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David Cameron’s former director of strategy has a manifesto for the modern world

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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.  

Some of Hilton’s suggestions raise more questions than they answer. He correctly notes that the UK has one of the most centralised bureaucracies in the world and lauds localism as the key way to make government “more human” but he then provides little explanation of how this will be paid for and the necessary process of accountability and assessment. In Hilton’s view, decentralisation must be initiated from above rather than below, which in itself is a problem; the political class does not have a good track record at relinquishing power. Since the 1970s, successive governments of all political shades have proclaimed decentralisation as the answer, but it has often only resulted in eroding the powers of democratic local government. Hilton writes optimistically of putting “long-term human needs” above the “short-term imperative of the numbers”, but in Britain that is precisely how the government is held to account, most notably by its highly centralised media.

More Human is not a serious or original work of political philosophy, given its obvious debt to Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” thesis. Nor is it particularly Conservative; it does not dwell on Thatcherism or the party’s earlier mutations. Hilton reveals himself to have more in common with Russell Brand than Edmund Burke in his zealous quest for radical change, although his conversational style is reminiscent of those airport manuals for businessmen: “How to make Britain more human in ten easy steps.”

Hilton puts the case for a living wage, advocating that business and government should work together to bring it about, although he ignores trade unions, the traditional means by which workers achieved improved standards. He does not hold back when it comes to attacking bankers’ bonuses and business monopolies,  particularly their hold over politicians. He has a vested interest here, as founder of Crowdpac, a start-up designed to counteract corporate donors’ influence on the US political system.

The big theme Hilton introduces but does not sufficiently address is how globalisation and localism can operate in harmony. He is optimistic but does not admit that the only section of society for whom this is true is the metropolitan middle class, those who are ferried around by exhausted Uber taxi-drivers and hire Polish cleaners at minimum wage, but buy locally sourced organic vegetables and fair-trade coffee. For all his concern about poverty and inequality, he has a tendency to position the “poor” as subjects to be pitied rather than individuals capable of their own emancipation. Although his book’s ideas have clearly been internationally sourced, its scope is remarkably narrow. There is little on geopolitics or the “global race” and how this is likely to affect advanced economies such as the UK in their aim to be “more human”. 

It is often said that we are living in an entrepreneurial age, where entrepreneurs (specifically those in tech) have assumed the platform and power that philosophers enjoyed in the 18th century. Hilton has obviously been seduced by this culture of disruption and ingenuity. Indeed, most of his suggestions for human policy-centred design seem to be dependent on citizens’ access to a smartphone. Hilton is investing in a modern form of capitalism that is the very opposite of Fordism, the standardised de-personalised mass production of 20th-century America. Given its roots in California, some have appropriately called this new phenomenon “hippy capitalism” with Steve Jobs the new Henry Ford. It is one which is highly individualistic (or narcissistic) but also confidently proclaims capitalism’s and technology’s potential for social good. “Hippy capitalism” is evident in the UK too, most notably in Tech City, Shoreditch, whither Mark Zuckerberg wannabes flock from all over Europe armed with an optimistic belief that anything is possible at a click.

Hilton’s book is testimony to the increasing influence of Silicon Valley on every aspect of our lives. If anything, politicians are playing catch-up to a development that has long been under way. This is particularly evident among the millennial generation, who have more affiliation to their mobile phone tariff than to any political party and cannot fathom why they still have to vote via a polling booth rather than Facebook. 

Hilton may just be predicting where the political debate is heading. If the Right ends up appropriating “hippy capitalism” and successfully appealing to the winners in the game, then it must be for the Left (rather than UKIP) to connect with its losers, those who feel ever more disconnected from this increasingly connected globalised world.

The book ends, appropriately enough, with a link to Hilton’s campaigning website (click here if you want change). There is something deeply paradoxical in believing that technology has the potential to make the world “more human”, but it may yet be the future of politics.