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How Not to be a Politician

How Not to be a Politician: A Memoir, Rory Stewart, 2023. Stewart is an interesting character, diligent in his responsibilities, but geared to generate publicity. My interest is his experience and description of the British parliamentary system where he became a Member of Parliament, serving various executive functions. In his telling, Stewart seemed to spend about 20 hours a day on the job, diligently working on issues and problems that were unsolved until he showed up. The big political issue was the self-created chaos of Brexit (pulling out of the European Union).

The British Parliament is a combination legislature and executive system, where the dominant party in Parliament (perhaps a coalition) and the party head becomes the Prime Minister. This seems like an efficient system where action can get done quickly with control of both functions. Stewart’s memoir covers about a decade beginning when he was first elected a member of parliament (MP). He makes clear that my optimistic assessment of the system was not to be during those 10 years. His descriptions of David Cameron and Boris Johnson reminded me somewhat of the horrible presidencies of George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Since the PM has considerable power, bad decisions can multiply rapidly. The only consolation was that the UK is relatively small economically, playing a lesser role on the world stage.

Before Stewart became an MP considerable change had happened to Britain, beginning with their loss of colonies and economic damage after World War II. Leader of the Labour Party Clement Attlee became Prime Minister after WWII, turning the country socialist, generally reducing productivity and competitiveness. Probably the most successful program was the National Health Service, a real example of socialized medicine. With massive budget cuts and other poor decisions, the NHS became much less effective—not a topic covered by Stewart. Conservative Leader Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 and served for over a decade (roughly parallel with Ronald Reagan in the US making similar cuts to spending and, in his case, taxes). She privatized many industries and reduced government spending, especially on social programs (including NHS). The Labour Party took over in 1997.

Conservatives returned to power with David Cameron (in a coalition government) in 2010, which is basically where Stewart’s memoir starts. Cameron pledged a referendum on EU membership and won the 2015 election. Then the disaster of the vote to continue (52% against) leading to Brexit and Cameron quitting (he supported remaining in the EU). Cameron resigned, replaced by Theresa May from 2016-19. May wanted to stay in the EU and negotiated a fairly reasonable exit with the EU. Then it was the usual back-stabbing politics (lots of propaganda and lying, with Boris Johnson leading the way to Brexit). May called an election in 2017; the Conservatives lost their majority and formed a coalition government. May resigned in 2019, with Johnson the ultimate winner--the UK’s lying clown-boy. That’s where Stewart ends his memoir. He assumes readers understand this (at least to me) strange system.

Chapter 1: Suddenly Coming Alive (2003-2009). Stewart starts with the disaster that was Iraq, where the British got sucked into Bushes debacle and, including Washington think tanks failures, then failing to acknowledge failure. Stewart later set up a charity in Kabul and discovered the environment in Afghanistan was worse than Iraq. Confidence in US and UK power to transform Afghanistan was apparently unaffected by how difficult it had been to do anything in Iraq. … This charity, and indeed every job I had ever done, circled around the black hole of politics” (p. 12).

In Afghanistan: “The presence of international troops in rural villages allowed the Taliban—which had been a weak and fragile group when I first returned to Afghanistan—to present itself as fighting for Afghanistan and Islam against a foreign occupation. … Lurching from insane optimism, through denial, into despair—blaming the chaos not on their own deadly fantasies, but on the corruption, ingratitude and cowardice of the Afghans themselves” (p. 14).

In politics: “The public isn’t interested in how clever you are. They are not interested in your thinking; they want to know where you stand” (p. 16). After a finance scandal in Britain: “66% of the public said MPs cared most about serving their own personal interest, and 70% that they were out of touch with the day-to-day lives of their constituents” (p. 19). Stewart claimed the only visiting British politician he liked in Afghanistan was David Miliband. David Cameron did not impress. It was more of a phot op.

Chapter 2: Gajumaru Trees. Stewart claimed: “The party of Churchill was becoming the party of Bertie Wooster. … Gordon Brown had replaced Tony Blair as prime minister, the global financial system had crashed, and David Cameron had moved the Conservative Party from its long flirtation with an anti-European, anti-immigration ideology back to the middle ground” (p. 24).

Chapter 3: The Livestock Ring (2009-2010). “Entering Parliament means winning a primary and then an election for a parliamentary seat” (p. 29). Apparently, this was a Darwinian process leading to strange results. Stewart wanted to give it a go, discovering a weird set of processes that for most could take decades dealing in local politics.

Stewart described how he had connections to understand how to begin the trek toward becoming an MP, emphasizing local political experience (which he had none). “No one felt the party valued them for their personality, their intelligence, or their experience, nor for their ability to make a speech, to analyze policy, or to lead a country. Instead, they were prized for their ability to protect leaflets from the rain” (and so on) (p. 36). He walked the area meeting people. “My election campaign was a mixture of awkward stunts, party propaganda and literary irrelevancies, I milked cows, and rode through towns on a wooden-side trailer … as Rory the Tory” (p. 47). Somehow, he won a majority.

Chapter 4. The Empty Hall. Conservatism beginning in 2010 meant austerity, talking Brexit, increased poverty and violence, and, according to Stewart, declining democratic values. Politically, it meant “narrow establishment uniformity” (p. 51). “We might be called legislators, but we were not intended to overly scrutinize legislation; we might become members of independent committees, but we were expected to be loyal to the party. … In short, politics was ‘a team sport.’ … Consensus is that the prime minister is right” (p. 52). “Too few of our conversations were about policy, too much of our time was already absorbed in gossip about the promotion of one colleague, or the scandal engulfing another” (p. 55). Seemingly, a petty lot.

The Crash of 2008. “The economic system designed by Thatcher and maintained under Blair had been humiliating. Public money had been used to bail out the banks, and no action had been taken against the bankers. … Productivity had collapsed. … Then further cuts in spending” (p. 65). Under Cameron “meetings are bizarre. No discussion and very few ideas” (p. 68).  

Chapter 5: One Nation. One nation: conservatism: “moderate, centre-ground and compassionate” (p. 80). System: MP as a backbencher, then junior minister, then backbencher and so on. Cameron claimed to know Afghanistan having visited the place, therefore made decisions based on his own expertise. “Our contribution was a rounding error. … British training of illiterate Afghans was essentially worthless. Cameron claimed Afghanistan needed: “the rule of law, property rights, decent government, fair elections … confident we could deliver” (p. 83). [I agree with the list, but where was the implementation?]

In Parliament the claim was made of notable success. Select committees had: “indefinable goals, wallow in misty optimism, enthusiastically misremembering facts, and fall back on misleading analogies” (p. 86). Actual reports from Afghanistan showed how futile these were. The media apparently paid no attention and even the Parliament opposition approved of the optimism. The wrong MP, not knowing nor caring anything about Afghanistan, was chosen minister, possibly to rubber stamp Cameron’s policies. Budget cuts limited the expertise of the Civil Service.  

Part 2: Chapter 6: District Commissioner for Cumbria (2010-2012). Cumbria is a county in Northwest England in the Lake District, where Stewart lived. Stewart’s position on Parliamentary action here was with the local communities being involved in social activities like hospitals, schools, and so on, while Parliament was “inert, depressing, and shallow” (p. 97); London considered the rural institutions as inefficient, wanting to close local schools, hospitals, and other institutions. Cameron called for the “Big Society” apparently using a call for local volunteers as an alibi for huge cuts. Stewart wanted broadband available all other this district, finding implementation money difficult to find.

When he talked to constituents, he called it “surgeries,” which could be about almost anything. “The confusion about the power of a local MP seemed typical of the whole muddle of the British constitution” (p. 108).

Chapter 7: Team Player (2012-2014). “In Parliament, the personality and prejudice of David Cameron continued to define the tone of British politics. … All you can do is be loyal, impress the whips, vote as you are told” (p. 115). “Cameron’s government continued to be an elective dictatorship, propped up by the quasi-secret service known as the whips. … Their central task was gathering intelligence, overt or covert, targeting, spreading propaganda, running their flock, compiling their lists for their central aim: to make MPs always vote in favour of government legislation” (p. 117). “Policies and the laws on which we were asked to vote descended via the whips. I had little idea on how policies were composed” (p. 121).

Earlier governments relied on special advisors and experts, which Cameron mostly disposed of. Austerity continued, including a 25% cut from the prison budget as the prison population increased. Also cut were welfare spending and defense. Corporate taxes were cut. [The National Health Service was continued to be cut to the point of catastrophe.] Backbenchers were not consulted.

Chapter 8: Select Committee. As a backbencher Stewart still had 2,000 meetings a year, plus debates and visiting his own constituency. “Politicians used the pompous grandeur of the Palace of Westminster to pretend to a power they did not have, and to take credit for things they had not done” (p. 130). “If my influence on defense policy [as a critic] was minuscule, my influence on domestic policy was nonexistent” (p. 135). Stewart was forced to defend austerity, including food banks and poor NHS service. At the time: “Incomes were stagnant, productivity had not recovered from the financial crisis in 2008” (p. 138). Social programs were seen as the most provocative including fake news and anger. “The age of populism had begun” (p. 138).

Part 3: Chapter 9: Red Box. Election time: Spending cuts seemed vindictive, with no support from the Civil Service nor the BBC. Some with cabinet positions were “incurious, uncritical. And inept” (p. 149). Liz Truss became Secretary of State (“strong media performer”) and Stewart’s boss, who claimed Stewart was too “interesting in Parliament and the media. Never be interesting” (p. 156). She wanted budget and staff cuts of 20% for his rural affairs department. “David Cameron had put in charge of environment, food, and rural affairs a Secretary of State who openly rejected the idea of rural affairs and who had little interest in the landscape, farmers, or the environment” (p. 158).

Chapter 10: Particulate Matter. Stewart’s portfolio was massive including flooding, air quality, parks, and water supply. The big issue was flooding due to rain, with emergency services called into action. Cameron: “With Brexit, as with Afghanistan, he seemed to think that the way to resole deep divisions in society was to force people to come to a binary decision” (p. 178). Cameron miscalculated with the referendum on staying in the EU, especially with MPs Michael Gove and Boris Johnson favored Brexit, making unjustified claims that conditions would be considerably better.

Chapter 11: Plenipotentiary Powers. Brexit won, seemingly a revolt by the public. The BBC, Civil Service, diplomats, most MPs wanted to Remain. Under Cameron, no contingency plans were made. Cameron, of course, resigned. Then the shoddy campaigning to replace him. Theresa May became prime minister after the other candidates’ campaigns collapsed. Stewart now praised Cameron: diligent, truthful, respectful of institutions, including increasing international development assistance (although poorly handled). Then changing ministers: “This velocity of ministerial reshuffles might be stimulating for MPs, but made little sense for good administration” (p. 186).

Stewart was shifted to International Development (DfID). “I had become an MP precisely because I had lost faith in the idea of foreigners trying to reshape other people’s countries” (p. 189). A grant for fish research led to a “funding Nemo” headline. How to justify this spending to the voters? Funding cuts had reduced diplomats on the ground. The budget went up as the prison budget of England went down. The majority of voters disapproved of this switch. One problem was that corruption and poor institutions reduced funding effectiveness. By and large, Civil Servants did not respect ministers (ministers were politicians after all).

Chapter 12: 2017 Election. There were a troubling minority of MPs supporting Russia, subject to corruption charges, plus sexual harassment. Being a minister required the “three P’s: Parliament, party, and politicking. May had a 12-seat majority, then called an election in 2017. May claimed: “We do not believe in untrammeled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism, … a respect for the local and national institutions” (p.  206). Her main opponent was Jeremy Corbyn (a master of political cunning) and the Labour Party.

Many conservatives wanted to replace May with Boris Johnson. Johnson was, according to Stewart: “a chaotic and tricky confidence artist, entirely unfit to be prime minister” (p. 209).

Part 4: Chapter 13. A Balliol Man in Africa. Stewart first met Boris Johnson in 2005 in Afghanistan. Johnson had been kicked out by his wife after his mistress got pregnant. Then he was fired from the shadow cabinet for lying. Cameron had based his stanch on Afghanistan on polling. “Boris was by now the most famous politician and the only true celebrity in British politics. … he had belatedly embraced the cause of Brexit and became a decisive factor in winning the referendum” (p. 216).

Stewart served in DfID, expecting the Middle East and Asia. Boris gave him Africa, which he knew nothing about. His first trip was to South Sudan, with 200 ethnic groups and 60 languages, plus 50 years of civil wars. The formal strategy included eliminating corruption, building education, while their best accomplishment was getting some food through. The Brits had cut all aid and most staff in Africa. “We pontificated … with many of our descriptions of Africa in London often had the air of fairy stories, … papering over emptiness with abstract jargon” (p. 224). Some 400 million Africans lived in destitution and despair. But Boris wanted “wins.”

Chapter 14: The People’s Consultative Conference. Interest in foreign aid was dropping, no shortage of money, but a shortage of staff with country expertise, plus inflexibility from London. Stewart focused on improving existing programs. China was now providing more aid to Africa, plus there were Russian mercenaries. The Congo was big, poor, and corrupt. When Mugabe became president of Rhodesia, white farms were expropriated, the economy collapsed, hyper-inflation started, and elections were stolen. Mugabe was eventually toppled in a coup, with no better results.

 Stewart decided to focus on changing the culture of the Foreign Office of DfID, opening new embassies, adding staff, and training them in African politics and languages. Then, he was transferred to the Ministry of Justice as a Minister of State.

Part 5: Chapter 15: Unlearning Helplessness. Justice, 2018. His boss was a doctor, while a lawyer became minister of health, claiming “learned helplessness.” The permanent secretary (top civil servant) claimed “collaborative working.” The first problem was lack of funding, when funding was cut, much of it by firing prison officers and privatizing maintenance of prisons and probation serves, then selling off prisons; net result: catastrophe. This required an emergency bailout every year. Stewart got much of his information on prisons from Wikipedia, which was more informative than the briefing books—he got the responsibility for prisons.

Chapter 16. Barking at Drones. The majority of prisoners had disastrous childhoods, mental health problems, and addiction. The prison suicide rate was high. Michael Spurr was head of Prison Service, overseeing the disasters. Spurr claimed it was “political decisions, austerity, and staff shortages” (p. 266). Stewart wanted to replace the broken windows and clean the yards. [What the hell. Windons in prisons, yards are a big deal? Obviously, they differ from my concept of prison cells.] His impression was the service lacked direction and leadership.

Chapter 17/ Backstop. Theresa May lost her majority in the 2017 election and remained in power with a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party. Brexit was still a big, unresolved issue. A new deal was presented in 2018: “The deal would leave the UK in something very close to a customs union with the EU … and allow British companies to continue to trade with minimal friction with the European markets” (p. 277). Since it was reasonable there was backlash from multiple directions, especially for a “hard Brexit.” Boris Johnson resigned as minister and joined the hard-Brexit wagon.” That possible outcome seemed surreal with little regard for economic reality.

Back to prisons where Nils Oberg, head of the Swedish prisons believed in combining compassion with discipline, treating prisoners as humans but require respecting the rules.

Chapter 18: Resignation. Ministers (typically unexperienced politicians) were usually not much appreciated by civil servant leaders. “Civil servants had to accept ministers changing the law, or cutting budgets, but they didn’t want a minister involved in operations. … Ministers were amateur outsiders on very short tours, whose successors could introduce completely different agendas. … And yet it was at the operational level that so many of the worst problems in British government lay” (p. 25).

Stewart wanted checklists in prisons and fixing windows. He started the Ten Prison Project to test his ideas. “I sensed that they found it profoundly offensive that I—as an outsider—was presuming to claim I had a formula to reduce violence” (p. 290).

Chapter 19: Loving Strict. “Britain’s international reputation flickered like an unreliable generator” (p. 295). Stewart tried to reduce the problems by eliminating short sentences for failure to pay taxes. The headline: “Minister gives green light to criminals.” Plus fixing windows, installing scanners for entering prisons at the gate, better cell inspections, cleaning public areas, and setting safety and decency expectations.

Part 6: Chapter 20: The Vanishing Middle (November 2018-April 2019). The final withdrawal from Brexit agreement was done in November 2018, a seemingly thoughtful compromise. Common Twitter remarks were “The deal is enslavement. This is not compromise, it is surrender and servitude” (p. 314). They called Stewart a traitor” for supporting it. Politicians started a war between Brexiteers and Remainers. There seemed to be no rational arguments for Brexit, which apparently was not the point. Politicians could run with it. Nigel Farage was the Brexit leader. Stewart became Lord Chancellor after the previous holder, David Gauke, resigned.

Chapter 21: Secretary of State. Then Stewart became Secretary of State for International Development (one of 21 secretaries of state). “I wondered whether these ministerial roles were often anything more than symbolic gifts in exchange for loyalty” (p. 328). He shifted strategy from a civil service perspective to a politician, then claiming a public mandate. “The tendency of government was always to be too slow. Acting was costly and uncertain. There would always be requests for more time and more study. People hoped the problem might solve itself, or that Britain didn’t need to be in the lead” (p. 337).

Chapter 22. Leadership (April-July 2019). The job was international development, his district of Cumbria, and the politics of Brexit. Fundamental change was difficult, in part because many issues were irrelevant to the party. Boris Johnson was actively running for Prime Minister, raising money for professional campaign teams (paralleling the US: victory over honor). Ultimately some 100,000 party members chose the PM. “Boris Johnson had been fired twice from jobs for lying … had no eye for detail, had achieved close to nothing as Foreign Secretary, was entirely lacking in respect for public office, was not notable for his seriousness, or dignity” (p. 346).

Johnson kept signing more supporters. He was favored by: “those who loved him; those who saw him as a vehicle for revenge, and restoration; and those who thought he was a useful idiot. … How would he win over the understated, uncontroversial, and competent?” (p. 346). Stewart worked against him to little effect: “a culture that prized campaigning over careful governing, opinion polls over detailed policy debates, announcements over implementation” (p. 356). They won elections while making bad policy decisions. It would be worse with Johnson.

Chapter 23: Standing Up. Theresa May resigned in May 2019. Boris Johnson as PM: “If his lies took him to victory, his mendacity and misdemeanors would rip the Conservative Party to pieces” (p. 371).

Chapter 24: Pinocchio. Stewart made clear he could not serve in a Boris Johnson government. He used social media. He ran for PM, promising: “vote for me if you want moderation and compromise” (p. 380). He did not promise tax cuts, spending pledges, and claims of a better deal from the EU.

Chapter 25: Pro-rogue. “Politics is a team sport that rewards loyalty and punishes cleverness, and failing to grasp that the prize in politics goes not to those who are serious but those who are good at exuding confidence and reassurance, conveying the illusion of control and mastery, even when they are pedaling furiously to keep afloat” (p. 390). Britain was an economic mess. The MPs were supporting Johnson, presumably to get favorable positions in a Boris government.

Chapter 26. Quaestor. Stewart was eliminated. Johnson became PM and Stewart did not run again for MP. Of course, Johnson failed to follow through on his promises.


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