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: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Deputy Editor: i’s Review of the Year

Andrew Webster
RIP Voicemail?  

Voicemail has got me out of some tight corners, so let's not abandon it

Simon Kelner
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all