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July 23, 2019updated 28 Aug 2019 11:23am

Rory Stewart: ‘We are secretly too pessimistic about Britain’ – the Spear’s interview

By Alec Marsh

Rory Stewart has caught the nation’s attention in recent weeks, both for his rainwear and his strident views about Britain’s place in the world, as Alec Marsh discovers

Whoever emerges victorious in the Conservative leadership race, one of the undoubted winners will have been Rory Stewart. Prior to the race to replace Theresa May, few outside Westminster knew of the whippet-thin international development secretary, notwithstanding his string of bestselling books. Now, however, he is a national figure – one almost as famous for his blue mackintosh as Harold Wilson once was for his Gannex raincoat.

Stewart’s mac, from cool Manchester menswear house Private White, was a gift from his wife, in honour, he told me, of his book deal for The Marches, the thoughtful, bestselling memoir of his hike from his Lake District constituency to his home in the lowlands of Scotland.

Quite what his wife would give him for winning the keys to Number 10 probably won’t come up: despite his excellent and unusual campaign, Stewart is unlikely to emerge as our next prime minister. As Tim Shipman, the impeccably informed Sunday Times political editor, told me: ‘Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and Matt Hancock would all have to die in the same freak yachting accident for him to emerge as the Remainer candidate in the final two.’

What is certain, however, is that henceforth the MP for Penrith and the Border is going to have a larger voice in our national conversation, and that is as it should be. Since becoming an MP in 2010 this former soldier and Foreign Office diplomat – he also served as a deputy governor in Iraq – has demonstrated a cultivated and perspicacious grasp of affairs and steadily built his reputation. As a junior minister at the Department for International Development and as a minister at the Foreign Office, he was highly regarded. Then, as prisons minister, he took a bold position of committing to resign if he could not reduce violence in our jails. He did not need to tender his resignation and was promoted to cabinet on 1 May.

In person Stewart exudes a rare intelligence and a self-prepossession that communicates strength but stops short of arrogance. I first met him for the Financial Times in 2016, and then heard him give a Chatham House talk on Britain’s Africa policy in 2018. It turned out to be astonishing in its frankness and revealed a man with an important appreciation of the world and of Britain’s place in it. Sadly it was off the record. Now, though, Spear’s has got Stewart on the record. So what, I ask, is Britain’s place in the world, post-Brexit?

‘The first thing is to begin with a really realistic, loving sense of Britain’s strengths and weaknesses,’ he replies. ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with another human being or you’re dealing with a nation. You have to begin with two things: love and realism. One starts with the fact that this is one of the most remarkable countries on Earth. It can be eccentric, it can be infuriating, it can be incredibly courageous… idealistic.

‘The realism point is understanding what it means to be in a world where China’s economy grows every 18 months by the size of the British economy,’ he adds, noting this means that we can’t pretend to have the same influence on a country such as Pakistan, say, as China or the US does.

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Pointing to his days as a junior minister at DfID, he recalls the pride of the £400 million a year Britain spent in Pakistan, but notes that China unveiled a $42 billion package. China ‘committed not just ten times as much, but 100 times as much money. They’ve committed what we would spend in an entire century in a single package.’ He adds: ‘You can’t guide very much with 0.1 per cent [of] somebody’s GDP.’

No delusions

So Stewart’s first point is dump the delusions. We aren’t a superpower. And with the shifting tectonic plates of the global economy we aren’t even where we were in the Eighties or Nineties. By the same token, we need to properly appreciate our ‘ten out of ten global assets’ such as the City of London and London in general.

‘Our problem is that we are secretly far too pessimistic about Britain and we express it sometimes in a hysterical optimism,’ says Stewart. ‘Sometimes the completely unrealistic, absurd, sort of pantomime vision of Great Britain bossing the world simply conceals a deep insecurity and a fear, actually, that we really can’t do anything.’ He doesn’t need to say if this is a swipe at the bombast of people like Boris Johnson. ‘In other words,’ he adds, ‘we show the symptoms at a national level of a form of mental illness where we combine megalomania, and paranoia, over-optimism and helplessness. What we actually need to do is become psychically healthy, and that means being realistic about our strengths as well as our weaknesses.’

First and foremost, Britain needs to rediscover its sense of itself internationally and to reboot its strategy. ‘People don’t know what we believe in,’ says Stewart. ‘They don’t know what our vision is as a country. They don’t know what they’re allowed to say, what they’re supposed to do.’ The problem, he says, is a ‘bureaucratic culture’ which results in ‘a complete absence of a confident sense of our international position’.

‘Parliament has far fewer people today who have spent significant time serving the country abroad, serving the government abroad,’ he says. Go back to the early 19th century and 10 per cent of Parliament had had long careers governing parts of India, ‘which meant they spent literally years sitting in remote… rural communities riding around on the horseback, dealing with local legal disputes, learning other people’s languages.

‘They had a very, very strong sense of what it was to do things in the world,’ says Stewart. ‘That meant they were able to challenge nonsense very comfortably. If you look at the debates on Afghanistan in the 19th century [and you get the sense that he has], Parliament was really critical of Britain, about the failures of our military on the ground. One of the signs of our loss of confidence is that we’re now afraid to criticise the military at all, even when generals get things wrong.’

Looking to the future, he says, ‘Our guiding purpose has to be enlightened national self-interest. In other words we have to ask ourselves in each of these countries, “Can we do something helpful here, in a way that is still consistent and helpful with our own citizens and our own responsibilities?”’ Instead, he says, ‘Where we’ve tended to go wrong is create moral missions which are completely divorced from our national self-interest.’ One thinks of Tony Blair’s international adventurism or Robin Cook’s ‘ethical foreign policy’.

‘Really rebuilding Britain’s position in the world is about rebuilding institutions first and foremost. It’s about investing in the right way in our intelligence services. I’d like to see the budget for our foreign service doubled to begin with,’ he says. Then it’s important to promote the right people, and rebuild our language expertise. ‘We still have far too many ambassadors in the Middle East who don’t speak Arabic, for example,’ says Stewart, frustration creeping into his voice. Then your bigger and better-trained service needs to focus on the right things – ‘more on political reporting, so they don’t end up with 85 per cent of their time absorbed in homeland security and terrorism’.

Army fatigue

Next, Britain needs to make sure ‘we have real expeditionary capability with our military, and for my money investing more in the army, even at the expense of the navy and the air force.’ Stewart draws on the Anglo-French foray in Libya in 2016 to illustrate this. ‘If you look at the intervention in Libya, it simply wasn’t possible for us and the French to operate without the Americans providing an enormous amount of additional capability that we didn’t have. We have to plug into these bigger organisations.’

Hard questions need to be asked, he says. For example, what do other nations actually want Britain to ‘bring to the table’? The country can’t afford everything.

For his part, Stewart would like to see less spent on fifth-generation fighter jets and rather more on infantry and tanks. And there’s a logic based on first principles here. He would ideally roll the budgets of the Foreign Office, DfID and Defence into one and consider the bigger picture: ‘If we spend, let’s say, 3-3.5 per cent of GDP on all that, [let’s] look at the choices and trade-offs between those. I think it’s very strange to just arbitrarily choose one part of your international presence and attach a senseless GDP to it.’ Which has implications for Britain’s proudly held but (to some) controversial commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid.

Next, Stewart thinks we’ve got to stop pretending we aren’t motivated by self-interest, just like everyone else. That might entail ‘being a little bit more sharp-elbowed with our influence, being a little bit clearer about what we are contributing to the country and also what we are hoping to get out of it. Actually that sort of honesty is quite helpful.’

Take China, this time in respect of its interventions in Africa. ‘China couldn’t be clearer about what it expects out of these relationships,’ he says. ‘And actually that’s an important truth in international relations – that clarity, humility, honesty and a reasonable level of self-interest is perfectly legitimate and comprehensible.’ It’s about being assertive when required, ‘tough in negotiation’, and ‘quick to spot opportunities’: ‘Not grandstanding and slagging off partners because you’re under pressure from the Opposition benches. Just being much more confident about who you are in the world and what your strategy is.’

Altered states

For an example of how to get foreign policy strategy right, he turns to our Gallic friends across the Channel. ‘I think the last 10-15 years France has done better,’ he says. ‘France made a strategic decision that post-Suez – the way they were going to remain as a global power was by differentiating themselves from the United States, not simply following the US in every regard. And that’s important because the problem with following the US in every regard is that you get drawn into theatres which are so complicated and so large that you have very little hope of being able to really shape them, whereas France has actually managed to create [a] presence in smaller places and sustain and grow them.’

Look at the way they’ve capitalised on the Louvre, by opening the museum’s offshoot in Abu Dhabi. That’s soft power writ large but, he says, the British Museum, for example, is not doing the same. ‘We’re too shy to really assert ourselves.’

The French are prepared to invest properly in diplomacy. With an economy roughly the same size as ours, they spend twice as much, notes Stewart. ‘Money isn’t everything, but you can’t pretend that having only half the money doesn’t make a difference. In a lot of our key African embassies we have only two key diplomats: an ambassador and another person. There’s a limit to what you can do with two people,’ he adds flatly. The lesson again is to spend more on what’s important.

Stewart also believes Britain should focus more closely on where the prizes are – notably in South East Asia, which he regards as ‘a real sweet spot for Britain’. ‘There are really productive relationships that need to be deepened in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and we have an incredible amount in common with Japan.’

In other words, Britain needs to be a little more Chinese, and a little bit French and be prepared to invest a little more – and do less where it shouldn’t, as it heads out into a post-European Union world.

One part of Stewart’s 2018 Chatham House speech that he doesn’t mind being put on record is his declaration – delivered with bemused resignation – that ‘We’re not Denmark!’ When I remind him of this counter to those who think we have fallen so far down the global pecking order, he picks up the theme again. ‘Saying that we don’t have an empire doesn’t mean that we’re a country of six million people and a GDP of £400 million a year. We are a very, very serious, major place. We have a huge economy. It’s not giant in the sense that US and Chinese economies are giant, but it’s huge.’ As such, the man in the Private White raincoat says: ‘We need to carry ourselves with that degree of confidence in the world.’

Alec Marsh is the editor of Spear’s 

Main image credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office/ Flickr

This article first appeared in issue 69 of Spear’s magazine, available on newsstands now. Click here to buy and subscribe. 

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