Book review: Politics on the Edge: A Memoir From Within, by Rory Stewart

In this powerful and hugely significant book, Rory Stewart sets out the failures of the decaying and delusional British state in searingly vivid terms, writes Joyce McMillan

As his many fans will confirm, Rory Stewart is a both a good man in politics – or one who was in politics – and a man with an exceptional way with words; and it is the sheer sharpness, originality and truth-telling grace of Stewart’s prose, along with the vital importance of his subject, that makes his new book Politics On The Edge: A Memoir From Within a truly exceptional political autobiography, both a pleasure to read, and a vital wake-up call to a United Kingdom suffering a slow-burning but profound crisis of governance.

It was in 2010 – after a fascinating earlier career in diplomacy and international aid – that Stewart, then aged 37, found himself elected as Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border; and from the moment of his arrival in the UK Parliament, began to experience of process of intense and increasingly shocked disillusion.

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He immediately notes, for example, “the blend of the naff, the antique and the pastiche” that makes up the supposedly ancient fabric of the 19th century Palace of Westminster. Within a few months, he is increasingly disgusted by the way backbench MP’s – including those with decades of experience – are infantilised, bullied and treated as lobby fodder by a system now entirely driven by the power of the executive, and often by the Prime Minister’s inner circle alone.

Rory StewartRory Stewart
Rory Stewart

After the 2015 general election, Stewart becomes a junior minister in the Department of the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs; and is immediately appalled by the cavalier attitude to her brief of his boss, Liz Truss. He senses that a new politics is emerging, one that is not about serious policy at all, but only about “loyalty, partisanship, and slogans.” Moving on to the Department of International Development, Stewart finds ill-conceived aid programmes operating in a vacuum of local knowledge and understanding caused by decades of deep cuts to Britain’s foreign service; then as prisons minister, Stewart is profoundly shocked both by conditions in some of England’s prisons – the filth, the violence, the pervasive drug culture – and by the dazed state of the civil servants, mouthing “an imprecise and evasive liturgy” of management-speak, in a department which had suffered savage cuts since 2010.

Finally, Stewart becomes Secretary of State for International Development; but by this time, the party is riven by a Brexit debate increasingly dominated by a small group of right-wing extremists who want nothing less than a no-deal hard Brexit. In the hopelessly mendacious and opportunistic figure of Boris Johnson, Stewart finally finds a Tory for whom he cannot work; and despite his own bold 2019 bid for the leadership, it soon becomes obvious, as the middle ground of Tory politics crumbles away, that this phase of his political career is at an end.

Stewart is the kind of Tory who remains sceptical of ideology in all its forms; and his book therefore lacks any real analysis of how the sustained attack on “big government” conducted by the Tories since the 1970s has led inexorably to the crisis of governance he now so vividly describes, as a weakened and underfunded public sector steadily loses self-confidence, integrity and independence of thought in the face of massive corporate and plutocratic influence. And of course, as an establishment Unionist born and bred, Stewart cannot see how these very failures of a decaying and delusional British state, which he so clearly chronicles, have led many Scots – without fervour or face-painting – to consider independence as a better option for the nation’s future.

If Stewart is not the man to offer solutions, though, he is the man with the courage, the experience, and the writerly eloquence to set out the problem, in searingly vivid terms. And in that sense, by writing this powerful and hugely significant book, Stewart truly continues the great tradition of public service that he found it so hard to fulfil, during his decade as an MP, and a minister of the British crown.

Politics on the Edge: A Memoir From Within, by Rory Stewart, Penguin Random House, £22