Harold Macmillan, British prime minister from 1957 to 1963, once said that, "Britain's most useful role is somewhere between bee and dinosaur." Perhaps it was a characteristically witty response to the quip some years earlier by Dean Acheson, then US Secretary of State, that, "Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role." I would argue that Britain has been floundering between bee and dinosaur ever since the Second World War, and things have gotten worse since the release of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in November. Britain's role is now best described on old pussy cat with a few sharp claws. Okay, I'm being too unkind, but this preamble is a clumsy introduction to a curious British figure named Rory Stewart (pictured above) who was the subject of a profile in a recent issue of The New Yorker.
Stewart has pretensions to be a latter-day version of that uniquely British character who possesses an emotional disconnection from his homeland (and in the interests of full disclosure, I share this particular trait) and who eccentrically seeks fame, glory, vindication … and God knows what else … abroad. Britain has produced more than its fair share of such characters – Sir Richard Burton (not the more famous Welsh actor), T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Sir Fitzroy Maclean, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (note the plethora of 'Sir's' here) and more recently, William Dalrymple, all come to mind. Apart from their national origin, they all have a number of things in common: they are all the product of Britain's priviliged classes, often educated at private schools such as Eton and at universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, St. Andrews, and so forth. Many have also served in the British Army (Thesiger, Maclean and Leigh Fermor all served in British special forces in World War II) as well as the British Diplomatic Service (again, in the spirit of full disclosure, so have I). But they are also inveterate travellers and often seem personally tortured, riven with insecurities and driven by a need to prove something to someone, often an absent or emotionally distant father figure.
I have been, and am, an avid reader and admirer of many of these figures. They have collectively produced some of the most brilliant travel writing and combat memoirs one can read. There is also something morbidly heroic about these men as those that have kicked the bucket have all been the subject of the ultimate obituary title of something along the lines of, 'Soldier, Diplomat, Statesman, Writer, Deflowerer of Virgins,' (admittedly, the last assumes that the British private school system they all endured did not lead to a lifetime of tortured sexuality). But there is also something profoundly sad about them (and I do not mean their often tragic personal backgrounds) that is a reflection of Britain's struggle to identify its place in the world, and nobody today personifies that sadness more than Rory Stewart.
In his 37 years on this planet Stewart has already garnered a resume to rival those of Lawrence, Thesiger and Maclean. Born in Hong Kong to minor Scottish aristocracy (his father seems to have served as a senior officer in MI6), educated at Eton and Oxford, a brief stint as a junior officer in the famous Scottish regiment The Black Watch, tutor to Princes William and Harry, and in a short and erratic diplomatic career, he has served in Indonesia and was Britain's man in Monenegro (1999-2000) and southern Iraq in 2003-2004 (a time recounted in his book The Prince of the Marshes). Now he is a newly-elected Conservative Member of Parliament for the wet, craggy and remote constituency of Penrith and the Border in north-west England. In between these jobs Stewart has walked the length of Asia (as documented in his first book The Places in Between), briefly served as the Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government (who says you need a Ph.D. in academia these days?), and in Kabul, ran the charity Turquoise Mountain Foundation on behalf of his friend Charles, the Prince of Wales.
You can catch your breath now.
Ian Parker, author of The New Yorker profile of Stewart, writes:
"Stewart, whose manner marks him immediately to the British as someone with ruling-class roots, longs to be more than an ordinary overachiever: he wants to be connected to the epic. He encourages the thought that he is unmoored from the modern age."
And, it might be added, he never seems to find what he is looking for. Assuming he even makes himself re-electable to his constituents by the next general election, with the variety of achievements and inability to hold down a job for more than a year or two in his 37 year lifetime it is not unreasonable to suggest that he will either soon become bored with politics, or just as likely, given the inherent antagonism of the politics at the Place of Westminster, he will be chewed up and spat out by his parliamentary colleagues. And so he will search for another improbable and eccentric occupation that might help him fulfill his heroic vision of himself (speaking of his time running the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul, Stewart has said: "It's not part of the grand narrative. I don't think Alexander the Great ran an arts school."), only, of course, to tire of that and move on yet again.
Stewart's character is not much different from those of his illustrious predecessors. Lawrence, Maclean and Thesiger spent much of their lives abroad, forever sought out adventure, had a number of varied jobs and had a love-hate relationship with the fame they so obviously sought out along with the delusional belief that their private lives would remain private.
They also lived during the long decline of Britain as a great power, when the grandeur and romance of empire faded into its brutal and expensive reality. All sought glory in a time of humiliation and diminishment, unlike their fathers who ruled at the height of empire and were bathed in glory. As Lawrence, Maclean, Thesiger and Stewart flit from eccentric occupation to eccentric occupation, so Britain these past one hundred years has flitted from improbable global role to improbable global role. As Britain's tragically heroic figures seek out glory in an unheroic world, Britain the state seeks out validation from an indifferent world. As Britain's finest sons could only find personal fulfilment and happiness through constant travel abroad, so Britain acribes to itself an identity abroad that is increasingly disconnected from the more modest and even grubby reality at home.
Stewart, like his predecessors, is undoubtedly "unmoored," not just from his time, but from a reality he desperately seeks to deny. The same applies to Britain, unmoored from a reality that it does not want to face while pretending to the world that it matters more than it really does.
A Parliamentary colleague of Stewart's is reported as saying that, ""Britain no longer has an empire to run" and has little need for "latter-day T.E. Lawrences acting as cavaliers seuls on the world stage.""
The same might be said of Britain's foreign policy, which, like the lives of Stewart, Lawrence, Maclean and Thesiger, seems unable to plausibly assess its power capacity in the strategic environment and connect that to the reality at home.