The Centrists are back, baby, and this time they are bringing with them the solution for our polarised times. Such seems to be the theme of the past week, what with former MP and would-be Prime Minister Rory Stewart talking about his new book and how to fix the system, and George Osborne and Ed Balls announcing a new podcast, “Political Currency”. It is billed as two formerly bitter rivals now talking in civilised fashion about the economy, and drawing upon the great reserves of expertise shared between them.
With a straight face, the multi-millionaire architect of Tory austerity under Cameron tells us that new podcast will “expose how the powerful become powerless when faced with economic forces they can’t control”. Meanwhile, Balls has been filmed drumming in a band called Centrist Dad, performing a Sex Pistols number alongside ITV’s Robert Peston. Who ever said that middle-aged technocrats don’t have a sense of humour?
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Certainly, in terms of exhibiting the traditional technocratic vice of advertising expertise as a way of consolidating personal power, the pair seem off to a flying start. Their podcast has already been glowingly endorsed by influential cronies. David Cameron has tweeted that the podcasters “really know their stuff”. Michael Gove has remarked — perhaps with the sort of sincerity he has become renowned for — that these are “two of the sharpest minds I know”.
Stewart, meanwhile, already has a very popular podcast with Alastair Campbell called “The Rest is Politics”. Like the Osborne and Balls roadshow, this too is framed as bringing sensible, well-informed discussion to the masses from rather different political perspectives, modelling reasonable disagreement along the way. In reality, though, it’s a chummy love-in between two liberals with similarly middle-of-the-road instincts. In a recent episode, the pair spent a lot of time talking about which of them looked better in a kilt at Stewart’s birthday party, and how nice it was to see Theresa May and “Willie Dalrymple” on the dancefloor there too. Vidal versus Buckley this is not.
Though their schtick suggests otherwise, a typical discussion between Stewart and Campbell tends to be quite superficial — citing a few facts gleaned from the broadsheets, a sprinkling of views from this “really, really interesting guy” or that “amazing professor”, but hardly venturing to explain to any sceptics listening what exactly makes their views so interesting and amazing. (In an episode last month, a listener asked which literary character each presenter would most like to be. Stewart chose Prince Andrei from War and Peace; Campbell chose Faust. When pressed by Stewart to justify his choice, Campbell answered: “I think that would be really interesting, yeah.”)
But for me, the most irritating thing about “The Rest Is Politics” is that it has pretensions to de-escalate and depolarise, and yet still patronises the life out of a huge number of voters: namely the supposedly weak-minded fools who voted for Johnson or Trump. “Populist” leaders are habitually presented as an obvious enemy, and the most charitable explanation Stewart and Campbell can muster for anyone voting for them inevitably involves susceptibility to manipulation, either by a corrupt media or by the politicians directly. Perhaps they assume that it is more palatable for grown adults to be called gullible than iniquitous, but I’m not so sure.
Stewart’s new book, meanwhile, is basically a plea for more intelligence in politics. He first entered parliament with a lively, inquisitive mind, a strong sense of duty, and a frankly astonishing CV that included tutoring Prince William, acting as governor of an Iraqi province under occupation, and running a NGO in Afghanistan. Yet once an MP, every aspect of the Tory party system seemed to conspire to subdue his native wit and initiative.
He soon discovered that the only acceptable activities for a newbie were toadying up to leaders and slavishly following orders. If you asked a searching question about an incoming piece of legislation, you were mocked. If you knew more than the average person about a particular policy area, this would be treated as a positive reason to keep you away from it. Phones pinged constantly with the latest messaging to be memorised, and the whips were ruthless in crushing free thought and free movement. Working for Liz Truss at Defra, she advised Stewart to “never be interesting”, though he didn’t listen.
Little by little, Stewart started to feel that parliament “reduced” him. Soon after giving a maiden speech comparing himself to Scott of the Antarctic, he found himself hiding in the toilets rather than voting as directed by the whips. A funny speech of his went viral — in which he talks Latin about hedgehogs — but few of his carefully prepared, serious interventions made a dent. Once he started to get slightly bigger political jobs, the list of people who wouldn’t listen to his good ideas grew longer by the year. Civil servants, ministers and prime ministers, ambassadors, foreign dignitaries, and world leaders all remained stubbornly oblivious. Eventually he got a job as prisons minister, and was for the first time allowed the autonomy and resources to make a tangible positive difference.
His story certainly illustrates a pressing issue. Running a country these days involves oversight of hundreds of highly complex systems and sub-systems — economic, technological, judicial, diplomatic — directed at whatever goals currently judged socially desirable by voters or their representatives. Yet as Stewart said in an interview this week: The truth is… politicians don’t really know what’s going on. And yet we pretend to the public that we do.”
One suggestion in the book is that those destined for ministerial portfolios should be recruited from relevant specialist backgrounds, and then given enough time to see their initiatives through to the end. He bemoans the fact that “fluent Chinese speakers, decorated colonels, physicians, lawyers and many successful businessmen” were left on the backbenches by Cameron and May. New ministers are “amateur outsiders on very short tours, whose successors could introduce completely different agendas”.
Stewart clearly dreams of a system in which brilliant MPs of the right vision and experience are left to get on with innovation at the operational level, unhampered by the gloomy obstructions of The Blob and the reshuffling whims of their leaders. He is less clear about why the experts he wants in the system have to be MPs; why could they not, say, be members of a reformed, more collegiate, and less obstructive civil service? The implied answer seems to be: because that way, Stewart wouldn’t get to run things.
Still, few could disagree with his general sentiment. The cost of the Tories’ phobia of details are vividly sketched. At their most surreal, Stewart’s recollected exchanges with those in charge of the country read like the darkest of Evelyn Waugh satires. As Secretary of State for Defra, Liz Truss tells him: “I don’t believe in rural affairs, Rory. I think there is no relevant difference between rural and urban populations.” As Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson asks him to “sort out Libya”, describing it as a “bite-sized problem”. When Stewart demurs that the UK has no embassy there and so no real diplomatic influence, Johnson tells him to be more optimistic: he just has to motivate people.
The obvious dangers of technocracy include corruption and voter disenfranchisement. Stewart seems to think the antidote is a more participatory politics, involving things such as citizens’ assemblies to “build consensus”. If there had been a citizens’ assembly on Brexit, he thinks, “you would have ended up with a customs union”. This is a common enough technocratic fantasy, floated many times before by those such as Obama and Clinton: that if people with adequate intelligence are given access to the right sort of detailed information and time to think about it, their conclusions about practical decision-making will converge.
But to me, this just further betrays the extent to which, for all his talk of avoiding polarisation, Stewart is still mired in the classic patrician attitude of the educated liberal who equates “clever” with “good” with “what me and my friends think”. His fantasy just isn’t true. Even when people agree about all the relevant facts in some domain, their radically different values will affect how they each respectively order and prioritise those facts, and what outcomes they then favour. And this does not necessarily make one side or other stupid.
Arguably, to genuinely lessen political polarisation, what the public needs is to witness robust, reasoned disagreement between people who differ radically on both facts and values, and yet who don’t resort to lazily dismissing each other’s characters or intellects in the process. But this is not what they get from “The Rest Is Politics”, and I suspect it won’t be what we get from “Political Currency” either. In the latter case, I predict many casual references to really really interesting guys, quite a lot of unconvincing football banter, and a bit of ribbing about Keble versus Magdalen. It seems we have no shortage of former politicians who think they are clever and interesting. We may even have some actually clever ones, like Stewart. But what we really could do with is a few wiser ones.
In the latest episode of These Times, Tom McTague sits down with Rory Stewart. Listen here.