Rory Stewart on a love for risk, a battle with bitterness … and why a political comeback is on the cards.
April 14, 2023. Series 7. Episode 62
Our guest for this episode is Rory Stewart – the former diplomat and politician turned podcasting rock star. In a conversation that I hope you agree is compelling and useful, Rory talks about his greatest failures, traumas, his approach to risk and why a political comeback is on the cards. A proud Scot, Rory was born in Hong Kong and brought up in Malaysia. After Eton, he went on to Oxford and the diplomatic service but took a sabbatical to spend 20 months walking across countries including Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. A journey of self-discovery and frequent life-threatening dangers.
After working as the Governor of an Iraqi province, Rory entered British politics as a Conservative MP – holding ministerial positions before making a bid to become Prime Minister. When Boris Johnson won the election in 2019, Rory resigned and threw his hat into the ring to become the new London mayor. After that contest was delayed by COVID, bruised and battered by the experience, he left politics and indeed later left the country.
Rory talks about the influence of his beloved father Brian – a remarkable man who was D-Day hero and decorated spy. Rory reveals how, in 2015, he tried in vain to resuscitate his father who collapsed and died in his arms. It is a truly moving account not only of that terrible moment but also of the incredible bond that he shared with his dad.
Rory now teaches international relations and politics at Yale University, runs a brilliant charity from his home in Jordan, all whilst co-hosting with Alastair Campbell the podcasting sensation that is The Rest is Politics.
An episode packed with emotion, honesty and reflections on crisis that are as fascinating as they are helpful. I hope you enjoy it.
Rory’s Crisis Comforts:
- Meditation. I’ve done eleven-day silent retreats, which have been very important to me. And so in periods of extreme stress, I find deep meditation. An hour or two of meditation is very powerful.
- Childlike films or books on tape. I’ve been listening at the moment to the Hornblower series. When I’m a bit stressed, I put it on and it puts me back into a happy place of being a kind of 15-year-old in the 1950s.
- Animals. That relationship with your dog or a cat – learning from their virtues, I think is hugely important.
Pre-order Rory’s upcoming book – Politics On the Edge – https://amzn.to/3mtPbdQ
Rory’s website – https://www.rorystewart.co.uk/
Follow Rory on Twitter – https://twitter.com/RoryStewartUK
Turquoise Mountain Foundation – https://www.turquoisemountain.org/
The Places In Between – https://amzn.to/3UzAiDf
Occupational Hazards – https://amzn.to/3KBDnhO
The Marches – https://amzn.to/3ZZPkDH
Can Intervention Work? – https://amzn.to/3zWhLYu
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream: https://open.spotify.com/track/5OX9XgJufFz9g63o2Dv2i5?si=b2f9397c92084682
Host – Andy Coulson
CWC production team: Louise Difford, Ed Isaacs and Jane Sankey
With special thanks to Global
Full episode transcript:
Andy Coulson: [0:01:06] My guest today is the former diplomat, soldier, explorer, politician, academic and now podcasting rockstar, Rory Stewart.
Rory describes himself as a Scot first and foremost, born in Hong Kong and brought up in Malaysia. After Eton he went on to Oxford and to the Diplomatic Service, but took a sabbatical to spend twenty months, as you do, walking across countries including Iran and Afghanistan. A journey of self-discovery and frequent life-threatening risk.
Later he faced more crisis, at one stage in the form of a three-day siege as Acting Governor of an Iraqi province after the 2003 invasion. A decade later Rory entered British politics as a Conservative MP, which is when we first met. He held a number of ministerial positions before making a bid to become party leader and Prime Minister.
When Boris Johnson won the election in 2019 he resigned and threw his hat into the ring to become the new London Mayor. After that contest was delayed by Covid he left politics.
And indeed, later left the country. He now teaches International Relations and Politics at Yale University, runs a brilliant charity from his home in Jordan, all whilst co-hosting with Alastair Campbell the podcasting sensation that is The Rest is Politics.
Rory Stewart, thank you so much for joining me today. How are you, sir?
Rory Stewart: [0:02:21] I’m very well. How are you?
Andy Coulson: [0:02:23] Extremely well thanks, extremely well. You are back in Scotland.
Rory Stewart: [0:02:27] I’m back in Scotland, just briefly. Seeing my mother, I’m here for three or four days, just landed from Jordan, and then flying back to Jordan again next week.
Andy Coulson: [0:02:36] Super. Rory, reading that intro rather suggests that you are a man who runs towards the gunfire, towards crisis, rather than away from it. Is that a fair assumption?
Rory Stewart: [0:02:49] Yes, I think that’s probably fair. I have a- yes, I guess friends or family would say I have a very high tolerance of risk, and I’ve been willing many times in my life to leave one job and try out another. And I guess the walk would be one, setting up a charity in Afghanistan in 2005 would be another. Getting into politics, resigning from politics.
So yes, you’re right. I think I’m lucky in a way, that I seem to be happy to throw things in and try new things quite quickly and quite frequently.
Andy Coulson: [0:03:37] High tolerance, or is it or and a high attraction to? Because that’s a theme that often comes up in our conversations that we’ve had on this podcast, with war correspondents, you know, with people who have served in the Military, that it tips into, in some cases, an addiction.
You wouldn’t describe your state of mind in terms of risk in that way?
Rory Stewart: [0:04:02] Well, there’s maybe a bit of that. I remember when I was in Scotland in 2003, I’d just returned from doing this walk across Asia, and the Iraq War broke out. I’d felt I was pretty happy in Scotland. I’d been writing a book, I felt my life was very lucky. I was writing a book, if you’re- it can be rather a good experience, writing three or four hours a day, going for walks in nature. And then suddenly I got this possibility of getting to Iraq.
And I jumped in a taxi from the border at Jordan, crossed into Baghdad, and I remember feeling when I arrived just much more alive than I’d been for the previous year, walking around in the countryside in Scotland. And something about being in the centre of things, where things were happening, and I guess probably at- there’s something about being in a conflict situation. And just the vividness of the way that the street scenes looked of everyday made me feel much, much more alive.
I still get a little bit of that. I get it when I return to Afghanistan, I get it when I drive out to rural areas in Africa. It’s a funny thing but you’re right, there’s probably part of me that quite likes risk.
Andy Coulson: [0:05:27] Rory, your father Brian was a remarkable man. A D-Day veteran, a diplomat, later the second-most senior officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service. A man who saw more than his fair share of crisis and who I imagine was also no stranger to risk.
How much of your make-up, your attitude towards risk and crisis was shaped by him, do you think?
Rory Stewart: [0:05:51] I think a great deal. He was somebody who I adored, he was fifty when I was born. When I was five or six he would take me out on rafts in the jungle in Malaysia, he very much defined my values. He was a very supportive, loving father. He had had a strange life himself. He hadn’t really seen his father at all, because his father had been in British India and hadn’t been able to get back, and he had been a little boy and had been left in Scotland. So I think he saw his father when he was four and again briefly when he was twelve, and then he didn’t see his father again until he was an officer during the war.
But he compensated for that by being a very unusually warm, engaged father. He wasn’t competitive but I think he had a very clear idea of the kind of things that he admired, and I probably took a lot from that, yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:06:48] Do you remember conversations that you now look back on? In that risk crisis context do you remember conversations with him that perhaps opened a door that wouldn’t normally be opened for most people? Did he have clear views on- because quite often a parent’s view on risk would be cautious, right?
Rory Stewart: [0:07:07] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:07:09] Particularly if a parent has had a tough time themselves, what they’ll want is for the child to not have to go through that, to avoid it. It sounds as though perhaps your father took a different approach.
Rory Stewart: [0:07:23] One of the most important moments in my life, I’d set up this charity in Afghanistan in 2005, I’d moved to Kabul, I’d put some of my own money into getting it off the ground, I’d raised a bit of money from people. But nine months in I had two hundred employees who were people in very tough financial situations in Afghanistan, and we were running out of money. And I had to meet the wage bill at the end of two months, and I could see that I was in danger of going £150,000 into debt.
My father was staying in Afghanistan then, he’d come out to visit me, he was in his early eighties. I was awake at three in the morning and I noticed the light was on in his bedroom so I knocked on the door and went in. And he said to me, “Darling, don’t worry. You’ve done your best. If this doesn’t work out it’s not your fault, it’s the fault of the people who aren’t prepared to support and put the money in. Don’t bankrupt yourself doing this. Remember you can always walk away.”
And I remember just feeling incredible relief and sort of getting permission from him for that, because I’d got myself totally trapped, feeling there was no way out.
And actually, strangely that gave me the energy to get on a plane to America and get fundraising again, and I managed to get the money together, and the charity is still going fifteen years later, and it’s operating in four countries.
But I think that’s a very important part of it. I think it’s that he allowed failure.
Andy Coulson: [0:09:02] Yes, and fuelled confidence. Because you’ve talked about having- the words you used were “insane confidence” as a young man, before politics. Was that really always the case? Not troubled by self-doubt in those early years at all?
Rory Stewart: [0:09:23] I think I was very, very confident. I mean I definitely, I guess like many people, had many awkward moments as a teenager. I was in many ways a geeky small kid. I loved sport but I wasn’t very big and I wasn’t particularly coordinated, and I think I had my fair share of insecurities and anxieties.
But at some level, the things that I like doing, walking, travelling in funny countries, learning other languages, being on the edge of danger, those are things that I always felt very confident about. And I felt particularly confident in crises because I felt confident making decisions.
In Iraq, I was sent to Iraq eventually as the Governor of these two provinces, I was sent to Iraq when I was in my- I guess I’d just turned thirty. And I remember my American colleague saying that she found it very disturbing that I seemed to be quite so happy doing this job, and that I wasn’t troubled by running a province of a million people.
But I guess at that age I wasn’t. I just felt I had a sense of what I needed to do. I had a strong sense of what I needed to get up and do every morning.
Andy Coulson: [0:10:50] You spent a year in the Army, Rory, in the Black Watch, then went to Oxford to read History and Philosophy, and then the Foreign Office lured you over. You found yourself in Indonesia at a time of economic crisis, a country in meltdown at that time. I think you found yourself in the midst of a riot, shot at by the police in fact. Your first experience of crisis?
Rory Stewart: [0:11:14] That was my first experience of real, serious crisis, yes. I’d had smaller things. I’d been stuck- on university holidays, I’d got very sick on the Afghan Pakistani border quite a long way from roads and had had to get myself back from that, but yes, in Indonesia that was the first time people had been actively shooting in my direction, yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:11:36] Do you remember how you reacted in that moment?
Rory Stewart: [0:11:43] I remember a sense of unreality. I remember looking up and seeing the branches and twigs coming off the tree above my head. Because originally I’d said to the people I was standing with, “I think they’re firing blank rounds at us,” and then suddenly I looked up and all the branches and twigs were coming down from the trees ahead because they were being hit with live bullets. And then I saw people hit around me.
But I- mostly an adrenaline rush, not fear.
Andy Coulson: [0:12:14] And clarity of thought.
Rory Stewart: [0:12:16] And clarity, yes. Let me think about this.
I’ve had times in my life where I’ve had to try to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and save people’s lives. I had to deliver my first baby because we didn’t make it to the hospital in time.
Andy Coulson: [0:12:38] Goodness.
Rory Stewart: [0:12:40] And normally in those situations I feel- I don’t feel anxious. I don’t seem to have that sort of part of me.
Andy Coulson: [0:12:55] The mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I mean, both successfully and unsuccessfully, or?
Rory Stewart: [0:13:01] Actually twice unsuccessfully. Twice unsuccessfully.
Andy Coulson: [0:13:06] What were the circumstances Rory, if I can ask you that?
Rory Stewart: [0:13:08] First time was off the coast of Africa, and somebody had gone for a swim off the side of the boat, had a heart attack swimming. By the time I got to him and got him back on the boat he’d stopped breathing. I worked on him for thirty minutes, which was as long as it took to get back to the coast, at which point a doctor came and said, “You need to stop now, because the nearest defibrillator is seven hours away, you’re not going to be able to get him back.”
Andy Coulson: [0:13:45] This is someone that you knew, that you were travelling with?
Rory Stewart: [0:13:48] Well, it somebody I knew, yes. A friend’s father. And then the second time was with my own father. He died in my arms, I tried to resuscitate him.
Andy Coulson: [0:14:03] Rory, goodness. That’s of a different order. A father who we’ve just merely skirted along the surface of in terms of your relationship, but who I know you loved dearly.
Rory Stewart: [0:14:17] Yes, it was- but in a way I felt- I mean, he was ninety-two. I’d been talking to him not long before, I knew that he was sick, although I didn’t know that he wouldn’t- you know, I didn’t know it wasn’t a sickness that would pass. He basically had a bad nose-bleed and I- but I felt a very deep sense of gratitude towards him. I thought he’d been very, very wonderful about giving so much, and there was a lovely sense in which-
When he started having a heart attack, so I was with him in the room, I felt he called me over to help, thinking that he knew that I’d be able to do my best, and that he trusted me to be the person that he wanted with him at that moment. And that again, if I failed to do it, I guess again it was him giving me permission to feel that it was okay to fail.
Andy Coulson: [0:15:34] So Rory, you feel a sense of gratitude for that moment, it seems?
Rory Stewart: [0:15:39] Yes, yes. I do. Deep gratitude. Because- I hadn’t really thought about it until you asked me the question, but I think it’s an extraordinary thing he did to me, to make me feel that even though I failed to resuscitate him, that wasn’t a failure for which he would blame me.
Andy Coulson: [0:15:59] Because of the depth of the relationship. Because of the understanding that you had, because of the time that you spent together.
Rory Stewart: [0:16:07] And I think a sense of that he trusted me to do my best, and I think part of the- I’ve never really framed it like this before, but I think that part of the confidence that he gave me in dealing with crises is a sense of setting very high expectations and giving me the confidence to feel that I could do anything. But also strangely making me feel that it was okay to fail, that he didn’t expect me to be super-human.
Andy Coulson: [0:16:41] Yes.
Rory, let’s talk about Afghanistan. You took that sabbatical from the Diplomatic Service that I mentioned, having made the extraordinary decision to walk six thousand miles over twenty months across countries including Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. You spent I think five hundred and fifty nights sleeping on strangers’ floors, often in the most dangerous of places, on occasions quite literally running into the gunfire in war-torn Afghanistan in particular.
The obvious question is why? You’ve described yourself, I think in a rather self-deprecating way, saying that you were prior to this walk pretty full of yourself, and that this walk in fact fundamentally changed your attitude towards life and what its purpose should be, ultimately of course leading you to politics and public service.
But at the time, when you make this extraordinary decision to take twenty months of your life for this incredible journey, what was in your head at that time?
Rory Stewart: [0:18:11] So, I had grown up travelling a lot, and I had become entranced with very remote, rural, rural areas of countries, places that you could only get to on foot. That I felt that, in places like Indonesia and Jakarta, that in the capital city I wasn’t really seeing the real country at all. And that it was in the villages which were many days’ walk from roads that I could see a vanished world; a world that I longed for and admired, but which I felt was very difficult to find. And I wanted to see those places, and I wanted to test myself, and I wanted to have the physicality of literally feeling my feet on the earth.
I didn’t like the sense that often modern travel, you kind of fly over things or you race over things. I wanted to feel that I could have this line of footprints behind me, almost like footprints in the mud, stretching across the world.
And then I had a lot of other romantic ideas, but basically it was- so different ways of saying it was a great adventure for me.
Andy Coulson: [0:19:36] What did your dad say when you first proposed this was what you were going to do?
Rory Stewart: [0:19:42] Strangely he didn’t like it. This was one of the things that he didn’t like. He was very worried, my mother was very worried and I think he was particularly worried because my mother was very worried. And he felt that I was probably going to die, and he sent in my brother-in-law who is much older than me to try to have a talk to me. Who tried to say, “Look, this is very selfish to your parents to do this.”
And I had to say, “Look. Soon I might be lucky enough to have a family and children, and then I don’t think I can do this.” And I think it makes sense to say it’s selfish to do this if you’re supporting a young family, but you can’t limit your life by fear of your parents. So I felt that if I was ever going to do it, this was the time to do it.
Andy Coulson: [0:20:36] Once you were home safe, having completed it, perhaps once he’d read your book?
Rory Stewart: [0:20:42] Then I think he was- he was sort of a combination of things. I think he was proud, but he also often said that he was very pleased that he hadn’t realised when I was doing the walk quite what was going on.
Andy Coulson: [0:20:57] Of course. And as one reads the book, I completely understand why.
Now twenty years old, that book. A brilliant read, for those who haven’t read it I would urge you to do so. The Places in Between, it tells the story of that forty-day walk from Herat to Kabul. It’s a story of a country in crisis in the days after the Taliban had been removed and a new government was attempting to establish itself.
It’s also a travel book, it’s a history book, there are a number of dramas played out. You are repeatedly threatened, you have stones thrown at you, at one stage you are punched, on a number of occasions you are told that you’ll be killed, shot or worse.
You describe Afghan society as one of etiquette, humour and extreme brutality.
When you look back on that part of the walk now Rory, how much of the danger, how much of the crisis actually do you still sort of hold within you, I suppose? Because we often, again on this podcast, talk about how time will erase some of those moments, some of those feelings. You know, that’s how we get through it, I suppose, is by doing so.
But have you retained? Can you still take yourself back there? Can you still feel some of that fear, walking into a village where you know that there are people who want to kill you?
Rory Stewart: [0:22:29] I think the thing I remember most is not fear of walking into villages, but a moment when I was walking across a snow plain, and I’d been walking for a long time and it was a very long way between villages. And I hadn’t seen anyone for hours and hours and hours, and I couldn’t see any end to the snow plain. The snow just continued and continued and continued.
And then I came across a corpse of somebody who had frozen walking the other way, and his head was exposed to the elements and the birds had been feeding on his face. It was a kind of horrifying image. And I kept going for a bit longer and then I remember just feeling very, very tired, and I just sat down in the snow, very happy. I felt, “I’ve done all I need to do, I can just sit here and I don’t need to do any more. I’ve done all I was put on Earth to do. Nobody can blame me for stopping at this moment.” I was very tired and I hadn’t been eating properly either.
But I was walking with a dog. And the dog, seeing me do that, turned around and started sniffing around me, sniffing around my ear, sniffing around me, and barked at me. And then it walked on, and turned around and barked again. Then it trotted on a bit more and barked again.
I remember thinking, “Well, I suppose if the dog can do it, maybe I can do it,” so I kind of got to my feet again and started following the dog.
But what stays with me is how very close I was to giving up, how very close I was to being that man I’d seen a bit earlier who had obviously just sat down in the snow and hadn’t got up again.
Andy Coulson: [0:24:17] That sense of peace that you felt, presumably the same sense of peace that you know, those bodies that we read about at the top of Everest or on the way up to Everest, you know? It’s that- yes.
Rory Stewart: [0:24:26] Yes. And I think it’s peace and I think it’s also sort of chemical I think, it’s the beginnings of hypothermia.
Andy Coulson: [0:24:35] Yes, and yet you had something in you to get up and get going.
Rory Stewart: [0:24:43] I had the dog.
Andy Coulson: [0:24:43] Sparked by Babur, I think his name was.
Rory Stewart: [0:24:47] Exactly.
Andy Coulson: [0:24:48] Your dog. And I wanted to ask you about that relationship, because the book is also a story of a man and his dog. Not long after you start the walk you bought this extremely large dog from a village, in a village, for company but also for protection against the wolves that you were very likely to run across in the mountains. As I say, you named him Babur and you grew to love him.
It’s very moving. We talk- we have talked about the importance of our relationship with our dogs previously. Sometimes it’s sort of resulted in the conclusion that we should all be a bit more like our dogs, or that we should perhaps be the people that our dogs think we are, perhaps a bit of both. You’ve just described how your dog saved your life effectively, so I assume that you hold to that?
Rory Stewart: [0:25:49] I very much hold to that. I think animals are extraordinary and I think you can learn so much from them, partly about yourself. You’re right, that watching the way they approach the world, not just the way they approach you but just the way they set about their everyday business, their confidence, their courage. I remember watching a cat- I love dogs, I love cats too. I remember watching a badly injured cat who had fallen out of a tree just get up and go for it, and I just remember thinking, “Goodness, the courage of that animal.” I think you do learn a lot from animals.
Andy Coulson: [0:26:39] What’s moving, there are several moving elements about your relationship with Babur in the book, but one element of course is that you know, dogs are not treated especially well in Afghanistan. His life up until the point he meets you, one imagines, was pretty tough. His ears had been removed by his owners, he’d been pretty badly beaten, this was not a dog that was loved. And then for the period of time that you were walking together your relationship developed. At times you were dragging him across the hill, at times as you’ve just described he was dragging you.
A really moving relationship, but it didn’t end happily I know. I know that your plan was to bring him back, wasn’t it?
Rory Stewart: [0:27:29] It was, and I’m going to leave it there Andy, to encourage people to read the book, because we don’t want to-
Andy Coulson: [0:27:33] That’s right, I think we should do that. I think we should do that.
At twenty-nine, you’re now back in the Diplomatic Service and you’re appointed, as we’ve touched on, as a Governor in an Iraqi province. But the Iraqi people, as you say, did not want you there. A powerful minority wanted to kill you and your colleagues and they tried pretty hard to do just that. Shelling your compound over a three-day period, an attack in fact led by a friend of yours, someone you knew well. Your staff under attack, a number of them injured.
How did you approach that crisis, Rory? Where it’s not just you, you’re now responsible for a number of other people. You’re in charge. How were you in that crisis?
Rory Stewart: [0:28:21] So, again these things start for me with a sense of unreality. I mean, often that type of combat can seem at first like something out of a film or a story book. So you’re outside and the first rockets start landing in the compound, and the explosions are going off.
And it then becomes, I think for me, one thing is as you say, worrying about other people. The biggest decision I had to make after two and a half days under fire, and nobody coming to rescue us as far as I could see, was whether the insurgents who we were holding back around the edges of the compounds, so my bodyguard team was up on the roof with some kind of 50 cal machine gun shooting people who were trying to climb over the wire.
I had I guess just over twenty civilians inside the compound. Young women, computer experts, development experts. And what I needed to decide was, was it safer to try to sit in this place and hope that we could hold or longer enough, or was I going to have to take the risk of trying to evacuate them? And I decided to evacuate them. So I decided to stay in the compound with my bodyguards and try to keep guarding it, but to get the civilians out.
I got two armoured vehicles that we had, which were basically large vans with big metal sides, packed them into the back, and very courageously four Italian soldiers volunteered to try to drive these vans out of our compound gates through the middle of all of this gunfire and make it to the airport on the edge of the city. Because I thought by then it was pretty inevitable that we were going to be overrun and everybody was going to be killed inside.
So I packed everyone in and we found a moment where there was a lull in the fighting and it felt as though people had withdrawn, opened the gates, and the vehicles drove out. And I went up onto the roof with the armed people who were remaining with me in the compound, to see what was happening. And these vans went round the corner, and to my complete horror suddenly they were ambushed and they were hit from every side by bullet fire, so that the civilians inside were on the ground hearing the bullets hit off the side of these armoured vehicles as the drivers tried to race through the streets towards the airport.
I thought I’d fucked this, that I’d made completely the wrong decision, that I should have kept them with me. They were all going to be killed on the roads. And by some miracle they made it to the airport and nobody was killed, and the armour of the vehicles held out against the attack.
But it was the wrong call, because in the end we were safe in the compound, in the end I got a- at about three in the morning I managed to get the Americans to finally deploy something called an AC-130 Spectre Gunship which is a platform with Gatling guns, and killed the insurgents around the compound, and we were saved. And actually I should have kept the people with me.
So yes, I guess that’s probably the worst decision I’ve made in my life and I was very, very lucky that nobody was killed.
Andy Coulson: [0:32:29] So how did you confront that in your own mind, I suppose? How did you reconcile it in the end? Isn’t it the same as- I hesitate to say this, but is it not the same as- if we go back to your conversation with your father you described so beautifully, if I may say so, you did your best Rory?
Rory Stewart: [0:32:57] Yes, I mean I think- I think the problem there is that I made the decision- looking back on it, I made the decision too quickly. And there may be a number of reasons for that, and obviously there’s a certain amount of stress because you’ve been under siege for two days, you haven’t been sleeping.
Andy Coulson: [0:33:21] Yes.
Rory Stewart: [0:33:22] But I think I exaggerated the threat that the Sadrists were posing to our compound. And I think I got caught up in this idea that these people are civilians and there are young women here and I can’t let them be killed here and it’s my duty to get them out. There was a kind of- a strange kind of women and children first off the boat thing going on, which was stopping me seeing clearly. I was thinking in clichés, I wasn’t being-
Andy Coulson: [0:34:00] Interesting.
Rory Stewart: [0:34:01] Tough enough with myself about actually the fact that, yes okay it’s horrible, but the truth is-
Andy Coulson: [0:34:07] That’s interesting. Thinking in clichés, that is not a phrase that I’ve heard before in the crisis context, and that is fascinating because we do that, don’t we? We absolutely kind of fall into a narrative that-
Rory Stewart: [0:34:23] Yes exactly, and the narrative I think here was- yes, the narrative I was falling into was,” I’m the captain of the ship, or I’m in command of the compound, I’ll get the women and other civilians out and I’ll stand here and I’ll fight to the last man.”
Andy Coulson: [0:34:41] Yes.
Rory Stewart: [0:34:43] But actually the more- the better decision, and a more difficult decision, would have been to say, “These people probably are safer in the basement of this building.”
Andy Coulson: [0:34:59] Yes. You were almost living in the movie version of the moment rather than the real version.
Rory Stewart: [0:35:06] Yes, too much, yes. Too much, exactly.
Andy Coulson: [0:35:09] That’s fascinating. After a period back in Afghanistan where you set up that brilliant charity that you touched on earlier, you return to the UK and decide, obviously after a quiet life Rory, you decide to enter Westminster. Which is, as I say, when we first met.
You’ve been very critical of the invasion of Iraq. Was that part of the motivation at the time, to affect British Foreign Policy and to make a difference to domestic politics? Dare I say it, having now heard the story, that that mistake was perhaps in your mind wrapped up in that as well, and that you were seeking to put things right in some way?
Rory Stewart: [0:35:50] Yes, I think that’s right. I think I was trying to put a lot of things right. There was that incident and then there was the whole basic truth of how stupid it was, what we were doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, how daft it was that somebody in their- who had just turned thirty should have been put in charge of three million Iraqi lives in that way. And just what a mess we made of those countries, and how daft our justifications were, and how we got ourselves caught up in theories and arguments and statements which just didn’t bear examination. And tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans were being killed, thousands of British and American soldiers.
It just wasn’t good enough, and I could see the madness of the way that politicians and policy makers were thinking about this. We just weren’t thinking clearly.
And I thought the only way of changing this is to become a politician. And I didn’t just mean the only way of stopping the Iraq and Afghan wars, but that was an important part of it, it was also stopping things like this from happening in the future. I felt our politics and our policy making is shot to pieces, this is a very, very- these people don’t know what they’re talking about and this is dangerous, and we need a better sort of government that stops us getting involved in things that we don’t understand.
And I suspected that wasn’t just true abroad, I suspected that was true at home as well, that just sort of sitting in London we didn’t really get the reality of what was happening in Helmand and Afghanistan, my suspicion was we probably didn’t have much idea of what was happening in the North of England either. And that a lot of people who I saw as clever but in the end fundamentally lacking in experience and wisdom, were running our country in a way that wasn’t serious.
Andy Coulson: [0:37:56] And as you say, that was a thought that did not limit itself to international matters, it was true of domestic. You were a Prisons Minister for a period of time, an experience that left you with very strong views about our prison system. I remember having a discussion with you in fact about this not long after I came out of one.
Your view then was that we should be abolishing all sentences of less than six months, that those who were given those shorter sentences should instead undertake some other form of punishment, community service or some other method of punishment.
I assume your views of the prison system have not changed much, because not much has changed has it, really, in attitudes towards prisons and justice?
Rory Stewart: [0:38:52] Nothing has changed, and our prisons are shocking. I mean, you understand this much better than I do, but I spent- in my time as a Prisons Minister I visited I guess fifty different prisons and it was horrifying, the conditions in which many people were living, particularly in the old Victorian prisons. People crammed in cells, violence had tripled in five years. By the time I took over there where 30,000 assaults a year happening, 10,000 of them prisoners on prison officers.
Drugs everywhere, filth everywhere, the yards just full of trash, the call bells broken, the prisoners killing themselves in their cells and nobody getting to them in time. There was just a sense of decrepit under-invested buildings, neglect, hopelessness amongst many prisoners and hopelessness amongst many of the prison officers who I think felt they had no resources, little leadership, no plan, no sense of what they were supposed to be doing. Basic standards collapsing everywhere.
And I felt profoundly ashamed that this had been going on for years when I’d been in politics and I hadn’t been focusing on it until I became the Prisons Minister. I had literally no idea how bad it was until I walked into Liverpool Prison and found cell after cell with broken windows, smashed lavatories, broken call bells, filth in the yards. Yes, it was horrible.
Andy Coulson: [0:40:38] Is it the job Rory, when you look back at your time in politics, is it a job that you wish you’d had for longer? Do you wish that-
Rory Stewart: [0:40:44] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:40:44] Because you’re not alone in that. There are other people- prisons do that in a strange way to politicians. Is it because you can see the solution and yet you’re not there long enough ever to do anything about it? Is that why it’s such a- I don’t know, the Prisons job does seem to hold this kind of grip on some politicians.
Rory Stewart: [0:41:10] Yes, well it’s true because it’s the most obvious moral catastrophe in British life. It’s something where you really feel that government is necessary. It’s something which government is 100% responsible for, and in many other bits of society you can blame the private sector or goodness knows what else, but boy you can’t in prisons.
I mean, everybody in there is in there because the government has put them there, and the government runs the whole thing. It’s our fault in a much more intimate, direct way than perhaps even a school or a hospital is our fault.
So it is a crisis, it’s an extreme crisis, and it’s one where I felt there were some straightforward things that we can be making better. There was no reason why we couldn’t keep prisons cleaner, why we couldn’t reduce violence, why we couldn’t get a grip on drugs. And some of the stuff that I was doing, just bringing in proper scanners at the gates, getting proper cell inspections going, spending a little bit of money on fixing windows, made a difference.
And it was the one job I did in government where I really felt that I was being useful. Partly also because I was able to be much more operationally involved. I could set up a crisis centre, an ops room where I could look at the ten worst prisons on the wall, check all the data, bring the Governors of the worst prisons up here to my house in Scotland and spend days sitting down talking stuff through with them.
It was a type of work as a Minister that I really liked, and you don’t get, generally. I mean it’s not- usually Ministers are like a sort of rather distant kind of non-executive board member, whereas in Prisons I was closer to an executive.
Andy Coulson: [0:43:04] Yes. You were Foreign Office Minister for a while under Boris Johnson, and in 2019 stood to be party leader and our Prime Minister. You still felt obviously that you could change that system that you had I think even by that stage began to grow weary of. You were then expelled with twenty others for voting against the government, and stood as an Independent in the London Mayor election.
Did all that, when you look back at that time, which wasn’t that long ago Rory, that sense- did that feel like a crisis to you at the time, given everything that had gone before in your life that we’ve discussed? Or had you put the politics into a different sort of place in your mind by then? Did it still feel like a crisis?
Rory Stewart: [0:43:49] I think Boris Johnson taking over the country seemed to me to be a crisis and a calamity beyond imagining. I mean, I really felt he was- I’d worked with him, as you said, in the Foreign Office, and I-
Andy Coulson: [0:44:01] I guess I meant personally, to you. I think we’re in violent agreement in terms of the nation’s state, but for you personally.
Rory Stewart: [0:44:10] For me personally no, it didn’t feel like a crisis in the same way. It was an incredibly intense period. I think I’ve never worked so many hours a day, I’ve never got so little sleep, I’ve never had to be on it quite as much. I mean, a leadership campaign-
Andy Coulson: [0:44:28] It’s like nothing else, yes.
Rory Stewart: [0:44:30] Like absolutely nothing else in terms of just you know, you’re trying to persuade three hundred colleagues to hold with you, minute in minute out you’re being hit by the media in every direction. It was amazingly absorbing.
And then running as an Independent to be Mayor of London was even more extreme in a way because I had none of the infrastructure of the party behind me. I was having to raise enormous sums of money on my own, I was having to take on the Labour and Conservative machines, I was having to build my own volunteer network in every district. I was fighting against these very stubborn opinion polls, trying to work out how I was going to creep ahead of the Tory candidate and have a hope of beating Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor and me, the second round of the election. And that just went on for months after months, it was gruelling stuff.
And then just seven weeks before the election when I had everything finally as good as I could, you know, lined up with all my press releases ready, all my policies ready, the seven weeks all gridded out, Covid happened and they cancelled the election and delayed it for twelve months. At which point all the money that I’d raised, all the volunteers that I was trying to keep going, collapsed around me.
Andy Coulson: [0:45:46] That moment then felt like a-
Rory Stewart: [0:45:47] That was horrible.
Andy Coulson: [0:45:48] If not a crisis that was pretty traumatic.
Rory Stewart: [0:45:51] It was horrible. And it was pretty humiliating because in a way I’d come through- it was pretty humiliating being defeated by Boris Johnson, to be honest. I mean, given that I felt the guy was an obvious buffoon who was obviously very, very bad for the country, I found it very difficult to-
Andy Coulson: [0:46:09] “A figure from a morality tale,” I think is how you phrased it.
Rory Stewart: [0:46:13] Yes, and I found it very difficult to accept that people preferred him to me. I mean, it’s one- I think it’s like if your partner dumps you for somebody that you really, really despise. So I think that was tough.
But then I thought, “Okay, I’ll have another go at this and I’ll try to fight for an idea in the centre ground.” And it was a time when, you know, when I started Labour was under Corbyn, Conservative was under Boris Johnson, Brexit had torn this fissure between Remain and Brexit, and thought there’s space in the centre ground, I’m fighting for a cause that matters to people.
And some people it did matter to. I mean, there were amazing volunteers and you know, we got a really impressive groundswell of support in London, but it wasn’t feeling like enough in the end to win that election if I’m honest. I mean, I was pushing up towards 20%, which is pretty good for an Independent, and if I’d been running in the Israeli Parliament it might have been enough to make me Prime Minister, 20% of the vote. But-
Andy Coulson: [0:47:15] Yes. Not how it works, sadly.
Rory Stewart: [0:47:18] Not how it works. And then to have to face- sorry about this, for people listening to the podcast this is my weird clock ringing in the background. It’s going to stop in a second.
Yes, so then to have to face the fact that I’d been- that I’d reached the end of the road, that I just didn’t see how- the election was moved, it was just moved twelve months later, but I just didn’t see that I’d have the energy to do this for another year, that I would set back and raise another two million pounds and set up a whole new network and fight it day in day out for another 365 days.
So I think that was probably the biggest defeat of my life and it took me a long time to recover. And of course I went through the recovery during Covid, so I was in a slightly isolated state trying to come to terms with the fact that my political career had come crashing down. I’d been thrown out of the party, defeated by Boris Johnson, failed to take the London Mayoral race.
Andy Coulson: [0:48:22] Your new book, which I think is out in September, will chart your time in politics. You’ve touched on that period, obviously the book will cover your entire time in politics. And it’s perfectly clear from what you’ve said previously that you know, that left you at times feeling very angry. Also it feels at times perhaps leaving you feeling quite bitter.
Bitterness is something that’s often very important in the conversations that we have on this podcast, Rory. How do you avoid the bitterness bullet? I certainly hold to the view that that’s been the single most important thing for me with the few bumps in the road that I’ve had. It’s hard though, right?
Rory Stewart: [0:49:08] Very.
Andy Coulson: [0:49:09] It’s not an easy thing. How do you do it? How have you done it?
Rory Stewart: [0:49:12] Very hard. Very hard, very hard. I don’t know that I’m very good at it. I think there is a degree of bitterness that I still haven’t fully overcome, and I’d be interested to learn from you on how you do that. I think it’s tough, and it’s tough distinguishing. It’s tough to know how much of my anger at Boris Johnson is genuinely my objective view that he’s an immoral, bluffing chancer who is bad for the country, and how much of it is just bitterness.
Andy Coulson: [0:49:45] I’ve taken I think what is not a very sophisticated view about bitterness. It’s not very sophisticated and it’s also quite selfish, because my view of bitterness is just simply this: that whenever I’ve had those bitter days, and I’ve had a fair few, I’ve always, always gone backwards. And always, always felt worse as a result. Less productive, obviously unhappier.
So actually my motivation is not about trying to unravel what it is that’s causing me to feel bitter, it’s much more about, “Well you know, this is no good for me.”
Rory Stewart: [0:50:23] Doesn’t help you.
Andy Coulson: [0:50:23] And no good for my family as well, I think that’s the other key thing, is that bitterness is not just bad for yourself, it is terrible for the people that are around you.
Can we talk about the pod very quickly? Because it’s a triumph. It seems to have provided that reasonable space that people crave in politics, although there is as we discussed before we started recording there, that there is that tension between yourself and Alastair Campbell your co-host.
It is essentially a reasonable conversation about politics in- in a way really what it- that thing that you were trying, that you were campaigning for when you were still in the game. We’ve got to try and have this kind of- let’s allow ourselves to have this debate.
Do you feel that it’s doing that job? Is that one of the things that you’re pleased with in terms of its success?
Rory Stewart: [0:51:20] Yes, I think that that is part of it. I think people like the idea. Our cliché is that we disagree agreeably. But Alastair and I come from very different places. I mean, obviously he’s very, very tribally loyal to Labour, and I was a Conservative, and that means that he’s very suspicious of- he associates me with being an Old Etonian, with austerity, with many things that he really hates. And I equally feel sometimes very angry, you know? His association with the Iraq war is something that I find very difficult.
But we have formed a friendship and I like him very much. I enjoy talking to him and I think he’s an extraordinarily intelligent, sometimes quite wise man, who knows a lot about himself and the world, and I think it’s that sort of edge between when we put our ideology aside and reconnect with the everyday issues of our lives, that the thing comes into its strength. Yes? That’s what I enjoy about it.
Andy Coulson: [0:52:41] And this pod of course is causing an increasing number of people to think that you should be back in politics. You’ve been asked this question I suspect many times, but what you’re also doing, one might argue, with this podcast, is creating a platform for a potential return. You are a relatively young man in political terms Rory, you’re in great shape. Your enthusiasm I suspect for making a change in the way that you’ve been discussing on this podcast is still very much alive. Beyond the realms of possibility?
Rory Stewart: [0:53:16] Not beyond the realms of possibility. I mean, definitely something that I think about actively a lot, but not something that I’ve quite worked out whether or how to do. But yes, definitely an option in my life.
Andy Coulson: [0:53:29] More likely than less likely?
Rory Stewart: [0:53:32] I’d say 50/50 at the moment.
Andy Coulson: [0:53:34] Okay. Rory, thanks so much for your time, it’s been a fascinating conversation.
Rory Stewart: [0:53:39] Thank you.
Andy Coulson: [0:53:39] You’ve given us so much and I’m sure that those listening and watching this podcast will feel the same way and will want me to say thank you to you.
We finish always by asking our guests for their Crisis Comforts, three things that help you through those difficult times. Can’t be another person I’m afraid, but what would your three things be, please?
Rory Stewart: [0:54:04] I meditate. I’ve done eleven-day silent retreats which have been very important to me, and so in periods of extreme stress I find deep meditation, an hour or two of meditation, is very powerful.
In other moments I find quite childlike junky films or books on tape cheer me up.
Andy Coulson: [0:54:35] Just give me one example?
Rory Stewart: [0:54:36] Well, I’m listening at the moment to the Hornblower series, so this is a kind of 1950s Boys’ Own adventure story about a captain in the Napoleonic War in a boat, and I absolutely love it when I’m a bit stressed, I put it on at sleep and it puts me back into that happy place of being a kind of fifteen-year-old in the 1950s.
Andy Coulson: [0:54:59] Total escape, right.
Rory Stewart: [0:55:00] Then I think the final thing is- which you’ve reminded me of, I think is animals. I think you’re absolutely right. A relationship with a dog or a cat, and learning from their virtues, I think is hugely important.
Andy Coulson: [0:55:13] Rory, that’s wonderful. Thank you again for your time sir, and it’s been very good to talk to you.
Rory Stewart: [0:55:21] Thank you. Thank you Andy. Thank you very much.
End of Recording