1 May 2019 – Rory Stewart – The man who would be king
New International Development Secretary Rory Stewart has said he intends to stand for the Conservative leadership after Theresa May steps down.
But what do the political pundits think?
The political Hoi polloi decided early on that Stewart was “too unusual” to become Prime Minister but his friend Matthew Parris, once a Conservative M.P., and now a well-known writer and broadcaster said of him:
“Most of the people who have become Prime Ministers have been strange,” he said. “John Major is much stranger than anybody thinks. Harold Macmillan—there are elements of Harold Macmillan, the showman, in Rory. Benjamin Disraeli was very strange, and so was Gladstone. Margaret Thatcher was completely bizarre. Tony Blair is some kind of delusional confidence trickster. And Gordon Brown is completely mad.” He added, “I think he might fly very high, and he might just drift and fizzle out.” He said that the initial concern of the Conservative leadership was that Stewart might prove to be “not really a sticker, not a stayer.”
Another friend is Felix Martin, a macroeconomics and bond investor . Educated in the UK, Italy, and the US, where he was a Fulbright scholar he has degrees in the classics, international relations, and economics.
He is a lifelong friend of Stewart who, when asked to comment on what motivated him to pursue the unconventional, thematically grand, and invariably risky pursuits he was famed for said: “His role models aren’t from this century. He’s out of kilter with the modern world.”
Yet another friend said: ” His interest in hero figures stems back to a childhood that’s absurdly precocious and doesn’t seem quite real. His entire life has the feel of an Edwardian adventure novel”.
About Rory Stewart:
Rory Stewart was born in Hong Kong in 1973. His early years were spent in Malaysia where he inherited his father’s love for the rain forest, learning lessons in jungle survival from him and the local Dayak tribesmen whom his father had worked with during the counter insurgency campaign.
His father, Brian Stewart, was an officer in the Tyneside Scottish (the Black Watch) regiment.
After WW2 he became actively involved in counter-insurgency in the British colony of Malaya. Highly intelligent and almost dialect perfect in seven Asian languages he progressed into the diplomatic service.
Stewart’s mother, Sally was an economist and academic. A bit of an adventurist in her own right she drove herself from London to Malaysia to take up a post with the Malay University.
With such a heritage it was no surprise that he was a prodigy who displayed a remarkable intellect, which his parents were keen to develop. At the age of six he could recite the epic saga, (all 560 lines), “Horatius”, (a one-eyed Roman hero who singlehandedly turned back the invading Etruscan).
He was never a child in the real sense of the word, being comfortable in the company of adults whom he would charm with his knowledge of poetry and the art’s. From birth to his early adulthood his life was spent in museums, embassies, lectures, universities. An added gift was his ability to listen and learn.
Small and wiry, Stewart inherited his father’s physical toughness and excelled in boxing, fencing and trekking. He also embraced his family mantra of; Honour, service, self discipline, hard work and stoicism.
Stewart entered Eton, (England’s most exclusive secondary school). By that time he had read the entire works of, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and T.S. Elliot. He went on to read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky before the age of 15.
Sir Eric Anderson a tutor of note said, “He’s one of the most remarkable boys I’ve taught”. Invited to join Eton’s prestigious Essay Society, he wrote and delivered a comprehensive paper on the, “warrior hero”.
He also honed his persuasive skills and soon developed an ability to ingratiate himself to the most influential people in any company. On the occasion the School’s top students were invited to dine with Prince Charles, Stewart so charmed him that he wound up becoming the tutor to his sons, William and Harry, for a summer at Balmoral, the royal retreat in Scotland.
In the gap year after Eton, (before enrolling at Oxford) he spent some months with the Black Watch regiment in which his father and grandfather had served.
At Oxford he indulged in boisterous behavior at Balliol College. He was a leading member of the, “Piers Gaveston Society”, the notorious social club known for secret parties and skimpy dress code.
On completion of his studies at Oxford, Stewart was head-hunted by the British Foreign Office. Not long with the agency he was fast-tracked and employed for two years, in London working on Japanese economics.
In the summer of 1997, in recognition of his intimate knowledge of the area, he was promoted and transferred to Jakarta, a move that coincided with the, Asian economic crisis of that year.
Stewart predicted the rupiah would fall dramatically and it did, bringing with it public disorder and the removal of President Suharto.
He excelled in the crisis spending most of his time developing a dialogue with the local population gathering valuable information which proved to be really useful to the British Embassy.
Expanding upon knowledge gained he soon became well acquainted with all the major power players in Jakarta, which helped both professionally and socially.
It was a lifestyle full of fashion models, film stars and other socialites and Stewart revelled in it. He developed a playboy lifestyle, in fitting with his top of the range BMW and sartorial tailored white linen suits. The elaborate dinner parties where the dress code was Mandarin-collared jackets and traditional Javanese sarongs for the ladies, were the place to be seen in the new society.
Critics thought he was patronizing and a throwback to the days of Colonialism. Contrasting the lifestyle Stewart loved trekking, (a trait inherited from his father) and he often spent time away from his duties, thriving on the rush of adrenalin exploring wild, remote and hazardous. Fear did not feature in his personality.
Stewart returned to Scotland and spent many happy months exploring the beautiful highlands, walking many miles enjoying the solitude of thought.
The stimulus drove him to the decision to walk around the entire world. His family thought he must be quite mad abandoning a blossoming career with the, Diplomatic Service at age 27y to become a hill walker. This was not the party loving son with whom they were so well acquainted.
Joe Spence, Stewart’s mentoring teacher at Eton, the man who urged young man to read Carlyle’s classic lectures on heroes, considers the decision to walk philosophically. “A hero must have an element of danger,” he says. “And a hero is a person who works outside the expected parameters of governments and institutions. Stewart is very respectful of those of us who work within systems, but he needs to work alone. When he went on that walk, he walked out of all institutions.”
Taking the advice of his father Stewart decided to walk the world in chunks. Firstly, Central Asia. Then Europe. Then the Americas.
In August 2000 he, (with a limited knowledge of Farsi) started a journey setting out on foot from the Turkish-Iranian border, heading east towards Afghanistan.
His fathers extensive diplomatic contacts ensured there would be safe passage across Iran, The Iranian secret service authorities even assigned an experienced hill walker to him for the duration of the trek.
His 3 months of backpacking was halted by the Iranian authorities who decided his presence was no longer welcomed in Iran and he was told to curtail his walk and leave the country.
The Taliban then refused him entry to Afghanistan and Pakistani authorities barred him from Baluchistan.
Stewart would not be denied his mission and restarted his trek in the Punjab. Very determined he “went native” blending totally with the locals so that he would be able to make progress undetected by the authorities.
His journey took him across Pakistan and into India. He began to read Buddhist and Hindu texts and after more than a year his personality started to change. He matured losing the aggression of youth.
Having crossed India he made his way to Nepal. In Nepal his health deteriorated and he began to doubt the wisdom of his journey. He had walked 5000 miles!!
Then came the shocking news that the USA and UK had invaded Afghanistan and had cleared out the Taliban. He would now be able to walk across Afghanistan.
Using his many diplomatic service contacts he engineered a meeting with a senior member of the new Afghan government. In the course of the meeting the official intimated he was quite mad to contemplate a walk from Herat to Kabul in the middle of winter through the mountainous snowbound Hindu Kush. “You will surely die. But if you must go it will be arranged”, said the official.
Stewart, fully attired as a native and accompanied by a three man bodyguard, set off on his trek in the middle of January. In the course of his journey he met with thieves, vagabonds, warlords, goatherds, jihads and smugglers.
He learned quickly that the only way to deal with any success with the Afghan was to persuade them of your invincibility through a display of bravado and offhandedness which was usually met with humility on the part of the native.
On one occasion towards the end of his trek he was confronted by an armed gang, with whom he remonstrated over a minor matter. The leader of the group punched him in the face. Although hurt he did not flinch, and simply asked that the man return his walking stick since it had value to him. The stick was returned. Stewart, went on his way. On another an armed group threatened to shoot him. His response was, “if you must you must”. They let him go.
His adventures later took him to the ancient Islamic tower the, “Minaret of Jam” which standing about 230 ft. was, isolated and surrounded on all sides by high cliffs.
Local history had the place as being the fabled, “Turquoise Mountain”, seat of the last great Afghan dynasty. But this had never been confirmed.
Where archaeologists had failed Stewart succeeded. He happened across a series of half filled trenches, littered with broken items of pottery and beautiful but badly damaged pieces of porcelain. Upon further investigation he discovered that locals had been digging up and taking away rare pieces of Terra-cotta, marble friezes, and ivory for sale to smugglers.
Local tribesmen had succeeded where the experts had failed and had uncovered an ancient city which they stripped and destroyed in a few short weeks.
Stewart found the Afghan society difficult to comprehend. Violence and ill treatment of women was commonplace but he reasoned they seemed at ease within it. He went home to Scotland. Stewart didn’t feel like walking any more. It was the latter part of 2002.
At the beginning of 2003 news Stewart learned that the, “The Black Watch” His family regiment, would spearhead an allied attack on Basra, (the major port in the south of Iraq).
Recent experiences in Afghanistan, (where he had observed, at first hand the happiness of locals at the removal of the Taliban) further strengthened his strongly held belief that the West had an obligation to intervene in Iraq and bring about the removal of the tyrant that was Sadam Hussein.
In Iraq, (following the defeat of Iraq) the USA & UK created the, “Coalition Provisional Authority” a civil service staffed and led organisation.
Stewart, by now back with the diplomatic service was appointed to the post of Deputy Governor, first in Amara then Nasiriyah in the south of Iraq.
He took up his new duties in September 2003 with the primary mission to create a fully functioning government in the province.
Stewart prepared for his task with meticulous care, convening extensive meetings with well connected Iraqi ex-pats in London.
An avid reader, he studied many Iraqi historical documents, books and journals.
His Scottish heritage provided him with an understanding of the make up of the Iraqi nation and he became aware of the paramount place the, “clan” structure system held in the Iraqi society.
There were 21 such clans in the areas of responsibility delegated to Stewart and he knew the fine details of each intimately.
He achieved limited success in provinces still bogged down in the on-going aftermath of the war but brokered an inter-clan peace agreement in the aftermath of the murder of the local police chief in Maysan.
He introduced, (with limited success) a jobs program in Nasiriyah. But, as proved to be the case throughout Iraq the mission soon got caught up in tribal warfare and anti coalition protests.
Violence very quickly escalated and the coalition headquarters in Nasiriyah had to withstand a siege, (lasting 3 days)in the course of which Islamist terrorists fired over 250 mortar shells and rockets into the compound.
The military eventually regained control but the mission was aborted. The diplomats left Iraq.
Asked to provide a pen picture, his boss, Sir Hilary Synnott, Regional Coordinator of Southern Iraq said: “He had zeal, and a 19th-century style. He’d wear these tailored suits and cuff links when everyone else was dressing down. The Iraqis loved it, felt it showed them respect.”
A close working colleague, Charlotte Morris said of him, “No one else had near his level of understanding. He got all of it from reading books and talking to sheikhs and other people. As things got worse, people made excuses not to go out to talk to people. He never did that”.
The experience left Stewart feeling decidedly pessimistic about what foreigners could achieve in Iraq and the conclusion that the U.S. and Britain should pull their troops out of Iraq without further delay.
Some time after, he was appointed to a senior post in Harvard University.
In a, (2 hour) lecture to students, on the lessons to be learned from the Iraq war he recited the entire history of Iraq, from the biblical period, to the present day, naming personalities, important historical events, the clan system, political parties and allegiances, influential religious ayatollahs and terrorist leaders and factions together with their minor but important differences.
He also explained the intricacies of, “Sharia law”, (based on a strict interpretation of the Koran) which governed Iraqis in the area.
He went on to advise that in any election the many various groups, (all with their own fully armed militias and differing perspectives) would be certain of gaining 90% of the vote.
In a question and answer session afterwards a student complained, “The picture you have just painted is over complicated”. In response Stewart said; “the reality is that this situation is unbelievably complicated and I have only just provided you with a brief analysis of 3 of the main political parties.”
He went on to say; “there were 54 political parties in my provinces, and I can, if you wish extend the lecture to include the other 51 parties.”
A student piped up, “But you’re paralyzing us.” Stewart replied, “I want to paralyze you. I want you to understand why you cannot go into Iraq with a list of six easy points about how to build a democratic society.”
He wrote a book, “The Places in Between” about his walk across Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Afghanistan and another book about his time in Iraq, “The Prince of the Marshes.”
In 2005 there was growing concern about the wanton destruction of Afghanistan’s ancient artifacts, relics and antiquities.
Stewart’s response was to create a charity the, “Turquoise Mountain Foundation”.
By this time he had rekindled his friendship with Prince Charles who joined with him gathering finance and friends to the cause.
Soon after Stewart returned to Kabul with the mission to create jobs and to protect and preserve the culture of the nation.
On arrival in Kabul he found a nation stripped of it’s culture, artistes and craftsmen who had deserted the country in favour of safer places.
A visit to a much bombed and looted National Museum revealed the loss of about 70% of it’s relics and the pathetic state of the remaining collection.
Observing the work of the few curators he despaired witnessing them attempting to restore ancient stone statues with glue.
Determined not to waste precious time assessing needs, preparing extensive and complicated plans bringing about improvements Stewart approached one of the most powerful and influential men in Kabul. Gaining his support was the breakthrough he needed.
The, old city of Kabul, (Murad Khane) had from the early 1700’s been a prosperous trading area, a key crossroads on the Silk Route, merchants and top officials lived there amid beautiful gardens and fabulous complexes.
Time had not been kind however and it was now a warren of mud buildings, without plumbing, sewage or electricity.
Residents defecated and relieved themselves in the open. The smell of hashish was overpowering and many decades of accumulated garbage had distorted passageways to a depth of about two metres.
But where others viewed the area as a slum, Stewart saw past the disaster and envisaged a beautiful Islamic city.
Successful restoration returning the city to it’s former glory, would have immediate, lasting and far-reaching impact, for Afghanistan and, quite possibly, glory for Stewart himself.
He decided to restore the old town, but this would be a major undertaking and risky, since the area was scheduled to be levelled to the ground.
Moving fast he garnered additional financial support using his, by now extensive circle of contacts in the media.
Ever the hero he set about the task with gusto. He hired a team of locals and put them to work clearing rubbish from the passageways, (nearly 3000 tons removed).
This done he hired builders, electricians, plumbers and a wealth of other craftsmen and repaired, rebuilt many homes.
In tandem with the foregoing he established a school employing elderly but competent master craftsmen, teaching traditional Afghan woodworking, calligraphy, and pottery to students who in turn helped with restoration work.
Over time parts of the old town were returned to their former splendour. Beautiful woodwork emerged, with intricate plaster work and stained glass giving reminder of the many influences.
Undeterred by the harshness of winter Stewart, slightly built and a bit bow-legged, was always on the go moving freely around in knee deep snow showing boundless energy, leading the varied teams of artisans in their work.
In his mind he became as one with his hero, Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan and the founder of the great Mogul Empire, who at age 22 had made the same journey in the winter of 1504 as himself.
In his book about his journey Stewart wrote, ” Although ruthless in combat, Babur loved poetry, wine, music, and flowers, and he created great Mogul gardens across his empire to celebrate these pleasures.” Babur is buried in Kabul.
In Kabul, reflecting his acquired status Stewart took up residence in a 19th-century royal fort and restored it, at no little expense to it’s former grandeur.
The Turquoise Mountain Foundation school in which calligraphy, woodworking, and pottery was taught is located on-site together with offices for the architects and engineers working on the Old City restoration.
Each day 50 students attend classes reconnecting to a heritage brought to it’s knees by 30 years of conflict.
Stewart, openly critical of western style post conflict development agencies, was called to defend his work against his critics and insisted TMF was different maintaining that working with locals improving their environment over an extended period of time, ( much as the church missionaries did in times past) provided work in the community and in consequence raised their standard of living.
There was a risk that the £3 million investment would fail and all would be lost. But against this there was the certainty that all would be lost should there be no investment.
Stewart held a strong belief in the colonial system of government stating: “Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing”.
Ever the colonial officer, he said: ” I learned the local language, spent an entire career in one place, and answered to both a strict overseer back home and a potentially mutinous population in country. Things got done.”
Throughout the duration of the project Stewart “walked the talk” always distinctly dressed usually wearing a khaki coloured shortened trench-coat and similar trousers topped off with a brilliant white shirt, jade cuff-links and highland brogue shoes.
Carrying himself erectly, exuding pleasantry, his conduct was very much akin to that of an old style colonial lord.
In stark contrast he always had his, cell phone and laptop, to hand, continually making and receiving calls, checking his emails and/or compiling long philosophical essays for some major media client.
Ever in demand he clocked up many air-miles flying back and forth to London and the USA, meeting with British and USA government ministers and attending interviews with major media outlets, raising the profile of the foundation.
Topping off his busy schedule he also authored many lengthy articles covering just about every country in Central Asia.
His relationship with Prince Charles was further cemented at the time he and the Prince completed a very successful fund raising tour of middle east countries. Stewart was a busy man
In the USA and UK, Stewart achieved the hero status he desired.
At the tender age of 29, he had walked 600 miles, alone across Afghanistan, in the midst of the United States invasion and had written a best seller about it, “The Places in Between”, a book the, “New York Times” said was, “a flat-out masterpiece.”
Soon after that he served as deputy governor of two provinces in southern Iraq and wrote a second critically acclaimed book, “The Prince of the Marshes”.
The books provided a ground-up perspective that’s been mostly missing from the political debate over Iraq and Afghanistan, and ever since their publication, everyone from British politicians to television news programs in the United States were clamouring for his opinions and analysis.
In the course of 2006 TMF expanded from 1 to 350 employees.
Stewart gained the backing of President Karzai and through his office established the, “Educational Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture”.
With the expansion came vastly increased financial resources, mainly from the USA government.
In one year the foundation spent about £15 million on educational training, completing the restoration of 60 houses.
Professor Noah Coburn, an eminent American anthropologist and his wife Shoshana volunteered to work for the Foundation.
Within months of her arrival, Shoshana, 31, was asked by Stewart to take on the role of chief executive of the Foundation. She accepted and went on to become its Managing Director.
Little did Professor Coburn know that his marriage would founder and that his wife would end up being charmed by Stewart.
A friend said: “Noah was absolutely devastated when his marriage broke down. He loved Shoshana very dearly.”
In 2008 Stewart was appointed Professor of human rights at Harvard University.
He was responsible for teaching and running an academic faculty as Director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy.
But he insisted on retaining the role of Executive Chairman of the Foundation in Afghanistan and Harvard fully supported this.
In 2010 Stewart’s new love Shoshana, divorced Professor Coburn and moved to London to live with him.
In that same year Stewart, was selected as the Conservative candidate for Penrith, which he duly won for the party at the general election.
Stewart, perhaps thinking he was back in Afghanistan, (not Penrith) enraged his constituents by saying at interview, “Some areas around here are pretty primitive, people holding up their trousers with bits of twine and that sort of thing.” In full flow he went on, “I have a constituency with 52,000 people and a million sheep.”
February 2014: Rory the Tory’s Hadrian’s Wall hand-holding Stunt
Speaking in a House of Commons debate on Scotland’s place in the UK, Stewart said: “It cannot be simply economics. If a relationship is going wrong, if a marriage is going wrong, the answer cannot simply be to say ‘you can’t afford to break up because you are going to lose the house. The answer has to be only one thing, which is, I love you.
What we need is the human expression and on 19 July this year I’m hoping that 100,000 people will gather along that old, foreign, Roman wall – English, Welsh, Irish, Scots, holding hands, linking arms across that border. Because in the end what matters is not the wall that divides us but the human ties that bind in the name of love.”
30 March 2014: More on Stewart’s hands over Hadrian’s Wall stunt
Britain’s most extraordinary MP is half Scottish, half English. You sense his head is south of the border but his heart has always been in the Highlands.
He had been an officer in the Black Watch, (albeit only for a few weeks prior to the invasion of Iraq). He wears a kilt a lot of the time and even plays the bagpipes.
His equally extraordinary father Brian, retired to the family seat in Perthshire after a lifetime of adventures and spends his time eating haggis as a deliberate affront to his guests, according to his son.
He hates the thought of Scots voting for independence in a referendum later this year since being a Londoner he does not have a vote.
His big decision would come afterwards, if his countrymen and women voted yes. “Scottish independence will mean he would need to decide to live as an immigrant with a life outside Scotland, or choose to return to Perthshire. He said: “I really resent the idea of having to choose. I would rather, be British.”
He is of the view that there was little difference between the Scots and the English before the Romans. The population lived in what he termed a Middle-land stretching from the Humber to the Tyne and beyond, a place of shifting kingdoms but a common culture.
He went on to say: “Hadrian literally drew a line on the map – created this pernicious scar across the landscape – and in doing so set up, in a way he could never have imagined, problems that would last 1,600 years.”
It was his destiny to repair the damage of history hence his intention to motivate 100,000 people to join with him linking arms across the wall. He said: “the argument is about love not economics.
13 April 2014 BBC Border Series Designed to let Rory the Tory Tory build a case for a “No” vote
The BBC was accused of being “naive, insensitive and biased in allowing Penrith and Cumbria Tory MP Stewart ( who is planning a mass campaign to save the Union) to present two hour-long programmes about the border between Scotland and England.
In his BBC2 documentary Border Country: The Story of Britain’s Lost Middleland, (broadcast over the first two weeks of April 2014) the MP described the English and Scottish nations as artificial constructs, calling the border between them a “pernicious scar, first inflicted by the Romans 2,000 years ago”.
Stewart concluded the series stating that it was unclear if an international state boundary would return: “whether the Romans will win through — that harsh artificial line, that border that divided nations and pitted them against each other”. (The Sunday Times)
But Stewart also acknowledged there were distinct differences between the Scots and English stating: “I think I probably began filming feeling that the programme would discover was that there was a strong sense of British identity and that there would be no difference either side of the border.
But I found that Scottishness and Englishness are actually strong instinctive things, whatever the historical reasons. Even the accent changes – just two inches across the border.” And was that a disappointment?
His answer: “Yes, I think it was; in personal terms, definitely. Because I thought I could undermine the whole idea of splitting by emphasizing these multiple historical identities, resurrecting the old kingdom of Cumbria, or Northumbria, and making people see they have a common heritage. What is sad for me is that people didn’t feel that common heritage and that Hadrian had done his job too well”.
Stewart thinks Britain has an identity crisis. A democracy that doesn’t work, and a power vacuum: “The politicians think the journalists have power, the journalists think bankers have power, bankers think lawyers have power. The truth is nobody has power.”
But he at least is connected to those who vote for him. His mission being nothing less than, “to imagine a more serious British civilization, raising our sense of ourselves.”
4 July 2014: Cumbrian MP’s Mass Independence Protest Cancelled
The highly publicized “Hands Across the Border” campaign organised by MP Rory Stewart (MP) gathering 100,000 people together holding hands along the England-Scotland border in a protest against Scottish independence folded due to a lack of interest.
The symbolic gesture designed to: “show the love that existed between the four nations of the union” – was backed by the Unionist’s (but ridiculed by the independence movement in Scotland) had been scheduled to take place on 19 July 2014 ahead of the Scottish independence referendum in September.
Ever the optimist Rory the Tory said: “I am determined that Hands Across the Border will go ahead in some form or other.”
30 July 2014: Rory the Tory’s Union Cairn at Gretna
Recovering from the setback of his failed hands across the border stunt Stewart tried a new tactic. He would , build a border friendship cairn.
His initial initial thinking was to encourage 800,000 people to bring a stone to the site near the border and help build a cairn.
That plan failed and he was forced to fork out £10K purchasing stones (including delivery) from a local builder.
But he had no workforce, despite extensive free BBC media coverage and the huge pile of stones gathered dust at the site.
Salvation came in the form of a team of JCB drivers provided by boss Anthony Bamford, elevated to the Lords by Cameron after the referendum. whose £5m plus donations to the Tory Party including private jet travel and helicopter rides. The result was an impressive 8 foot tall cairn completed in 5 days.
Stewart’s tail was up and a few days before the referendum, ably assisted by the BBC he arranged a series of media and press events, roping in a hotch-potch group of over exposed media friends who were very happy to give the impression to the Scottish public that the cairn had been built through the efforts of tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the World.
4 September 2014: Rory the Tory’s Cairn in Danger of Collapse Due to Lack of Interest
A brief visit to Gretna
For centuries, the border town of Gretna has been a haven for eloping English couples taking advantage of Scottish law to legally wed at 14 (for boys) and 12 (for girls) without parental consent.
In a field just behind the shopping centre there was a small pile of rocks. Some were coloured in red, white, and blue — the shades of the union flag — and carried slogans like “Stay Together” and “Never Apart.” Passers-by were invited to stop a while and add a stone to the pile.
This was the “Auld Acquaintance Cairn,” the brainchild of Rory Stewart, Conservative member of parliament on the English side of the border.
It was meant to symbolize the connections between the different parts of the United Kingdom.
Stewart had said he hoped it would reach nine feet tall. But it was barely at three feet with less than three weeks to polling day. In the half an hour spent at the cairn, nobody else stopped by. The message was clear.
The “no” side might be the media favourite to stumble across the finish line first in the coming referendum, but it had singularly failed to make an emotional case for retention of a United Kingdom. Nationalists had won the argument that Scotland could be a separate state.
The question now was whether they would be able to persuade their fellow Scots that it should be. If they could, what seemed unimaginable just a few months before would become a reality.
6 September 2014: The Auld Acquaintance Cairn
On the Scottish bank of the River Sark, bang on the 500-year-old border between England and Scotland, a pile of stones is rising.
Its structure, comprising inner and outer circular walls connected by a walkway, recalls a sort of Bronze Age chambered cairn.
Yet this one, raised stone by stone by thousands of patriotic volunteers, is barely two months old.
Named The Auld Acquaintance, it is the brain-child of a charismatic local politician, Rory Stewart.
The Tory MP for Penrith and the Borders was frustrated by the bloodless, pocket-book nature of the unionist campaign in Scotland’s independence referendum, due on September 18th and said:
“In the end this is for me not about economics. It’s about a long-term relationship. The union has existed for 300 years and we’d like it to last another 300 years. Relationships are about respect, commitment and love and unless England and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland love each other then we don’t have a country. The cross-party unionist campaign, “Better Together,” has made its case almost entirely on desiccated economic arguments, concerning the risks to Scotland’s currency, state pensions and jobs that independence would entail. They may be sufficient to deter Scots from voting to leave this time—though the latest polls suggest the contest is getting awfully tight. Yet if, as an influential poll has suggested, most Scots could be swayed by whichever side, unionist or secessionist, could make them £500 a year better off, that is a paltry argument for the prolongation of the most successful union of nations in history, which leaves it vulnerable to the slightest shift in economic fortune.”
There is no other organised outlet for such sentiment. Britons living outside Scotland—including some 800,000 native Scots—have no vote in the referendum. And Better Together has created no comparable rallying-point. Remarkably, Mr Stewart’s pile of rocks is perhaps the only feature of the Scottish referendum campaign that starkly suggests it has any more import than a routine general election.
It is surprising, therefore, how little interest it has attracted from other politicians. The cairn has been visited by celebrities and senior soldiers—including the actress Joanna Lumley, the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the former Scottish boss of British special forces, Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb—but by no cabinet ministers. Better Together’s Labour Party leaders have refused to endorse it, or even provide Mr Stewart with their mailing-lists.
Two weeks from the referendum vote, the cairn, built without planning consent is complete, courtesy of the Bamford’s JCB workforce—built to a height of nine feet, with some 230 tonnes of rock.
08 September 2014: Thousands of English folk from across the border visit the cairn
The cairn at Gretna reached completion almost two weeks ahead of schedule and visitors travelled to the site and placed their stones and messages ahead of the September 18 independence referendum.
Stewart, the creator of the project and MP for Penrith and the Border, said: “I’m overwhelmed. It’s difficult because we’re trying to work out what to build next. It’s a really good problem to have, but it’s a challenge. I’d much rather have this problem than the opposite one.”
Hands Across the Border is now further developing the project so people can continue to come and add to the landmark, which is already 33ft in diameter and 9ft high. It has been filled with more than 300 tonnes of stone brought from quarries.
Stewart added: “In a debate which has been dominated by finance and economics, it represents an opportunity for the silent majority who care deeply about the Union and Scotland’s place in it to show that there is more that unites us than divides us.”
8 September 2014; Showdown in Scotland – Public Opinion Shifting in Favour of a Break From the United Kingdom.
All of a sudden, Scottish politics got very interesting. That Scots would reject independence from the United Kingdom in a referendum on 18 September has been conventional wisdom from Washington to Westminster for practically every day of a two-year-long campaign on the matter. But not any more.
On the evening of 1 September, the Scottish Twittersphere, febrile at the best of times, went into meltdown. A fresh poll had just been released showing the “no” camp just six points ahead of the “Yes” side.
The same pollsters had put the “no” camp’s lead at 14 points in mid-August, and a whopping 22 points earlier the same month, excluding undecided voters.
Yet the 1 September poll was no outlier. As if on cue, a 6 September poll had the “Yes” camp holding a 51-49 percent lead.
The polls gave a scientific sheen to what anyone who had spent recent time in Scotland had noticed. Support for independence was building. “Yes” stickers and the Scottish Saltire flag appeared just about everywhere in the first 2 weeks of September.
Across Scotland, particularly in poorer urban areas, the political landscape shifted in the nationalists’ favour.
Rumours were rife that Rupert Murdoch’s widely circulated tabloid, the Sun, would declare its support for independence in the week before the referendum. A “Yes” outcome was still an outside bet with the bookmakers. But the odds were shortening fast.
What made the surge all the more remarkable was that the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond, was widely seen as having lost the first debate with Alistair Darling, the head of the “no” campaign. But despite Salmond’s televised travails opinion polls rose slightly in favour of the nationalists after the debate.
Then, in late August, the SNP leader destroyed a lackluster Darling in the second and final live clash. Unsurprisingly, pro-United Kingdom spin doctors in the press room looked visibly worried.
Unionist solicitude’s may have come too late. “Better Together”, as the “no” side is called, maintained a relentlessly negative tone, earning it the nickname “Project Fear.”
Just days before the latest opinion poll, a “better together” video featuring a housewife unable to think about independence amid the clatter of family life was roundly criticized for being sexist and condescending — which is particularly damaging, as the female vote could prove decisive in just under two weeks’ time. The video went viral many sites picking up on the “patronizing BT lady.”
Moreover, a parade of (mainly London-based) celebrities calling on Scotland to stay in the union was more cringe-inducing than voter-swaying.
Warnings against independence from Unionist supporting international leaders had little effect on a Scottish electorate fed up with the interference from foreign powers.
Opinion polls consistently suggested that most Scots favoured enhanced devolution (that is, more powers for the Scottish Parliament) over full independence, but
The three Unionist party’s — Conservative, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats comprising “better together” failed to present a common program for greater devolved powers after a “no” vote.
Instead, the party’s marriage of convenience became increasingly strained as the referendum campaign dragged on.
Traditionally the dominant force in Scottish politics, Labour was forced to share platforms with their gravest political foes, the Tory’s.
Cameron’s Tories are pariahs in Scotland, holding just one of 59 seats in the Westminster parliament being guilty of the savage de-industrialization of the country in the Margaret Thatcher years.
The Liberal Democrats, were routed in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections — punishment for their decision to enter into a coalition with Tory’s in London.
Pro-independence forces had something their unionist opponents largely lacked: a dedicated, highly motivated grassroots political movement the likes of which Scotland had not seen in many generations.
In places such as Easterhouse, on the outskirts of Glasgow, the independence message was driven not only by the SNP, but by new groups such as the Radical Independence Campaign, a left-wing organization formed in 2012.
Canvas returns suggested that most Scots in working-class communities intended to vote “Yes.”
For many Scots let down by the established political system, independence was seen as a risk worth taking.
Glasgow, for example, has some of the worst mortality rates in the whole of Europe.
In the Calton district, male life expectancy is just 59 years.
That said, the nationalist clarion call to abandon a “broken Britain” did not just play in housing estates. Polls suggested that younger voters were coming over to “Yes” in ever-increasing numbers. Thousands of grass roots activists were mobilized, many for the first time.
How did the movement gather activists and achieve the gains?
The SNP campaign mirrored the 2008 President Obama strategy asking Scots to choose between hope or fear. Promoting a vision of an affluent, nuclear-free Nordic-lite independent Scotland balanced against a salutary dose of doom-laden warnings about never-ending Tory rule and erosion of the devolved parliament’s powers.
But the key difference between the approach of the SNP and that of “better together” was the nationalists decision to wait until the last month of the campaign to go negative — a tactic that seemed to be work, judging by opinion polls.
Additionally, while unionists had the weight of the status quo behind them — and the advantage of incumbency — the nationalists attempted to make it a referendum about not just Scottish independence, but also the Westminster political system.
In calling for “Independence in Europe,” the “Yes” campaign expressed a populist opprobrium of establishment politics that resonated with many voters. (https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/09/08/showdown-in-scotland/)
18 September 2015: Penrith and Cumbria Want Their Own Deal, (free from Westminster control)
Penrith and Cumbria activists routinely crossed the border and campaigned hard against Scottish Independence in 2014 – and having been instrumental in assisting the “Better Together” campaign in gaining a “no” Vote the same voters campaigned Westminster seeking devolution mirroring that provided to the Scot’s.
In the wake of the referendum Prime Minister David Cameron promised to devolve even more powers to Scotland – sparking calls for greater devolution within England as well.
Carlisle MP John Stevenson, who is Scottish, told The Cumberland News:
“A lot of water has passed under the bridge in the last year. I do not believe there is an appetite for another referendum. There’s an acceptance that the people of Scotland made their decision. Nevertheless, Scottish politics has changed dramatically since May 2015. There is a bill going through Parliament that will devolve significant new powers to Scotland. The interesting thing for Cumbria is it’s appetite for similar devolution in England. We are starting to see it in Manchester and Teesside and it’s important we in Cumbria are not left behind.”
A 14-strong group – including all of Cumbria’s major councils united and submitted a bid to Westminster seeking a Cumbria Deal. If granted this would see Cumbria, politicians gaining an unprecedented control over the county’s economy and public services, potentially opening the door to up to 30,000 jobs, boosting the county’s economy by an eye-watering £1.3bn.
14 Feb 2016: Unionist campaign group “No Borders” fined after finally lodging accounts
One of the biggest-spending “no” campaign groups in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum has been fined after filing late accounts.
The “No Borders” campaign, spent nearly £463,000, making it the top spending non-party “no” group after “better together”, lodging its overdue accounts at Companies House many weeks after the deadline.
Founded by millionaire Scots Tory donor Malcolm Offord, “No borders”, billed itself as a grass roots campaign airing the views of ordinary people.
However much of its cash came from established Tory and Labour donors and it paid £3,000 to Professor Adam Tomkins of Glasgow University, now a Tory Holyrood list MSP, to write for it.
Offord’s co-director in “no borders” was Fiona Gilmore, head of London PR firm Acanchi.
The accounts say Acanchi incurred media buying and production expenditure of £128,771, on behalf of “no borders”. Gilmore herself donating £7,499, (£1 below the threshold for a public declaration.)
Offord had resigned as a director in January 2015, leaving Gilmore as the sole director. She blamed an “admin oversight” for the late filing. “It will be a matter for me as remaining director to take up with the accountants,” she said.
She said “no borders” spent most of its money before the regulated period began. Its output included press and cinema adverts, testimonials, billboard posters, a website and a social media presence.
The monies raised were spent airing the the parameters of the pre-official campaign since there were no limitations on spend at this time.
Response from potential “no” voters had been mute until May 2018 and “no borders” encouraged “no” voters to get involved (The Herald)
November 2016: Stewart and his father’s last long walk together
In December 2014, eight months before his death at the age of 93, Brian Stewart sat for a painting commissioned by Prince Charles forming part of a series of portraits of D-Day veterans.
Stewart, who had led an anti-tank platoon which destroyed over a dozen enemy Panzer tanks was shown with a chestful of medals and the red hackle of the Black Watch on his cap.
He was troubled by the picture. He wrote to his son: “I do not like being remembered as a half-demented, melancholy, puzzled old man.”
But Stewart remembered his father through the eyes of a five-year-old when his father was an MI6 director, ‘Q in James Bond terms.
Stewart and his 93 year old father decided to take a bracing walk along Hadrians Wall.
His father termed the area around the Scottish border ‘The Middle-land’ believing it belonged to hybrid Scots struggling with debates over many centuries of Scottish independence. Indeed thousands of soldiers who had served in his father’s wartime battalion, The Tyneside Scottish, Geordie’s were forceful in their claim to be Highlanders.
Stewart considered his father to be a brilliant eccentric, a sort of cartoon laird, all tartan trews and buffered views, the Selkirk grace and a tot of whisky never far from his lips.…So the political backdrop was the 2014 referendum and national identity.
In what ways were the Scots and the English different, and in what ways did they feel themselves the same?
Stewart’s father tired more quickly than hoped and they were forced to abandon the walk and drive back to Perthshire.
But the walk had provided opportunity for discussion and agreement that whilst there were no material differences between England and Scotland and the two countries had interwoven histories and cultures, there were now many differences in each countries societies.
Stewart and his wife Shoshana had their first child in November 2014. He delivered the baby himself.
In the years after 2014 Stewart’s fortunes increased. Already a member of the, “Foreign Affairs Select Committee” he was voted in to the powerful position as chairman of the, Defence Select Committee. Accepting his election Rory said it was a very, very great honour. His meteoric rise to the top continues.
Stewart’s contribution to the 2014 Scottish referendum
Stewart is a highly intelligent, single minded individual who meticulously plans anything he is minded or required to do.
He does nothing by accident and solicits advice from no-one but gives every indication that he is thoughtful and attentive.
His slight figure and Forest Gump appearance is deceptive and lulls the casual observer into a false sense of superiority.
He is as tough as old boot leather and in any conflict would naturally command and provide effective leadership. A tough cookie, Stewart is very much his father’s son.
His contribution to the Scottish independence referendum was noteworthy for the way in which he manipulated the media and public, directing their mindsets towards goals he had decided on nearly one year before.
Namely the establishment of a permanent reminder (the Auld Acquaintance Cairn at Gretna) from Rory Stewart to Scotland.
The foregoing witnesses the planning and execution of his agenda:
- Using his contacts in the BBC he let it be known that he intended to walk Hadrians Wall from East to West and his thoughts on the Roman Empire, environmental matters and historical relationships between the English and Scots living in the borders area might be of interest to the corporation.
- The BBC grasped the nettle and holding it tight committed to the production of three documentaries featuring Rory and his thoughts.
- Rory went off on his week long jaunt along the wall accompanied by a full BBC production team.
- The documentaries were broadcast on BBC2, over three evenings (at prime time) just as the Scottish referendum campaign was entering its high profile stage.
- A masterly manipulation of the first part of his agenda fully assisted by the strictly impartial BBC.
- Buoyed by his success, a few weeks after the broadcast Rory went on to brief parliament (televised of course) that it was his view many hundreds of thousands of individuals living in the borders and other countries did not wish to see Scotland leave the UK because they loved the Scots.
- To prove his case he announced that he was organizing a “hands across the border” event, scheduled for late July 2014.
- This would entail recruitment of 100,000 of the “love Scotland individuals” who would join hands along Hadrian’s Wall proving their solidarity with Scots who wished to remain in the Union.
- MP’s in the house were seen exchanging looks of incredulity some fighting hard (but failing) not to smirk.
- The late July deadline loomed. Recruitment had stalled at less than one hundred (just enough to cover the M74) and Rory announced the project had been cancelled in favour of something more relevant but Scotland would need to wait and see what he was planning.
- Mid August, in a blaze of publicity, generated first by BBC Scotland then the Scottish press Rory introduced his new project, “the Auld Acquaintance Cairn” which would be built by volunteers in Gretna , just over the border. Stewart’s lovein was back on.
- Over the next three weeks the BBC and press carried numerous progress reports citing the support of many media personalities (photo opportunities guaranteed).
- There were many photo’s of children and pensioners carrying slabs to the cairn, which didn’t seem to be getting any bigger.
- The media pulled back (reputedly acting on instructions).
- All went quiet until the second week of September when BBC Scotland and Scottish press returned to the site of the cairn with a vengeance.
- The cairn was complete and it was an impressive structure. The volunteer schoolkids and pensioners had excelled themselves.
- It was pats on the back all round.
- The media had an enjoyable day winding up Scotland’s “yes” supporters.
- What was not reported by the media was the £10,000 purchase and supply to the site of a large amount of local stone and slate.
- and that the cairn had been built by a team of specialists provided by the JCB corporation
- The boss (who is also a major financial donor to the Tory party) was later awarded a peerage by David Cameron.
- The cairn continued to attract publicity up to and after the referendum.
- Claims being made that it was attracting many hundreds of thousands of visitors bringing additional business to Gretna.
- This is utter balderdash since visitors to Gretna are attracted there for other reasons.
- But Rory is happy. He achieved what he set out to get.
- Self promotion at the hands of the plebs.
- Remember the foregoing when you next happen across Rory the Tory.
Stewart and his book, “The Myth of Union”. (Comments by an Unknown Reader)
Stewart is right to suggest that identity not economics should direct the debate over Scottish devolution, but he displays little understanding of Scottish identity and how it is viewed by many Scots today.
His long sojourns south of the border and overseas seem to have blinded him to the interests, outlook and concerns of many Scots today.
If he had spent more time in the land of his birth he would have been better positioned to appreciate the differences in accent, outlook and sense of identity on either side of the border which has shaped Scottish communities.
For Scots, south of the border is another country where they immediately feel less at home and among peoples who values they cannot always share.
Stewart has a mystical faith in the redemptive powers of the 1707 Union of Parliaments and in the notion of a “Great Britain” which emerged.
A hangover from the days of empire which Scots find it increasingly difficult to relate to.
Edinburgh, Glasgow or even Brussels, not London are Scots centres of gravity.
Even the concept of “Little Britain” appears an amorphous entity which attempted to remove our sense of Scottish identity and no more so that in the 20th century.
We shall grow and develop further within our own homeland and find our larger selves within our common European heritage and in the larger world and in the meantime retain our bonds of friendship and family and common interests with those south of the border.
The right to be governed by people who we choose – rather than governments (largely) elected by the South of England – is the real issue here.
You can continue to ‘feel’ or be Scottish, British or any other nationality but Scots need to have a government that reflects the wishes and hopes of the Scottish people in Scotland.
Accepting Stewart’s logic Ireland should re-join the UK and the Scandinavian countries should all also merge.
Scottish devolution is only moving in one direction. Scots are a distinct group of people who want to be governed separately from the rest of the UK.
If the ultimate point of keeping the Union together so that members of a family can have the same passport? Who cares? “Families would be split”? Get a grip.
Families would not be split just because a document that used a few times a year begins to be issued by a different public authority. Perhaps it is because so many people in the UK live inside an English language-centric, ‘Great’ Britain bubble that they don’t realize how normal it is for families all over Europe to have family members with different passports. And it really, really doesn’t matter.
Stewart’s comparison with Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal is flawed and misleading. There are many similarities with these countries, as well as differences. Just like with Scotland and England.
Residents of the British Isles will still be able to be Scottish and English when Scotland is independent. Just like you can be Scottish and Irish, Scottish and Canadian, American and Scottish, Pakistani and Scottish etc – we all know people who would describe themselves in these terms.
Governments in both the countries that the person identifies with do not need to be the same – that would be silly. The argument is not purely about identity, or economics – though these are factors.
The argument is about whether Scotland would benefit from the transfer of all decision making powers from London to Scotland. and it would.
We don’t exist in a vacuum, and relationships with England, the EU, the UN etc will remain very important.
But I prefer to give the final words of this article to a Scottish war hero, the late Brian Stewart, father of Rory.
Brian termed the area around the Scottish border ‘The Middle-land’ believing it belonged to hybrid Scots struggling with debates over many centuries of Scottish independence.
Indeed thousands of soldiers who had served in his father’s wartime battalion, The Tyneside Scottish, Geordie’s were forceful in their claim to be Highlanders.
In their final walk together father and son agreed that whilst there was little material difference between England and Scotland and the two countries had interwoven histories and cultures, there were now very many differences in each countries societies. Scotland should be independent.