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

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.; twitter@johnkampfner

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own