A good parody should always illuminate its subject. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s dedicated Twitter parodist does such a good job of wheedling out (and, of course, exaggerating) the reality that the man himself is reportedly content to allow him to effectively stand in for him. Similarly, the @SteveHiltonGuru account has, alongside some of its wilder utterances (“WHAT OTHER EXILE could generate such mayhem, a visit from a warlord and blanket media coverage? I am one of the world’s greatest brands. #won), also put its finger on some genuinely amusing and true aspects of the man himself.
This is the reason why, when the real Hilton arrived for his speech at Policy Exchange last night wearing a t-shirt emblazoned simple with the word “GREAT”, I had to double-check that it did not have a hashtag at the start of it. In the flesh, he doesn’t bear the triumphant edges of his caricature, but he certainly has all of its enthusiasm and scale of vision. His new book, reviewed here yesterday by Iain Dale, isn’t about reforming business, society or politics, it’s about a unified theory for reviewing all of them and starting again. As he put it last night:
“…it’s much easier to build something new than it is to change something that’s already there…easier than trying to tinker with something that’s already broken.”
As ever with Hilton, the flurry of ideas, ideology and eclectic examples that make up the meat of his argument can sometimes baffle those who are used to long battles (and indulgent celebrations) over changes that he would dismiss as cosmetic or temporary compared to the scale of reforms he believes are required. From the hyper-local examples of state failure (like the mother of a boy who begged a charity boss to come to a meeting about her son’s future as, unlike the social workers or police officers, he would be “on our side”) to the near science fiction (on health reform he pointed to a company in Silicon Valley, where he now lives, which is planning to allow people to 3D-print personalised medication in their own home) he is a refreshing mass of contradictions – “someone asked if I was some weird combination of Marxist and libertarian…I don’t know about that”.
The difficulty, of course, is whether such theories are applicable to real politics. Hilton himself is at pains to emphasise that unless they produce real changes, he thinks he will have been wasting his time – certainly the sometimes harsh reputation of a detached brainiac doesn’t fit with his visible anger when he discusses the betrayal of the very poorest by incapable government. But is this just a book, or a real world manifesto? Charles Moore challenged him on this straight after his speech, and he replied with blunt honesty:
Moore: “The post-bureaucratic age…the Big Society….really it’s Hilton’s having another go now they’ve got a majority – is that it?”
That’s not to say that he sees himself as an election strategist:
“If you’re talking about what you say in an election campaign, that’s obviously a completely different question that I’m not that interested in, particularly having done not a particularly good one and having just seen someone in the form of my good friend Lynton do a very good one, so I should be the last person to talk about election campaigns…I’m talking about what you do in government”.
Which is all well and good, except Governments do tend to have to do at least some of the things they talked about during their campaign, and the things they talk about during their campaign ought to be more than a little related to what they later do in Government. Hilton’s belief in real localism, as opposed to Town Hall-ism, is interesting and broadly correct, but on that democratic basis a wholesale remodelling of state, business and society will at some point have to involve a debate among – and the consent of – the people. Indeed, as he said in response to a question from ConHome, his ideas apply just as much to reforming political parties as to changing supermarkets or education – and appropriately enough we are at the early stages of what must be a major grassroots debate about the future structure of our own party.
He hasn’t exempted himself entirely from the consideration of how his ideas can navigate democratic hurdles (though it’s clear he sees the bureaucrats rather than the voters as the real obstacle to change). Last night’s event discussed his book, but it also launched a campaign website to go with it. Visitors can register to receive advice on how to stand for elected office to help to change things.
But will he exempt himself from the practice, or get stuck in by standing himself – is the dirty work for other people, while Hilton comes up with the ideas behind the scenes? Or will he have the courage of his convictions?
“My wife Rachel [Whetstone]...says to me, ‘If you don’t run for office at some point, you will regret it. So you should do it.’ I think she’s probably right, but right now I’ve got a full time job running a tech company – but I’m not saying I won’t…”
Steve Hilton will be interviewed by Iain Dale on his LBC Show later today.