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Steve Hilton: David Cameron’s former adviser calls for a more personalised politics (photo: Peter MacDiarmid/Getty Images)

We may be just weeks into a Conservative government but it is already clear that the EU referendum and the Scottish settlement are likely to dominate the majority of David Cameron’s remaining time in office. Interestingly though, these two issues barely receive a mention in Steve Hilton’s new book. Hilton was, of course, Cameron’s former chief policy adviser, the jeans and T-shirt man who shook up the “nasty” party and made it electable again, but after just two years in government decamped to California. His path paralleled that of Margaret Thatcher’s adviser Alfred Sherman, who had the task of rebranding Conservatism in the 1970s but whose tendency for blue-sky thinking was not suited to what Walter Bagehot once dubbed the “great gulf stream of affairs” that dominates life in Downing Street.

The first question that More Human poses is: why write a “manifesto” when you are no longer in a position to implement it? Hilton clearly has no immediate desire to return to Downing Street, but his frustrating experiences with the obstinate mandarins of Whitehall do partly act as the inspiration for this book. Yet some of the themes — factory farming, for example — are so divorced from the immediate political agenda that you might wonder at the book’s relevance. Still, Hilton has undoubtedly hit upon an argument that is likely to gather momentum over the next decade. More Human is not a rehash of old debates of Left versus Right, but an examination of big business and big government versus disruptive capitalism and decentralisation.

To offer the appropriate remedy, you first need to diagnose the right problem. For Hilton, it is bureaucracy, which he observes is as much an obstacle within large corporations as within government. Anyone who has ever had to make a phone call to an energy company or enter a job centre will know what a dehumanising process these encounters can be: the anonymous and faceless world of the 21st-century service culture where the computer always says no. In a series of thematic chapters ranging from health and the food industry to government and inequality, Hilton attacks the culture of targets, vested interests and profit, which in his view has led to hospitals devoid of personalised care, factory farming that is damaging our health, a financial services industry distanced from the lives it gambles on, and an exam-obsessed education system that is failing our children. He gives numerous examples of how social policy alienates those whom it is designed to help, as bureaucrats attempt to crowbar people’s complicated lives into their box-ticking exercises.

Hilton is not the first to make this argument; it has been around at least since the 1970s, most evidently in housing when “experts” built tower blocks without consulting those who would actually be living in them. He is on new ground, however, in where he sources the answer. It is not to Singapore or Sweden or even the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (the favoured campus for US-friendly UK politicos) but to Stanford University in California, and more specifically, its design centre, “d.school”.  Hilton’s main contention is that its theory of “human-centred” design, the inspiration behind the invention of Apple products and services such as Uber and Airbnb, should be adopted by the formulators and implementers of public policy. Mrs Thatcher used to say that the Labour government of 1945 had nationalised compassion; Hilton seems to suggest that the Conservatives have the potential to deregulate it. This route is, however, likely to encounter serious opposition. Food banks, for example, may be an area where the state successfully works alongside the voluntary sector in delivering a localised and personal service — but it would be a hard task to convince the public of this point.  

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