Rory Stewart’s Diary: My walk around Britain, hard borders and why politicians must talk about love

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In my race to be Conservative leader and prime minister, I’m walking through different parts of the United Kingdom, going up to people in the street and trying to engage them in conversations about politics. I hope to demonstrate that there is a way of winning an election and changing the country for the better – that does not involve a no-deal Brexit. More than that, I want to prove that a no-deal Brexit divides party and country and leads to electoral defeat. I am hoping that these conversations – played out on social media – will begin to show my colleagues that there are at least some people who might change their vote to Conservative if we change our policy and approach.

But generally what strikes me most is not how people vote. I have now done these #RoryWalks in Warrington, Woking and Wigan; in Edinburgh and Enniskillen; in Barking, Lewisham and Kew. Next to the third-generation fruit seller in Lewisham Market were traders of fresh fish. Behind the counter was a man from Kunar in northern Afghanistan – one of the less arid parts of that landlocked country – and a place where few people eat fish. His neighbour had seven family members in a two-room flat. The fruit seller says he practically has to claim an ailment is potentially life-threatening just to get a GP appointment.

In Woking, I walked beneath a £5m tower-block development, through a £7m new square, around the old war memorial and over the old canal, past the Lightbox exhibition centre, to a carbon-neutral masterpiece heated by “termite technology” housing the World Wildlife Fund.

Ten minutes down the road was the oldest mosque in England, commissioned by a Jew, designed by a Christian and partly financed by a female ruler in India. It was Ramadan and the community – which is almost entirely originally from Pakistan – invited the non-Muslims of Woking to join their daily Iftar fast-breaking feast. Three older men were fasting and praying day and night in the prayer hall, seeking a deeper enlightenment. Two days later in Methven, Perthshire a neatly dressed man enfolded me in a long and intricate masonic handshake and – satisfied that I am not a mason – talked me through the history of the two lodges in the tiny village.

Notes from the border

Only in Northern Ireland did Brexit truly dominate every conversation. In a farmhouse between the border and Enniskillen people explained, over jam scones, that 80 per cent of lambs from Northern Ireland are exported. They talked about how difficult it would be to replace the European rural development money and farm subsidies. They argued that the hard Brexit strategy of zero tariffs on agricultural imports – on Brazilian beef, for example – would be the end of every one of their small farms. In Belfast, six different retailers explained how it would disrupt their supply lines, drive their small suppliers to the wall and raise prices in shops. (And how in a nation of comparatively low incomes and high prices, these problems would be felt more directly.) The Fermanagh doctor explained how fragile the all-island health economy was, and how vulnerable to changes in wages and recognition of professional standards.

None of these points was a killer on its own, but cumulatively they were a thousand cuts: sometimes subtly and sometimes brutally eroding the foundations and context of trade, structures taken for granted. And, as the doctor politely added, a no-deal Brexit would diminish communities, and give the politicians of the extreme an additional opportunity.

In Derry they are more explicit. As one man tells me: “Peace is not a state, it’s a process. A journalist was shot in this town a month ago. Earlier this year there was a car bomb here, where you are standing now. Yesterday, a bomb was found under a policeman’s car in Belfast. The Troubles were ultimately about the border. The Good Friday agreement removed that border. It allowed people to imagine themselves in Britain or in Ireland or both without having to choose.”

Imagine, he suggested, “a businesswoman from a nationalist background, after a hard border has been reinstated, who will not recognise that border by refusing to fill in the paperwork or pay the duties on her trade with the Republic. Imagine her being fined or threatened with prison, and refusing to back down…” But how does one make these points properly in the British debate?

Finally paying attention

Does it make a difference to my ability to communicate these problems that I have doubled my social media following in the past week? My rather earnest post on adult social care has got more than 600,000 views. One of my interviews on no-deal Brexit has been seen more than two million times in two days (compared to perhaps 50,000 views for my rivals). I have Gary Lineker and Brian Cox tweeting about me. And Arron Banks. People have concluded that I must have some PR genius. (The truth is that I’ve been doing all of this for about nine years without anyone really paying any attention: it’s me, and someone holding a camera.) But there are moments when I wonder what it could take to change minds.

Part of the secret must be to sharpen and strengthen my language. There must be a way of talking about compromise between no-deal Brexit and Remain that does not sound like simply a weakening or a greying. Is it Heraclitus’s insight that opposites need to be held together, rather than cancelling each other out? That truth comes reciprocally into being? And if my central mission is about trying to heal, to bring people together, to insist on relationships instead of division, is it possible for a politician to talk about love?

Rory Stewart is Secretary of State for International Development and a candidate to be leader of the Conservative Party

This article appears in the 07 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance