September 16, 2023 - 12:15pm

Rory Stewart’s conversation with UnHerd’s Tom McTague, on the These Times podcast, is exceptionally interesting. Whatever your views on Stewart’s politics, he doesn’t sound like a politician: he is much too thoughtful and reflective and eloquent. In particular, he is willing to contemplate the tensions and contradictions in his worldview — between a high Tory romanticism and a technocratic respect for competence, between a love of liberty and an authoritarian reflex.

Tom did a great job in teasing out these contradictions — do listen to the whole thing.

One exchange jumped out at me, when Stewart was asked about the Covid lockdowns. Many will remember that he was one of the earliest to demand full national lockdowns and school closures — he made great play of it, and it is still quoted as an example of his good judgement (see last week’s Henry Mance interview in the FT).

But when Tom asked him if he still thinks they were a good idea, Stewart’s answer was equivocal at best. Am I reading too much into it, or does he hint that he is coming around to the view that they were a mistake at the end of this section? Here’s the full exchange so you can decide for yourself.

Tom McTague
You were early out the door on lockdowns. That is the most hyper-use of technocratic government that you can possibly imagine, right? The state tells you what to do on everything. There is a lot of controversy now about whether that was right, although you got a lot of benefit from it at the start. What’s your view on that now: were you right, or do you look at Sweden or somewhere like that and think you were wrong?

Rory Stewart
I think the jury to some extent is out. There’s no doubt that Britain was about the middle of the pack. In the end what Boris Johnson did, which was to be reluctant to lock down in the beginning and then extend the lockdown beyond what anyone could have imagined, seems to have put Britain about in the middle of the pack.

My instincts there — and you’re absolutely right, it’s a conflict within me — I have two instincts in government. One of them is: decentralisation, liberty, let people get on with things, the Government doesn’t know what it’s doing; but the other thing which comes out of “the Government doesn’t know what it’s doing” is get on with it, grip it, take a grip, make a decision, because the Government is just going to faff around.

Tom McTague
There’s a huge tension there. The Government is both useless and can’t do the small things, so you want it to do all the big things.

Rory Stewart
You’re completely right: it’s a huge contrast. And I think I’m coming down, as I reflect on this over three years, much more on the “get the Government out of the way, decentralise, delegate down”.

If Stewart has indeed concluded that the lockdowns were a net harm, and example of the wrong instinct in government, it would be helpful for him to spell it out, given that he was such a vocal proponent of them.

is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.