On the face of it, Rory Stewart is one of the sturdiest pillars of the new British establishment. His name comes trailing clouds of ancient Scottish glory. He was educated at two of the poshest schools in England (the Dragon Prep School and Eton College). He served for a short while in one of the British army’s most famous and glamorous regiments, the Black Watch. He studied at Oxford, where he was briefly a tutor to the young Prince William and Prince Harry. He joined the Foreign Office and worked in Indonesia, Kosovo, and Iraq. He taught for a few years at Harvard, then returned to Britain and became a Tory MP. He now serves as minister of state at the Department for International Development in Theresa May’s government.
But that’s not all: Stewart is also an adventurer. His first book, The Places in Between (2004), tells the story of his thirty-two-day solo trek across Afghanistan in 2002. It’s politically astute about the different Afghan tribes and regions, and illuminated by passages of fine description. Although Stewart covered a great deal of difficult terrain, his book deals with just a part of the six-thousand-mile journey he made on foot across Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India, and Nepal between the years 2000 and 2002.
His second book, The Prince of the Marshes (2006), describes his efforts as deputy governor of the Iraqi province of Maysan and senior adviser in the province of Dhi Qar to establish stable systems of government after the Iraq war. Here too he gives strong descriptions of the Iraqis he dealt with, whether sheikhs or farmers, making it clear that there the postwar policies of the Allied forces were often ignorant of both Iraqi culture and the damage that had been done by the war.
In view of all this, it’s hardly surprising that when people talk about Stewart in Westminster they mention him as a possible future prime minister, and when they talk about him in book columns they say that he reminds them of Lawrence of Arabia (one of Stewart’s heroes), or a character in Kipling’s Kim, or the writer-administrator John Buchan. Such talk is superficial. While Stewart’s upbringing was undoubtedly privileged, and his adventures are just as certainly swashbuckling, his writing is characterized far more by doubt about Western policies than late-imperial swagger. It’s as though his inheritance led him to expect that life would be a matter of durable traditions, fed by a profound understanding of the past, whereas the evidence of direct experience continually tells him otherwise.
When we look at his achievements in this light, they too seem as much a record of uncertainty as of anything else. He’s never done anything for very long, and the political questions that have most absorbed him tell a story of Western…
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