Skip to main content


Public service has lost its allure

Stewart: imagines himself as a “classical hero”. Leon Neal/Getty

One of the tragedies of Rory Stewart’s “prematurely curtailed parliamentary career”, says James Marriott in The Times, is that few men have ever been so excited to enter the House of Commons. In his new memoir, the former Tory MP enthuses about the “extraordinary vocation” of politics, imagining himself variously as a “classical hero”, a “Victorian gentleman” prepared to die for his country, and a young Roman senator climbing the cursus honorum towards the consulship. He insists that far from wanting fame or money, from a very young age he dreamed of one thing alone: “public service”.

This romantic conception of political life may sound terribly old-fashioned. But as our MPs have come to see their job less as a sacred duty and more as a chance to attain a kind of “ersatz partisan celebrity”, something has clearly been lost. Part of the problem is the decline in social status for public servants. Where the Victorians built “grand hospitals, town halls, law courts and schools” for their officials, we subject ours to decaying parliamentary buildings, shabby hospitals and “structurally endangered schools”. Prestige matters. It’s folly to imagine that great statesmen put up with the long hours and grubby scrutiny out of “pure selflessness”. To attract the top talent, every industry must make an appeal “not only to the consciences but also the egos” of young men and women. Surely better that our best and brightest are drawn to serve the nation than disappear into hedge funds and City law firms. Stewart’s political enemies love to accuse him of vanity. “But if it is vanity, it is at least vanity that has been usefully directed.”