A remarkable speech was made in the House of Commons on 10th November 2015. It’s a tour de force of oratory and erudition. In just 13 minutes, the orator ranges from the ancient cultures of Samaria and Greece, to legislation from 1566 and the science of Aristotle. It covers tales from Shakespeare and Beatrix Potter, British eccentricity, and even proposes a cross party consensus on national identity. Interventions from MPs are not only recognised, they are woven into a speech that demonstrates intellectual dexterity on the stump.
The speech was made by Rory Stewart in a debate to draw attention to the decline in hedgehogs. Ridiculous as this may sound, it is the perfect aperture through which to see Stewart as a future leader of the Conservative Party.
Stewart starts his speech off with a familiar quotation: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one important thing.” It comes from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, but was famously expanded upon by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who divided the world into those who see it through a single defining idea (hedgehogs) and those who draw on a wide variety of experiences (foxes).
For too long, most political leaders in the West have been hedgehogs. They believe that the electorate needs a singular world view, through which they can be sold a vision of how their lives can improve. This worked in the post-war world. Times have changed.
We now live in a highly individualised society and those singular defining ideas seem to be getting polarised into extremes. This is known as populism. We need someone who can see political issues from the wide variety of experiences that different parts of the electorate hold. This person needs to fight on all fronts in many different ways.
This is where Rory Stewart comes in. He’s the ultimate fox. Stewart read history and then PPE at Balliol College, Oxford. After graduating he joined the Foreign Office and was the British Representative to Montenegro in the wake of the Kosovo campaign. He was Deputy Governor of Southern Iraq, where he was responsible for holding elections, resolving tribal disputes, and implementing development projects, at one point being besieged by militia in a compound. After leaving the Foreign Office, he moved to Afghanistan and set up an NGO, the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, basing himself in war-torn Kabul for three years. After this he became a fellow at the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University and lectured the American military on intervention in the Middle East.
As a Scottish MP for Penrith and The Border, Stewart is a Unionist by geography and conviction. He’s served as Chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Defence and as a junior environment minister.
To older cricket fans he’s known as the “Geoffrey Boycott of May’s deal”, continually and solidly defending it, but never compromising his own stance. He remains at heart a Remainer, but argues the case for compromise on Brexit. He recognises the flaws in the May deal but explains persuasively why it is the best outcome we can hope for. He comes across as one of the few grownups in the House.
To my mind there are three main issues with the man. The first is cosmetic: he’s posh. He has the look only generations of Anglo-Scottish noble interbreeding can create – more Downton Abbey than down town populist. The second is more serious. When given the prisons brief last year, he said he would get assaults on prisoners and staff down — or resign. Violence in prisons isn’t anywhere near under control —in fact, it has risen on his watch. His pledge is worthless now that he’s jumped ship, with his recent promotion to Cabinet office at the Department for International Development. Lastly, I have a personal sense of foreboding that he’s the first minister out the blocks to directly state his ambition for PM. I just don’t think it does much for his reputation as Theresa May’s loyal lieutenant. Her body is not even cold, let alone dead and buried.
Yet I still believe we need someone who can fight the Unionist cause and negotiate credibly with the EU. We also need someone who can offer a multifaceted vision of what Britain is and can become, who can fend off populism, Right and Left. I believe Stewart is that man. He hasn’t just studied history, he’s lived it. He doesn’t just talk about “the Art of the Deal”: he’s negotiated for the lives of men and women. He’s written books, advised US presidential hopefuls, educated princes (of the William and Harry type), written leaders and presented documentaries. Alone among the Tory hopefuls, Rory Stewart is a true thinker and communicator. He is, perhaps, the Renaissance man for Britain’s hour of need.