Rory Stewart weaves a message of sincere optimism in a bleak political world

Former Conservative minister brings charm and practical idealism to the Hist on a snowy March day

Arriving 35 minutes late to a packed GMB to a warm round of applause, former Conservative minister and current popular podcaster Rory Stewart was quick to apologise for his tardiness. The College Historical Society (the Hist) auditor Áine Kennedy bestowed the society’s Gold Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Public Discourse to Stewart on behalf of his contributions on the “lost art of disagreeing agreeably,” born from his podcast The Rest Is Politics which he runs with Alastair Campbell. 

Stewart has lived a storied life, having served in the British Army, acted as a diplomat overseeing provinces in Iraq, and he privately tutored Prince William and Prince Harry. He has also been a Conservative minister under Theresa May, and a contender for the role of prime minister in 2019. He may also be a spy for MI6, but alas, he denies this.

Stewart wasted no time launching into a dazzling lecture on the state of the world where he  acknowledged three modern eras, the Liberal Global Order from 1989 to the early 2000s, the Age of Uncertainty from 2004 until 2014, and the ongoing Age of Populism we are experiencing today. He charted the optimism of the 1990s, with rising numbers of democratic states, improving economies, and a relatively successful US intervention in Bosnia, proving that  the world was understandably hopeful. 

He then discusses less successful US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s, the economic growth actually becoming a growth in sharp inequality as median incomes froze, and of course, the 2008 financial crisis. The addition of social media over this period with the development and uptake of Facebook and Twitter (now X) also began to shape the period. 

The populism and pessimism that comes from the past ten years were also discussed by Stewart”

He described the “coarsening of democratic life” which is perhaps best seen with the likes of Boris Johnson’s attempts to prorogue parliament, and of course, Donald Trump’s attempts to delegitimize the 2020 presidential election. There is a democratic backslide he argues. Countries look to the success of China, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as examples of prosperous non-democratic states to aspire to. 

At various points in his talk, Stewart mentioned the “conflict” in Gaza, and in no uncertain terms stated that “there should be an immediate ceasefire.” He lamented that the Arab and Hebrew communities seemed to exclusively rely on warped news sources that respectively fed into distrust and hatred of the other, with serious concerns that there would be no reconciliation as long as this division festered on top of the atrocities being committed in the Gaza Strip. 

Stewart concluded his talk by acknowledging it would be easy to read all this as a story of profound pessimism. He brought up political scientist Francis Fukuyama and his famously incorrect book The End of History and the Last Man from 1992 which predicted that everything would be smooth sailing from here on. Stewart admitted his own shortsightedness – he could no better predict the future than Fukuyama, and it would be wrong to assume a totally negative path into the future, just as Fukuyama had predicted a positive one. 

However, Stewart made a sincere attempt to challenge the pessimistic tale he had just finished. “We remain as a society… idealistic, thoughtful. We have work to do.” He notes that the democracies society cherishes cannot be taken for granted, that people  must be willing to sink their time and energy into preserving that which is good and preventing the spread of that which is not. His ideas on how to do this may not coincide with everyone – a former Tory’s political ideology may not seem compatible with a proudly progressive student body. He would rather see a decentralisation of political power, empowering local authorities, engaging more citizens’ assemblies. 

Upon finishing his talk, a Q&A session proceeded; the Right Honourable Stewart lived up to that honorific by moving the lectern back so everyone could see properly, In the Q&A, he described his favourite job, running a non-profit in Afghanistan, that restored 140 buildings and built up a school, and contrasted it with the distance and hopelessness of his time as minister for International Development. He described his former Labour membership, and his deep unhappiness with Tony Blair over Iraq and Blair’s attitudes towards Islam. 

Stewart acknowledged the historical flaws of the British Empire in another question, admitting that the fact everyone wanted to leave is particularly telling, and that it was a racist, colonial and often brutal thing – although the Hist auditor’s reminder of the present audience may have coloured his response. He did proceed to stress that holding grudges based on historical atrocities – ones that “you did not experience” and that “happened to people you didn’t know” – is fundamentally detrimental to building bridges between communities, especially international ones.

“In response to a question focused on maintaining hope in spite of it all – he discussed finding an issue that you are passionate about, and finding the best path for you to tackle that particular issue”

Stewart’s idealism very much shines through, despite the bleak political stage he has strode from. Despite the cynicism which would be all too easy to fall victim to, Stewart made sure to push a message of hope. Before finishing up, he made a point about not giving up on the world. That being serious about human rights and peace will be messy and imperfect, but that it is effectively better to do it imperfectly than to refuse to engage at all. Real progress in the world requires a detailed sense of how society works. There must be some pragmatism to accompany idealism and some understanding of reality. Subtle condemnation of certain politics that might be espoused by many, especially regarding climate change that prioritises rhetoric over reality, is required. Yet there remains hope. He pointed to prime minister Donald Tusk winning in Poland, Emmanuel Macron’s defeat of Marine Le Pen, and Biden’s defeat of Trump. Stewart left the audience with a note to ponder on and sit with, he stated that Ireland is seen as an example to the world: this is where hope lies.