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Rory Stewart’s Misguided Gap Year Politics

Musa Okwonga unpicks what the MP’s recent comment about encountering “three sort of minor gangsters” reveals about his entire approach to politics – and what it might mean for London’s diverse capital.

Musa Okwonga unpicks what the MP’s recent comment about encountering “three sort of minor gangsters” reveals about his entire approach to politics – and what it might mean for London’s diverse capital.

During his recent campaign to become Prime Minister, Rory Stewart attracted praise and stood out from the other candidates as someone who seemed unusually keen to hear the concerns of members of the public.

He did so by taking a series of walks around the country and he seeks to continue this approach as he aims to now become the Mayor of London.

However, after a controversial moment last week, neither those walks nor that ambition seem particularly well-advised. 

The moment came when Stewart, during a speech at an event in Westminster, referred to an encounter he had had with three men during a stroll down east London’s Brick Lane. These men, who were merely minding their own business when Stewart walked up to them with a camera crew in tow, responded to him first with gentle mockery and then reticence once he revealed that he was running for office. One of them said “I don’t f*ck with politics”, before all of them walked away. That should have been the end of the matter.

But Stewart had uploaded the footage to Twitter and, recalling the meeting at the event in Westminster, said: “One thing about social media is that it allows people to see politicians listening… I can go to Brick Lane and three sort of minor gangsters can come up to me and spend a minute telling me I’m an idiot. And I can film it on my phone and put it up. And people love watching people being rude to politicians.”

Three sort of minor gangsters.

It is not clear what drove Stewart to describe these men in this way – casually profiling them as criminals – other than the fact that they were young and black. It is also not clear what drove him to say that the men came up to him, giving the impression that he had somehow been accosted in the course of his public duty, when the footage quite clearly shows the opposite.

The initial response of Stewart’s team to the resulting fury was almost as bad and even more revealing. “This was obviously a light-hearted, self-deprecatory remark,” said a source close to Stewart. “Anyone who knows anything about Rory would know it’s absurd to suggest he was implying anything malign.”

Awkwardly for Stewart, his subjects – who turned out to be the Irish rap group Hare Squead – did not find his ‘joke’ funny at all. A few hours later, one of them tweeted that “some corny looking opportunistic goof called me, Tony and Sev gangsters”, and when told that he should consider legal action, replied “ASAP”. The prospect of being sued for invasion of privacy and defamation of character were hopefully chastening for the aspiring mayor, who – to his credit – made a full and genuine apology. “I am very sorry towards the guys and towards everyone else,” he tweeted. “I was wrong”. He also added: “I was wrong to describe the incident in the way that I did.” 

There is a wider issue here, beyond the fact that a candidate so reckless about racial profiling – a continual problem hovering over police stop and search powers, with which the current Mayor of London is already struggling – should probably not be trusted, as he has pledged in his Letter To London, to put “more police on the streets immediately”. It is that Stewart, despite being reputed as one of the more worldly politicians of his generation, as an army veteran who has trekked across Afghanistan and served in Indonesia, seems to have treated people in London who looked and sounded different to him as an utterly foreign concept.

This stereotyping would be utterly troubling from a teenage student on his gap year in India, let alone from a prospective leader of one of the world’s most diverse cities. Stewart’s lack of social awareness is similar to that of Iain Duncan Smith in 2001, who only seemed to grasp the severity of poverty in the UK once he had actually become leader of the Conservative Party.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a politician learning on the job, but it is a matter of degree. Wishing to take charge of a city or a country in turmoil without first understanding its fundamental struggles is as irresponsible as learning to fly a passenger plane during a nosedive.

What Stewart and Duncan Smith seem to have in common is a particular type of vanity. This is the political-career-as-personal-journey, where they go about the country, not primarily to learn about others, but to better themselves, choosing the most complex jobs imaginable in order to prove their worth – no matter how ill-suited they seem to the role.

Hence, Duncan Smith quit in horror at the Government’s proposed disability cuts, but only after years of his own cuts to welfare had brought misery to many of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. Hence, too, Stewart’s friend’s remark that he was being “self-deprecatory”. 

In Stewart’s own mind, he is presumably a cheerful, bumbling sort who will make mistakes along the way, but who ultimately has a heart of gold and whose fine intentions will one day align with fine policy. The issue is that, while he betters himself, London cannot risk mistakes of this potential magnitude.

Given that Stewart’s walks have not prevented him from voting through a series of devastating budget cuts, nor from causing anxiety that he is flippant when it comes to the subject of race, it is unclear how many more thousands of miles he must walk before being the best possible mayor for the UK’s capital. Most importantly, the urgent concerns of the city do not have time to wait while he completes his odyssey.

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