Rory Stewart: How will Brexit be remembered when my son gets to my age?

1 February 2020

9:00 AM

1 February 2020

9:00 AM

I still live in the same house, in London, in which I lived as a baby. I walk my five-year-old son every morning to the same school, on the same route that I took 43 years ago, holding my father’s hand. We sing Gilbert and Sullivan in the same bedroom. I am whacked with a sword in the same garden square in which I once whacked my father. And the picture of me in red velvet knickerbockers can be superimposed over the picture of my son in his Batman costume — each of us seated at the same corner of the same dining room, peering gloomily at the two candles on our birthday cake.

What will London look like when my son is the age I am now? His great grandmother was born in this same street in 1912 — they put straw down then so that the horses’ hooves wouldn’t wake the baby. By the time my son is my age, we will — on the government’s figures — have been buying only electric cars for 20 years. Will we still have red letter boxes then? London taxis? Will the Household Cavalry still be clumping down my street for their morning exercise? Will anyone have had the foresight to replant the plane trees? And will these symbols still feel as precious to his contemporaries as they feel to me?

Will he still be discussing Crossrail 2 (which was first planned out in the year that I was born)? And how will this week’s Brexit be remembered then? As a fierce ideological fight for freedom? Or a series of technocratic issues, shorn of their emotional power — questions not of what to do, but how. And will we have finally rewired our house?

For almost ten years as an MP I took the Tube five stops east to Westminster. Now — as an independent candidate for Mayor of London — I am travelling much closer to the end of the Tube lines. Freed of three-line whips and late votes, I am now able not only to walk across London but to stay in people’s houses. On Friday, a woman in Earlsfield found me looking for a cup of tea and said I had better give up, and come in instead. It would have been different, she said, 20 years ago, when her street had cafés, a pharmacist, florist, wine shop, deli, butcher, salon and GP surgery. (All are now residential flats.)

On Monday, I was in the gurdwara at Seven Kings by Ilford talking through the aftermath of a triple murder. Last week, in a Nando’s in south London, I asked the young man sitting next to me how many brothers and sisters he had. He replied that he had had three brothers, but now had only one. Two had been killed in knife attacks. But in Hendon on Saturday there was no violence, just a long, peaceful chat up the Edgware Road with six Afghan men, again looking in vain for somewhere to get out of the cold and have a cup of tea (we ended up in the Sainsbury’s Starbucks).

Such encounters are part of what I love so much about local politics. I never felt most useful as a legislator. I felt most able to help — as the prisons minister, or in Afghanistan — when my feet were most firmly on the ground: clearing up the garbage, fixing broken windows, taking simple quick steps to make places safer. In London, for me, everything begins with safety (that starts with putting three times the number of neighbourhood police on the streets). Get the basics right on safety, housing and transport, and we can improve so much else — from air quality (living near a polluted road in west London means my son’s lungs risk being 8 per cent underdeveloped) to planting far more plane trees and getting more vessels on the Thames.

When I can, I run around Hyde Park. I have measured the seasons by running from the spring chestnut candles at the Cockpit to the dead branches of winter, wet as old cardboard, on Rotten Row. And my dead father is with me on these runs. Panting over the Serpentine Bridge, I remember how he and I were stranded in a boat without oars one evening on the water below. I sense the influence of my father in my London police plan — bringing back retired officers, training myself as a special constable — the general tone of less politics, more action. When I run, I remember the warmth he showed towards the police — the respect with which he treated them. (And how both he and I have seen the British police at their best outside the United Kingdom too — in my case in Iraq, in his Malaya.) I have continued his example of making bacon and egg sandwiches and taking them to the park — so when I sit on a bench and the yolk breaks over a shelf of bacon and leaks out of the bread, narrowly missing my trousers, I think of him and grin.

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