Portraits: Christopher Owens






IT IS DECEMBER 2015. I am the minister for flooding. (I am also the minister for forestry, for national parks, for nature, for chemicals, for air quality, for waste and recycling, for water and much more than can be written on a business card). I knew almost nothing about any of these topics when, six months earlier, the prime minister, David Cameron, made me minister for these things. It may have been a mistake. In a recent meeting he has given me the impression that he believes I am the minister for agriculture. Exactly 341mm of rain has fallen in the last 24 hours – the highest rainfall ever recorded in the United Kingdom. More than 60,000 houses in Lancaster have lost power, and the epicentre of the flooding is my own constituency in Cumbria. I have been wading into front rooms, filled with dirty water above the level of the mantle-shelves, their interiors a swirling mess of photo albums and wooden furniture. Bloated corpses of sheep lie strewn across field edges. Business owners are staring in horror at the destruction of their stockrooms and getting no response from the insurance agencies. My notebook is filled with names and emails and requests from residents. Now it is just after dawn, and I have been dressed in an Environment Agency coat and a hi-vis jacket, and put in front of the television cameras. My feet are wet and cold because I made the mistake of tucking my waterproof trousers into my wellies. Behind me, in the halogen lights of a winter morning, rescuers in boats are drifting down Warwick Road in Carlisle, lifting families from upstairs windows. Journalists are finding different ways of asking me how I could possibly have allowed this to happen. There are some earnest but imprecise attempts to link the flooding to climate change. Finally, I insist “the flood walls are working well. The only problem is that the water is coming over the top.” This idiotic line is then replayed across all the networks and is selected by Have I Got News for You as one of the political blunders of the year. I N T H E F L O OD WAT E R I N 201 5 I felt like a minor player in Yes Minister or The Thick of It – part of an ancient tradition of underqualified and off-balance ministers wrapped in the old consensus of British politics. And, on the surface, the political universe seemed very stable. An election had just happened. Two Oxford-educated former special advisers in their mid to late 40s – David Cameron and George Osborne – had just defeated two Oxford-educated former special advisers in their mid to late 40s – Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. They had tried, for the sake of the election, to draw clear lines. But in truth, they shared beliefs about the world, which they had developed during their 20s and early-30s: the period just after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when they had left Oxford and become high-flying party aides and aspiring politicians. This first 15 years of their political careers was a period of striking optimism and consensus – occasionally interrupted by scandal, and domestic crisis (cash for honours, foot-and-mouth and flooding). The cold war had ended. The number of democracies in the world had doubled. In Bosnia and Kosovo, international interventions had ended wars and brought war criminals to justice, at minimal cost to the west. There was confidence in global efforts to address climate change and global poverty. The UK economy – rooted in privatisation, deregulation and globalisation – had generated the fastest-growing per capita GDP in the G6 and the second-highest productivity in the developed world. The majority of citizens believed their children would be better off than they were. The polling graphs, which had brought Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to victory, looked like bell jars with the votes heaped in the centre, and few at the extremes. This era had left a whole generation of politicians with three assumptions: that liberal global markets were the answer to prosperity; that prosperity would spread democracy; and that the world would be governed by a liberal global order. It was Francis Fukuyama’s End of History. I N T H E L AT E 2 0 0 0 s, all of this changed. The key assumptions around globalisation, markets and prosperity were fatally undermined by the financial crisis of 2008. It became brutally clear that the prosperity that came from global markets actually led, for many, to stagnant incomes, rising inequality, unaffordable houses and the collapse of manufacturing industries. The second belief that prosperity would lead to a global spread of liberal democracy was eroded by the rise of China, which became larger than the UK economy in 2005, than the German in 2007 and the Japanese in 2008, without liberalising politically. The third conceit, of a legitimate western-dominated global order, was shattered by the humiliations of Iraq and Afghanistan. And the i dea that these shared assumptions created a future politics of the centre ground was destroyed by the polarising algorithms of Twitter and Facebook. This was the moment at which I entered parliament. I found an institution that hardly acknowledged any of these changes. By the time of the 2015 election, the productivity of the British economy had been stagnant for seven years, wages had barely risen in real terms, public sector debt had risen by 50% since 2008, and government revenues struggled to keep pace with the demands of public services. Globally, the rise in democracies had halted, and then began to fall. The “social media revolution” of the Arab spring had failed. Hundreds of thousands had been killed in the Syrian civil war and more than four million refugees had fled the country. The west was humiliated further by our inability to influence the direction of the Yemeni civil wars or to bring any form of stability to Libya. Russia had invaded Crimea. Egypt had reverted to military rule. Modi had been elected in India, and the Law and Justice party was on its way to taking power in Poland. Donald Trump was the poised to be the leading Republican contender for the presidency of the United States. Boris Johnson had re-entered the House of Commons. And David Cameron had promised a Brexit referendum. In short, each of the three assumptions of 90s liberal democracy were now discredited. The open markets which had once seemed a guarantee of global prosperity were now increasingly blamed for many lives of precarious misery. (And in many minds also linked to unwanted immigration.) The prosperity and power of authoritarian China led much of the world to question the centrality of liberal democracy and human rights. The dream of a liberal global order based on solidarity and international cooperation was replaced with isolationism. After 2015, things got rapidly worse. In 2016, Trump was elected, Britain held its divisive Brexit referendum, horror deepened in Yemen, the horn of Africa and the Sahel, and the number of refugees, internally displaced people and civilians killed in conflict rose steadily. Politics became deeply polarised. Simplified and largely symbolic policies replaced nuanced manifestos: “take back control”, “Make America Great Again”. There was a dramatic rise of populist parties in almost every European state. Politicians like Trump were supported by people who knew they lied to subvert the system, but voted for them nonetheless, to fling them like a hand grenade at the political structures of their world. An age of liberal optimism had been replaced by an age of populism. BU T I T T O OK A V E RY L ONG T I M E for these changes to seep through to Westminster. Perhaps because I had served abroad as part of the international interventions, was younger than the party leaders and had entered politics later, I did not share quite all of their old worldview. Walking across Afghanistan, I had stayed with too many people who compared the US intervention to British colonial and Soviet invasions, and were not ashamed of their links with the Taliban. Serving in a provincial town in southern Iraq, I had realised how very little we understood about the links between the new political parties and Iranian militias across the borders. I had seen how the Afghan National Development Strategy, with its acronyms, jargon and fantasies of state-building, excluded all references to real places, ethnicities or recent history. I had learned how much we lied to ourselves to conceal our failures; and how marginal the United Kingdom could be. I was more inclined to see the liberal global order as fragile, hypocritical and disintegrating. I was troubled when I entered parliament to find Cameron still defending the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan as though they were versions of Bosnia and Kosovo, and I was worried by his approach to interventions in Libya and Syria. I also felt he didn’t take sufficiently seriously the risk that Putin might try to invade and annex former Soviet territory (I was focused on the threat in the Baltic not Ukraine). But in almost every other respect, I was as much as anyone a product and a prisoner of the ideas of the 90s and early 2000s, and shared the blind spots of the others on global economics, democratisation and political consensus. Despite the financial crisis, I voted repeatedly for an economic policy which still bore the strong mark of Margaret Thatcher’s economists and focused on reducing the deficit through cuts to public spending. I continued to assume the economic benefits of globalisation, saw China as an economic opportunity not a strategic competitor, celebrated its accession to the World Trade Organization and supported its investment in critical parts of the UK economy. Like the others, I convinced myself that the Arab spring might be a symptom of a global spread of democracy and human rights. I shared the same optimism about Turkey and Myanmar. And although I was one of the more active tweeters in parliament, I underestimated social media’s power, and continued to insist that elections were fought and won in the centre ground. I was only beginning to sense how polarised the public debate was becoming. When in 2016 I was reshuff led to become a minister in the Department for International Development (Df ID) I education for a fourth? What if, instead of assuming that the villagers needed to be taught to fish, we acknowledged that many villagers either already knew how to fish but lacked the money for a fishing rod, or didn’t want to fish and wanted to open a bakery? Then the answer might be not to cut development aid, but instead to deliver it in a radically different way through giving cash directly to poor communities and letting them decide their priorities. In my case, it took leaving politics entirely and joining the NGO GiveDirectly to see the force of an entirely different model. (I declare a great interest here since I work for this NGO, but I hope the insight stands.) Here, I found my first clear example of something which could acknowledge the fundamental flaws of the old liberal model, without embracing populist pessimism. It retains the ethical insight that poverty is a stain on our world, and that wealthier countries have a moral obligation to assist the extreme poor. But instead of tinkering with the old liberal system, it upends it. Instead of the old paradigm of expertise from the global north, it trusts recipients entirely. It doesn’t even “consult” them. It simply gives them the cash and lets them choose. It turns an act of patronising development into an act of radical respect. It is an approach based on evidence from randomised control trials, which we use in medicine. In a Rwandan village, for example, such schemes have, within about three months, brought electricity and new roofs, livestock and latrines to almost every house. Bone-density and stunting have improved. New businesses have been created. Savings and school enrolment have gone up. All for a fraction of the cost of a traditional programme. It is a post-populist, postcentrist approach which could be a fundamental part of addressing extreme poverty globally, and provide hope and a reason to increase development budgets again with confidence. The challenge, of course, is to seek equivalent insights in other policy areas at home and abroad. We need trade and industrial strategies, which are far more flexible and well-calibrated than those of the past. We require economic policies that go beyond growth and financial returns to take into account impacts on environment, landscape and structural injustice. We need to hit our net zero targets without pushing a disproportionate cost of the change on to poorer households. (And I think here the answer, again, would be large, unconditional cash transfers.) We need to make more confident arguments for the moral qualities of our democracy, and reinforce these with reforms to our voting systems and our parties. We must use citizens’ assemblies in which randomly selected citizens engage deeply with policy dilemmas. But we also need a vision and a framework to hold this all together – one that clearly acknowledges what was wrong with the assumptions of the 90s and early 00s. And we need to communicate it in a way that avoids, on the one hand, the dividing lines and culture wars of populism, and on the other, the dry technocratic language of the old centre. The new centre, in other words, needs the emotion the populists deploy, and the theory, empathy, and ethics they lack. Centrism and populism are not moral equivalents. Whatever the crimes and follies of the 90s, the consequences of populism, isolation and western withdrawal have been worse – an era in which the world was growing more democratic and peaceful has become one in which the number of deaths in conflict and the number of refugees are rising, the number of democracies has fallen and those that remain have been weakened. The epidemic of coups, which is now spreading across the Sahel, with generals backed by crowds waving Russian flags, is a dismal catastrophe. The climate crisis and AI require more stable, outwardlooking, altruistic global cooperation, not less. I A M PA I N F U L LY AWA R E how poorly I understood the changing world, as a working politician. And how much I am still struggling to articulate the new world. But at a time when public trust in institutions is plummeting, when the majority of the public feel their children’s lives will be worse than their own, and half the population is actively avoiding the news, we need a much more distinct vision of a different future. It is no longer enough to lament the populism, or be nostalgic for Blair and Clinton. It is not enough to campaign on being more serious and diligent than our predecessors. We must change. Otherwise the old liberal centre will continue in something akin to the Carlisle floods: in a slow rising of water, that seems to ruin living rooms but never quite destroys foundations; in a landscape unpredictable, humiliating and muddy – in which it is never quite clear how we have taken on the role of Canute • Rory Stewart’s Politics on the Edge is published by Vintage Publishing at £22. To order a copy for £19.36, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply