think I’m Scottish.

This makes Stewart an intriguing prospect for a political memoir. He is British, but also an outsider. He is well trained in governance, but has no experience of the United Kingdom Parliament. He has excellent connections, but they are mostly international. He is bright. He has an extraordinary appetite for work. And he can write.

Politics on the Edge describes Stewart’s time as an MP from 2010 to 2019 and he gives us insightful descriptions, including of the vote on Scottish independence and the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

I was in an Edinburgh hotel room when it became clear, at four-thirty in the morning, that Brexit had won and that British politics had been torn apart, as though by an earthquake.

But it is his observations of the undemocratic processes of the UK Parliament that are most striking. For example, in 2010 the results of the general election had not given the Conservative Party sufficient seats to govern in its own right. Conservative MPs were summoned to a meeting and Prime Minister-elect David Cameron briefed them that they are to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. There was no discussion of the deal between the two parties, or of their joint policies. Cameron assured the MPs that he would ‘work hard for the national interest’ and left the room to the sound of:

[…] the deep booming roar of MPs chanting heeyarr heeyarr’ – again in comic-opera bass voices, like Edward VII calling across a packed banquette to a chorus girl.

Read at pace, the simile works well, the sound coming clearly and immediately to the reader’s mind. But it’s also worth reading carefully. There are no recordings of Edward VII’s voice to use as a reference. Instead we hear through his actions and circumstances. Remember Edward was a playboy who ruled in leisurely fashion just before World War I, when the British Empire was at the height of its powers. Cameron, a descendant of royalty, ruled his party with the Etonian manner of ‘effortless superiority’ before initiating the Brexit referendum. There is another layer here, too. Stewart uses the sound of Edward’s voice to evoke many MPs shouting to Cameron. This misdirects the simile beautifully, it is unclear if the prime minister is a king or a chorus girl. The elegance of this description aside, what it demonstrates is that the Conservative Party didn’t undertake any consultation before making this radical shift of policy, nor did it seem to be expected by its members.

This lack of consultation continued in the chamber. Although the Conservative Party was in power, Stewart found he had no say in the drafting or review of legislation. When instructed, he had to vote at the direction of the whips. The first time he was required to vote on a clause that contradicted his responsibilities to his constituents and his party, Stewart – who once, under siege in Iraq, handed out oatcakes to the people under his command and waited calmly for three days for military support – found a lavatory, and hid.

Finally, there is the issue of the politicians he was working with. Although some were interested in developing good legislation, most weren’t.

In the tea rooms and in the corridors, I found gossip and jokes. Even ex-academics brushed aside any of my attempts to debate government policy and shifted the conversation on to personalities, promotions and power.

We must be careful here. Political memoirs are often a chance for score settling. But while Stewart is scathing of many of his colleagues, he is also hard on himself. In the early parts of Politics on the Edge he is thoughtful and collaborative, but as time progresses, he takes on many of the traits of the parliamentarians he despises. He stops listening to people. He makes decisions with less consultation. And this becomes more pronounced the closer he gets to power. It’s as though the UK Parliament somehow brings out the worst in everyone.

In the final pages, after contesting the party leadership in 2019, Stewart returns to Crieff, Scotland, to his grandfather’s house. His father has died. It is Rory’s turn to raise a family there. Each day he wakes at six to go for a walk. Now he has left parliament, his writing is once again full of colour:

One morning, a roe deer, leaping from the lower field, lands next to me. Startled eyes meet startled eyes and then he is away, hurdling my outstretched leg, the veins straining against the tight surface of his frightened body.

Politics on the Edge is Stewart’s fourth book. His writing is becoming more assured, his perception richer. It is a reminder that art can be made from the most unlikely of sources. Previously, he has found great subjects by walking, first in Afghanistan, then in Scotland. I hope his next book is a walking book. But I do worry. Stewart chooses a hard path. No other writer’s knees give me as much anxiety.

Rory Stewart Politics on the Edge: A memoir from within 2023 Random House PB 464pp $36.99

Tom Patterson is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and the author of Missing (Allen & Unwin, 2022).

You can buy Politics on the Edge from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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