John Kampfner: Thinking the unthinkable

Steve Hilton's politics mix US-style hostility towards the state, a belief in bottom-up activism and a geek-led informality of style

Share
Related Topics

Brilliant blue skies? Or bonkers? Steve Hilton, the prime minister's thinker-in-chief, is a bit of both. He is, or would like us to think he is, your quintessential modern man, the guy who wanders around No 10 in his bare feet when not holding seminars on the latest idea fresh out of Davos, Silicon Valley or a modish American campus.

No prizes, therefore, for guessing at the source of the story in yesterday's Financial Times in which Hilton's latest cerebral contortions are laid bare. No attempt was made to conceal the fingerprints of disdainful mandarins. Perhaps the UK could just ignore EU regulations on temporary workers, suggested the T-shirt-clad head of strategy? Not if you don't want your prime minister to go to jail, came the reply from No 10's top mandarin (not averse himself, it seems, to hyperbole). How about abolishing all government press officers and replacing them with a single blogger per department? Abolish all consumer rights? Close all Job Centres? Then the most toxic: abolish maternity leave in order to encourage employers to take on more women (follow the logic?). And, finally everyone's favourite: use technology to separate the clouds and bring in more sunshine. Who could argue with that?

Behind the mix of fury and mockery (Twitter had a field day with dozens of suggestions, such as privatising Tuesdays) is a serious dilemma for anyone involved in government. How do you make a difference?

The Tories have long seen Whitehall as protecting bloated special interests. Labour believed it was the last bastion of the posh Establishment. Tony Blair wailed about the scars on his back as he became bogged down trying to reform public services. Margaret Thatcher complained incessantly about the civil service as the enemy within. Gordon Brown simply threw mobile phones at people. They, and the people working for them, became frustrated at their apparent inability to bring about change.

David Cameron enjoys one major advantage over his predecessors. He can cite empty state coffers in order to engineer a reduction in the size of the state – which to more ideological Conservatives is political nirvana. He also faces one major impediment, the fact of the Coalition or, more precisely, Coalition Mark II. In the first year, such was Nick Clegg's determination to "co-own" every policy, he played down the differences. Once he saw Cameron double-cross him during the referendum on voting reform, he realised the need to change tack.

Now, each day brings evidence of the yawning gap between the Tories' and Lib Dems' approach to state, society, and the economy. Vince Cable's weekend denunciation of the Republican "nutters" in charge of the US Congress was one of the more colourful examples.

Hilton's politics represents the more flamboyant end of a new generation of Conservatism. It is a mix of US-style scepticism or hostility towards the state and its ability to provide all but the most essential services efficiently; a belief in bottom-up "empowerment" and activism (no surprise that he was chief architect of the Big Society); and a geek-led informality of style that is the preserve of social media and internet gurus (his wife is one of the head honchos at Google).

These young men and women in a hurry look around and see a contrast between entrepreneurs (fast lane) and public-sector employees (slow lane). The former will risk everything for a great idea. The latter follow convention. The former insist on helping themselves. The latter believe in entitlements. Behind every generalisation there tends to be a kernel of truth. Even if one does not agree with Hilton's world view – and nobody seriously imagines he was doing more than trying to provoke discussion with his bizarre declarations – one can understand his frustrations.

Yet there is one gaping flaw in the Government's understanding of the new wave of tech-based entrepreneurialism. Facebook and Twitter embrace not just this new mood but also a more pronounced sense of equity. And it is this that is so lacking in Cameron's approach to economic austerity. The supine bailout of the bankers and the servility towards the Murdochs proved that we are not all in it together. The pain has been shared out, in varying degrees, among the mainstream population, but not among the very wealthy and the obscenely wealthy.

The reason Hilton's reported remarks about abolishing maternity leave strikes such a nerve is that it reinforces a view that the wealthy can dictate the terms and that deregulation is designed solely for this purpose. Here the Lib Dems, and Cable in particular, have a serious role to play. This is, or at least should be, a deal breaker. Belt-tightening for all is in a different universe from belt-tightening for most. The young generation may be less wedded to a Whitehall-knows-best approach; suspicion of private enterprise may have been overcome in the 1980s. But the financial crash has not turned us into manic deregulators. Rather the reverse. It has revived a traditional notion of fairness, one that politicians – and their advisers – play with at their peril.

www.jkampfner.net; twitter@johnkampfner

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Our representatives must represent us

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot