Rory Stewart’s middling account of the Middleland

Rory Stewart, Tory MP for Penrith and the Border and previously a diplomat in some chronic “borderlands” (ex-Yugoslavia and Afghanistan) has given us a TV (and, I gather, a book) account of his love of what he calls the Middleland, between England and Scotland, which he now represents. It’s exhilarating stuff, but is it tosh…..?

Here’s a first stab at looking at Stewart’s account, and I don’t pretend that I have done the reading which would help my view be more sure.

The Number One takeway message I had from the shows is that Stewart believes that empires produce hard borders which produce hinterlands of war-lord Mafias in the immediate fringe. The Romans did it with Hadrian’s Wall, just as British Imperialists  did it when they sought to harden the borders north of India.

It follows from this view that, absent international borders, all would be lovely. Indeed, Stewart eulogises the plethora of microstates which produced all their bonny little sub-cultures in the happy days before and between Rome’s empire and later horrid hard big nationalisms. He may be right that international Empires at least try to produce hard borders (at the edge of their bailiwicks), as do nationalist governments (between theirs).

Rory Stewart’s big idea is that England and Scotland should stay together, the better – one supposes – to allow the Middleland (the uplands between Edinburgh and the Humber) peacably to reassert themselves. One can imagine King Rory Marmaset of the Middleland, skipping about in his coronation robes as he did in the TV show in jeans, benignly allowing a loose kingdom of the poets and philosophers and shepherds and folk singers to spawn its delicious variety of mores and tropes.

I don’t mind the idea of Big Britain, in fact I like it, but I can’t quite see how keeping it is the sine qua non of allowing a thousand blooms. Besides,might not a self-consciously Borderishness produce a matching reaction of Scottish and Southerly regionalism?

Were the Scots, after due consideration, to wish they could channel their inner Basque or Catalan, and even be bold enough to become a separated nation state, then I think that would be retrogressive, and fatally to mis-read what the English want for them, but it would be their business, and their loss. To some extent, it might also be Englsnd’s. An England that got all English would be a less wonderful place. I think we need the hairy Picts and the misty Celts to soften our rationality and our slightly severe inner selves. Still, true to our long-standing love of the hybrid, we have a range of immigrant cultures to soften ourselves with, so if we lose Scotland, we’ll find other foreigners to be influenced by.

Anyway, I am not at all sure we need to keep it in order to re-enact Middleland.

I think one of the things wrong with the Stewart hypothesis is that it isn’t consistent. He likes little independent states, but doesn’t seem to accept that England and  Scotland might be such, and be in the process – which he deplores – of being more clearly so.  But he gets just as cross when he recalls that kings (William I and Edward I), following Norman instincts, once aimed to create one borderless Britain (very brutally), as he does when he recalls that others (the Tudors) once aimed to separate them, rather as the Romans did.

Actually, from the point of view of earlier civilisers of the British, say the Romans and Normans, one can see that the enterprise would look like a process of finding the limits of biddability, which we might call Englishness. And beyond the biddability would be the wild and wooly, which one might – just  – subdue by force. (Call this bloodiness, Scottishness.) Of course the uplands were where the unruliness really started: they bred hairy tough people who got nowhere much by being polite and wielded a decent cudgel. Their terrain made and favoured guerrilla warfare and disfavoured orderly troop movement. If you couldn’t subdue and civilise them, the only hope was to keep them – or at least their violence – out.

It’s been the same story in all the glorious, bumpy, soggy habitats on earth. Mosses, forests, heathers and bogs, these are the places for your swift dissident. To be snotty about it, they are also the places for those weak cultures to retreat which have not the nous to get an education and get with the civilisation programme. These peoples have always been the subject of romances written or promoted by civilised people seeking relief from the ennui of perpetual, inherited cultural advantage.

I rather favour the Roman Empire, but then I rather favour the British one. They were creatures of their time and its attitudes. They embodied the best as well as the worst of their creators. But they were civilising, or attempted to be. And somehow or other – by fair means and foul, by some means to be forever regretted and others forever to be celebrated – the process of civilisation has to go on.

I think it is faintly comical now to have Rory Stewart telling us this story – reminding us of all his stories – in order to help the BBC maintain its right to be the state broadcaster for Britain (since it might lose its struggle to maintain an international maw over a separated Scotland and England). (That last bit was a joke, as though his TV show had been strategised in WIA.)

So let’s presumptuously risk an account of RS’s progress. He is a clever Pict who has spent an early life working within a mostly English Establishment, at any rate a Big Britain one, and bringing much light and joy to it. He is a born explorer and writer and early on sought out the marginal and the liminal and the glamorous as one such must, and so he walks wherever the wild side is. He sees the glamour and horror and creative oomph of the shards of humanity scattered in difficult – borderish – places, and notes how they are bastions of variety and stubbornness whilst and because they are simultaneously buffeted by history and immune to it. What’s not to write?

I think it is good fun that he was sent by the British to help the UN in the former Yugoslavia, where it is moot whether the festering violence of gorgeously various communities was more usefully smothered by imperial Soviet Russia, or had been bred and fomented in its blind, huge vat of oppression. Anyway, he was sent to help pick up the pieces. And then, and this is the glorious bit, he was sent by Britain to help the US (the New Rome, as he himself casts it, in effect) in Iraq. Iraq’s troubles, he reminds us, can be laid at the door of the British Empire and its instant border-making, or anyway of European imperialism. So an Old Rome created Iraq and its troubles, and a New Rome sent this Pict to sort out a bit of the mess, under their temporary, muscular but feeble imperium. (Gloriously, they sent him to the place where Wilfred Thesiger, the great explorer-writer, had gone to mourn the coming of oil and motors where before there had only been toughness and immemorial male friendship.)

Rome always did that: find wild and wooly men, civilise them a bit, and send them off to spots where they had no over-riding loyalty and could be impartially bloody Roman, but cannily.

So I sort of imagine that the Rory Stewart of the Middleland is a repentant soul. Almost like a Blair, he has returned to the scene of a failure if not a crime (not in RS’s case the actual scene), and seeks to do good work, work which will heal human wounds, and heal the repentant participant or actual villain in the piece. (Actually, it is very possible that both Blair and RS are at their recent work in order to continue a version of the good work they could not do in office, whilst shackled by the Imperium, perhaps; they are not so much repentant as persistent. And that’s all good, of course).

And of course he wants to work in a place which is an allegory for all the troubles and glories he has ever seen, and like those he has tried to heal, and which he may fancy he may only have exacerbated, before. Rory Stewart may be returning to the Middleland and seeking to explain the damage of Empire and borders because he has worked for the Imperium himself. He celebrates the folksy variety of cultures that there might one day be, because he has so beautifully supped at the font of the Imperial, civilising culture, but – having worked for it – thinks is a poor machine.

I like all that, and bits of it may be true, and much of it is great – of course it is. But… Why might not Scotland and England now separate in a civilised way and mutually agree to bolster the idea of a Middleland?  Why not – come to that – separate England from the EU, in the same spirit?

And are we so sure that RS is right about the Romans and their dividing of the country? Even if he is, he is on shaky ground when he goes on reviling the Romans granted that he then goes on to note that the economy collapsed when they left. And then he bigs-up Bede who was – awkwardly for his case – precisely Roman (as in Roman Catholic) and not Pictish or Celtic  in his view. So Rome did give us what lots of people think was good stuff: the Roman Catholicism which would turn out to know how to live with and sponsor the Renaissance, and which learned eventually how to live with the Enlightenment (which, it is true, was the spawn of the Reformation, some of whose facets – its Protestantism – the Roman Church persisted in thinking was a big mistake, and did so long after it had come to see that State and Church needed separate lives.)

Upshot? There will be borders. We can make them porous, up to a point. But if peoples also want distinctness from one another, there will be some sort of divisions and collisions. We can get clever at managing them, maybe, but we will sometimes and perhaps often fail. I don’t think Rory Stewart has really much helped us see our way through these things.

And the oddity? The more we celebrate the little peoples and their little cultures, and their knitting and songs, the more we are forced to acknowledge that they fester in bigotry and enforced ignorance, under superstitions and nasty, petty elites. Civilisations have a bit more chance of banishing incest and mind-rot than folklorique paradises do. And all that depends on borders, ultimately.

The big point is that RS doesn’t help us decide what unit of management is right, where. Folk club? Town? City? Region? Nation? Federation of Nations? I guess the only certainty is that he doesn’t like Empires. But can we maybe have modern, very loose Virtual Empires? Can we have Voluntary Virtual Very Very Soft Empires (like the Anglosphere, say)? Or is he in thrall, as so many good and clever men have been, to the idea of a future Liberal Imperium of the UN, one which will be democratically driven and yet morally accountable, and govern the world so that the micro-cultures can safely thrive?

Perhaps, and in this he would be right, it would be wise to tell the Scots that the current absurd muddle is pretty good, and best not to rattle it. I would add that we have now inherited a Great Britain which is as full of potential as it is because all the shepherds and warlords, Empires and kingdoms and folk clubs, have fought their fights and left us better, each in their own way, by a sort of magic which cannot be understood fully.

So I agree we should leave well alone, but I don’t really believe the steps by which RS seeks to persuade us of the fact. Though I am grateful for the stories he reminds us of, some of which I never knew (even though a relative of mine was Canon Rawnsley of Keswick and I went to a Clydeside prep school and wore a kilt to lessons on Robert the Bruce, or at least to church).



Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Publication date

16 April 2014