Alex Massie

Rory Stewart’s Long March to the Border

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It's a curious feature of British politics these days that an ex-army, ex-FCO hand educated at Eton and Oxford can reasonably considered a "new" kind of politician. Then again, Rory Stewart isn't your average Old Etonian. Assuming, as seems likely, he wins Penrith and the Border he seems likely to be the new member of parliament who will be the subject of more envy and perhaps jealousy than any of his peers. So be it.

I rather enjoyed his account, published in the Sunday Times today, of the walking tour he's made of his prospective constituency. There's much good sense in it and, frankly, one approves of the idea of an MP making such a progress on an annual basis. This too has an appeallingly old-fashioned feel to it. And there's some good sense too. This is, I think, the key point:

Walking has given me more than I hoped: living in Cumbrian homes and experiencing the great distances between communities. It allows me to learn from a hundred people I might never have encountered by car. But it has not provided neat solutions. It is easy to see they should have listened to the gritter driver about his truck — but I’ve found out that the government has spent three times as much on upgrading a mile-long footpath as on the entire affordable housing for the district. This is not just about an individual’s decisions, it is about budget lines and regulation insurance and a whole way of looking at the world. I realise that to change government needs not just cutting regulations or giving parishes control of money, but also shifting an entire public culture over decades.

This is not Afghanistan, with officials behind security walls, doing short tours, making extravagant decisions about people whose language and culture they barely comprehend. The people I meet are able to fight for things they value and understand. From Brampton, where a woman tells me of the 30-ton boulders that the council laid in a car park — “as though there had been a meteor shower over night” — and her campaign “to get them back to Mars”; to a parish councillor 50 miles away who had got round council rules by laying the access ramp to the working men’s club himself at night, Cumbrians are balancing their tolerance for government with acts of initiative and subversion.

Quite. Changing or shifting this kind of bureaucratic culture is, alongside rescuing the public finances, the biggest task facing a putative Conservative government. David Cameron sometimes makes encouraging noises about this but the proof, as ever, will be in delivery not the promise of action. Here, alas, one must counsel some scepticism since the attractions of power are such that all the incentives lie in consolidating, not decentralising power. In other words: believe the Tory mantra of localism when it happens and not before then...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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