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BOOK REVIEW:

How not to be a politician : a memoir

Both the title and book jacket of Rory Stewart's political memoir are ironic. The title because it is emblematic of Rory Stewart’s sincere attempts to make a difference, domestically and internationally, by entering British politics, in which he was frequently confounded by the motivational tactics of other politicians. It was very easy for that to happen because elected officials, to whom he was obligated, frequently changed political positions in mid-sentence. If the intricacies of American congressional politics are confusing, well British parliamentary ways and means are even more so. Being older than our United States Congress, the British Parliament has more deeply entrenched, often archaic and detrimental, traditions about how to elect people to a representative form of government. The book jacket is an image of one lone sheep, off course and lost, on some mound in the wilderness--visually representing Rory Stewart, who could not find his way to be part of the politcal flock. Sheep flock together and follow hierarchical pecking orders that probably make more sense than those encountered by him in the world of British parliamentary politics. 

When he embarked on his political career Rory Stewart was no novice to various bureaucracies.  Among the many positions he previously held were:  a diplomat in Indonesia; British Representative to Montenegro; Deputy Governor in Maysan and Dhi Qar for the Coalition Provisional Authority after the 2003 invasion of Iraq; established and ran the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul Afghanistan; and was a professor of human rights at Harvard University. His father, Brian Stewart, had been a soldier, colonial official, diplomat and a senior officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service. Neither Rory Stewart's own experiences or his father's, which he shared with his son, prepared him for the Monty Pythonesque political machinations of the hierarchies of the British Parliament. The ploys, tactics and strategies were pervasive in several parties, including a wide range of liberal and conservative ideologies.

In great detail Rory Stewart covers the suave veneer of civil behavior and ease of words presented in speeches in meetings, conferences and in Parliament, many that belied a cutthroat undermining of one’s opponent and/or colleague, and a very serious obfuscation of a representative’s duty to provide good service to their constituents. In this memoir, the activities of Boris Johnson reveal a man who was one of the most egregious clowns to be Prime Minister, but David Cameron, who appeared more gentlemanly and knowledgeable, was far more disingenuous and pernicious in words and deeds.  

Rory Stewart is candid, direct, forthright, hardworking, well educated and well read. His analysis of Cumberland County in northwest England, reveals its ancient history and language. Some of the ancient English language of the region is evident in the spoken words of local people. There are differences between the English spoken in England and that in the United States, and despite the glossary of terms in the back of the book, there were certain Britishisms that I found very confusing such as the following sentence: "When he was not talking about the Rwandan economic developments or his love of ‘the serpentine world of whipping that brings out the darker side of my nature’ …” I thought this was a reference to some type of BDSM, but no, this had to do with an MP (Member of Parliament) selected as a “Whip” to control parliamentary business and actions taken by the Whip.

When Rory Stewart visited an area near the Scottish border, he realized what had been asked of farmers, dairy and cattle people, all of whom prided themselves on their independence to make things work. “None was as dependent on the whims of markets, regulators, environmental fashions and their place in European Union subsidies. Their vulnerability was exposed across each snow-lined ridge and the field boundaries …” And Rory Stewart writes the following, which might offer some insight as to why so many in Britain voted for Brexit:

“But in fact their landscape was subject to hectic change. They were old enough to remember when the government had paid them to drain their fields. Now they were being paid to flood them again–by destroying the very field drains which they had laid. They had begun as young men with small wet hedge-lined fields of longhorn cattle, then seen them transformed into open dry fields of Holstein dairy cows, and now back into sodden fields, edged with commercial forestry.  One set of European Union subsidies had incentivized them to tear out hedges, another set was not paying them to replant them. They had been driven in a single lifetime from farming longhorn cattle to sheep, to dairy, to native breeds, to forestry, and now into abandoning their land as wilderness.”

This memoir demands a slow, careful reading that is marvelously stimulating and illuminating, about politics and about many eras of British history. My assessment of Rory Stewart is that it is possible to be both a realist and an idealist. He is a realist in witnessing the real-life situations of many people on that tiny island nation--many who do not live in large cities--for whom their daily life is a struggle, tantamount to the lives of people in third world countries. He is an idealist because he knows that so many of their struggles are not necessary, nor are the ridiculous and ineffective procedures of modern British government. The concept of a representative government is excellent, until the procedures that are supposed to make it work no longer do.

Reading this book prompted me to reread The places in betweenThe marches: a borderland journey between England and ScotlandThe prince of the marshes: and other occupational hazards of a year in Iraq. And to read Can intervention work?    Books by Rory Stewart can be found here.

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