Steve Hilton has great ideas – but they’re too good for fallible human beings to make work

He can create a micro-republic of Witney, but when taken to a bigger stage it crumbles

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The Independent Online

Steve Hilton was on my wavelength. He came into my office when I was working at another newspaper. He was wearing shorts, T-shirt and sandals. He was short, lean and very fit-looking – like in a person who watches what they eat and probably drinks smoothies made from nothing but grass sort of way.

It was like he was wired. He could easily have been an ageing ballet dancer or change-the-world rock star (think Chris Martin). But he’d come to see us as the head of a new agency called Good Business. He’d got an idea for a series highlighting the positives that companies have, how we should focus resolutely on them and ignore the other, nasty, rapacious capitalists.

We talked and talked – him, idealistic and keen; me, dressed in regulation suit and tie, sitting behind a large desk, groaning with management papers on increased profitability and efficiency (sacking people in other words). He was refreshing, and different. Then he left. I went downstairs, got in my executive limo and went to lunch at a smart (cue expensive) restaurant. Thanks Steve, that was really great and inspiring.

I suspect my reaction was similar to many who are subjected to Hilton. The man is a force of nature, overflowing with ideas and arguments for making the world a better place; for bringing corporates and their fat-cat executives into line; for smashing the ruling elite who govern our lives across politics, the City, media, the arts; to make society, as he calls his latest book, More Human. We listen, nod, and then get on with doing pretty much the opposite of what he advocates. Which is a great pity. Because much of what he spouts, really does resonate.

Business and politics have become too impersonal; we’re slaves to the supermarkets in what we eat; we are governed by a small group of people who move from one job to another, seemingly effortlessly and often without obvious qualification; and the bosses of large banks that fail should be paid the same as senior civil servants. Citizen Hilton wants us to rise up and volunteer, to take control of our lives, to localise and to democratise. It’s wonderful, man-the-barricades stuff.

All of which would be very well if he’d got a track record of persuading and reforming. My exposure to him was limited. He trained his philosophy on others for much longer, most notably with David Cameron, who he served as strategy director before heading off to Silicon Valley.

Now back in the UK to promote his book, you wonder what he makes of the progress or lack of it, in his absence. We’ve just had a general election campaign in which I cannot recall the words Big Society being uttered once. This was a David Cameron project, inspired by Hilton. But that’s all it ever was: a David Cameron project. It was never embraced by his fellow senior ministers. Now, it lies, more or less abandoned, in a file marked, “nice try, but unworkable”.

The main charge against the Big Society was that no one knew what it meant. That’s nonsense. We all knew exactly what it was attempting to achieve; we just did not want to go there. Or rather, that same, ruling coterie could not get excited by it sufficiently to impose the concept on us.

Hilton has had results. He gave us a softer, caring Cameron, the almost-ordinary bloke who liked to slurp his tea in his kitchen with his kids and barefooted wife, who bought her clothes from Topshop, and danced to Frankie Knuckles. It was far away from that haunting image of the Bully Boys at Oxford. A distance, too, from the ambitious, clever, calculating careerist who shot to the top of the Tory rankings without ever becoming well known or loved.

But in terms of other achievements, much of Hilton’s efforts ended in failure. The would-be Prime Minister who liked to hug a husky? Well, his avowed greening did not last long – no sooner did the Tories achieve power than George Osborne began rueing the cost to UK business of measures designed to slow the advance of climate change. They were suffering, while their rivals in nations not so eco-conscious were expanding rapidly.

And that’s where Hiltonism fails. He can create a micro-republic of Witney, all squeaky-clean and full of people giving up their evenings and weekends to pick up litter and come to the aid of others. But take it to the bigger stage, the one where there are less receptive ears and it begins to crumble.

Look at his banking proposal. Either the supervisory authorities can allow a failing bank to succumb and disappear completely, as occurred with Lehman – but with the risk that a domino-like contagion could spread through the financial system, sending other institutions under – or, they step in and bail it out.

If they choose the latter, their best objective should be to restore it to health as quickly as possible, to such a point where it can be released and allowed to function independently again. Is it sensible therefore, for that injured bank to be weakened further, relative to its competitors, by requiring its staff to be paid the same as public servants? I am all for bankers to be paid less – too many of them are paid vast sums, amounts that far exceed the expertise they’ve displayed or the risk they’ve taken.

But intervene the Hilton way and the result will be a bank that sees its best personnel leave for rivals that did not require a lifeboat and have powered on regardless. The good will go, the bad will stay – human nature tells us that will be the case. Instead of being able to offload the invalid, the taxpayer will be stuck with it for much longer, possibly forever.

The Hilton formula makes no allowance for frailties of self and the behaviour of others. He wants us to be more human, but alas, human beings are not so easily managed. What looks good on paper, too often comes unstuck in practice.