caught the public eye as a maverick Conservative minister who in 2019 rose to challenge for the leadership of his party (and, consequently, the country).
Harry Smart met him online on 25 January 2021.
Since you quit the House of Commons just over a year ago, you have spoken forcefully about your distaste for its theatre and its stage-managed debates…
It’s difficult for me to remain optimistic about our political system while at the same time acknowledging just how awful so much of what I saw was.
I’m tempted to try to draw distinctions. I’m tempted to say that there’s the very bad extreme, which is Donald Trump; then there’s the sort of populist tendency, which is Boris [Johnson]; and then – probably less bad but, for me, also very troubling – there are the rest of us, Conservative, Lib Dem [and] Labour, who wouldn’t think of ourselves as populist but are caught up in all the tricks of trying to take power. The problem with us all as politicians is that we often cease to think: our evasions and half lies rot our brains.
Speech and thought are connected and we’re so out of the habit of speaking in an intelligent and ambitious way it prevents us from thinking in an intelligent and ambitious way. It has a big impact on our ability to handle crises or come up with sensible policies – or anything, really.
We really think [it benefits us] to reflect the slightly inchoate views we ascribe to our voters, rather than trying to worry our way towards a more precise or compelling vision of what it is that our voters are gesturing towards.
I suppose that if – like a livestock breeder – you select MPs for loyalty and ability to regurgitate talking points, you inevitably select against the kind who will sit up into the small hours reading through the detail of a Bill.
I didn’t leave Iraq feeling pessimistic about human nature; I left feeling that Western institutions were idiotic. Where I felt much more depressed, I think, was in Britain
What the politician ought to be involved in, I think, is the business of defining some vision of our community or our society and its future. And that’s very difficult, because [it means] dealing with these incommensurable – sorry, that’s a pretentious word – these inconsistent, conflicting visions which we all have as individuals within ourselves (we might have a hundred different views within our own head) but particularly between ourselves.
Now, you can shrug your shoulders and say: OK, there’s no way of really resolving these things, so what we’ll do is, we’ll just create a neutral playing field where all these things can work out. But that cannot be the role of a political leader. A political leader has to try to frame things, and that’s something that ought to be calling on very different parts of your soul and very difficult bits of thinking.
How does your concept of political leadership sit with the idea of citizens’ assemblies,1See electoral-reform.org.uk/what-is-a-citizens-assembly. which you have also advocated?
Yes, well… So, this is where I’m sort of torn. You’re absolutely right, there’s a contradiction there, because there is part of me that thinks: Actually, this role of trying to act as a reconciler and framer of public opinion is impossible and it’s better for me just to step aside and allow a citizens’ assembly to talk this through. And probably I felt I did most good as a politician when I was, as it were, facilitating those kinds of discussions.
But for the citizens’ assembly to work, you need a very unusual degree of good faith on the part of the people who are presenting the information to the citizens, so that it is done in as fair and open a way as possible. Somebody somewhere would need to have some standards of truth and objectivity.
I have two quotations to put to you. The first is from your book Occupational Hazards: My time governing in Iraq2Published by Picador in 2006 (and known in the US as The Prince of the Marshes: And other occupational hazards of a year in Iraq) and it relates to your time in Amarah.3The administrative capital of the Iraqi province of Maysan, where Stewart was ‘deputy governorate co-ordinator’ in 2003–04 You say: ‘I had never believed that mankind, unless overawed by a strong government, would fall inevitably into violent chaos. Societies were orderly, I thought, because human cultures were orderly. Written laws and the police played only a minor role. But Maysan made me reconsider.’
The other is a story told4By John Thompson in the Atlantic in 1968 about Henry Stimson, who was US Secretary of War in the Forties: ‘In his waning years Stimson was asked by an anxious questioner, “Mr Secretary, how on earth can we ever bring peace to the world?” Stimson is said to have answered: “You begin by bringing to Washington a small handful of able men who believe that the achievement of peace is possible. You work them to the bone until they no longer believe that it is possible. And then you throw them out – and bring in a new bunch who believe that it is possible.”’
That’s beautiful! That’s genius! Boy, that’s hard-won wisdom!
You clearly believe that change is possible, but how do you deal with the disillusionment along the way?
I didn’t leave Iraq feeling pessimistic about human nature; I left feeling that Western institutions were idiotic and that the theories of Western intervention were flawed. When I went to Afghanistan [in 2005–08], I felt an immense sort of respect and admiration for the Afghans I worked with. I wouldn’t really have described it as a chaotic society that needed to be overawed; I saw it more as a society of immense virtue and honour that was able to operate despite the government.
I could see the point of being a politician in Afghanistan. Part of that, of course, was that people’s lives were so terrible that there were many things I could do – because I had power to do things
Where I felt much more depressed, I think, was in Britain, because of all the things that are characteristic of modernity. In a way, I was very privileged in Afghanistan to glimpse a society which had probably been missing from Britain for many hundreds of years, a society in which, genuinely, ideas of virtue, honour, dignity, self-respect were incredibly important in framing people’s lives and choices.
I could see the point of being a politician in Afghanistan. Part of that, of course, was that, you know, people’s lives were so terrible that there were so many things I could do – very simple things: water supply, electricity, a clinic, a school – partly because I actually had power to do things. That isn’t really the case in British politics – I mean, democratic politicians are very powerless: they exercise power very indirectly.
But I think it was also possible for me [in Kabul] to feel that we could frame a sense of the common good, that it was possible for us to try to describe what a fulfilling and flourishing life for people would be. There was enough in common in our moral values and outlook that we were able to draw on. Whereas in Britain…
Britain has made a nonsense of the role of a politician.
That hasn’t always been the case here, has it? There was enough of a consensus in the 1940s to set up a national health service and open up secondary education to all.
You’re right, it was possible then to create a consensus around the NHS, and I think that was an extraordinary achievement; but it wasn’t done in the way you’d do politics in an Afghan village – or in Aristotle’s Athens. I mean, it’s not drawing on the same rich sense of embedded tradition, community, meaning, purpose. It’s actually quite a materialistic settlement in its way.
Nye Bevan gained the vision he turned into the NHS in his mining community in South Wales, which had to club together to create some local medical insurance.5See walesonline.co.uk/…/health. That was very local and community-centred, surely?
Yes, I think that’s right, and I think the strength of the Labour tradition – or the most dignified elements of it – is represented exactly by those types of community.
Can we go back to your childhood, originally in the Far East and then, from the age of eight, in Britain? What do you look back on with most pleasure or gratitude?
I’m very grateful for the amount of time my parents were able to spend with me – my father made an effort to get up early and spend three hours with me every morning before I went off to school. He was immensely playful – he was very good at behaving like a child, and at adapting to the things I was interested in.
There are stories of him teaching you the principles of defence, and it sounds almost as if you were being prepared for the Great Game.6That is, the confrontation between the British and Russian empires in Central Asia, and especially Afghanistan, in the 19th and early 20th centuries
I’m sure there was an element of that. I guess there was probably an element of that in all British private education in the 19th and early 20th century, so the kind of books he was reading with me, the kind of things he was doing with me, I think were part of that general tradition.
When I was growing up, my father would say that he thought I was cut out to be a bishop in the Church of England. The only thing I’ve done that really puzzled him, I think, is becoming a politician
Reading your book The Marches,7The Marches: Border walks with my father (Jonathan Cape, 2016) it’s obvious that your relationship with him was very affectionate – you still call him ‘Daddy’. But then at one point, discussing his time as a colonial administrator in Malaya, you refer to him as ‘the butcher of Penang’.
That was something that he ironically applied to himself – he liked to portray himself as a pretty tough sort of Machiavellian figure. He didn’t claim great moral virtue. Most of his anecdotes involved him cutting Gordian knots, sorting stuff out which other people were too timid to. I mean, whatever this funny Victorian education was that ultimately prepared him to go out and govern the Empire, it didn’t leave him with a complicated and tortured morality.
You cut many Gordian knots yourself when you were in Iraq but you don’t seem to have navigated the moral dilemmas quite as effortlessly as him.
That’s right, that’s right – and I think he saw that in me, in an affectionate way. When I was growing up, he would say that he thought I was cut out to be a bishop in the Church of England.
Did you disappoint him by not becoming one?
That’s an interesting question! Obviously, that’s something that he would never have wanted to be – he didn’t really get the point of bishops…
He was happy for me to be an academic at Harvard, and to run a charity; he often thought I could run a thinktank or something maybe. The only thing I’ve done that really puzzled him, I think, is becoming a politician. He thought that politicians are sort of useless.
Your mother makes only fleeting appearances in The Marches. How important an influence has she been on you?
Probably the strongest way of illustrating the importance of my mother lies in my inability to distance myself enough from her to be able to write about her. She is almost too much a part of me for me to be able to see her clearly.
She certainly would be responsible for the more moral parts of my education. The sort of literature she read me when I was young was much more idealistic. It was she, not my father, who read me Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, and Horatius’s reflections on death.8‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods?’ She was much more interested in politics than he was, and I think she put more emphasis on the church.
Those bits of my character that are less like a kind of Anglo-Saxon warrior come from my mother. She’s a much more (in an old-fashioned sense) civilised person than my father.
You joined the Labour Party for a while as a teenager –
Do you ever regret switching parties, given the Conservatives’ commitment to austerity?
In the end, I don’t really like parties. I think I left Labour because I was pretty uncomfortable with political parties as a young person. I joined the Conservative Party just before I entered Parliament [in 2010, as MP for Penrith and The Border]; but I’ve always thought they’re very odd machines.
I began to think that there was a horrifying amount of quite extreme poverty and exclusion in Britain. I came to feel that, in a sense, the top 90 per cent was abusing the bottom 10 per cent
Your point about austerity is worth dwelling on – I think it’s really intriguing the way that austerity can be perceived in different ways by different people. So, by the left it was perceived as an attack on the poor, an act of monumental selfishness, and it was understood as drawing on a right-wing tradition that was simply opposed to the idea of benefits and the idea of equality.
That, of course, is not the way it was ever understood within the Conservative Party – partly, presumably, because it would have been psychologically unbearable for people to imagine that that’s what they were engaged in. We viewed it instead as dealing with what seemed [to be] a whole series of wasteful and nonsensical exercises. So, in Cumbria the caricature would have been the council wasting an extraordinary amount of money on weird community-consultation processes that went nowhere, or things called ‘Cumbria Vision’ or ‘Cumbria Future’ that nobody could make head or tail of.
At the same time, there were the very real problems that I kept picking up from people who were on benefits themselves – in particular, that it was difficult for them to work more than a certain number of hours a week without losing their benefits.
And then, of course, the final question, which is almost unresolvable: which is whether or not it was necessary to reduce spending and bring it in line with how much the Government was raising.
You’ve often talked about the gulf between ‘big words’ and granular realities. Isn’t this an example of that gulf?
Well, I think that’s something I found really tricky, which took me nearly nine years to work my way through: the way the Conservatives described what they were doing and the way Labour attacked what they were doing, I found those two ways of talking equally unhelpful in terms of really understanding what was going on.
I would be told that there was terrible poverty in Penrith and I’d go there and think: This doesn’t look so bad. Then I would go to Easington Colliery [in County Durham] and I would think: God, this is horrifying! I began to think that there was a horrifying amount of quite extreme poverty and exclusion but that it was not, as the Labour Party suggested, something that was true of 60 per cent of the population. I think Labour wanted to make everybody feel included, so [there] was a rhetorical trick of making it feel as though the top 10 per cent was abusing the bottom 90 per cent.
I came to feel that actually, in a sense, the top 90 per cent was abusing the bottom 10 per cent. It was difficult for me to say this as a politician, but some of the poverty I saw in London was far worse than anything in Cumbria – certainly in my constituency – but it was disguised because people measured poverty in terms of incomes. My constituents had average incomes of under £16,000 a year and so we were theoretically one of the poorest parts of the United Kingdom, but I very rarely felt, going to see people in outlying farms, that they were living in conditions remotely as miserable as I saw in inner-city areas.
What was always lacking in the conversation, I think, was how much attention to pay to the very poorest 5 per cent of society, as opposed to (for the sake of argument) the poorest 45 per cent. I felt that if I looked at the poorest 5 per cent, I was looking at things that really did feel to me as urgent and as shocking as some of the things I saw in Afghanistan.
The politician’s obligation ought to be to everybody equally. There’s an equal need for understanding of people who have never been anywhere near a foodbank, who don’t really know what a foodbank is
In my constituency, the only real examples of this were the poor elderly – old men who were living in filth and couldn’t look after themselves because there was no care for them; people who were mentally ill; or in the north-east it might be addicts. But in London it was also a case of, you know, the parents and three adult children living in a council flat with one bedroom and everybody sort of stacked up on top of each other on the sofa.
But that isn’t what I felt that Labour was talking about. So, for example, I went to a foodbank in Hartlepool where people were queuing two hours before it opened and looked in really extreme need – it was complete chaos, there were people screaming and shouting and fighting. In Penrith, the Salvation Army foodbank got three customers in a week in 2015. Even a couple of years later, there still weren’t that many.
My guess is that the situation has changed greatly since then.
Let me push you harder on austerity. In 2015 in Greece, after austerity had bitten, researchers found that the average price for half an hour with a sex worker had dropped from €50 to €2. There seems to me to be an irreducible inhumanity in political measures that have that kind of impact.
Yup. I agree with you, although I think you’re engaging in a little bit of rhetoric, jumping to Greece…
Sure – but it’s not just rhetoric, and it’s not just ‘anecdotal’.
No, no, no, but – but you point to what that extreme financial crisis did in Greece and then because that’s called ‘austerity’ and there was also something called ‘austerity’ in Britain, the implication is that in Britain, too, we [did the same].
Reading The Marches, I was struck by how often you use the word ‘imagine’ – and, indeed, whole pages at a go are really exercises in imagining. Why is our political life so lacking in this respect? Instead of imagining the lives of others, we seem to prefer simply analysing data about them.
What passes for imagination in the political world often isn’t, it’s a form of propaganda. The thing that’s missing is an ability to imagine and empathise with variety.
There’s a poem you wrote called ‘Praise’ – 9It begins:
Praise be to God who pities wankers
and has mercy on miserable bastards.
Praise be to God who pours out his blessing
on reactionary warheads and racists.
You’ve done some research on me!
– but there’s an important extension of what you say there, which is that the politician’s obligation ought to be to everybody equally. You focus on ‘reactionary warheads and racists’, but it’s equally about imagining the lives of the comfortable middle-class person in their semi-detached home.
Graham Greene’s quite good on this: in The Power and the Glory,10Published in 1940 his priest realises that he finds it easier dealing with the very poor than he does with the pious widow who wastes his time in confession talking about things that he thinks are quite trivial, and he has to remind himself that he has an obligation to love her and understand her, too.
Generally, the criticisms of me are that I don’t come from a poor background; they’re not really based on what I’ve done or not done. It’s as though identity has become more important than action
One of the difficulties in British politics is getting anyone to acknowledge how much variety there is. So, the foodbank is a very important part of [the local social landscape] but there’s an equal need for empathy or understanding of people who have never been anywhere near a foodbank, who don’t really know what a foodbank is.
That’s at the heart of what I’m asking you.
Well, I think that [it requires] endless curiosity. I think you have to keep asking yourself: What is this country? Who are these people? Is this representative? Am I being fair? Is this problem as bad as it looks?
For example, if you hear that four million children in Britain are living in poverty, the normal response is shock. The political response is: Here’s a good baseball bat to [attack] the Government with. But there’s another response that says, ‘That’s a lot of people, but that must cover a very large variety of experience. I’m going to visit some of those families and try to understand what this means. What does it really feel like? And where is the extreme need, where’s the less extreme need – and how do I respond to these different things?’
But that sort of curiosity is dangerous in politics. I mean, nobody thanks you for that. My Conservative colleagues don’t thank me because I’m [recognising that the poverty exists]. My Labour colleagues don’t thank me because I’m trying to differentiate between different forms of poverty, which they think is offensive.
And lefties on Twitter mock you because they think you’re just sightseeing.
And there, too, there’s a really interesting question, which is: What kind of educational background do we want in a politician, and for what purpose? It’s not enough to say: This person comes from the same community that I come from and that must be a good thing.
I mean, it might be that because they’re from your community they can empathise, they can reassure, they can symbolise, they can embody an aspiration; but probably politics needs to be more than just symbolising and embodying, it must also be about thinking and doing. So, then you need to start asking – which is very rarely asked now – What’s the difference between a competent and an incompetent politician?
I mean, generally the criticisms of me are that I don’t come from a poor background; they’re not really based on what I’ve done or not done. It’s as though identity has become more important than action.
Talking of identity, you are a strong opponent of Scottish nationalism…
I think the key thing for me is that nationalism is always reductive. In the end, it always involves – and it’s cultural in origin – cutting yourself off from other people, drawing a boundary between you and someone else.
You can talk about ‘civic nationalism’, but fundamentally [Scottish independence] is about drawing a border, and when that border is drawn, Scotland will have to fight out all its own fights between right and left, and what kind of country it wants or doesn’t want to be. There’s an assumption there that somehow there is a unified thing called ‘Scotland’, which is totally false to the nature of the modern world. Scotland is not, any more than Britain, one thing.
I have huge admiration for Christians and would deeply like to be a Christian, but I don’t find the Gospels easy. I think I continue to be astonished and confused by the Resurrection
You identify as a Scot, as I now do although I grew up in Yorkshire.
I absolutely identify as a Scot, very, very much; but I think I have every right to identify as Scottish and British. I think that’s one of the miracles of the United Kingdom, that it makes that possible. I don’t see why I can’t have Edinburgh as my capital and London. I don’t see why I can’t be proud of English science and the English trade-union movement and English painters and feel that that’s part of my country, even if my nation and my national history is separate.
One of the reasons why you don’t want to go independent is that you [would] bring on yourself a series of incredible complexities and problems for very minimal benefit. I mean, the reason why I voted Remain and was against all this hard-Brexit stuff is the same reason that I’m in favour of the United Kingdom. The idea that somebody would wilfully bring on themselves those kinds of problems just fills me with horror. I mean, it’s just insanity, in the modern world, to create another border, another barrier, another set of distinctions. There’s a reason why we try to embrace difference, [which] is that we don’t have to deal with all the nightmares of division.
You use a lot of quite religious words – you have said, for instance, that humility is an essential characteristic of a politician…
A lot of my moral vocabulary, a lot of my perspective on purpose and action, is directly derived from Christian theology, and I continue to think that Christian theology probably has the most intelligent, thoughtful and accurate ways of engaging with questions of human nature and morality.
You’ve talked in the past about your father marching the family to church in Crieff. What kind of faith did you inherit from your parents?
It was a church-on-Sunday,-prayers-before-bedtime-type faith. It wasn’t a particularly complicated one. I became sort of more fervent when I was at school, and I read the Bible through from beginning to end in the summer holidays when I was 15 and found that very worthwhile.
I think now I’m in a more difficult position. My emotional sympathies are all with the church, and particularly with more traditional forms of Christianity. A lot of my friends are Christians – some of them are evangelicals – and I have an instinctive admiration for clergymen and sort of seek them out to talk to them. But at the same time, I… I suppose I’m somebody who has huge admiration for Christians and would deeply like to be a Christian, but I don’t find the Gospels easy. I think I continue to be sort of astonished and confused by the Resurrection, for example.
Do you feel that the traditional faith doesn’t hold up intellectually?
I think Christianity was very different before Darwin: a sense of the immanence of God – his direct role in creation, his direct presence, miracles, all these things – was a hugely important part of faith. And I think that as God has become more distanced and abstract and has been framed more and more within our own modern scientific worldview, it’s a very different type of God that you’re looking at.
Do you still read theology?
A lot of modern politics creates a fatal division between the private person and the public person, the person who dances and the person who speaks in the House of Commons
Yeah. I read the Bible a lot, and I’ve been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer11The German Protestant theologian who was executed at Flossenbürg in 1945 for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. His best-known books are The Cost of Discipleship (1937) and Letters and Papers from Prison, published posthumously in 1951. recently as well as Greene. If I’m thinking about a politician’s relation to society, I naturally will frame it in terms of a priest’s relationship to their parish.
I can see at least four Rory Stewarts. There’s the man of granular detail who distrusts ‘big words’ and works hard at solving practical problems. There’s the man who is driven by his sense of duty. There’s the wistful man who stands in Pul-e-Charkhi Prison in Kabul and reflects on the brutality of that place. And then there’s the man who loves Scottish country dancing and discos, loves his family, loves life.
What holds all of those different elements together?
I think these are unified by an idea of what it is to live a whole human life, to flourish as a human. Which is a practice arranged around purpose – in this case, public service; some idea of the common good to which this practice is directed, some sense of tradition which is being drawn on, which is both a moral and a cultural tradition and – and somewhere in that, anxieties about those traditions and about my place in them.
Particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, you have seemed to be keenly aware that whatever decisions you make, with the best of intentions, there are often unintended consequences that involve people being killed.
In an odd way, I think, these things are important to me as a way of explaining what I think is wrong with a lot of modern politics. A lot of modern politics is not granular, it is about big words and it doesn’t have much of a sense of romanticism or tradition, much of a sense of anxiety about our inability to predict consequences, [or] much of a sense of responsibility for those consequences. Nor does it have a clear sense of service or duty.
And, perhaps even more, it creates a fatal division between the private person and the public person, the person who dances and the person who speaks in the House of Commons.
|Published by Picador in 2006 (and known in the US as The Prince of the Marshes: And other occupational hazards of a year in Iraq)
|The administrative capital of the Iraqi province of Maysan, where Stewart was ‘deputy governorate co-ordinator’ in 2003–04
|By John Thompson in the Atlantic in 1968
|That is, the confrontation between the British and Russian empires in Central Asia, and especially Afghanistan, in the 19th and early 20th centuries
|The Marches: Border walks with my father (Jonathan Cape, 2016)
|‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods?’
Praise be to God who pities wankers
and has mercy on miserable bastards.
Praise be to God who pours out his blessing
on reactionary warheads and racists.
|Published in 1940
|The German Protestant theologian who was executed at Flossenbürg in 1945 for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. His best-known books are The Cost of Discipleship (1937) and Letters and Papers from Prison, published posthumously in 1951.
Rory Stewart was born in Hong Kong in 1973 and was eight when his family moved back to the UK. He was educated at Eton and spent five months with his father’s regiment, the Black Watch, as a second lieutenant on a short-service commission.
He read medieval history and then philosophy, politics and economics at Balliol College, Oxford. As a student, he was briefly engaged as a private tutor to Prince William and Prince Harry.
He joined the Foreign Office in 1995, and served as a second secretary in the British embassy in Jakarta in 1997–99 and then as the British Representative to Montenegro.
In 2000, he took leave to undertake an 18-month, 6,000-mile walk across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal.
In 2003, he was appointed by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq as deputy governor of two southern provinces, Maysan and Dhi Qar.
He set up the foundation Turquoise Mountain in 2005 and as its executive chair lived in Kabul for three years, working to restore a section of the old city and establish a clinic, a school and an institute for traditional crafts. He stepped down in 2010.
From 2008 to 2010, he was on the faculty of the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard as Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy (where he had been a fellow in 2004/05).
Having never voted Tory (and having been a member of the Labour Party in his late teens), he joined the Conservative Party in 2009 and the following year was elected to the House of Commons as MP for Penrith and The Border, with 53.4% of the votes cast. He held the seat in 2015 and 2017 with vote shares of 59.7 and 60.4% respectively.
He sat on the Commons select committee for foreign affairs (and also chaired the all-party parliamentary groups for mountain rescue and local democracy) until 2014, when he was elected chair of the select committee for defence, becoming the youngest select-committee chair in parliamentary history.
After the 2015 general election, he was appointed parliamentary under-secretary of state at Defra. In 2016, Theresa May promoted him to minister of state for international development, with responsibility for the Middle East and Asia. A year later, he was given the brief for Africa in both DfID and the FCO. In 2018, he was moved to the Ministry of Justice as minister of state for prisons.
He joined the Cabinet in 2019 as Secretary of State for International Development and was sworn into the Privy Council.
When May resigned five weeks later, he entered the race to succeed her as leader of the party (and, consequently, Prime Minister), coming fifth out of a field of nine.
He resigned from the Cabinet when Boris Johnson became PM. A few weeks later, he lost the Conservative whip after rebelling against the Government in an attempt to prevent a no-deal Brexit, and within a month he resigned from the party.
He stood as an independent candidate in the 2021 London mayoral election, but withdrew in May 2020 after it was postponed owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.
That September, he returned to academia as a senior fellow at Yale, teaching politics, grand strategy and international relations at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
His first book, The Places in Between (2004), became a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into nine languages. It won the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, a Scottish Arts Council prize, the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland award and the Caminos del Cid prize and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. An adaptation for radio by Benjamin Yeoh was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2007.
He followed that with Occupational Hazards: My time governing in Iraq (2006) and The Marches: Border walks with my father (2016), which became a Sunday Times bestseller and was named ‘Hunter Davies Lakeland Book of the Year’ in 2017. With Gerald Knaus, he wrote Can Intervention Work? (2011).
For BBC2, he wrote and presented the miniseries The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia (2010) and the two-part documentaries Afghanistan: The Great Game (2012), which won a Scottish Bafta, and Border Country: The story of Britain’s lost middleland (2014).
He has been a columnist for both the New York Times and the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald and his journalism has also appeared in the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Financial Times, New Statesman, Prospect and Granta. He has appeared often on television and radio.
He was made an OBE in 2004. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2005 and a fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 2009, when he was awarded the society’s Livingstone Medal. He has also received a Radio France award, in 2009, and the Royal Geographical Society’s Ness Award in 2018. He has honorary doctorates from Stirling University and the American University of Paris.
He married in 2012 and has two children (the first of whom he delivered himself).
Up-to-date as at 1 March 2021