Brief Encounter

Rory Stewart: Harry Potter sends me to sleep

The podcaster and former MP on what political changes he’d like to make—and what he’s changed his mind on

October 04, 2023
Illustration by Michael Rae
Illustration by Michael Rae

What is the first news event you can recall?

I have an unbelievably bad childhood memory. I vaguely remember the winter of discontent because that was when—as a six-year-old—I left London with my parents to go to Hong Kong on a particularly rainy, cold winter’s day.  

What is the biggest problem of all?

Extreme poverty globally. The success of many countries—particularly China—at addressing poverty has convinced too many of us that poverty is disappearing of its own accord. In fact, the number of people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa has increased from 170m in 1980 to 470m today. There are over 700m people who struggle to eat once a day. Recent research has demonstrated that we can make a huge difference to the lives of the extreme poor through unconditional cash transfers; that cash outperforms almost every other development intervention. But superstition, vanity and bureaucratic self-interest are preventing us from delivering more direct cash to the extreme poor.

If you could spend a day in one city or place at one moment in history, what would that be?

In the Forum of Republican Athens, watching Euripides, Herodotus and Thucydides arguing over dinner. 

What is your favourite quotation?

“People are almost always better than their neighbours think they are.” George Eliot. 

Which of your ancestors or relatives are you most proud of?

My younger sister Fiona who has Down’s syndrome and displays so much compassion, resolution, patience, grace and determination in every day of her life.

What have you changed your mind about?

The role of unconditional cash in international development. I used to think that “if you gave someone a fish, they eat for a day; if you teach them how to fish, they eat for a lifetime.” I now realise that people in extreme poverty often either know how to fish but can’t afford a fishing hook, or don’t want to fish, or would rather open a bakery. It’s better to give them cash to let them choose.

What’s the last piece of music, novel, film or TV show that brought you to tears?

Ted Lasso.

What’s the first thing you’d change about politics tomorrow, if you could?

The electoral system—our major political parties are sclerotic, rigid and incurious. We need to break their death grip on our body politic. We desperately need fresh ideas. The only way to do so is to introduce immediately a New Zealand-style proportional representation system, in which there are constituencies with links to individual MPs but also a way of ensuring the vote share of the country is reflected in parliament. More fundamentally, however, I think the key is decentralisation. Our economic system, our political system, our foreign policy and our international development would be immensely improved if they were radically decentralised. 

What’s the best avenue for political change nowadays?

I think the greatest potential lies with the new mayors—the mayor of Greater Manchester, the mayor of the West Midlands, and so on. These are fairly new roles, but they are already proving that a place-based approach to politics is very good as a way of mobilising the energy and identity of different locales, of addressing specific local needs, and of taking responsibility for results.

Would you ever stand for election again?

Not any time soon. Probably never.                    

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I listen to Harry Potter audiobooks when I go to sleep—the Stephen Fry versions.

Rory Stewart is the co-host, with Alastair Campbell, of the podcast The Rest is Politics and the senior adviser to the NGO GiveDirectly. His book “Politics On the Edge: A Memoir from Within” (Jonathan Cape) is out now