Thu 27 February 2020

Former Conservative MP and independent Mayor of London candidate Rory Stewart gives his take on the biggest issue facing politics today.

Share this article

The era of “three-word slogans” and “baseball cap” promises which proclaim sweeping change but no detail on how to do this is the biggest problem facing politics today, former Conservative MP Rory Stewart believes.

In a thinly veiled critique of Boris Johnson’s style of leadership, Stewart said “change starts with practical action. Change starts with the ‘how’… Change does not begin with grand speeches”.

Speaking to students at University College London as part of his bid to become an independent Mayor of London later this year, Stewart – who resigned from the Tories in October – said that much of what was said during the 2019 General Election campaign “appeared to be designed to be printed on the front of a baseball cap”.

“The whole world is about three-word slogans,” he said. “‘Take back control’ and ‘get Brexit done’… This is part of a general move away from a very big word, a word which used to be very fundamental about what it meant to be human: how. How to do things, rather than what. Take back control, how? Get Brexit done, how?”

“In the details of that ‘how’, in the question of how you do things in the world, lies most of what has created us as a civilisation and yet somehow in our culture we have moved away from the word how.”

Stewart, who served in the army before joining the Civil Service and then travelled to work in Afghanistan and Iran, said mobile phones and the digital age make people feel that “if you want to save the world, click here” because there is an unrealistic desire for “instant action, total transformation”.

“Within our own lives we know that isn’t how change happens,” he added. “It’s about a thousand small intelligent decisions day by day, it isn’t really about the slogans the marketing people have given you.”

He said the “big gap between the way we talk about the world and the way the world really is” struck him when working abroad in places such as Iraq to achieve the UK Government’s aims of “economic development, security and governance” – “free floating words that sound incredibly exciting but have no relationship to anything that matters to any actual person, to any actual village, to any actual community”.

For Stewart, politics needs to shift away from speaking about big concepts such as “liberty, freedom, greatness, equality, justice” towards the action necessary to bring these about. 

“Don’t start with these big words,” he said. “These big words are very, very satisfying because they sound great, they sound radical, but the real question is: if you were in the job of Mayor, what would you do to make this city a better space?”

More stories filed under Reportage