I haven’t heard of Rory Stewart until an article in The Spectator flagged him as one of the contenders for the premiership in last year’s general election race. He was then a Conservative Member of Parliament but with an openness and sincerity that made him stand out from the ocean of vacuous and flexed lexicons that MPs generally like to employ in their speech-making.
Stewart is different. And, it seems, unpopular if recent YouTube comments are any marker of favorability, where the likes of ‘fluffymufty’ rage:
‘Get the Mayoral election over then this man can retire to his estate and we need never hear from him again’.
The above is a response to a short interview with the Independent where Stewart reflects on the changing course for Britain out of the EU. In that 11-minute talk the mayoral candidate discusses London, Crime, Education and Immigration — formidable topics in both scope and contentiousness.
For Stewart, ‘everything starts with safety and security’ and that means getting the right checks and balances in place. Drawing on his extensive experience as a diplomat in the Foreign Office, Secretary of State for International Development and more recently Prisons Minister, he argues that ‘London is ours to lose’ and that it ‘could be much safer’. His understanding of the driving causes of crime goes deeper than the prosaic and lazy race-class labelling. Knife crime is ‘connected to drugs and drug gangs’, which by nature are ‘international’, asserts Stewart. So the threat is not exclusively locally sourced and the solution isn’t as simple as increasing police personnel and prison spaces.
Instead, he talks of having police data record databases to enhance security — something that’s often received with skepticism and mistrust. And yet, if we want London streets to be safer, does it not make sense to have fingertip access to crucial data on its inhabitants? Perhaps the time has come to admit that the price of a peace of mind must be enhanced surveillance.
On immigration, of the 900,000 plus EU citizens living in London, many without registration, Stewart insists on the pressing need to get this done in actuality as opposed to demonstratively talking about it. He also argues that the UK should have its own ERASMUS scheme to encourage young people to study and travel abroad.
Revealingly, his closing thoughts that, ‘we are so proud of the European contribution to London’ and that we ought to ensure London remains ‘deeply, deeply, European’, suggest a reason why there are those that feel enmity towards Stewart – his pragmatism is a little too honest, too amiable for the times.
So why is Rory Stewart the best man for the job of London Mayor despite his unpopular pro-European centre ground? Simple. He has hands-on experience of working with disparate groups of people and communities trying to thrive together — a feature that unquestionably characterizes London’s diverse demographic of cultural identities.
To say his CV is impressive is an understatement. It is formidable. The parts that matter when arguing for his suitability to the mayorship are arguably his years spent in Asia and the Middle East trying to solve basic community problems such as housing and water supply issues. He was the Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003, as part of a coalition force and in 2005 was relocated to Kabul, Afghanistan, where he was tasked with helping to establish a school and clinic as well as access to electricity and clean water. Somewhere between all this, he was awarded with an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire).
Since that time, books such as The Places in Between, chronicling his two-year ‘enlightenment’ walk across Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Iran and Pakistan have revealed a man who is deeply interested in people and willing to learn about their unique differences in order to better help them. This willingness to get involved instead of relying on armchair politics was apparent during the 2019 premiership campaign where Stewart did walkabouts and actually discussed grievances with voters to get a better idea of what they wanted. He didn’t win.
Now, nearing two months since Boris Johnson took the premiership vote Stewart is back, hoping to get the opportunity to revive London. Sunday’s terror attack in Streatham is one indication that we should be taking Stewart’s words about security more seriously. In ‘The Truth About British Politics’ he reveals idiosyncratic details about the system and his own experience of being a part of that ‘mysterious’ machine. But again, what sticks is Stewart’s insistence that he wants to do things that are ‘operational’ and ‘local’ — ‘I want to be able to help people in a way that is tangible and real’, he says definitively.
Will London listen to a man that argues from his experience as Prisons Minister that those ‘committing the violence are themselves victims’? And the man who during his time as Environment Minister gave the most dedicated and impassioned 13-minute speech about the importance of hedgehogs? (I call on all to watch this).
My guess, is that Stewart will remain misunderstood, and vilified for his privileged background. But, given the chance, if he applies the same commitment, passion and persuasion to London as he did to hedgehogs in 2017, then we can rest assured that the city will be in caring hands.