Man out of time for our time

Rory Stewart can seem like a man out of time, his exotic CV inviting comparisons to mid 20th Century men of letters and action such as Patrick Leigh-Fermor, who wore their learning as lightly as their derring-do.

But, while he remains an outsider, his candidacy for leadership of the Conservative Party is intriguing.  All weekend, I have been reading analyses of the EU election results that talk in terms of an irreconcilable culture war, between young, educated, cosmopolitan urbanites, and older, more traditional, patriotic town- and country-dwellers. It\’s a thesis that\’s been pitched in various forms by people like David Goodhart, Paul Collier and Matthew Goodwin, and while sceptical, I have started taking it more seriously over recent weeks, as I have read reports and watched footage of the fury of Farage supporters at his rallies round the country.

Stewart seems to cut through some of these glib anitheses. He professes almost mystical old-Tory affection for the English landscape, its military and its institutions, and has even had (limited) military service himself. But his patriotism seems very far removed from the performative blood-and-soil rhetoric adopted by some of his fellow Conservatives. And he is also clearly a modern metropolitan, extensively travelled, highly-educated, excited by new ideas such as citizens\’ assemblies. He seems to combine, in a slightly eccentric upper-middle class manner, both facets of our allegedly riven national character.

Indeed, unity is one of his big themes, as he travels round the country listening to people:

It\’s not a radical message, but it seems to come from somewhere that is heartfelt, and is accompanied by a reluctance to adopt the melodramatic poses of modern political discourse. One example: a journalist this morning quoted a description of Stewart as a \’suicide bomber\’ clearing the way for a Michael Gove candidacy. Stewart replied that the metaphor sat \”a bit awkwardly for someone who was in Iraq and Afghanistan\”, but left it at that, without the pearl-clutching synthetic outrage that has become customary.

It seems highly unlikely that the Conservatives will pick a relatively untried Old Etonian as their leader (the last one was hardly a success), and the things that make Stewart appealing to me may be the very things that will rule him out. But politics at the moment seems capable of supplying, to paraphrase the Red Queen, at least six highly unlikely things before breakfast.

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