Hilton won't be missed by many in government, but Hiltonism will be

Cameron's chief strategist's hatred of bureaucracy could be impractical; his sense that government s

What does the departure of Steve Hilton, David Cameron's Director of Strategy, mean for Downing Street? In terms of the day-to-day running of government, the answer is not much. There is no doubting Hilton's closeness to the Prime Minister, but his direct influence on the machinery of government was not vast and has been waning for some time.

One senior government official recently told me that Hilton's presence could be felt in many ways but "on the really big, billion-pound decisions, he's not in the room."

Hilton's frustration with the practical reality of governing was famous in Whitehall. He is a fanatical enemy of bureaucracy. In a meeting he once challenged everyone present to explain why an entire government department couldn't be replaced by "seven people and a website". His attachment to digital solutions is also renowned. One mandarin satirises the Hilton response to any given policy challenge as "build me a website by Monday." The same source reveals that officials came to realise that these commands could be ignored. Hilton has a reputation for throwing tantrums and has alienated a lot of people but his ferocious attention to any particular topic is short-lived. Hide, and he'll move on. I know of at least one top cabinet office official who has considered thwarting Hilton to be a central aspect of her job description.

That said, Hilton's influence as a dynamic thinker, challenging the Number 10 operation to raise its eyes from the daily grind and contemplate the far policy horizon, has been vital. Hilton has been motivated by the impulse to leave an irreversible legacy of reform - changing the way public services are run, changing in fact the whole British conception of what the state is and what it does. The countervailing impulse has been tactical caution - driven substantially by Andrew Cooper, the No. 10 pollster and George Osborne. There is some concern - justified, I would say - that the kind of revolutionary attitude to statecraft advocated by Hilton alienates voters, especially those who were wary of the Tories in 2010. Hilton's wild-eyed zeal, often involving quite radical Thatcherite ideas, is problematic with the people Tory focus groups identify as the "considerers" - those who flirted with the idea of backing Cameron but were held back by residual suspicion that the Conservatives don't really represent ordinary people and can't be trusted, for example, to look after the NHS. (Hilton was one of those who has argued against dropping Andrew Lansley's reforms for fear that doing so would signal the death of the government's reformist energy. That was plainly the wrong call.)

The counter-argument - the defence of Hiltonism - is that without radical ideas, the government's only conspicuous purpose is deficit reduction which is (a) hurting people and (b) not working out as planned. That is making it very hard to imagine what a Conservative manifesto offer for Britain will be at the next election that might be more inspiring than a message of "more austerity, but we're getting there, give us another term and we'll nail it." Although by then, Hilton will be back - he is only taking a year's sabbatical.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.