6 min read

The tragic heart of British politics

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

As political party conferences commence, Belle TIndall is riveted and repulsed by the scandals, toxicity and true tragedy at the heart of Rory Stewart’s memoir.
A suited politician stands looking pensive, framed by two out of focus audience members.
Rory Stewart at a 2018 diplomatic conference.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

11/22/63 is Stephen King’s masterful alternative-history novel; crafting a world where JFK had not been assassinated. The Man in the High Castle is Philip K. Dick’s offering, painting the literary picture of a world where the so-called ‘Axis States’ won WWII. And then there’s Kim Stanley Robinson who imagines what the past five centuries may have looked like had 99% of the European population been wiped out by the Black Death (as opposed to the far more factual 35%) in The Years of Rice and Salt

These books re-imagine the past, the present, and the future through the lens of two expansive words: what if.  

While reading Rory Stewart’s Politics on the Edge, I found myself constructing an alternative present, one where Rory Stewart is our Prime Minister. Now, I’m not comparing the 2019 Conservative Leadership Contest to the Black Death (although, it’s a little tempting), nor am I comparing myself to Stephen King. It’s just that those two words – what if – have been harassing me. What if Rory Stewart had won that contest?  

Where would our relationship with the EU currently stand? How might the heights of the Pandemic have been handled? And how might our country have recovered from it differently? What about the refugee crisis? The economy? The war in Ukraine? The war in Artsakh? The climate crisis?  

How would these things be different, for better or for worse, if Rory Stewart wasn’t currently the politically-exiled co-host of (the ridiculously successful) The Rest is Politics podcast, but was instead our head of Government? I don’t hold the answers, just a large heap of curiosity.   

It’s a foolish kind of curiosity though, because Rory Stewart was never going to be our Prime Minister. And he’s generously offered us a 417-page-long explanation as to why.

The book is magnificent. There’s no two ways about it. Annoyingly, Rory Stewart can add ‘natural wordsmith’ to his impressive assemblage of titles. 

At the age of just 37, Rory could already call himself an Oxford graduate, a soldier, an author, a long-distance walker (admittedly this title doesn’t sound as interesting as the others, but I assure you that it is), a Governor of a province in Iraq and a Harvard Professor. Surely these achievements meant that he already had material enough for six pretty interesting memoirs. But Rory had his sights set on the British political arena, which I suppose is a natural aspiration for a man who recalls that, 

‘the only thing that had ever really motivated me since I was a small child was the idea of public service’. 

With the benefit of a decade worth of hindsight, such a line makes you want to scream ‘DON’T DO IT RORY’ into the page. You can’t help but pre-emptively wince at the inevitability of this man’s naïve heart shattering, can you? After all, these words sit forebodingly in Chapter 2.   

But, scream at the book all you want, a bright-eyed Rory Stewart walked into Parliament in 2010. And that’s where this tale of an eccentric, well-meaning, albeit overly romantic, ‘boy-ish man’ (his words, not mine) becomes ‘an excoriating picture of a shamefully dysfunctional political culture’ (Rowan Williams’ words, not mine).  

The book is magnificent. There’s no two ways about it. Annoyingly, Rory Stewart can add ‘natural wordsmith’ to his impressive assemblage of titles. He doesn’t simply re-call his experiences, he re-crafts them. This means, for example, that instead of his first encounter with David Cameron reading like a download of the meeting’s minutes; readers are treated to knowing that Cameron was late, that his smile was notably ‘easy’, his hair notably ‘fine’, and his understanding of the situation in Afghanistan notably limited. We also get to smugly enjoy that he began the meeting (in Kabul) with a naff joke about William Hague that had tumble weeds rolling across the international boardroom. We relish this while pretending, of course, that we haven’t had those excruciating moments ourselves, which we all have, just with the luxury of not having Rory Stewart in the room. Rory’s writing abilities invite readers into those rooms and those moments, all of which are usually out-of-bounds. Which brings me onto the second reason why this memoir is an utterly gripping read: it holds almost nothing back.  

Rory places his former bosses (who just happen to be our former Prime Ministers), former colleagues, and friends – many of which I worry will also be in the ‘former’ category once they read of their appearances in this memoir – on the alter. He sacrifices any confidence that they may have once held in him in the name of necessary exposure. He pre-empts their rage, simply responding that 

‘Our government and parliament, which once had a reasonable claim to be the best in the world, is now in a shameful state… and generally, given the choice between discretion and honesty, I have chosen the latter.’ 

His most brutal exposures (although I don’t doubt that many will argue that ‘exposure’ is an unfair word to use here, seen as we only have one unverified account of things that happened) are that of David Cameron, Liz Truss and, of course, Boris Johnson (Theresa May actually comes off rather well in comparison).  

David Cameron comes across as a factory-made career politician; with learnt confidence and charm, rigidly rehearsed opinions, and an ensemble of old Etonians ‘with floppy hair and open-necked white shirts’ at his side. Rory’s depiction of Liz truss, on the other hand, can be adequately summed up in his recounting of one particular instance. After telling her that his father had just died, Truss ‘paused for a moment, nodded, and asked when the twenty-five-year environment plan would be ready.’ And then, of course, there’s Rory’s ultimate archnemesis – Boris Johnson - who appears to be the epitome of everything that Rory Stewart believes to be toxic and shameful about the current state of British politics. He is ‘ever the punchline,’ the man who, upon hearing the outcome of the Brexit referendum, advised Rory that he ‘mustn’t believe a word I am about to say’ before ambiguously offering/un-offering him a position in his cabinet. A cabinet which did not yet exist, of course.  

And that’s not to mention his opinions of Micheal Gove – who somehow comesoff even worse than Boris. The characterisations in this memoir are blistering, to put it mildly. All heroes need a villain, after all. And Rory considers these villains to be ‘senior enough to bear responsibility’.  

Reading this book, and enjoying it, is a disconcerting experience. One cannot help but lap up the drama, while simultaneously despairing over it. It is a great read, but I don’t want it to be. I don’t want a book this scandalous, with characters this toxic, and storylines this riveting, to be about the place and people who govern my country, and therefore, me. Of course, the book is not wholly damning. Rory assures us that there were/are people within the system that genuinely do their best for the sake of public service – but they’re fighting against the tide. On the whole, it’s a bleak (albeit enthralling) picture that Rory paints.  

Genuine virtue, humble introspection, and noble altruism are no longer workable attributes. Public service for public service’s sake will not get you the top job. 

So, back to those alternative history ponderings. How would, how could, Rory have changed things from the top of the pyramid? The King of the Middle-Ground. The Voice of Reason. The Hope of the Centrist. What would it look like for him to have had his way?  

Frustratingly, it doesn’t much matter – because, as I say, this man was never going to be the UK’s Prime Minister. Not wholly because of any one individual, or any one leadership campaign, but because if (and we must bear in mind that it’s a big if) Rory’s perception of high office in Parliament is accurate – there’s no place for someone like him. Authentic humanity, in all its varying forms, is unexpected, unappreciated, and certainly unwelcome in those spaces. According to this book, genuine virtue, humble introspection, and noble altruism are no longer workable attributes. Public service for public service’s sake will not get you the top job.  

And that is the true tragedy at the heart of this memoir. The book that I revelled in. The book that I wish didn’t exist.  

Oh, that future Rory Stewarts would leave a decade of politics with nothing interesting to write about. One can dream, I suppose.  

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4 min read

De-coding the hidden messages in Christmas carols

Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.

Beyond the festive imagery, some carols hint at rebellion and even revolution. Ian Bradley tells their stories.
Dressed in Victorian clothes, a group of carol singers stand and sing amid Christmas foliage.
Mario Mendez on Unsplash.

Carols are one of the best loved features of Christmas celebrations and one of the most effective means of spreading the good news of the birth of Jesus, the Saviour of the world. In addition to their clear proclamation of the doctrine of incarnation, that God has taken on human form and come to dwell among us, some of our most popular carols may also have been written to convey further hidden messages. 

Take ‘O come, all ye faithful’, for instance. On the surface it seems a straightforward hymn of adoration to the newborn Christ but in fact historians suggest that it may well have been written in its original Latin form, ‘Adeste, fideles,’ as a coded message to rally Jacobites to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie on the eve of his rebellion against the British crown in 1745. The man generally reckoned to have been its author, John Francis Wade, was a fervent supporter of the Jacobite cause who seems to have written it while he was plain-chant scribe at the English Catholic college in Douai, France where a weekly Mass was celebrated for the return of the Stuarts to the British throne. 

Half hidden Jacobite images, including Scotch thistles and the Stuart cypher, appear in the earliest manuscripts of the carol. Its call to ‘the faithful’ may have had a double meaning and been intended to alert the supporters of the ‘King over the water’ to Charles James Stuart’s imminent arrival in Britain from the  continent. Similarly, its reference to ‘Rex angelorum’, translated as the King of the Angels, could also be taken to mean the true king of the English in contrast to the Hanoverian incumbent, George II. In its original Latin form, the carol seems initially to have been sung only in Roman Catholic places of worship, notably in the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy in London and its tune was long known as the Portuguese Hymn. 

Another well-known Christmas song may contain similarly coded messages. It has been suggested on the basis of letters from Jesuit priests attached to the English college in Douai, France, that that ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ was written to teach the elements of the Roman Catholic faith to children during the period following the Reformation in which it was officially proscribed and suppressed in the United Kingdom. In this reading, the twelve drummers drumming are the articles of the Apostle’s Creed; the eleven pipers piping the faithful apostles; the ten lords a-leaping the ten commandments; the nine ladies dancing the fruits of the Holy Spirit; the eight maids a-milking the beatitudes; the seven swans a-swimming the seven sacraments of the Catholic church; and the ‘five gold rings’ the five wounds of the crucified Christ.  

A hidden message of a rather different kind may be lurking in another popular carol, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’, which first appeared in a radical Sheffield newspaper entitled The Iris on Christmas Eve 1816. Its author, James Montgomery, the paper’s editor, was twice imprisoned for his support of the French Revolution and reform riots in Britain. The original last verse, which described Justice repealing the sentences of those sentenced to imprisonment and Mercy breaking their chains, was regarded by the authorities as too polemical and subversive did not find its way into any hymn book when the carol was taken up and sung in churches.  

A carol with a more overtly contemporary message is ‘It came upon the midnight clear’. Its author, Edmund Sears, who claimed descent from one of the original Pilgrim Fathers, was a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts with a deep commitment to social reform and the promotion of peace. He wrote it in 1849, following the violent revolutions in Europe and the bloody and costly war between the United States of America and Mexico in the previous year. These conflicts were undoubtedly in his mind when he wrote ‘O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and here the angels sing’ and expressed his heartfelt longing for a future age of gold ‘when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling’, sentiments which we can certainly echo this Christmas. 

The German carol Stille Nacht (Silent Night), which regularly tops the list of the world’s favourite Christmas song, underwent several adaptations through the twentieth century expressing the changing political mood in Germany. A Socialist version entitled ‘The Workers’ Silent Night’ which circulated widely around 1900 highlighted the prevailing poverty, misery and distress and ended with an appeal to wake up to social action rather than sleep in heavenly peace. It was considered subversive and banned by the German Government before the First World War. During that war, German soldiers on the front adapted Stille Nacht to express a sense of homesickness and in the period of rampant inflation that followed in the 1920s Weimar Republic a social democratic version asked plaintively: ‘in poverty, one starves silently,/When does the saviour come?’. A 1940 Nazi adaptation turned the song into a celebration of the fatherland and traditional German family values. More recent parodies of the English version have tended to focus on the commercial aspects of the festive season, like the American author Chris Fabry’s send-up of last minute Christmas shopping:  ‘Silent Night, Solstice Night, All is calm, all half price’. 

The tradition of adapting traditional Christmas carols to contemporary events has a long pedigree in Britain. ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’ has proved particularly appealing to parodists. During the abdication crisis of 1937 a version circulated which began ‘Hark the herald angels sing, Mrs. Simpson’s pinched our king’ and a group of journalists (of which I was one) heralded the birth of the SDP in 1981 with ‘Hark The Times and Guardian roar, Glory to the Gang of Four’. It is rarer to hear parodies of carols nowadays. Perhaps in our troubled times we just want and need to focus on their message of the coming of the Christchild and of God’s kingdom with its promise of a more peaceful and joyful world.  

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