Kind of blue: why Steve Hilton's manifesto is a challenge to the left

Where is the equivalent to Hilton on the left? We have not even touched on the questions of human fulfilment, power and radical democracy that are offered up by modern technological change.

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More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First
Steve Hilton
W H Allen, 384pp, £18.99

Identifying tensions across the Republican right in 2012, the American columnist David  Brooks wrote: “Economic conservatives . . . have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse.” This illustrates a periodic right-wing self-awareness which concedes that economic reductionism could destroy conservatism, in its proper sense of valuing and conserving the nature and institutions of a country. As such, the modern Tory party can appear a strangely fragile and brittle thing even when it wins elections.

In the last parliament hostility to the Liberal Democrats was simple transference; in private, the economic absolutists directed their worst venom at Cameron. Since their surprisingly easy victory, we see the leadership response: a pragmatic “One Nation” reset and an attempt to give a grittier and more regional, working-class voice to modern conservatism, built around “the northern powerhouse”. George Osborne, Robert Halfon and Tim Montgomerie are the main players behind this neat post-election pivot.

Other, earlier responses had been given a less successful test drive. We had compassionate Conservatism and the “big society”; nudge units and happiness indexes; even a bit of “Red Tory” humanism and a return to Edmund Burke, the philosophical founder of conservatism. Naively, I had always assumed that this revisionism was a general (and welcome) political project to push back against the economic crazies. It turns out that it was way more complicated than that.

I had assumed that the proper Tory response to economic liberalism would be a return to questions of virtue and ethics; of subsidiarity and the promotion of “the good life” – a phrase used by Cameron at his manifesto launch in April – to reclaim a deeper conception of humanity, in contrast to the cold calculus of right-wing economics. I came to Steve Hilton’s book assuming that this was his point of departure: a contribution that would be anchored in classical conceptions of justice. I was totally wrong. But it is still intriguing.

Hilton’s More Human is box-office: he and his T-shirts have dominated our newspapers and airwaves for the past few weeks. Previously he was Cameron’s “big society” guy, wrote the 2010 manifesto and for two years bounced around Whitehall detonating ideas and departments – think of the post-bureaucratic age, the Nudge Unit and the Government Digital Service. Yet even by the end of his introduction it becomes clear that Hilton’s humanism is that of the behaviourist and nothing at all to do with Aristotle. This is depressing. Here, politics is about psychology, not philosophy. It does not ask deeper questions about who and what we are. It is libertarian with a few ­paternalistic nudges.

It is tempting to link this to the hi-tech, West Coast hippie-chic wave that he rides. But that lets the left off the hook, big time. Because the volume of policy in this book is staggering and challenging. Hilton has policies on public-service reform, especially around rebuilding family life, on public spaces and environmental change, on redesigning business, and much more. On page after page the ideas fly. This is not someone ground down by the inertia of political parties or Whitehall – Hilton has game.

The left response to date has been predictable. We have called out his personalisation of the Jobcentre regime as inhumane. We have equated his notion of being human with being entrepreneurial. We have painted him as capitalism’s Californian design guy: the mindfulness-trained, modern-day version of an 1870s Austrian economist, backfilled with a bit of Ayn Rand. We on the self-righteous left can then tread water and wait for the voters to realise just how terribly wrong they got it. Alternatively, we can see what light it shines on us.

Hilton’s conception of freedom – he calls the book More Human, but in fact it should be called More Freedom – shames modern social democrats when he takes aim at top pay, unaccountable chief executives and corporate power. As does his environmentalism and his focus on devolution. More­over, some of his thinking around preventative social policy – in early-years education, in mental health, in prison reform – is way ahead of the cold, remedial fiscal transfers overseen by the remote central state of much left thinking. The ease with which Hilton can align himself with great, left-wing social innovators such as the Community Links founder David Robinson speaks volumes about what the representative left has lost and the space vacated.

Admittedly Hilton does not bother much with questions of distributional justice; his thing is epochal technological change, collapsing hierarchy and bureaucracy. His decentralisation can only be driven by a very strong centre, necessary for reasons of what he calls “sequencing”. His route through our democratic crisis and need for political reform equates to little more than good people offering themselves up to serve as mayors. His anti-poverty strategy can bend into blaming the poor and at times suggests a eugenic undertow – not surprising, given his behaviourist bent. And his marketing background allows us to call him out as that trade’s modern shaman, a psychologist. But a lot of this misses the point; the book has energy and great political vitality.

It shows agency on the right. Where is the equivalent on the left? We have not even touched on the questions of human fulfilment, power and radical democracy that are offered up by modern technological change.

I’d have preferred Hilton to drill deeper into the human condition and how we help create good citizens, above and beyond a minor reference to National Citizen Service. But this is a modern guidebook to innovative public policy, not philosophy. Hilton will probably make a shedload of money with his present tech start-up in Palo Alto, but will then feel compelled to return to the world of politics as the Tory candidate for a trendy English city. And good luck to him.

This fascinating book does not really resolve the outstanding tension at the heart of conservatism: it falls on the libertarian side of that divide and then spices up the terrain with a bit of modern psychospeak. Unlike Tory thinkers such as Brooks or Jesse Norman, Hilton is not conservative enough for me. He is a liberal with some great occasional ideas. His vision is limited. My guess, though, is that, compared to anything else on offer, it could prove to be the future.

Jon Cruddas is the MP for Dagenham and Rainham. He was Labour’s policy co-ordinator under Ed Miliband

Jon Cruddas is the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham. 

This article appears in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao