Perils and Pitfalls of the Political Life

REVIEW: ‘How Not To Be A Politician: A Memoir’ by Rory Stewart

(Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
November 12, 2023

In 2008, the British diplomat, colonial governor, and rumored spy Rory Stewart took up the position of director for the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard. Stewart, who at this stage believed that he could have global influence rather than merely parochial reach, was enamored of the politicians he met, whom he called "much more serious figures than their British equivalents." He half-praises John Kerry and Al Gore as possessing "magnificent hair, the sonorous tone of Old Testament prophets and white-toothed smiles designed to be seen by crowds of thousands," and although Stewart criticizes Kerry for lacking charm, "I felt I was glimpsing what it might have been like to dine with Roman senators on their way to becoming marble statues."

Had Stewart remained at Harvard, then his latest memoir might have been an engaging enough odd-man-out account of how this very English figure (late of Eton College and Balliol, Oxford) found himself adrift in American academia; possibly something not dissimilar to his New York Times-bestselling earlier book The Places In Between, in which he described how, in 2002, he walked across Afghanistan. Yet Stewart was courted by the three main political parties in Britain to serve as a member of Parliament, and when he tentatively asked a friend in a New York diner what she thought about his becoming an MP, she replied briskly: "I think that is a very bad idea."

Had Stewart heeded his friend’s advice, then he would undoubtedly have found himself serving with distinction in some other sphere. But he did not, and How Not To Be A Politician is the result. Stewart was elected to become MP for the North England constituency of Penrith and the Border in 2010, where he served for nine years, until he resigned from the Conservative party in protest at the machinations and maneuverings of the-then prime minister Boris Johnson: a man who he has not missed an opportunity to criticize publicly since his defenestration from high office. Since then, he is the cohost, with the political broadcaster and former Labour communications director Alastair Campbell, of the hugely successful podcast The Rest is Politics, and has spent time in Yale as a Jackson senior fellow teaching courses including "the challenge of politics." Well, now you can spend your $30 and save a great deal of time and money, because Stewart is going to outline precisely what is wrong with contemporary British politics. How you fix it is another matter altogether.

As anyone who has read his earlier, acclaimed books will know, Stewart is an excellent, humane writer, as befits a man who is probably the best and most literate communicator that British politics has had in decades. In many regards, he is a throwback to a more distinguished and dignified time, of Churchills and Baldwins, although he would be the first to admit that his political career was an unimpressive one. Denied ministerial office until the Conservative party was (to the surprise of many) elected with an outright majority in 2015, Stewart then held an eclectic variety of posts, including Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Growth and Rural Affairs, Minister of State for International Development and, briefly, the prestigious post of Secretary of State for the same department.

Before he was elected to Parliament, he made it clear to the Conservative leader David Cameron that his considerable talents would be best used at ministerial level, rather than squandered as a lowly backbencher. Cameron admonishes him by saying "if you are lucky enough to find a seat, and be elected, you will find that being a backbench Member of Parliament is the greatest honor you can have in life. I may be lucky enough to be prime minister but when I cease to be prime minister I will return with great pride to the back benches as Member of Parliament for Witney [a small town in Oxfordshire] for the rest of my life." Stewart then caustically remarks, "Seven years later, when Cameron resigned as prime minister and then almost immediately resigned from his seat on the back benches, I learnt something more about him."

It looks unlikely that Stewart will ever return to the mainstream of British politics again, and so this book has the determined air of a bridge-burner. Cameron comes across spectacularly bad—arrogant, rude, and more interested in presentation than achievement—but his treatment is kind compared with the character sketches of subsequent prime ministers Liz Truss ("her genius lay in exaggerated simplicity") and Stewart’s bête noire, fellow Etonian and Balliol man, Johnson.

Anyone who has heard Stewart’s often angry denigrations of Johnson on The Rest is Politics may be surprised at the relative lack of denunciation of a man he has described as "the most accomplished liar in public life" elsewhere, but there is the memorable description of the future prime minister revealing a set "of small uneven teeth" while grinning, and that it was "the anxious half-grin of a toddler who has been caught splashing bathwater." Stewart then observed that "he had seemed serene, cheerful and cheeky. Not resilient, so much as indestructible."

When they clashed in 2019, as Stewart stood against him for the party leadership, there was no serious chance that the younger man could win; those who supported Johnson knew his lack of moral caliber, but did not care, as they believed he would bring them victory in the subsequent general election. The memory of what happened in 2017, when Prime Minister Theresa May—whom Stewart clearly admires more than her predecessor and successors—nearly lost the election to the hard-Left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn still traumatized his parliamentary colleagues.

Many of the British politicians Stewart ridicules are anonymized, and in any case will mean little to most readers on this side of the Atlantic. Yet what he does, brilliantly and terrifyingly, is to observe how little most politicians are actually capable of doing, given that they are shuffled between jobs before ever getting a proper grip on the responsibilities of the work. He observes at one point, as his and many other constituencies are flooded, "it seemed that a minister in a crisis was less of a chief executive and more of a press spokesman, a coffee-server, a source of money, and a mascot." The actual responsibility for running Britain lies with the vast behemoth of the civil service, unchanging with every new government that comes in; the politicians can posture and gesticulate, but accomplish remarkably little.

How Not To Be A Politician is called Politics on the Edge in the U.K., but the American title is better. It’s angry, funny, has a rare profundity when it comes to examining the absurdities of human nature when magnified through the prism of Britain's parliamentary democracy, and leaves the reader feeling somewhere between exhilarated and depressed. Stewart notes in his acknowledgments that he wrote the majority of the book at Yale, which accounts, perhaps, for the feeling of detachment from his home country that he so elegantly maintains throughout. Should this most restless of men decide to return to the United States, his memoir of his time in that country should be easily as readable and fascinating as this.

How Not To Be A Politician: A Memoir
by Rory Stewart
Penguin, 464 pp., $30

Alexander Larman is a journalist, historian, and author, most recently, of The Windsors at War: The King, His Brother, and a Family Divided (St. Martin’s Press).