After a three-year absence in California, the political guru who “went from rebranding Nike to rebranding the ‘nasty party’” was back in town last month to launch his new book, More Human – a manifesto for radical conservatism. As David Cameron’s chief strategist, Steve Hilton took on “a near-mythical status as a restless shoeless radical who roamed… Downing Street terrifying civil servants”, says The Spectator.
Nothing much has changed. Hilton’s book launch at a luxury office complex in Brick Lane (with no right angles, because “if you are in an artificial rectangular space, your brain is restricted”), was packed with politicos, hacks, PR supremos and tech hipsters – after all, the book may be the “closest we’re going to get to an agenda” for Cameron’s second term (see below).
Referring to Hilton as “Cameron’s brain” is unfair, but it contains an element of truth. The two became friends when working on John Major’s campaign in 1992 and “have bounced ideas off each other for years”. Hilton’s much-vaunted “Big Society” theme fizzled when recession made it “look like a posh word for cuts”, says The Guardian. But he will always take the credit for turning “Tory boy Cameron into middle-class Dave”, by way of husky and hoodie props.
Their early backgrounds are very different. Hilton, 44, grew up in relative poverty, the son of Hungarian refugees who had fled the Soviets in 1956. After winning a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital School, he did the “inevitable” PPE degree at Oxford.
He combined an interest in politics with a career in advertising at Saatchi & Saatchi. Founder Maurice Saatchi said: “No one reminds me as much of me when young as Steve”. Hilton later started his own consultancy, Good Business, advising the likes of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s “on corporate social responsibility”. That alone, says The Guardian, was enough to irritate many on the right, who “argue that a firm’s social responsibility is to make profits”.
Viewed by some Tories as a “left-wing quisling”, Hilton’s stint in government wasn’t smooth, says The Mail on Sunday. “Surrounded by cautious civil servants and pragmatic politicians”, he fought fiercely to keep his “ideologically driven mission” at the heart of government, in a sometimes poisonous atmosphere.
Dubbed the “pint-sized Rasputin”, or even “Gollum”, his diplomatic skills were no match for his energy. He quit in frustration after two years to follow wife Rachel Whetstone (a former Whitehall special advisor, turned Google PR chief, now employed by Uber) to California.
His most recent venture is a tech start-up called Crowdpac – a kind of match-making service linking political donors to candidates. He would doubtless relish the opportunity a Tory majority now offers to push through a radical programme, says Conservative Home. “But he’s made his bed.” Still, he could yet follow his own advice and stand for office. “There’s soon to be a vacancy for Mayor of London.”
An agenda-setting mishmash of idealism and individualism
Variously described as mercurial, generous and gregarious, Steve Hilton has the capacity to be all things to all people. To Ian Birrell, writing in The Mail on Sunday in 2011, his euroscepticism, support of the family and free market, and passion for burning red tape and devolving power make him the Thatcherite “flag-bearer that no-one recognises because he is wearing a T-shirt”.
To Owen Jones, in The Guardian, Hilton’s message of “democracy in crisis” and critique of the “chumocracy” of our “insular ruling class” makes him an ally. It is easy to dismiss his utterances as those of “a self-serving right-wing ideologue… masquerading as an anti-establishment insurgent”. But his ideas deserve to be taken seriously.
Hilton’s book, says Nick Cohen in The Observer, is a right mishmash. Like its author, it “bubbles with wide-eyed, gee-whizz infatuations”, zipping from a dissection of the UK food industry, via town planning, to nature. Along the way he takes a pop at banks, arguing that the bosses of those reliant on state finance should be paid public-sector salaries.
While often “faddish”, Hilton should be commended for trying to find “workable policies that make life better”. For those with no choice “but to learn to depend on the kindness of Tories” for the next five years, he offers some form of salvation.
At the heart of Hilton’s policies is “the old conservative insight: that he who governs best governs least” – and that “the purpose of acquiring power is to give it away”, says Fraser Nelson in The Spectator. The names change: the Big Society is now the Northern Powerhouse and the emerging One Nation agenda – but the ideas are the same.
Hilton mixes “libertarian individualism with the kind of idealism espoused by Natalie Bennett”, says Iain Dale on ConservativeHome.com. This book could set the agenda. “Were I a Labour leadership candidate, I’d put it on my summer reading list and fillet it for good ideas.”