June 13, 2019 | News | No Comments
Last Friday, Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, resigned as the head of the Conservative Party, formally setting off a leadership contest in which the Party’s members will choose her successor. May’s premiership ended in failure, thanks to her inability to get a Brexit deal through the House of Commons. As a reluctant “remainer” during the 2016 Brexit referendum, she worked out a compromise with Europe, but in doing so she infuriated the “hard Brexiters” in her party, who want to leave with no deal. Meanwhile, the new Brexit Party—which is dedicated to insuring that Britain leaves the European Union—dominated the Tories in European elections last month. Now the Conservatives must decide whether they want to opt for a leader who is a hard Brexiter, such as the front-runner and former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, or one who has a chance to work with the Europeans toward a deal.
Rory Stewart, a cabinet minister in May’s government, is perhaps the most moderate and the most idiosyncratic of the ten declared candidates, and has surged in popularity in recent weeks. Stewart, who is forty-six, made his name serving his country abroad in Indonesia and Iraq, and writing books about his experiences. “The Places In Between,” which described a walk across Afghanistan in 2002, got him compared—sometimes favorably, sometimes with mockery—to Lawrence of Arabia. Stewart went on to run the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a charity started by Prince Charles to support the arts in Afghanistan, and to teach at Harvard. A 2010 Profile by Ian Parker captures Stewart’s wide-ranging interests and sense of destiny. “Why would I run an arts school in Kabul?” he said. “It’s not part of the grand narrative. I don’t think Alexander the Great ran an arts school.”
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Stewart’s conservatism often feels as if it is meant to evoke a previous era; it certainly is out of step with much of his party, which is cratering in the polls, and seems likely to follow a more Trumpian course, regardless of whether the buffoonish, demagogic Johnson is chosen. But Stewart has plowed along, quoting poetry to reporters—he learned “The Waste Land” by heart as a teen-ager—and travelling the country in pursuit of Conservative backers. On Friday, I spoke by phone with Stewart. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why he thinks there is only one way to solve the Brexit mess, why he thinks Americans overstate the role of race and immigration in driving the Brexit vote, and why he hates when people group Brexit and Trump together.
Why do you want to lead the Conservative Party and be prime minister right now?
Because I feel we’ve got an incredibly important fight for the center ground of politics. We have really got to resist the temptation to rush to the extremes. And what I am finding is that the center is incredibly fertile ground. You look at the latest YouGov poll, which has just come out, and you adjust for awareness: I am now leading the other candidates. I am ahead of Boris Johnson. [Twenty-six per cent of respondents said that Johnson would make a good Prime Minister, compared to only twelve per cent who said the same for Stewart—but sixty per cent said they did not know enough about Stewart to answer.]
You have staked out a middle ground on Brexit. What makes you think you will have any more luck than Theresa May did?
I think it’s the only route. We live in a parliamentary democracy, so you can’t get another deal, except through Parliament. The European Union is not going to offer another deal. We have to begin by facing reality. There is no other choice.
Is a second referendum another choice?
No, that also won’t go through Parliament, and were it to go through we would stay a deeply divided country, which will solve nothing and get us back to the problems of the first referendum. I believe the way to unlock Parliament is to follow the example of Ireland and hold a citizen’s assembly to build a bridge between the direct democracy of the referendum and the indirect democracy of Parliament. It involves going back to a jury of citizens. They sit in public for three to four weeks, taking evidence from experts. The whole thing is conducted in public, and they then come back with a fresh mandate for Parliament to unlock the problem.
A jury of citizens?
A citizens’ assembly. These people are selected to be representatives of the population. You start by selecting fifteen thousand people through randomly-generated names by post code, and then you write them all use a polling company to cut them by gender, attitudinal views, to provide a representative sample. And then they sit for three to four weeks. They sit like a committee of the Senate.
That seems a little quaint and unlikely in our current political era, no?
Well, it worked very well in Ireland on abortion. You have to find a way of building a bridge between direct and indirect democracy. All these people who are pontificating and claiming they can get a no-deal Brexit through are being unrealistic about our constitution.
Where do you see the Conservative Party right now?
The Party is currently hung up on this idea of a no-deal Brexit. A no-deal Brexit is a negation, a vacancy, a failure to reach a destination, an ambiguous nonsense—
An empty hotel room?
It’s just a way of saying we are impatient and we want this Brexit done. This new thing has been invented that sounds to people like a quick and easy solution to the problem, but it is not a solution at all. It is simply a negation.
How do you think the Conservative Party got to this place?
They got to this place because they are predominantly Brexit voters who were repeatedly promised that the referendum would be respected, and we would be leaving by the end of March. And they have discovered we haven’t left, and are looking for ways of cutting that Gordian knot, and someone told them there was this very powerful, instantaneous remedy called “no deal” Brexit. But of course it can no more get through Parliament than any other idea.
You are describing the very recent past. How do you think the Conservative Party got to a point where most of its voters became convinced of this rather fanciful notion that Britain could pull away from the E.U. without consequences?
I think that’s because Britain’s relationship with the E.U. has been ambivalent from the moment it joined. To some extent, Britain joined the E.U. under a misleading campaign and left the E.U. under a misleading campaign. The politicians who brought Britain into the European Union were very careful to never talk about the political dimensions of it. They made it sound like they were going into something like NAFTA. A sort of United States of Europe came as a surprise to most British voters who saw this as a pragmatic customs arrangement. Even Remain voters felt no more identity with Europe than someone in Mexico or Canada feels with the United States. That’s the fundamental thing which I think American observers can’t see in this.
So it’s more about the political project, or Britain’s place in the world, than it is about immigration?
All of those things are bound up. Imagine if NAFTA was used to argue for free movement of people in North America. The rest of the European project was never popular in Britain. It was driven largely by continental European countries who were concerned about the aftermaths of the Second World War, and had very idealistic ideas about the United States of Europe. None of that had any resonance in Britain. We refused the single currency. We refused to join Schengen.
Let’s take that as true. Do you feel the same anger and disappointment that, in the Brexit campaign, voters were misled about how easy leaving would be, and the supposed economic benefits of doing so?
No. No, I don’t. I am a practical democratic politician. I accept that in all electoral events in a public democracy people receive a lot of different information. I am pretty confident there was also misleading information on the Remain side. They were told we would face colossal job losses and loss of G.D.P.
That could still happen.
They were told it would happen after the referendum, and it didn’t. There were deeply misleading stories produced by both sides, and that’s not unusual. People are choosing to be prissy about the rough-and-tumble of politics.
But, wait, Rory, we both know there was a lot of fearmongering around Leave about immigration and racial issues.
Sure, and a lot of fearmongering on the other side about economic consequences, too.
You don’t see any difference there?
I think the primary reason people voted to leave was that they wanted to take back control.
What does that mean?
They did not want Brussels to be the arbiter of fundamental issues, including regulations, immigration, payments, political decisions. They felt that they wanted to be independent. I mean, this is a sort of independence statement. In that sense, it’s a nationalist statement. But it’s like the question of why does South Sudan want to leave Sudan, or why there were many people in Scotland who wanted to leave the United Kingdom.
I don’t think that’s why people in South Sudan wanted to leave Sudan.
O.K., maybe more like why people in Scotland would want to leave the United Kingdom.
Which I assume you were opposed to, just as you were opposed to the Brexit referendum, correct?
Why were you opposed to it, if it’s an independence movement? Why are you opposed to the independence of your country?
Because I believe that Britain had a responsibility toward peace and security in Europe. We had a responsibility to make sure that the precious achievement of peace in Europe was maintained. I also thought it made sense in terms of the environment. I thought there would be significant economic consequences from the departure, which would not be outweighed by the gains in sovereignty.
What do you feel now that Brexit has become identified with this global populist movement that includes Donald Trump?
American commentators are incapable of seeing anything anywhere in the world except in terms of Donald Trump. Where they look at Narendra Modi, in India, they draw analogies to Trump. When they look at Brexit, they try to draw analogies with Trump. The point is that it’s a completely different phenomenon. The main demographic determinant in the Brexit vote, unlike in the Trump vote, had very little to do with the socioeconomic conditions of a post-industrial power, the Detroit phenomenon.
Both had a lot to do with education levels.
The main defining feature is demography and age. If you’re looking for the one thing that Brexit voters have in common, it is that they tend to be older people. But they include a lot of educated people, they include a lot of wealthy people, they include a lot of rural people. It’s primarily about generations. Americans want to couch it, and indeed the progressive left wants to couch it, in terms of economic deprivation and the left-behind areas and that kind of stuff. Yes, some of those areas are involved. But that isn’t what really explains the vote. The striking thing is if an area like mine, which is a very prosperous area, voted for Brexit.
There are a lot of prosperous people who voted for Trump, too. I do think there are a lot of demographic similarities between the two. If you look at both the fact that it’s mostly white voters. It’s mostly older voters. There’s a huge urban-rural divide. These are all similarities.
Well, Scotland is a predominantly rural place, and it voted to remain.
That’s true. Scotland is different.
The Trump analogy is not helpful. Americans can’t see the entire world in terms of Trump. This is a very different type of movement.
I think one of the things that exacerbates it is that Trump goes to Britain and everyone who’s in favor of Brexit or hard Brexit seems to fawn all over him, and vice versa.
It’s only the fringe that’s like that.
Like Boris Johnson, the likely next Prime Minister?
There’s a fringe that’s like that. But I know an enormous number of Brexit voters who are extremely uncomfortable with Trump. You’re right that Nigel Farage and Donald Trump have a relationship. But many Brexit voters, many Brexit members of Parliament, are deeply troubled by these kinds of analogies.
O.K., well, as an American, I’m also troubled by Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. It can go both ways. Not to the same degree I am troubled by Donald Trump, but—
But you’re not a Trump voter. What I’m saying is that Brexit voters are troubled by Trump. It would be more interesting if you were a Trump voter saying you were troubled by Farage.
Right. I’m not trying to look at everything through an American prism, but it does seem to me that there are a lot of commonalities here that are interesting. It seems like, in your account of what drove Brexit or what’s driving anti-Europe sentiment, racial fears have really not been a part of it.
It doesn’t feature much in the polling. Immigration comes quite low on almost all opinion polls on Brexit voters.
Those aren’t the polls I’ve seen, but O.K.
By all means, send me the polls, but by far the largest thing in every major poll that we’ve had in the country is the question of sovereignty, not a question of immigration.
There is a larger question about what sovereignty means to people—whether it means that they think their country is changing demographically and they want to take control of it—and how that’s connected to racial issues, too.
These polls ask that question explicitly. They separate out the question of sovereignty from immigration, and what you find is the sovereignty question turns out to rate much higher than immigration in people’s behavior.
You’ve done much more travelling around the world than I have. You’ve been to many more countries. You know a lot about history. You presumably understand the degree to which all of these movements, including Brexit, are at least partially based on race and racial fears, right?
There are definitely people in the movement who are racist. I don’t doubt that for a moment. I’m just saying that the vast majority of these people are not. This is seventeen million people in our country. This is fifty-two per cent of our voters. This is not a country that has attitudes on race which are comparable to most of those other countries which you mentioned. I know a lot of Brexit voters. My constituency is a Brexit-voting constituency. There’s very little conversation about race or immigration when I talk to them about Brexit.
The U.S. attitudes to race are differently inflected. It’s a different historical context than British attitudes toward race. These are quite different historical phenomena. I mean, you’re right, there is the problem of Islamophobia in our country, and there have been problems with anti-Semitism, particularly on the left. But many of those people were Remain voters, not Brexit voters.
It seems, though, in terms of politics, that both countries use race in similar ways. The ways that Zac Goldsmith campaigned at the end of his racist mayoral race in London and the way Donald Trump campaigned don’t seem all that far apart.
I was saddened by that London campaign. But it was a huge error. It didn’t work for him. It doesn’t work in the British political context, that kind of campaign.
You don’t think it’s working in Farage’s case?
No, in Farage’s Brexit Party, if you look at his promotional videos, they’re completely falling over themselves to make sure that almost every candidate he shows is from a minority ethnic background.
This is after the Brexit campaign, though. This is after he got criticized for a racist campaign.
But this is hugely important for his brand. That’s right in the middle of his promotional videos. That’s the imagery that he’s hammering. He believes the voters want to see and want to hear that his party is full of people from very diverse backgrounds and a lot of ethnicities. He’s very keen.
But I think there is something more interesting than what you’re picking up here. You’d need to explain why he’s done so well off the campaign that almost entirely features people with dark-skinned backgrounds.
Politicians have always been surrounding themselves with “rainbow coalitions” to seem like they’re not racist. But, before you go, you’ve written a lot about Britain’s former empire. Do you think it is fair to say Brexit is about imperial nostalgia?
No way. I don’t think it’s fair. I mean, if you pick up from this conversation, I was a Remain voter. I’m passionately opposed to “no deal” Brexit. I’m the only one to rule out a “no deal” Brexit. I’m profoundly opposed to Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party and everything it stands for. But I am also very keen to try to communicate that the divisive, polarizing, simplistic narrative of Brexit—trying to portray most Brexit voters as racists, or most Brexit voters as imperial nostalgics, or trying to suggest that the entire campaign is irrational and absurd—is a total misunderstanding of the phenomenon. It’s a complete misunderstanding of just how many challenges there always were with Britain’s relationship with Europe. It’s a complete misunderstanding of the challenges that would be involved if Britain would attempt to rejoin Europe now. It’s a complete misunderstanding of the type of people who voted for Brexit.
The reason that I’m running a campaign, which is about compromise and about landing a sensible, moderate, Brexit deal, is I think it would be incredibly divisive and destabilizing to try to hold a second referendum. I think it would be a really stupid thing to do. I think it would be an arrogant thing to do, and I think the democratic, patriotic thing to do is actually to stay very close to Europe diplomatically and politically and economically. But to leave the European Parliament and the European Commission, I don’t think that belonging to the political structures of Europe is vital for our national identity, or indeed for Europe’s future.
Right, but when you hear some Brexit figures, like the Tory politician Jacob Rees-Mogg, it does seem that their arguments are very caught up in imperial nostalgia.
Oh, yeah, of course that’s there. There’s a lot of MAGA rhetoric. There’s a lot of Make Britain Great Again going on. But, then, there is in every country. There is in your own country, and you’re right, that was a big slogan with Reagan, and it’s a big slogan of Trump. It’s a very common slogan in every country. They like the idea of national greatness. It can be harnessed to almost everything. You’re right that’s going on.
But I think the more interesting thing is not to keep punching the breeze of Brexit. One of the things I’m really interested in doing is challenging American intellectuals, readers, progressives to try to develop a more nuanced idea of this. Otherwise it feels a bit like all those New York Times journalists going out on a two-day visit to Trumpland and then coming back and writing a rather boring piece about how they saw a guy with a gun at a gas station.
I think we can agree about those stories.
My wife is an American, so her parents are American. I notice, when I try to discuss this, that they assume, as progressive American voters for the Democratic Party, that it’s inconceivable that anybody could ever be in favor of even a moderate, pragmatic Brexit. That’s probably because they don’t actually even understand what the European Union is. I think Americans have tended to view it as a version of the United States of America. Therefore, what’s going on would be a little bit like Illinois suddenly deciding to secede from the United States. Ironically, Americans sometimes seem to have more sympathy for Scotland leaving the U.K., which they think is absolutely fine, than they do for the idea of the United Kingdom leaving Europe. Which actually suggests that you, too, have your own colonial models in your head, and your own imperial anxieties.
Due to a transcription error, a previous version of this post misstated which body Scotland might leave.