The State We're In: Alastair Campbell Meets Rory Stewart

·23-min read

When Gary Lineker's company Goalhanger Films — geddit? — asked me to do a podcast with someone from the other side of the political fence, I asked my social media followers who they thought I should ask. Rory Stewart won by a landslide, and I was pleased when he said yes.

Reviewing The Rest Is Politics, the Financial Times called us ‘politics’ odd couple’. We are certainly from very different backgrounds, with different personalities and many different views, over which we try to ‘disagree agreeably’. But we do share the outlook that British politics is in a bit of a mess, the world is in a fair old mess, too, and Boris Johnson is a terrible human being.

We also share the view that, whether we like it or not, politics has to be part of the answer to the world’s problems. And despite – or is it because of ? – us both being politically homeless, we still think we have a role to play. We just haven’t worked out what it is yet. I was expelled from Labour for protest-voting Liberal Democrat in what turned out to be the final European elections, while Stewart’s refusal to back a no-deal Brexit put paid to his career as a Tory MP.

The public clearly find him more interesting than most politicians – and so do I. A former soldier and diplomat who took time out to walk across five countries and write a book about it, he became an MP in 2010 after his fellow Old Etonian David Cameron had sought to broaden the pool of Tory candidates.

Stewart’s quirky, restless manner and his fierce intelligence saw him rise fairly quickly, via several junior ministerial posts, to the Cabinet. When Theresa May was forced out, he made a decent fist from a near standing start of taking on Johnson and a host of other candidates for the Tory leadership. He then took a run at London Mayor as an independent. Now he runs a charity with his wife in Jordan, lives there with their two young sons and talks to me every week on Zoom about the state of the world.

AC: In terms of how you manage your life, to what extent are you thinking about your mental as well as your physical health?

RS: That became very important to me as a politician. I didn’t think about it before. I do two things: I try to run three to four times a week – three miles each time – and I meditate. That’s something I began six or seven years ago, when I did an 11-day retreat in western Massachusetts.

AC: My psychiatrist is always trying to get me to do a month alone in a Highland croft.

RS: It was like a monastery. There were lots of people there, but you had to maintain total silence and meditate for 14 hours a day.

AC: Wow. How did you find it?

RS: I loved it.

AC: What did it teach you?

RS: It taught me that I didn’t matter very much. Also, my relationship with my son was totally different afterwards. I returned to the family and was able to play with my three-year-old with a patience I’d never had before.

AC: What made you do it?

RS: I was very unhappy as an MP.

AC: But you were a busy minister, you had a young family – how did you carve out 11 days of silence?

RS: It was difficult.

AC: And what did you tell your private office?

RS: I told them that if there was an emergency, my wife knew how to break me out of there, so they could call her. They were very good about it. They didn’t bother me at all.

Photo credit: Julian Benjamin
Photo credit: Julian Benjamin

AC: That’s proof that the government can work without ministers!

RS: [Laughs] Exactly! And I did it again in August 2019 when I was no longer a minister, after Boris had taken over.

AC: So how does it work?

RS: You get a little room. You wake at 4am, meditate until 6.30am, break for a simple breakfast, then go back to meditation.

AC: All on your own?

RS: There are maybe 50 people in a dark room, totally silent.

AC: What do you think about?

RS: You think about your breath for the first three days, and then these tiny sensations from the top of your head down to your toes. You track them.

AC: Do you not get bored?

RS: I love it. I would do it for 40 days; it’s only the thought I should be with my family that stops me.

AC: Do you think you should have been a monk?

RS: It’s a bit like being a monk.

AC: Are you allowed to speak at mealtimes?

RS: No.

AC: Do you get thrown out if you do?

RS: I guess so. No one does.

AC: Is it just men?

RS: No, men and women.

AC: And no stuff going on between them?

RS: No, that’s forbidden.

AC: Why do you think I’m scared of this Highland croft idea?

RS: You’re a very busy man.

AC: So are you.

RS: Yes, but I feel you’re busier. You’re always on the go, always chasing things. I remember you were sending me lots of emails about the podcast on Easter Sunday, clearly not taking a day off. I think I’m more laid-back than you.

AC: My psychiatrist wants me to do the month in a croft because he says whatever causes my depression will percolate up through me.

RS: It’s definitely true that it reveals extraordinary things. It can be very disturbing. It was worst for me second time around. I realised just how angry I was with Boris Johnson. I had been suppressing it.

AC: I’ve never suppressed my anger towards him.

RS: When you’re sitting there in total silence, you realise the anger and resentment you feel.

AC: That’s really interesting, that it was about him. I’m guessing for most people it will be family, childhood, partners...

RS: For me it was Boris Johnson and a sense of such deep disappointment that people I liked in the Conservative Party had endorsed and backed him. On that second retreat it took me five or six days to concentrate on meditation because I was boiling with rage. I couldn’t quite believe that anyone could think that he could be Prime Minister.

AC: Do you think that you were questioning human nature?

RS: I felt a deep sense of betrayal. People I thought were honourable turned out not to be.

AC: Growing up, and as a young man, were you conscious of being mentally well, or mentally unwell?

RS: I was conscious of being mentally well, of feeling very lucky and not complicated. At 24 or 25, I sometimes felt I didn’t really have a soul because I was so happy-go-lucky. Then I did the walk – 21 months alone, 550 daysof basically not speaking. Even at night, I was in village houses, surrounded by languages I barely understood.

AC: It made for a good book – The Places In Between.

RS: Thank you. I think the walk really gave me my love for silent thinking.

AC: That was extreme, though. Do you think this all suggests you’re running away from something?

RS: There are definitely things I run away from, such as feeling guilty and ashamed about public life.

AC: But the walk was before you went into politics.

RS: That was responding to being a diplomat. I didn’t even like that. I felt I manipulated people too much. I was doing stuff ‘for my country’, but I felt shitty about the way I was encouraged to make friends, gain trust, while all I was doing was helping Britain, not them.

AC: But your dad was a high-ranking intelligence guy. You had grown up knowing what that kind of life is...

RS: I didn’t like it.

AC: Do you think walking across those countries was a way of paying respect to them?

RS: Yes. The real breakthrough came towards the end, in Afghanistan, in a small fort with some Tajik soldiers. They were very cold and isolated in a Taliban area. I had walked for 32 days and was cold and isolated, too, and we shared food together. For the first time, I felt a sense of connection, that I understood them.

AC: So, being a diplomat made you feel shitty and politics felt shitty...

RS: Yes. I loved running the Turquoise Mountain Foundation charity in Afghanistan. I moved there in 2005, stayed for three years, loved it. I felt totally honest. I was living my values. I wasn’t surrounded by bureaucracy because I was making the rules.

AC: What do you think politics does to the heads of the people who go into it?

RS: Very few of my colleagues who had been there for 10 years were fully human beings any more. There were exceptions, people such as David Gauke [former MP for South West Hertfordshire]. But most of them had lost the ability to listen. They became unbearably pompous.

AC: So, politics drives out humanity?

RS: It’s the life of perpetual campaigning, not really thinking, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’ but, ‘Will this sell well?’

AC: Do you think you might be feeling that strongly because Johnson is there now?

RS: I feel it was always like that; I felt it with Cameron in 2010. People’s minds get warped by all the campaigning. What is the message? How do I simplify it? How do I differ from my opponents? That doesn’t create good critical thinking. Critical thinking needs uncertainty and non-partisan objectivity. I was so disappointed in colleagues in ministries. You saw some great campaigners, but when tasked with thinking of a long-term plan for the environment, or fixing prisons, their minds were stuck.

AC: What did it do to your mind?

RS: It damaged my mind.

AC: Did your judgement become warped?

RS: Yes, absolutely. If you think of all the things you experience on Twitter all day, politics is an extreme version of that. It’s a weird, addictive world where you’re constantly thinking about who is up, who is down, who is up for promotion, how is my public profile, and so on. A Buddhist would say it was a world of illusion. It’s driven far too much by vanity.

AC: But politics can produce good things.

RS: The trick is to remember what you’re doing it all for and to reconnect with something real. That could be the constituency, but even that is strange because you aren’t a mayor and you don’t have a budget. The place to change stuff is as a minister, but that is filtered through hundreds of layers. It wasn’t like the charity in Afghanistan where I could adjust things, see problems, fix them. The danger of politics is that it can become abstract and very distanced from reality.

AC: I can identify with what you say about politics and what it does to people. But I do think that when we were in power, we were able both to ‘play the game’ and also have our eyes fixed on why we were doing what we were doing. I do feel with Cameron and, especially now, Johnson, that ‘the game’ is all.

RS: The MPs who remained most real were backbenchers. People such as Frank Roy, who was Labour MP for Motherwell. I went up to stay with him.

AC: Ah, I kent his faither! [I knew his father]

RS: He remained a real person; he had a genuine conversation with people.

AC: It’s a terrible indictment that you’ve been in politics – as an MP, minister, prospective Prime Minister – and your judgement is that it warps people.

RS: Yes. Fortunately, you’re a little insulated from that. Asa journalist, you were trained to listen – you have to. Most middle-aged men stop listening, they just talk. Also, by not being in Parliament itself, you were always able to have a certain detachment. But most politicians – even the great ones – are not fully human. I’m very fond of Gordon Brown, for example. He’s a grand figure, but I sometimes think it’s just like being with a marble statue.

AC: And Tony Blair?

RS: The problem for someone who doesn’t know him is that he’s so charming, so magnetic and engaging, that it’s hard to know what’s real.

AC: Theresa May?

RS: She is someone I’m deeply fond of.

AC: Is she a good person who has been warped by politics?

RS: With her, one instinctively trusts her – you feel she’s really trying. She’s not a natural; it’s a great effort.

AC: Maybe she was not so good at it as she’s not warped?

RS: Possibly that’s true. I don’t think she loved it and one of the things that drew me to her was the sense of pain she felt. When she came up to my constituency, I felt sorry for her, going from table to table, clearly not enjoying it.

AC: What about Cameron?

RS: I’m intrigued by him. His friends rate him. I’ve been reading the book by his chief of staff, who says he’s the most decent, wonderful man she ever worked with. I have a friend in the army who became his military assistant and loved him. I never saw that. Maybe he just had a clear sense of who his inner circle was. He didn’t rate MPs apart from that circle. He didn’t rate ministers in general.

AC: What is it about Johnson that provokes the special rage?

RS: I’ve been having dreams about him, in which I apologise to him.

AC: Wow! We really are talking ‘Talking Heads’.

RS: I feel weirdly sorry for him and guilty about how much I feel I have to attack him. He’s a truly monstrous figure, a figure from a morality tale: his appetites, his lies – it’s all so unreal. But I also feel the tragedy of it, what an awful life he’s leading.

AC: Do you think he’s unhappy?

RS: He must be. I don’t understand how he can live that life and be happy. I think he finds it impossible to tell the truth. The word ‘bullshitting’ is interesting: a liar is aware of the truth and misleads; a bullshitter doesn’t mind what the truth is.

AC: He’s a liar and a bullshitter.

RS: Yes, but mostly a bullshitter – saying whatever is convenient. It must be odd to have nothing you really care about. Even the things he claims to care about, such as the Romans, are all a joke for him. This new biography about him, The Gambler, is interesting. It draws on the fact he watched his father beat up his mother and how his upbringing bred someone tough and resilient, almost like a gangster. He has no moral framework. I can’t believe that kind of person is happy.

AC: Does our politics attract warped people, or does politics warp people?

RS: Mostly the latter.

AC: So, do you think that most politicians start off with good intentions?

RS: Not so much that they had good intentions, but that they were once normal people. In my intake, we had every different kind of person: Priti Patel, whose dad owned a corner shop; children of doctors; some who left school at 16; some who ran councils; colonels and sergeants; successful business people. Before they entered politics, you could have a drink with them and they would have sensible things to say.

But then there’s the humiliation of how they get their seats. They have to run for unwinnable seats before getting a winnable one. They have to leave jobs and families, move to a constituency, stuff leaflets through doors, spend time with mainly elderly members – all the while worrying that Central Office won’t give them a seat. Then, when they do get there, it’s made very clear that they’re lobby fodder, and that means you have to defend the indefensible. What matters is not whether you agree with the party line, but that you agree to defend it when you disagree. So by the time you’re a minister, you have been bullied and brainwashed – and your integrity is gone.

AC: And all the time they’re saying we have a wonderful democracy, the mother of parliaments. But you’re saying it’s bust.

RS: It is deeply bust. I look with envy at Angela Merkel and some of these German politicians. Maybe no system is perfect. Maybe with modern marketing and social media it means there’s even less space to be a rounded individual. But I’m sure we can do it better than this.

AC: Do most MPs think they can be PM?

RS: Yes.

AC: Did you?

RS: Yes.

AC: Has that feeling gone? It can’t have done because we get lots of people messaging the podcast and saying that you should have another go.

RS: It has mostly gone. I would love to be Foreign Secretary, but I think PM has gone.

AC: Do you think your political career is over?

RS: I don’t know; I’m feeling more bouncy again.

AC: So you don’t rule it out?

RS: I don’t rule it out. Maybe as time goes by, I’ll forget how bad it was. But practically, it’s hard. I don’t have a party.

AC: Can you see yourself in a new party, or in one of the old ones?

RS: The new party idea is interesting, but again the practicalities are hard.

AC: Were you not tempted by Change UK?

RS: No.

AC: What about Labour or the Lib Dems?

RS: Definitely not the Lib Dems. I have never really understood them.

AC: But maybe Labour, if they move in the right direction?

RS: I like Keir Starmer. But if I was to do something for him, it would probably be more as a civil servant than a politician.

AC: When you’re in a campaign, do you have to feel that you can win?

RS: 100% yes. You have to.

AC: So when you were in the race to be Tory leader, did you feel you could win?

RS: Yes.

AC: So what was it like when you lost?

RS: Awful. It was the most intense rejection. You’re putting your entire self out there, then you’re rejected. There was a moment when things were going well. I was leading in the national polls, I was second in the betting odds, there was a huge movement going, the number of MPs supporting me was doubling with every round. But it’s the rawest test of yourself and, in my case, I was putting myself out against Boris Johnson. You’re saying, ‘Are you going to pick me against this guy who’s evil?’ And they pick the evil guy.

AC: Evil is a strong word.

RS: I think he’s evil.

AC: What does that mean, though?

RS: It means there’s a complete absence of any moral conscience. He cannot distinguish between good and bad. He is amoral. We all know about this in our romantic lives. You put yourself entirely out there for someone you love, then they go for someone you thought was the worst person on earth.

AC: Would you say that defeat hit you physically and mentally?

RS: It hit me in every way. I was crushed. It took me two years to start to rebuild my confidence. Covid helped in that I didn’t have to go anywhere. Until that point in my life, everything was so easy. When I set up the charity, I had insane confidence. I had no money, the Afghan government was not onside, the community was not onside, I had no experience, but we did it. We built things we wanted to build. I persuaded 300 people to help me. Most of them thought I was crazy, but it worked. So politics was my first real experience of doing something quite badly. I was bad at the business this immense public failure. Twice. First the Tory leadership and then going for Mayor of London. That was an even madder gamble, running as an independent against two major parties, with no money, no machine, but thinking I could beat Sadiq Khan on force of personality alone.

AC: But your confidence couldn’t have been that low if you thought you could do that...

RS: It was a sign that my confidence was low. I was just trying to get back on the bike.

AC: Did you get what I would define as depression?

RS: Probably not in the way someone who has been seriously depressed would know it; that would be disrespectful to people who get seriously depressed. I felt low and unmotivated. I found it very difficult to decide what to do Stewart says that he was ‘crushed’ after being knocked out of the Tory leadership contest in 2019 with my life. I spent seven months planting trees and building walls, and the jobs I was thinking of taking were like retirement jobs. Did I want to be head of an Oxford college? In my normal, healthy state, I would have said no, why would I want to potter around doing that? I’ve got energy. But I thought it could be nice. You get a nice house in Oxford, not much work...

AC: I’m loving thinking about all the Oxford college heads you’re insulting here...

RS: [Laughs] It’s only recently that I’ve discovered the energy to do other things.

AC: Do you think that you’re more of a civil servant than a politician?

RS: That’s hard to answer. Early on as a minister, I was too much like a civil servant. The huge breakthrough for me as a minister came at a select committee, when I was with the chief executive of the Prison Service. We were being attacked for the disgusting state of Liverpool prisons. They asked us whose fault it was. The chief executive gave a classic civil servant answer: very complicated, multi-faceted, not easy, etc. They asked me and I said, ‘It’s my fault.’ I was just two weeks in the job as Prisons Minister, but suddenly after that everything opened up.

Photo credit: Julian Benjamin
Photo credit: Julian Benjamin

AC: You had power.

RS: I had power. Then I said I would resign if things didn’t turn out okay. Then the machine came in behind me.

AC: Now, can we talk Eton? I get a bit of flak for going on about it on the podcast, but do you think kids who are sent away to boarding schools get damaged?

RS: You can see this weird Eton thing in politics right now. It produces incredibly competitive and resilient people. I know you say they couldn’t get a job in a chip shop if it wasn’t for their privilege. But they’re clearly doing something right.

AC: They produce people who are good at working the system that they perpetuate.

RS: It really is unbelievably competitive. The thing I remember most was how at the end of every term they read out the overall results in the school in front of everyone. There were 250 in my year and they work their way backwards: 250th Campbell, 249th Cameron...

AC: I love the way you put me last!

RS: As they go on, you’re thinking, am I twentieth, am I tenth, am I eighth?

AC: So I see the whole thing as elitism. You’re saying it’s about competitiveness?

RS: Insane competitiveness. You’re fine if you’re good at something – academia, sport, music, acting – and if you’re in the top 10% to 15% overall, all is fine. But the rest are miserable. They also train you to create alliances and be competitive in that, too.

AC: Deliberately?

RS: These schools were set up to train people to go into the Empire.

AC: So now we don’t have one, they train people to run the country.

RS: They don’t create happy people but driven people.

AC: Were you happy?

RS: Not very.

AC: I can’t imagine sending my kids away to school. And I’m sure I would have felt very resentful if I had been.

RS: I was sent away at eight.

AC: Scared?

RS: No, I was a happy eight-year-old.

AC: You didn’t mind leaving home?

RS: Not so much. I do remember the first night in the dormitory, though. A roomful of weeping eight-year-olds.

AC: A sadist teacher there thinking, ‘This will make them more resilient’?

RS: It’s a weird system. It’s not just about privilege: training people in a weird way.

AC: Your dad was away a lot.

RS: More when my half-sisters from his first marriage were growing up. He was amazing for me. He was 50 when I was born, so 54 or 55 from when I remember him. He was at the top of his profession, but he got up at 6am and played with me for three hours. He barely knew his own father, who was in India and only had leave every four years. He saw him when he was two. When he was six, his father was ill, so he didn’t see him again until he was 10. His father took him and his brother to Skye for two weeks and shouted at them, then he went back to India. When I asked my father about his father, he would describe how he looked. I’d say, ‘But what was he like?’ And he would say, ‘I really don’t know.’

AC: You said that after your meditative retreat, your relationship with your son improved. Had you worried about that?

RS: Yes. Because I feel grateful to my own father. He lost his brother in the war – they were close – and he retained a childlike love of toys. When he was playing with me aged six, I think at some level he was playing with his brother.

AC: Was it a sign of your confidence coming back that you agreed to do the podcast?

RS: Yes, I’m enjoying it. It’s interesting how obsessed people are by people from different backgrounds and parties being able to talk sensibly. And even though you can be very punchy, they like that we disagree agreeably. People are exhausted at the relentless clashing in our politics.

AC: People are also fed up with the way a lot of the media does politics. I have pretty much given up on papers. It’s good for my health.

RS: Less Twitter – that would be good for my health.

AC: We both love trees. How much is nature – especially trees – part of your wellbeing recipe?

RS: Very important. I can go out for an hour and a half and just gaze at trees. I love the fact they’re alive. I love that something can be so spectacular, as big as a building, and it’s growing. I have planted 3,500 trees over the years. The more you learn about how they’re moving and communicating, the more fascinating they become.

You Might Also Like

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting