BOOK FESTIVAL – Rory Stewart: Talking the talk and walking the walk


Former Conservative leadership candidate, MP Rory Stewart talked of life following the leadership campaign, his passion and love for walking and previous ventures across the Middle East at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday (26 Aug).

The former Secretary for International Development and Prisons was interviewed by his former school mate Charlotte Higgins from the Guardian. In the interview he talked all things Brexit, the increasing polarization of politics in the United Kingdom and his rejection of the Boris Johnson premiership.

Before coming to Edinburgh Rory had visited Glasgow with a focus on the problems of addiction. “Walks are both great exercise but also an opportunity to see things that I don’t necessarily see as a constituency MP.”

Rory Stewart speaking at interview
MP Rory Stewart talked of life following the leadership campaign, his passion and love for walking and previous ventures across the Middle East at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday

He spoke about the tours he does of the UK where he’ll make a post on social media saying that he’ll be in a certain place at a certain time and walk with whoever turns up. “I do very short walks with people but after there’ll be a lady saying ‘there’s some heroin addicts shooting up come and look’ or somebody will say ‘there’s been a knife attack in the estate come and look.’”

Discussing his views on Brexit, he said: “I believe in compromise, I believe the solution to Brexit was a soft Brexit or a pragmatic, moderate Brexit where we leave the political institutions but remain very close economically. The reason why I believe this is that polarization – I worry that if we go either for a no-deal Brexit or we reverse the referendum and go for remain we’re going to end up with 40 years of a country split right the way down the middle.”

“What I am about to do is go back to Parliament and vote against a no-deal Brexit… which will mark me in the eyes of many of my colleagues as a traitor who’s been trying to undermine the whole project and that will probably damage me for 5 or 10 years.”

When discussing the odds of him running for Prime Minister again he did not rule it out but said “Spending the next 15, 20 years of my life trying to be Prime Minister may not be the most useful contribution I can make.”

“One of the things that made [Boris Johnson] very successful is that he is a celebrity, he is much more famous than anyone else. When we did the polling he was the only person anyone had heard of… something like 90% of the population knew who he was.”

On the union – “In the end nationalism is reductive, it always involves reducing the size of a country, it always involves pretending that there is a big simple solution so generally speaking in any nationalism… the fundamental problems that you face in your country are usually just the problems of being a modern state.”

“Saying you’re a reader is much like saying you’re a church goer, it doesn’t say much about the state of your soul – you can go to church in many different ways, you can read a book in many different ways…. if it was true that the reading of literature was sufficient to make you a great souled individual then all of our English teachers should be running the country.”

On being in the public eye: “It’s becoming difficult now if I go to places like Afghanistan because my chances of being kidnapped are higher than it was 10 – 12 years ago and that gathers simply because of social media.

Forty or fifty percent of people know who I am and of that ten percent who approach me, that’s not pleasant because you suddenly, if you are not careful, are taking the expectations of too many people come up… the classic line is ‘I’d never vote Conservative but I’d vote for you.”

When asked “Can a nice guy be Prime Minister?” he replied, “I think so.

“But you don’t remain nice for very long; politics is a very corrosive thing. After 5 to 10 years in politics your mind, your heart, your soul is actually eroded in a hundred ways that you can’t begin to imagine… it’s a form of madness. I thought I could change things… I would be able to bring sense to the system.”

Finally, when asked about a potential government of national unity to stop no-deal Brexit he replied: “Is it stopping no-deal Brexit to get a compromise or is it trying to stop it to go for remain?”