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Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Paul Heartfield
“I absolutely love the role of Speaker,” says John Bercow. Sitting in his magnificent office overlooking the Thames, the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons is typically candid about how much he relishes his duties. Five years after he was first ‘dragged to the chair’, replacing Michael Martin in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, Bercow certainly isn’t standing still.
He’s busy preparing for the two big anniversaries next year – 750 years since de Montfort’s Parliament and 800 years since the sealing of the Magna Carta. And with his Digital Democracy Commission due to report in January and a brand new Education Centre set to open in the summer, he says he’s finding the day job “more rewarding than I ever thought it would be”.
But Bercow is also acutely aware that his critics are ready to pounce at any moment. “Funnily enough, you can’t win with everybody,” he says. “I remember one time somebody I regard as well disposed to me saying to me: ‘One of the criticisms of people less friendly to you than I am, John, is that you appear to enjoy it too much.’
“Well, you know, I enjoy it in the sense I think Parliament is important and it does matter. I would never enjoy one individual’s discomfiture or enjoy one person’s advantage over another. I don’t look at it in those terms. But I do think that Parliament is an important theatre for the exchange of ideas and for the championing of causes and for the resolution of differences.
“And it’s endlessly interesting. I don’t really regard it as hard work. Because I think if you are doing for a living what you find fundamentally stimulating and rewarding, I’m not sure that you think of it in terms of hard work.”
As much as he enjoys chairing daily debates in the chamber, Bercow is clear that it is his wider drive for reform that is central to his mission in the post. This week’s ‘Parliament Week’, a programme of events aimed at reconnecting the public with Westminster, kicked off with him opening the now annual session of the Youth Parliament. Having been elected to the chair in 2009, he hopes his tenure will straddle not just the previous and current parliaments, but also the next one.
“Whether I’m a good Speaker or not is, in the end, not for me to say. Obviously I think I can do the job, otherwise I wouldn’t do it and continue to enjoy doing it and wish to stay in post in the next parliament. But it’s up to people to form their own view.
“All I would say is that I am, in an age in which there’s a pervasive cynicism about politics and politicians, trying to do what it said on the tin. When I stood for election in 2009, I said I want to be a reforming Speaker: I want to catapult the backbencher from the stalls of parliamentary life to centre stage; I want to facilitate greater scrutiny; I’d like to modernise the operations of the House in the interests of better and more effective representation and engagement. And I think I have been doing that, though there is still more to do.”
One of the items on the Bercow ‘to do’ list is the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, which is due to report in the New Year. Set up 10 months ago, the commission’s aim was to allow Parliament to keep with the “almost frenetic pace of technological advance”, he says.
“So rather than get government approval for a Speaker’s Conference, which may well have been a protracted enterprise, I thought ‘well, let’s set up something slightly more informal and flexible in which the method is the message’. A lot of the evidence is being taken online.”
The commission has been asking how Parliament can use technology to better scrutinise legislation, policy and spending, as well as help voters to engage with each other and their MPs. It has looked at the possibility of online voting for the public and electronic voting in the Commons, and neither idea is ruled out by the Speaker.
“My very particular concern has been that in this rapidly moving technological age, democracy has to mean more than simply the opportunity for people to put a cross on a ballot paper once every five years,” he says. “I’m not arguing for the replacement of parliamentary democracy with direct democracy. I’m not saying we can return to some sort of Greek city state in which the public can express a view and it will be instantly translated into action.
“But I do think that while preserving the important principle that MPs are there to use their judgement and to reflect on issues and to assess issues – not just to take an opinion poll on every issue and vote accordingly – nevertheless a better, more convenient, more ongoing dialogue between representatives and their voters is surely desirable.”
His main ambition is to improve the decision-making process and to give the public “a much greater sense that they are actually a part of it, they are not just on the receiving end of it”. The use of many more Urgent Questions to reflect topical issues, as well as the popularity of e-petitions being adopted for backbench business debates, is central to the process. “But I still think the dialogue between Parliament and public, between individual MPs and electors, is perhaps not as rapid or convenient as a lot of electors would want.”
Bercow says it would be “desirable” if the Commons held a debate on the commission’s proposals either at the end of this parliament or early in the next. “It won’t be revolutionary change; it will almost certainly be evolutionary change. The challenge is to operate…not by a single grand initiative. The truth is that remaining or becoming relevant, more interesting, more topical, more accessible, more inclusive is a work in progress.
“We need to be more relevant in terms of content – that means we should be debating and discussing the issues that people are debating and discussing in the Dog & Duck. I think we have made some progress by me granting large numbers of Urgent Questions by the backbench business committee granting debates on issues often spawned by e-petitions.”
While not a tweeter or Facebooker himself, the Speaker says he likes to “be kept abreast of” the way the Commons is being reflected on social media. “If something is running in a significant way on social networking sites that relates to Parliament, then I would want to be aware of that because that’s a corporate challenge to all of us, including – perhaps particularly – to me.” But he remains unmoved by the hurly-burly of Twitter trolls. “If you’re asking me do I follow what’s said about me, for example on Twitter – no, I have no interest in that. I just don’t think that matters.”
The rise of social media has led some politicians to see them as an alternative to printed newspapers. What does he make of the internet’s impact on political debate?
“I think on the whole it is a good thing that people can access material a bit more easily and get a straight feed on the internet rather than depending on the intermediary of quite an evaluative and opinionated media. I think it’s a good thing in many ways to have an evaluative and opinionated media but it shouldn’t be the only means by which people can access material or to know what it is that parliament has been talking about.
“In that sense I do think that the growth of social networking sites and of ready electronic communication between citizens is tending to diminish the significance of the conventional media. And of course fewer and fewer people are reading a daily newspaper on the whole.
“Do I think that’s a bad thing? Not necessarily, whether you think it’s a bad thing or not probably partly depends on how high quality you think our newspapers are. I think there are some quality newspapers but there are quite a lot of newspapers that couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be described as quality.”
Prime Minister’s Question Time often draws a huge amount of Twitter traffic, not to say broadcast attention. Bercow has long complained that PMQs often doesn’t reflect well on the House, and he shows no signs of giving up on his campaign. “When there’s an almost incontrollable cacophony, it’s a bad thing,” he says. “We are spray painting our shop window, because what most people see of Parliament is Prime Minister’s Questions.
“Although people who work on the beltway in Westminster often think it’s fine as it is, that it’s great – some members of the media would quite like there to be a fist fight in the chamber – actually, that’s not how the public sees it.
“And the impression I get from going round the country, and from what the limited opinion polling evidence is, is that although the public want there to be robust argument and inquiry, they don’t want there to be a ritualistic shouting match every Wednesday lunchtime.”
Bercow is characteristically pointed about the two party leaders’ previous pledges to change their conduct. “I remember early on his leadership Ed Miliband saying he wanted there to be a more rational discourse,” he says. “And even longer ago I remember the Prime Minister famously saying he wanted ‘an end to Punch and Judy’. It does seem quite a long time since the two party leaders made those statements.”
The party leaders may find it difficult to change their ways, but the Speaker sounds keen on the public taking part in their own form of PMQs. “I’m very open to that,” he says. “There is quite a precious principle that people speak in the chamber of the House of Commons in a normal parliamentary session if they are Members of Parliament and do not if they are not. To abandon that principle would be reckless and foolhardy. So no, we wouldn’t have a ‘PM’s Questions’ session in the chamber, or at any rate not as a formal parliamentary proceeding. But is it possible that we could have direct question sessions between the PM and members of the public on the parliamentary estate? Yes, I think it’s perfectly possible that we could do so.
“Whether it be David Cameron or Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg, perhaps to be chaired by me, or someone else, would I be up for it? Absolutely. I think we ought to be in the market for new ideas for building on what we’ve got.”
He stresses the way he’s tried to get more backbench contributions to oral statements. “We do get more people in contributing than in the past. And as people who were here in previous Parliaments know, my overwhelming preference in almost all cases is to call everybody when there is a Government statement to the House. That didn’t used to be the case. Frequently in the past statements were cut off for whatever reason now that very rarely happens today.”
“Is everything perfect? No. Can the Speaker ever expect to be blame free and uncriticisable? Of course not, people have their different opinions and that’s as it should be. I always make the point that whether I’m a good Speaker or not is in the end not for me to say.”
The Speaker points to what he sees as a contrast between the way MPs are seen locally and nationally.
“One of the things that is quite striking about people’s attitudes to politicians is very simply stated: on the whole people have got a low opinion of politicians. But equally on the whole lots of people think their own MP is pretty good.
“There is a mismatch there because I think at various times most colleagues have got together and exchanged stories and most of us have found that someone and often quite a lot of people in our own constituency will say ‘most of those mps are a complete shower, but you’re an excellent constituency MP. Now if that’s being reproduced in a lot of constituencies, it does suggest that we are doing some things well and not necessarily getting credit for them.”
Scotland’s independence referendum was a lesson in voter engagement, he adds.
And as well as changing the way the Commons interacts with the public, the Speaker says his Commission on Digital Democracy is looking at the language used in Parliament.
“It’s partly perhaps a question of looking at language, the language we use has the scope for change, might it be desirable for us to have a look at some of the terms that we use in parliament and to ask should they really be used. We have a number of quite old fashioned processes that the House could, maybe through the Procedure Committee or Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, usefully look at and decide whether to keep or change.
“I think the use of the word ‘strangers’ in the House still causes considerable misunderstanding and often resentment. That’s a pity, and I don’t think it’s necessary. There may be a case for looking at that.”
Is there also a case for changing the way MPs refer to each other in the chamber, perhaps allowing them to use each other’s names?
“Whether we stick with the terminology of Honourable Gentleman, Honourable Lady, Right Honourable Gentleman, Right Honourable Lady, or whether we move to a different and more modern system, I’m completely open minded on that matter. Would I seek in any way to block a consideration of that issue? Absolutely not.”
He goes on: “There are other things. In Westminster Hall…I think when ‘the Prime Minister’ is uttered from the chair and then the person that stands up is a government whip, it would be confusing to people and people think ‘wait a minute, that’s not the Prime Minister, that’s some unrecognisable government whip or indeed opposition whip, for that matter, taking part’. I think that some of those confusing procedures should be changed.”
Bercow wants the House to be more accessible literally, as well as linguistically. Next year, his dream of a new Education Centre becomes a reality. Building works have started in Victoria Tower Gardens next to the House of Lords, and it is due to open next summer.
“One of the things I’m passionate about in 2015 is the imminent opening of the Education Centre,” he says. “That is going to be a state-of-the-art, hi-tech facility. The thrust of it is simple: it is intended to chart the journey to rights and representation and to enable us to double the number of young people coming through Parliament and getting a flavour of our history, our operations and our future, including their capacity to be part of that future.”
With the Magna Carta and de Montfort Parliament anniversaries approaching, the Speaker is typically keen to use them as an opportunity to look forward as well as back. But alongside an Education Centre, he also wants more reform of the way the Commons conducts its own affairs.
“I think they’ve got to be more than a celebration of the progress we’ve made. They’ve got to be regarded as welcome anniversaries, but also wake-up calls more boldly to innovate and reform the way we go about our business. And the way we try to restore respect for the profession of politics.
“What in the journey of intended improvement should feature next on our agenda? I personally like to think in the next parliament we will continue the progress we’ve made; I hope that we might return to the issue of the need to establish a House Business Committee whereby all business is properly scheduled and timetabled.”
The Speaker points out that such self-government was recommended by the Wright Committee and was “very much a commitment” of the Coalition Government in 2010. “It’s the one major proposal that hasn’t yet been implemented. It was due to be implemented by the third year of this parliament. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened,” he says.
“It would be an opening up of the operations of the House to proper scrutiny and to inspection by media and voters alike, and that seems to me to be a good thing. It’s a great pity that more hasn’t been made of this issue, because it is a procedural matter and doesn’t immediately strike people as sexy.”
“I suspect there may well be an appetite for it to happen. And if so it’s quite possible that progress will be made on that matter in the next Parliament. It is one piece of unfinished business. A lot of people would say the Government is entitled to have a majority on the House Business Committee. The idea would be that there would be a committee of colleagues, it wouldn’t simply be the usual channels in rooms with closed doors deciding what was debated. The government would be substantially represented on such a committee, but so would the Opposition, so would the backbenches. Ideally it could be chaired perhaps by the senior deputy speaker and would meet in public.”
As for his own record to date, Bercow says it’s up to others to ultimately judge, but it’s clear he believes he’s lived up to that 2009 pledge to be a “reforming Speaker”. He points to not just his record in what happens in the chamber or committees, but also to “second-order issues”.
“I’m proud of the fact that for example we have got the first female – and, as it happens, the first black – Chaplain in the history of the House of Commons. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve established a nursery which MPs and staff can pay for; I’m very proud of the fact that we are establishing an Education Centre.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’ve insisted that everybody who works on the Parliamentary Estate is paid at least the London Living Wage. I’m proud of the fact that we are moving away from zero-hours contracts and saying to people ‘you can have a minimum-hours contract so you’ve got some guarantee of work’.”
The changes are beneficial in themselves and to those directly involved, he says. “Also, they say something about the DNA of the House: what sort of employer are we, what sort of organisation are we; are we more forward-looking or backward-looking? I think we are more forward-looking and inclusive than we once were. There is still a lot more to do.”
Bercow says that some polling evidence suggests the public think Parliament is holding the Government to account better. “But do people on the whole now think their politicians are great? They don’t,” he says. “And on the whole, sadly, they don’t distinguish in huge numbers between Parliament and Government.
“If Government is in bad odour, if the political party leaders are in poor odour, that does tend to have a knock-on effect for Parliament as a whole. So I certainly don’t suggest that we are in any sense restored to full health and vitality in the public mind. I do think that we are out of the emergency ward.”
The Speaker says that getting rid of the “outdated, overly generous, excessively secretive, patently indefensible expenses system” was a big step forward. MPs are working “extremely hard” on behalf of their constituents and this parliament has been more “lively” than its predecessor.
“I think this Parliament has been more topical, more lively, more interesting, more independent minded and more unpredictable than any Parliament I can recall. And that surely has to be a good thing.
“It’s partly because of the Coalition Government and divisions within the Coalition, of course it is. But it’s also because of the mindset of MPs coming in, far more independent-minded MPs, not least on the government side and on the Conservative benches in particular. It’s been a great many people who have just come to the House and decided ‘I’m going to say what I think and vote accordingly’. It’s perhaps been a whips’ nightmare, but it’s been, I think, good for Parliament.”
Bercow can’t resist adding: “And I think it is partly, if I may say so, because I have tried to facilitate the House in what the House wants to debate. And, by the way, certainly Members should be debating what they were expecting to be debating.”
Is he referring to the European Arrest Warrant and the anger expressed last week at the way the Commons was denied an explicit vote on the measure? “Yes,” he replies. “I’m in favour of transparency and straightforwardness. I was told about those arrangements in advance, through officials telling my clerks. The day before, a senior minister sidled up to me and said ‘well, this is how we are going to proceed’.
"And I said ‘Yes, I gather that there isn’t even going to be a vote on the European Arrest Warrant, which I thought was what everybody was expecting’. To which the reply came: ‘Well, there’s a series of measures that require transposing into UK law, there’s that package and the vote will be on that.’ And I said ‘well, I think you will be in for a lot of trouble’.” ‘Trouble’ turned out to be an understatement, given the subsequent backlash from senior Conservative backbenchers.
When it comes to chairing proceedings in the chamber, Bercow says that his rule is to seek out the pithy and the independent-minded.
“If people want to ask propagandistic questions or questions that are just really celebrating the merits of their own party and criticising the merits of the other, then as long as they adhere to basic rules of order, questions are supposed to be about the policy of the Government, then I have to allow that,” he says.
“However, what I can do is look out for people that I know to be independent minded and who I know will be putting a question entirely of their own volition and not something they’ve read off a brief. I do think I stand up for the Parliamentary characters on both sides, I have great respect for the really regular attenders at Question Times, not just PM’s Question Times.”
He namechecks a few examples. “On both sides of the House there are some people who are great regulars. On the conservative side somebody like Philip Hollobone or Philip Davies will spring to mind and on the Labour side, Barry Sheerman, Alison McGovern are real regulars, Paul Flynn, is someone who absolutely wouldn’t have a question scripted for him, he does his own questions. His party or the government for that matter can like it or lump it, I like to think I’m sympathetic to those people. I’m also sympathetic to those people who are splendidly succinct, John Redwood on the Tory side and Gisela Stuart on the Labour side - very pithy.”
One other piece of ‘unfinished business’ is of course the fate of the Clerk of the Commons. Referring to the new Committee on House Governance chaired by Jack Straw, he says: “I have expressed by own view on at least one of the matters that they are considering, the question of whether we should have a separation between clerk and chief executive. And I will as the Speaker very properly should and must rest content with what the House decides.”
As for his own future, Bercow points out that when he was elected in June 2009, he said he’d step aside after nine years. “I made a commitment that I would seek to serve as Speaker until 2018. Nothing’s changed.”
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the way the Speaker relaxes away from Westminster. He tends to read modern fiction rather than political tomes. He swims in a gym near Westminster, 45 minutes each time, four times a week – “you are using every muscle and I can think of all sorts of things when I’m in a swimming pool”. He watches Arsenal football club with his son – “perhaps a really good centre half, I think, would be useful”.
But for Bercow, his main passion outside politics remains tennis. He plays occasionally – “I had a hit with Nick Clegg recently which I enjoyed, a brief hit with him, and I’m keen to play him in a match at some stage” – but his real love is watching the game. And the person he loves watching most is Roger Federer.
“All people I work with know I’m an obsessive Federer fan. This year, I think Federer so far has played around 80 matches and I think I’ve seen 67 of them,” he reveals. “I regard him as the greatest player of all time. It’s quite a privilege to watch him.
“I went to talk to him at the O2 [arena] the other day. He’s incredibly gracious. He’s hugely popular; he’s very forthcoming; he answers questions very candidly; his play is very graceful as well as effective; he glides around the court apparently effortlessly. And he’s a great sport. Like most great competitors he hates losing, but when he does lose he’s gracious in defeat.
“I get the impression that although he’s nearer the end of his career than the beginning, I think he might be going for some while yet…while he’s still performing so well and he clearly loves it.”
Nearer the end of his career than the beginning, performing well and clearly loving his job. He won’t say it, but as John Bercow gets ready for another parliament, perhaps those words could equally apply to the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons.
BERCOW ON… HIS DIGITAL DEMOCRACY COMMISSION
“I still think the dialogue between Parliament and public, between individual MPs and electors, is perhaps not as rapid or convenient as a lot of electors would want.”
BERCOW ON… THE SCOTTISH REFERENDUM
“You couldn’t say there wasn’t buy-in to the process from the voters, because there was. I rather suspect that involving 16 and 17-year-olds was an important part of that.”
BERCOW ON… GOOD CONSTITUENCY MPS
“People have got a low opinion of politicians. But equally, on the whole lots of people think their own MP is pretty good.”
BERCOW ON… THIS PARLIAMENT
“I think this parliament has been more topical, more lively, more interesting, more independent-minded and more unpredictable than any parliament I can recall.”
BERCOW ON… A HOUSE BUSINESS COMMITTEE
“People have been looking at it for quite a long time; it would be very good if we got progress from ‘looking at’ to ‘deciding on’.”
Words: Daniel Bond
Photos: Paul Heartfield
Parliamentary debates and jokes about pop culture rarely make easy bedfellows. Nothing illustrates a politician’s estrangement from the world outside Westminster like a ham-fisted reference to music or reality TV, even if it does produce an affected guffaw from a chamber with a pretty low bar for comedy. But just occasionally a shrewd politician comes up with the goods and delivers a moment of levity which not only prompts genuine laughter, but makes a crystal clear point and piques the public’s interest, too.
Twice in recent months Baroness Stowell has shown she does a nice line in the latter. First, as the Lords debated same-sex marriage, the then minister used a fantasy retelling of George Clooney’s love life to explain the technicalities of adultery law, even imagining the actor having a series of affairs with various male and female peers, including herself – “and who could blame him?” she coyly added. The second moment came this summer, as peers’ anger erupted over the decision to deny her full Cabinet status, and as – in the words of Baroness Boothroyd – “the gale-force winds” from the upper house were lashing at the door of Number 10. The new Leader of the Lords rose to her feet to assure a restive chamber that she would do her job as well as any of her male predecessors. “Noble Lords might want to think of me as the Beyoncé of the House. I am an independent woman – and a single lady,” she almost sang, her self-deprecating style going some way to cut through the tension and defuse the situation.
It was a perfectly pitched response to her delicate position, striking the right balance between acknowledging the House’s grievances, saving face and defending the Prime Minister’s decision – while dropping just a hint that perhaps her sympathies lay as much with her irked colleagues as her under-fire boss. And as the ‘Baroness Beyoncé’ headlines promptly topped almost every news report, it suggested the former Downing Street press office PA still knows a thing or two about securing a positive spin on a potentially damaging story.
It’s a maxim which has guided her ever since she started her first job selling cakes over the counter aged 14. “When I was growing up my great desire, the urgency I felt, was to get to work. Starting work was the same as being an adult, you know? And I wanted to start earning some money for myself,” she explains as we sit down in her spacious leader’s office behind the red benches, a world away from the Nottinghamshire bakery where her working life began. “So for me, whether I’m talking to teenagers in schools or whoever, if I can put the success I’ve achieved down to one thing – if other people want to define it as success – it’s very much that attitude to work, a desire to do my very, very best at whatever job I’ve found myself doing. Whether that’s been the most junior job I’ve ever had or this job now, it’s a desire to make the most out of the opportunities that I’ve been able to either seize myself or – in this case – have been given to me by the Prime Minister.”
But the circumstances in which this particular opportunity was given, and the row over the decision to deny Stowell full-blown Cabinet status, ensured her time as leader got off to a problematic start. To make matters worse, news of her non-Cabinet salary – a full £22,000 less than that received by her male predecessor – reignited concerns about the Conservatives’ ‘women problem’, stoked again in recent weeks when the Prime Minister became the only one of the three main leaders to decline to wear Elle magazine’s ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt.
Stowell – who replies with an enthusiastic “of course!” when asked if she considers herself a feminist – flatly rejects any suggestion that her leader has a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to women, and says the Conservative party, too, should “be judged on what we do, rather than what media commentators say”. “During the time David Cameron has been leader there’s been a huge effort within the party to encourage women to come forward into politics,” she says, pointing out that Cameron has recently given peerages to seven “incredibly dynamic women”, including Karren Brady and Joanna Shields.
But the women already involved in politics also have a responsibility to make some more noise about their achievements, she adds. “We need to encourage more women to come forward in politics, and the way to do that is for us to be clearer about what it is we do, what it is that we achieve through politics. We need to be able to show that there’s some real purpose to getting involved; whether it’s at the national level, being able to change the law in some way, or at councillor level, being able to say there is a real point in trying to get into local politics because you can really make a difference to people’s lives.”
And in her short time in the Lords, Stowell certainly has made a difference. Her assured performance in masterminding the passage of the Same Sex Marriage Bill through the upper house won her praise from all quarters, leading to both PinkNews and the gay rights group Stonewall awarding her their ‘Politician of the Year’ gongs and even sparking talk of the peer being a new ‘gay icon’.
While many supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage expected the more traditional second chamber to throw a spanner in the bill’s works, the respectful manner in which Stowell courted those with reservations, her shrewdness in tailoring her arguments and the good humour she brought to the debates – including those arch references to an adulterous George Clooney – ensured a relatively harmonious process. In the end, more Conservatives in the Lords backed the bill than opposed it – something which can’t be said of the Commons.
“It was important for me as the minister responsible to show huge respect to people who were unsure about their views, to give them the proper space to question the legislation, to know that they were absolutely legitimate in their position,” she says. “But if I was going to be successful, I had a real responsibility to explain what the benefits were – why people should support it. I wanted to be able to explain the importance of marriage, to be able to say it was about recognising people for who they are.
“What we were able to do in this House was to pass a piece of legislation which was very progressive, and do so in a way which minimised any divisiveness around any of our debates, because we were respectful in the way we debated it. It was a resounding victory for this House.”
The debate was the upper chamber at its best, she says, suggesting the amicable manner of the bill’s passing has even contributed to the bounce in public support same-sex marriage has enjoyed in the months since. “I think that’s in part due to the way in which we did that.” But it’s also a reminder, she adds, of the benefits of the Lords’ unique way of working, particularly “in an age when the public have concerns about the relationship between people and power”.
“I think it was important, the way in which this House was able to demonstrate to the public how it operates and the benefits of this House. The way we do our business here, it’s important that we do it in a way that’s different to the Commons. We bring an approach which is a little less political, a little less rowdy. It is more deliberative; it can be more thoughtful. But it is focused always to that point of serving the national interest and making sure that we are trying to deliver an outcome which is going to benefit the people outside,” she says. “I don’t think we should underestimate that our approach to our work, the nature of us being a self-regulating House, the way in which we conduct ourselves, is an important part of how the political system can start to rebuild its relationship with the public.”
If there is one thing that motivates her leadership, Stowell continues, it is her desire to ensure the House remains resolutely focused on proving its relevance to ordinary people’s lives. “In doing this job, my main concern is how this House serves the people outside – and I will always have the people outside as the main focus of my approach to my decisions, to the way in which I have to act as leader,” she explains. “Ideally, what I would love to think is that we as an institution, this great British institution which is the House of Lords, is seen as the most relevant British institution, working on behalf of the people outside, and is recognised as doing that consistently.”
And while her view is that the House “currently works well overall”, peers must continue to seek improvements “to make sure we deal with anything that might be perceived to dilute that commitment to the public interest,” she says, citing the successful bill brought forward by Dan Byles to allow retirement from the Lords and the expulsion of peers sentenced to more than 12 months in prison, as well as Baroness Hayman’s proposed Expulsion and Suspension Bill, which would tighten the sanctions regime and allow the suspension or expulsion of peers for misconduct. “I think it will be interesting to see the progress of that bill,” she says.
But with Labour now committed to replacing the Lords with an elected senate, and the reform-minded Lib Dems still hoping to hold the balance of power next year, Stowell accepts the debate over more wholesale change to the second chamber is likely to be reignited after 2015.
“Clearly as an appointed peer, I don’t have a democratic mandate myself to decide how this country should be governed. I am appointed,” she says. “But I think we have to acknowledge that all three political parties are committed to an elected second chamber. They differ on why, they differ on how and when to make that change; when it will come forward again, I don’t know. But all three parties are united in that principle.”
Those decisions on Lords reform will have to come from the Commons and the Government after 2015, she says, although she adds pointedly that she finds Labour’s pledge “curious”, given the party “already had that opportunity this parliament and didn’t take it”. But she says until that reform is agreed peers have a duty “to continue to improve our effectiveness, for as long as we are appointed”.
“I don’t think, just because the three main parties are all committed in principle to an elected second chamber, that should mean that while we remain appointed we shouldn’t work hard for the public, and also make the changes we think are necessary.
“What I want to ensure is that as leader of an appointed house, we are as effective as we can be. That means focusing all the time on serving the public outside. And if we focus on trying to do things that improve things for people outside this House, then actually we’re a long way towards my most ambitious of objectives, which is for us to be perceived as the most relevant British institution operating today.”
"I was not born into the Labour Party, I chose it because I saw it was the only party which believed in fairness, in standing up for ordinary working people who are not born with power, wealth or privilege, and in people acting together to achieve more than they can alone. I suppose the first issue which got me politically active was the anti-apartheid movement. I think the same sense of moral outrage and moral purpose which lay behind that movement fires most Labour Party members, and I am no different.
I think my political philosophy has crystallised over the years and I learned a great deal in Parliament from Neil Kinnock and John Smith. I believe strongly that it is within the family and the community that we learn the values of decency, self-respect and respect for others – British values that I believe the Labour Party shares.
Becoming Leader of the party brought home to me something I already knew – which is that Labour had a long way to go before it was once again thought of as the natural party of government. Many people are angry at the Tories and their betrayal over tax, which they promised to cut but actually raised by £800 a year, their betrayal over crime, which they promised to cut, but which has doubled, and their betrayal of homeowners by promising cheaper mortgages and instead reducing MIRAS. People are ready to look at Labour. They like what they see, but we have to deepen their commitment. That is our task. My judgement was that we did not need a series of minor adjustments but a quantum leap to make us electable. I wanted to continue the reforms, first made by Neil Kinnock and then by John Smith, that took us away from the dark days of the early 1980s when, frankly, we were unelectable, to the position we are in today. But, as I keep stressing, we have a mountain to climb, we have not won an election for 21 years and there is never any room for complacency in the Labour Party, however well we may be doing in the polls.
I do understand party members who feel the last year has been one of almost breathless change, but my judgement is that we needed to make those changes in order to put the party’s core beliefs in a modern setting, to update our organisation and structure. New Labour is not old Left and not New Right; it is a reinvigorated party of the left of centre. It is a forward looking alternative to the Tories, a radical party that rejects some of the bureaucratic solutions of the old Left and the market dogma of the New Right, which has been shown not to work, and instead forges a new agenda around our core values and our belief in building a strong civic society.
New Labour reclaims ground of which we should have never let go. Words like freedom, responsibility, family, efficiency; these are Labour words and we should never have let the Tories take them from us. It is right that with opportunity comes responsibility. It is right that we are the party that supports the family.
It staggers me that, after four election defeats, there are still one or two people in the party whose only criticism is that we are becoming a ruthless election-winning machine. I hope that is the case, because only then can we start to renew Britain. Only in some parts of the Labour Party could you be criticised for wanting to win power. That is one of the reasons why we haven’t. Too many people think, just as they have for the last 15 years, that is must be in the bag this time, or that if it isn’t in the bag that we should not change anything to win.
Let’s be clear. The British people have failed to elect us four times in succession and it would be an insult to turn up on their doorsteps at the next election and present them with exactly the same as they have been offered before. Life moves on, the world changes and we must change with it, otherwise all we can do is protest from the side-lines as the Tories run down our country.
The whole point about changing Clause Four of our constitution was not to abandon principle, but to reconnect the party to it. To state clearly and boldly what our fundamental beliefs are. People come into the party to attack poverty and discrimination, to protect the environment, to promote opportunity and to ensure that power wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many and not the few. That’s all in the new Clause Four. People aren’t joining the party in record numbers because we are giving up on our beliefs, but because we are connecting with them once again, only this time in a way that people think is relevant as we approach the 21s century.
We have a clear sense of what we want to achieve in government. I would like to think that we could put in place reforms that would radically reduce the levels of long-term unemployment and start putting the economy back on track so that we are investing for long-term success. I would like to put in place a revolution in schools standards; we can no longer tolerate failing schools and children not getting the best start in life. I would also like to replace the internal market in the NHS, so that doctors once again treat patients free from paperwork and patients can once more rely on the NHS.
I would like to think that my leadership is based on a strong sense of direction and purpose – it is for others to judge if I am a nice guy. The British people have had enough of rudderless, feeble leadership and want to feel they know where they are going and that they do not have to settle for second best. It is a great honour to be Labour leader and, even though I am now far more aware of what a difficult job it is and the strain it can put on family life, I don’t regret taking the decision to stand. So far my three children seem to have coped well with everything. My ideal way of winding down is to spend time with Cherie, Euan, Nicky and Kathryn, leading as normal a life as possible, or playing tennis with friends. Our first child was born nine months after I came in here, so they have always lived with politics in the background.
This is a very important conference for us. I want the message to be that by having the courage to change ourselves, new Labour is strong and more able to change Britain for the better. We are putting forwards a programme that contrasts strongly with that of the Tories. Few people want to vote Tory. After this conference I hope they are more likely to vote Labour because they recognise that we speak for their concerns and aspiration… for decent schools, for saving the NHS, for cutting crime, for cutting long-term unemployment and reforming the welfare state. In short, because we are a party that believes in giving everyone the chance to make Britain succeed.
I am never quite sure about those “What you like to be remembered for?” questions because I am certainly not thinking of leaving politics yet. My aim is to win the election. But when I do go, I would like to be remembered for serving my country well and helping to create a more just, united society."
Tony Blair was talking to Fiona Millar. This interview first appeared in The House October 1995.
I was brought up in an industrial mining town in Fife in the 1950s and 60s. My father was a Church of Scotland minister and his parish was right at the centre of the town, which meant we saw all sorts of social problems at first hand. It was a time of very high unemployment as a result of the collapse of the mining and textile industries and beggars would come to the door. There was a lot of poverty and slum housing at the time and I suppose it was a result of my father showing me those things that I started to think there could be a better way.
Looking around today, I see the same problems: lack of job opportunities; the need to run a more efficient economy. What changes is one’s view of the solutions. When you are young, you tend to identify it as a problem of social justice; as you get older, you begin to see that the solution is also the solution to the problem of running an efficient economy, so tackling the problems of unemployment, providing skills, qualifications and opportunities to young people, seeing that there are stronger links between those qualifications and opportunities for work and decent earnings and trying to modernise the welfare state are all extremely important to a Labour government.
We are now in a global economy and we recognise that the pattern of industry and the labour market has changed quite remarkably over the past 40 years. The new solutions must recognise that, while keeping their roots in the values that Labour had in 1945: social justice, decency, an economy run on the interests of the community and a fair society. These values, applied to the challenges of a new generation, bring you different solutions and different policies.
That is why people in the Labour party should champion and celebrate the idea of modernisation because that is the Labour party showing how it can come up to date and apply lasting values to new situations and do so with a great deal of confidence.
I was also someone who argued that the Labour party had to broaden its membership and become wider than the constituency parties simply meeting as activists looking at themselves from the inside. I always wanted a mass membership Labour party with a member in every street and workplace. I think we are nearer to realising that than at any time in the last 40 years.
Before I went into politics I was a university lecturer in Edinburgh and Glasgow and I would have been happy to continue doing that as I found it very stimulating. I have also written one or two books and would love to do more. To be honest, if I didn’t feel there were things to be achieved, I wouldn’t be in politics; I certainly wouldn’t be in the House of Commons. I don’t mind the challenge of facing up to the Tories on the economy and I think the next few months are going to be a very exciting time.
I don’t think anyone who comes into politics expecting to compete against the Conservative party to get Labour back into government would ever think it was going to be easy, and it won’t be. Preparing Britain for a new century, equipping Britain to succeed, getting an economic policy that makes sense of people’s aspirations and solving some of the problems of the welfare state are huge challenges which involve big reforming politics, and I look forward to it.
I think we will win an election by telling the truth about both the economic situation and what is going to be done about it. I have said before that people have suffered 22 tax rises under the Tories – an extra £2,000 a year for ordinary people in this country. I think they have suffered enough and have no wish to impose an extra burden on them, but you have to make your decisions in the light of the economic circumstances as you assess them and we will make our decisions on taxation once we have analysed the economy and assessed the situation after the Budget and before the election.
At the last election people didn’t trust us, and they didn’t trust us in spite of all the changes that we made under Neil Kinnock’s leadership. They thought that we might tax as if it were for its own sake and spend as if there were no other solution. I believe that is a caricature of Labour, but the Conservatives persuaded people that we were a threat to people’s aspirations when we are not.
What I have had to do is to rebuild the argument about Labour and economic policy from principles, first with John Smith as leader and now with Tony Blair as leader and I have had tremendous support from both of them in what I think has been a very important challenge for the Labour party – that we do not tax for its own sake, that we do not look for opportunities to spend, that we are prudent and wise in our decisions about spending and that shadow departmental ministers look at how they can save before they can spend. We are not a party that will take easy or soft options. We will do what is right for the country and, most of all, after four years of Conservative government, it is important that people can trust Labour and that we don’t make promises that we can’t deliver.
I am not frightened about anything I say going into the Tory lie machine in the sense that what I say I hope and believe is based on a proper assessment of the problem. I want to build a new trust between the British electorate and the Labour party so that people can at least trust one party where they cannot now trust the Conservative party.
I think people would always like a chance to retake things in our lives, like Scotland would like a chance to retake the penalty kick that Gary McAllister missed [against England at Euro 96], but I think it is not very fruitful to talk about regrets in politics. I think you have to move forward, and the challenges of the next 10 years are very important for the Labour party. We have all got to play for them without looking back. I never actually said that I was desperately keen to be leader of the Labour party. I am very happy to work under Tony Blair, who is a friend, and I think we are a team in the Shadow Cabinet working for a common goal, and that is the way it should be.
I think Labour has got to prove to the electorate that it is disciplined and that it will take the task of government seriously. A responsibility falls on everyone who is elected to office on behalf of the Labour party, not simply on the Shadow Cabinet and the front bench. No private enterprise, on the part of any group of people, should be allowed to deny us victory. I hope that we will operate as a disciplined parliamentary party over these next few months in the spirit that the party wants us to do.
If I were to be remembered for anything, I would like it to be for having successfully tackled the problems of youth unemployment and offering some hope to a lost generation. I also hope that we can begin the reforms that are necessary to build a better welfare state in which people can have confidence and feel secure.
I have never stopped believing that the job of politics and the task of socialism is to help people realise their potential to the full, particularly those people who have been denied opportunities. I think the task is to put people in the position where they can bridge the gap between what they are and what they have in themselves to become, and I think that most people who come into politics through the Labour party believe that want to see changes that bring us closer to that.
Gordon Brown was talking to Fiona Millar. This interview first appeared in The House in September 1996.
Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Paul Heartfield
He has, famously, been a deputy governor of an Iraqi province, an adviser to the Obama administration and part-time tutor to Princes William and Harry. He walked thousands of miles across Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, worked with the UN in Bosnia and East Timor and taught at Harvard.
Rory Stewart’s career was deemed so colourful that Brad Pitt’s movie company was keen on making a film of the life of this latter-day T.E. Lawrence. But no longer.
“I think it’s not on now,” Stewart reveals. “They paid me for an option, but I think they are not going to make it.” And the reason? “I think being a Tory MP is not a very sexy end to a movie,” he smiles.
Now more Stewart of North Cumbria than Lawrence of Arabia, the MP for Penrith and the Borders is these days as happy to be focused on rural broadband as he is on the Middle East.
Yet although he may be seen by moviemakers as a ‘mere’ backbench MP, the new chairman of the Defence Select Committee is still as fascinated by the global as the local.
And with its latest inquiry titled ‘The Situation in Iraq and Syria and the threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and The Levant (ISIL)”, no one can accuse him of not looking at the big picture.
While stressing that he can’t pre-empt the committee’s report, Stewart backs limited air strikes but is wary of US promises to ‘destroy’ ISIL. “The separate question is what do you do about these guys in the long run. And then you have to do about a hundred things. That’s why people get a bit frustrated with these kind of answers, they want one answer.”
Among the solutions are using local knowledge to find and fund specific tribal groups and fighters who will provide boots on the ground. Memories of his recent trip to northern Iraq, when he visited the front line, are still fresh.
“One of the most striking things when I was there was when I asked Yezidi refugees what happened. They said ‘Well, we never saw any foreign fighters. The people who took over our village and who kicked us out were our neighbours. And the guy who is now the emir or prince of Islamic State in my town was the local manager of the electricity depot, who we’ve known for 20 years. He’s just rebranded himself as the Islamic State’.
“So as long as there is a core of support for the Islamic State among the Sunni
Arab population, you’ve got to flip those people around and flipping them around isn’t the same thing in every place.”
But among the ‘hundred things’ that can be done is a wider diplomatic push with Turkey and Iran. On Iran in particular, he says ‘you’ve got to get the relationship right’.
“There’s a man called Qasem Soleimani who is sitting in Baghdad in the way that Ambassador Bremer sat in Baghdad for the Americans in 2003/4/5. He’s running everything, he’s got weapons, he’s got troops, he’s the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, he’s like a super-ambassador to Baghdad.
“Somebody’s got to get that balance right because if those guys push too hard in the Sunni areas then the Sunni guys are going to say ‘wait a second this is an Iranian Shia conspiracy to occupy our lands’. So this is something that cannot be done without passion, energy, without drive. What worries me is if people start looking for a silver bullet or a simple solution or thinking that it can be done by deploying huge numbers of [Western] troops on the ground.”
Simple solutions could be the problem too with the forthcoming Iraq Inquiry report from the Chilcot Committee, Stewart fears. “I’m worried that the fundamental problem in the Chilcot Inquiry is that it will firstly focus overwhelmingly on the legal case,” he says, “And secondly it will imply that it all would have gone fine if we’d just done a few things differently, in other words if we hadn’t abolished the Iraqi army, if we hadn’t de-Baathified in the early days.
“I think that that’s dangerous because that leads people to believe that provided you have the right justification and provided you have a cunning post war plan, everything is going to be fine. My experience in Iraq is that the problems were so deep even in the relatively more promising Shia areas of the south that it wasn’t going to work -regardless of whether you’d kept the Iraqi army and regardless of whether you’d kept the Baath party. Doing those things would have created problems in the Shia south almost equal to the kinds of problems you created in the Sunni areas by getting rid of those institutions.”
Again, he draws on his personal experience in the region. “I had demonstrations day after day, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people, outside my office with banners demanding more de-Baathification - at exactly the time when Sunni groups were saying that the very mild de-Baathification that had begun was so completely offensive that that was the reason for their insurgency.”
In Afghanistan too, Western politicians are in danger of learning the wrong lessons from a protracted conflict, he adds. US journalist Anand Gopal’s new study of the Afghan war, reviewed by Stewart for the New York Review of Books, provides a stark contrast to a recent scorecard published by The Times in London.
“[The Times] said there are seven more million children in school. The Gopal book shows that these boasts about education are false, that in the provinces which they’ve managed to study…85% of the schools do not exist, 3,200 teachers are receiving salaries and not going anywhere near a school and don’t have any qualifications.
“The next thing they have on their scorecard is Afghanistan has a trillion dollars of mineral wealth, but again they’ve been saying this for the last six years. The reality is that with the exception of one Chinese copper mine which actually has decided not to start extracting copper yet, there is no investment in mining in Afghanistan, nor is there likely to be in the short term.
“Again they say great improvements in security, they don’t mention that more Afghan police and soldiers have been killed in the last six months than at any period since the start of the intervention.”
For Stewart, long a sceptic about Western intervention, there is one main conclusion to draw from the years of blood and treasure spent in the Middle East. “The lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that the idea of nation building under fire, this idea you can go and build a state and run a counter-insurgency campaign at the same time, is I’m afraid wrong. I can’t think of any historical example where it’s worked and I think history will judge that quite harshly.”
The final British withdrawal from Afghanistan took on a tangible form recently when the Union flag was lowered in Camp Bastion, Helmand. And with Remembrance Sunday this week, many inside and outside Westminster will reflect on the lives lost. But what does Stewart make of those who say that their sacrifice has not been in vain, that even the limited progress in Afghanistan has been worth it?
“It’s always very tempting, particularly in tragic situations where lots of people have lost their lives, to try to misrepresent the facts. But the reality is that every soldier’s life is valuable intrinsically and should be honoured as the sacrifice of a soldier for their country.
“The fundamental obligation that we have is, without being too pompous about it, to the truth. Because in the long run being honest about things is the only way that you can actually create policies, proper strategies to keep the country safe.”
And there’s a wider point that Stewart, who served briefly in the Black Watch as an infantry officer, wants to make. “The value of a soldier’s life should never, ever, ever be reduced to whether or not the particular battle they are fighting in does or does not achieve the objective set out by politicians. Those are not the metrics,” he says.
“A soldier’s life is something very difficult for contemporary societies to understand. It’s something that we may have been more comfortable talking about a hundred years ago or two hundred years ago. That war and sacrifice is something that a soldier joins to do and they are fighting and dying for many things. For their own unit, also for Queen and country, also for an idea of themselves.
“These things should be praised and valued and I think it’s really dangerous to start saying ‘Well was a soldier who was killed in the Somme less worthwhile than one that was killed in Aden? Less worthwhile than one that was killed in Iraq or less worthwhile than one killed in Afghanistan?’ Every one of those individual acts of sacrifice is valuable in and of itself, regardless of the surrounding local context.”
Stewart has been doing his bit to change the local context in Kabul. Seven years ago he founded a charity the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which now employs 450 people. It cleared 15,000 trucks of rubbish from the surrounding slum, set up a family health centre and now has a primary school too. At first no girls came to the school, but after five months the charity worked out what was wrong. “We worked out that we needed to have their fathers sitting in the back row and they were happy for their girls to go to school. Now we have 50% boys and 50% girls in the school. This is trial and error, trust, deep, deep local absorption, it’s not something that can be done with a power point presentation.”
Alliance building is something Stewart has brought to his Commons career too, it seems. This summer, he surprised some by beating off more experienced contenders for the Tory chairmanship of the committee. Faced with seven rivals, he eventually pipped Julian Lewis to the post after winning the backing of a serious chunk of Labour as well as his own MPs.
“It’s a huge privilege to work with such a dedicated and experienced committee. From Colonel Bob Stewart - with over twenty years experience and a DSO to Dai Havard, who puts so much energy and understanding into the committee work - everyone on the committee is deeply serious about Defence and brings a great deal to the subject. And we're very lucky that Julian Lewis and Richard Benyon have just decided to join the committee as well.”
But looking back since his arrival in 2010, what does he now make of Parliamentary life? “It’s quite a wonderful world, but it’s completely unlike anything that I imagined before I came in. The bits I thought would be really good turned out to be disappointing, the bits I thought would be disappointing turned out to be really good. And the fulfilments and satisfactions are very strange.”
One example is just what happens in the chamber itself. “I assumed the centre of the whole thing would be speeches in the House of Commons. And I used to be quite good at making speeches so I thought oh well it’ll be fine. But of course it turns out that whereas in the 19th century of Gladstone and Disraeli their speeches packed the House, the journalists were all there, they were reported on the front page of the Times, the whole public debate of the nation was created through speeches in the House of Commons…that isn’t true any more.
“I turned up and I found out of course what we all know. Which is some debates are pretty sparsely attended, some of us are on our Blackberries, especially when people are reading speeches. It’s not I think that people couldn’t make really good 19th century speeches, I don’t think there’s anything different really, in many ways Members of Parliament today are much more educated, more articulate than they were in the 19th century, it just matters less.
“The 19th century people would put three or four days into writing their speech, now you would be a lunatic to do that really because there aren’t enough people listening.”
But what has impressed him has been the close ties to his constituency. “Constituencies have become much more interesting, a much more engaging part of your life than it would have been in the 19th century.”
The unique location of his constituency allowed him a significant role in the Scottish independence referendum, a campaign he clearly relished. He’s also been able to make a difference on rural broadband, pushing the Government into committing to 98% coverage of the country.
“I feel I have a real opportunity in Cumbria to shape things: rural broadband, neighbourhood planning, more affordable housing. Being an MP is a perfect way of connecting with community groups. I can reach out to the charitable sector, I can raise money.
“All you can really say to yourself in terms of this idea of making a difference is that you were one pebble dropped into the water. You can be pretty sure that on its own these things don’t change things but you just hope that somehow cumulatively you are one of the things that shifts it.”
Some in the military believe that Stewart certainly had a big impact on David Cameron’s policy of withdrawal from Afghanistan. Back in 2010, he and other MPs with military and foreign affairs experience gathered at Chequers to share their thoughts with the PM. Stewart argued strongly across the table for a deadline for pull-out rather than the ‘conditions-based’ approach favoured by Gen Sir David Richards and others. Just like Obama, Cameron went for a deadline. How did it feel to win that argument on such a hugely important policy?
Again, Stewart is modest about his role. “That’s right, I said that and that was the policy. But you become aware that it’s very difficult to be sure that you saying it is why it ended up like that. I think the first thing is you realise, or at least I’m beginning to realise, just how small a cog you are in the wheel.” “
So would he say that his career to date has been an attempt to speak truth to power, rather than to wield power. Or has it been a bit of both?
“I think that’s a really difficult question. I’m a politician. And I’m not always proud of myself. There’s a lot of spin and PR to do with our lives so it’s a matter of degree in democratic politics. I think everybody in politics or almost everybody is committed to trying to be honest with themselves about what’s wrong with the country and what they’d like to improve. It’s just a question of the way in which the structures do or do not allow you take risks and how far you can push that.
“So, being a politician is a perpetual learning experience, an experiment in working how far you can push it, how much risk you can take. And I’m a new politician, I’ve only been here four years so I haven’t been I’m still probably a bit naïve, I’m still interested in trying to push those boundaries. Occasionally you push a boundary and then you realise ‘oh god, I probably went too far there, I probably haven’t been careful.’
“So one of the dangers of being a politician is you end up being very polite. So a clear example: if somebody had asked me five years ago was the surge in Afghanistan a failure, the answer would have been Yes. Now the temptation is to say ‘if the objectives were defined as the creation of a credible, effective and legitimate Afghan state and the defeat of the Taliban, then we did not succeed in achieving those objectives’.
“And it’s because you learn over time unfortunately, and it’s a sad thing, you learn that if things are taken out of context then immediately you have somebody goes and grabs someone on the street and says ‘this guy says the Afghan war was a failure, your son was killed in Afghanistan what do you think about him?’ And then whose sympathy is with some crazy politician in Westminster or somebody who’s been bereaved?’
“I suppose the difference between them [the two statements] is one is more shocking and blunt than the other and it’s to do with what you are trying to achieve in the public consciousness. In other words what is it you want people to feel when they are making a decision like that in 10 years time? When they are about to do something similar somewhere else, do you want them to have absorbed the basic thing, which is it didn’t work? Or do you want them to specify counter insurgency and state building didn’t work, which is a more precise way of putting it. And is the danger of doing that that’s so complicated that the big picture is lost: ‘Oh well there were some things that didn’t work but basically it was fine’?
“So sometimes we have to be pretty blunt and broad brush and not very academically precise in order to get the point across. In the end, politics is quite binary. Is it a good thing, is it a bad thing? Did it work? Didn’t it? Will you or won’t you? One of the things that worries me a bit is because of the kind of ‘gotcha’ culture it’s very tempting to become so polite and subtle in your statements that it’s not really clear what you are trying to say.
“So what am I really trying to say? What I’m really trying to say is the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan was a mistake, we shouldn’t have done it. and presented with the same situation in the future we should not do it. The initial intervention worked, the surge didn’t. But working out how one does that and remain alive in modern politics is quite difficult.”
Stewart certainly said what he thought when he worked with Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative in Afghanistan. He argued his case on the opposite side of the table to big figures like Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McCrystal and even ended up testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I was very, very much more involved in the American debate because I was in the United States at the beginning of the Obama administration and I was quite close to Richard Holbrooke and I would meet Hillary Clinton and I would work on stuff there. The American system is actually much more transparent, it’s much easier to know where you are in the debate and what different people’s positions are. Who you are arguing against, where the camps are.
“So in the American system I could ally myself with Holbrooke or to some extent with Joe Biden and I could see on the other side of the table was David Petraeus and Stanley McCrystal, the generals pushing the surge. In the British system, from the perception of a backbench MP it’s a very, very opaque thing how the decisions are made, where the decisions are, how many people agree with you, how many disagree with you.”
Now that he’s part of that ‘British system’, does he see himself staying in Parliament for another 10 or 15 years? “I really don’t know at all. I’m actually finding it more satisfying as time goes on,” he replies.
“If you’d asked me that question at the end of my second year, I [would have said] I was just beginning to realise how, in many ways, being a backbench MP is a pretty peculiar and potentially frustrating life. And how a lot of the consolations which were offered for that were probably not as satisfying as you might think. Now I’m beginning to see that actually one of the things that an MP can do is to get involved in a public conversation about defining what Britain is. And that’s a fascinating possibility for an MP.”
That conversation became very real this summer during the Scots independence referendum. Stewart had the idea of creating a ‘Hands Across The Border’ cairn in his constituency to symbolise the solidarity between the English and Scots.
“You dump yourself in a field, you put out the call for people to come. You sit there for the first few days getting a bit worried because nobody’s turning up, then gradually you see people from Cornwall, Argyll, Skye etcetera carrying these rocks. And we end up with 130,000 rocks so the thing is a big monument and in doing so you are connecting to the Scottish referendum debate in unusual ways.
“I realised that I’m not making speeches in the House of Common, which I did do about Scotland but didn’t have much impact, but other things did. Building the cairn did, maybe campaigning in Glasgow did, I did a BBC documentary, articles, a little bit of social media and you suddenly realise that being an MP, there are opportunities there.
“I really felt that the referendum campaign probably of all the things that I’ve done [as an MP] was the most exciting and satisfying. There was a once in 300 years decision, something I deeply cared about, my constituency was perfectly located to get involved.
“Again as with all these other things you do, you have absolutely no idea of the difference you make, whether you even added five votes to the whole thing but at least you know what you are about. And it’s really fun intellectually because you have the opportunity to take the Scottish National party and deconstruct their arguments.”
And on foreign policy too, he’s been able to use his time as an MP to improve the public debate, he says.
“On Iraq and Syria, for somebody like me who’s deeply deeply interested in British defence policy to be able to say well what are the objectives here? What are you trying to do, who are you targeting? And ok you’re targeting the Islamic State, here are your panoply of options: air strikes, boots on the ground, regional solution, political internal solution and maybe in addition attacking Syria, what are the justifications of these, what are the pros what are the cons and where does Britain fit into this? There’s this big monster called the United States, we are a small country we have a few planes, what are we doing?
“These things I don’t think I could do anywhere else. Or at least if I were to do them somewhere else I would be in the frustrating position of testifying to a committee as opposed to being the questioner.”
Now Stewart is the one doing the questioning as the Defence Select Committee oversees various inquiries. But although his own days as an expert witness are over, he hasn’t ruled out another role: becoming a minister one day.
“I think a dream career would also involve, at some point in my life, looking at it from the other side. It’s quite difficult to scrutinise the government if you don’t have any idea what the inside of the machine looks like. And that was the advantage that James Arbuthnot had, he had been a defence minister so he had an idea what was a realistic expectation to set on these poor guys sitting across the table from him.”
There are other attractions too. “I also think there are certain things I would love to do which you could probably only do by being a minister. For example, I would really, really love to focus on developing area expertise in the military, to see the military go into a much deeper form of defence engagement,” he says.
As an example, Stewart says the UK could learn a lot from copying the French system of expert defence attachés.
“Our defence attaches tend to be people at the end of their careers doing a two year posting before they retire. The French defence attaché in Tripoli on the other hand was taught Arabic for two years, went to the Egyptian staff college, was the defence attaché in the UAE for three years, was the defence attaché in Egypt for two years and is now in Tripoli.
“It’s completely different and when you see the French success intervening in Mali that’s all about that structure of defence engagement there. The reason the French can arrive in 96 hours and deploy is that their defence engagement is so deep and intimate that they have the platform to allow that to happen, which we don’t have in Britain.”
“Now if I wanted to do that I can’t do that as a backbench MP. I actually have to get into the nitty gritty of the essentially the HR personnel structures of the military, work out how they people are recruited, how they are promoted, what kind of language allowances they receive, how their career structures work, how you attach a brigade to a particular area.”
Speaking of defence attachés, that title was often a cover for British spies in the past. Some have hinted that Stewart himself was a spook. So, was he ever in MI6, and if he was would he ever reveal it? He laughs. “The answer to the latter question is absolutely not. The answer to the prior question is No.”
Confirmation that he never was a James Bond may be one more reason for Brad Pitt to resist that film option. But Stewart has at least given the movie of his life a romantic storyline, having two years ago married Shoshana Clark, an American aid worker who worked with his charity in Kabul.
What’s more his wife is expecting to give birth to their first child as The House goes to press. Stewart upset a few parents when he last year told the Radio Times that children were ‘the opium of the masses’ and that some people felt their purpose in life was their offspring. Now that fatherhood looms, does he think differently? Again he smiles. “I may well end up eating my words…”
‘Rory goes to Hollywood’ may not be the next headline that attaches itself to the MP for Penrith and the Borders. But with new family adventure and a possible ministerial future ahead, his colourful career isn’t over yet.
“ I’m absolutely in favour of the idea of a referendum. I do think this is fundamental to Britain. The British public tend to make the right decisions on things, I think the British public have made the right decision in every election since about 1900, I don’t think they’ve ever got it wrong. And they’ve just made the right decision about Scotland so I have full confidence in that. I also think you can’t keep pushing it under the carpet.
“I suppose I feel what I really would like to do over the next two years is make sure people understand what it is they are voting for. In other words almost more important than a lot of people who are going to go out campaigning for one side or another, I just believe there’s a huge job in explaining what the risks and benefits are of the choice on both sides so people are open eyed. It’s perfectly respectable I think to vote both ways provided you understand exactly what’s involved in that choice. That’s what I think is missing in this debate.”
But is his gut feeling we should be in or out?
“My gut is that if the British people are really up for risk for a period of instability if they are prepared to take the risks that there could be a period of serious economic adjustment and they want to embark on a grand heroic independent task then they should be allowed to do that.
“But they need to understand that that is one of the risks they are taking, it’s not going to be easy all the way. And the question for the British public is two years after the vote, if the economy is struggling a bit and there’s a nasty divorce going on and Europe isn’t being as cooperative as we’d like, are people still going to feel it’s fine, I don’t mind suffering because in the medium to the long term we are going to be this different, independent country. Or are people really not up for that in which case they should really vote the other way.”
“I love the idea of buccaneering but the point is this is a decision the British public’s got to make, not me. I might prefer to take more risk and be more buccaneering, the British public has got to work out what they are up for.”
RORY ON…MISSING THE SYRIA VOTE IN 2013
Referring to the fact that he was at his sister’s wedding in Devon on the day:
“It’s slightly farcical. When they [the whips] realised that they needed the vote, I got a text in Devon. I arrived about six minutes after the vote having missed the wedding dinner. The worst of all worlds.”
RORY ON…AFGHAN WOMEN’S RIGHTS
“The position of women in Afghanistan is improving all the time. They’ve never been so educated, they’ve never had such exposure to public life. If I look at the women who work in our organisation they are pretty tough I can’t see that they are going to be pushed aside very easily but it is difficult, you are relying on cultural change. We still have honour killings happening in Germany and Britain.”
RORY ON…’GOOD INTERVENTIONS’
“We got things really right in interventions in Bosnia and to some extent in Kosovo. If we just focus on Bosnia, that really was a miracle. There were a lot of people saying in the early 1990s this is impossible, stay out, centuries of ethnic hatred, these guys are lunatics, we don’t understand it, none of it will do any good.
“And we went into a situation which 150,000 people had been killed, 130,000 people armed, war criminals on the loose a million people being kicked out of their houses. And by intervening we ended up with a situation in which a million properties have been returned to their owners, in which checkpoints have disappeared, in which every single war criminal has either died or been captured and put on trial. In which the militia groups have been demobilised to a security force of about 5,000 people and the crime rate is now lower than Sweden. And all that without any British or American troops being killed.
“That is a good intervention. People who say all interventions are bad, should look hard at Bosnia. They could also look at Sierra Leone, they could look at the Australian intervention in East Timor and the Solomon Islands and they could probably look at the early intervention in Afghanistan, from 2001 to 2003.
“In Bosnia, we were slow to intervene but that was probably in retrospect also a good thing. It meant that by the time we went in it was clear the reason we were going in was humanitarian, we were going in reluctantly. One of the reasons why we didn’t have more problems in Bosnia - more Americans were injured on the basketball pitch in Sarajevo than were injured in the whole conflict - was because at the moment we went in, essentially a regional solution was emerging where Milosevic and Karadic had decided to back off on the Serbian side. And Tudjman had backed off on the Croatian side. The European Union was a very important part of that.
“I think initial stage of the involvement in Bosnia was very, very difficult, there was the shame of Srebrenica and the inability to defend that, but again it’s a very, very difficult to say much more than in the end Bosnia worked. Of course many people assume that had we gone in earlier we would have been able to make it work earlier.. I think that’s unproven. At the point we went in the Bosnian Serbs were losing territory. Holbrooke comes in at the time when the Bosnian Serbs were on the back foot and are ready to make concessions. If we’d tried to go in in ‘93 there wouldn’t have been any components of a peace settlement.”