He’s back! In today’s Sunday Times (£), Steve Hilton kicks off a week that sees the launch of his new book, More Human, and a live interview with Charles Moore at Policy Exchange. A leitmotif of David Cameron’s former Chief Strategist is that government and power should be more local and dispersed – and that both have been centralised and captured by “a ruling class that seeks to perpetuate its privilege”.
Big money dominates to the point of corruption: “while there is no explicit quid pro quo, it is hard to mistake what donors intend when they give money to political parties and campaigns”. Tesco is “too big to fail”. MPs and journalists “all go to the same dinner parties”. The EU is “a vast, stinking cesspit of corporate corruption gussied up in the garb of idealistic internationalism.” One is tempted to reply: “Come on, Steve – tell us what you really think.”
Or, less flippantly, to urge a sense of perspective. If the state of Britain was as bad as Hilton makes out, why would people risk death to reach it and other European countries, as they flee from much of the rest of the world – particularly Muslim-majority countries? The rule of law, Parliamentary government, judges that can’t be bribed, a free press: these may be compromised here (though who heard of corrupting a British judge?), but in much of the rest of the world they are absent entirely.
But if Hilton is wrong on some big points, he is right on one of the biggest of all. Not so long ago, voters passively put up with the dominance of Oxbridge and the private schools in Britain, and shrugged at the influence that those with money can undoubtedly buy – whether they are the rich men who give the greater share of donations to the Conservatives or the trade unions that are well placed to buy up Labour’s leadership content.
Cameron’s former guru was one of the first people in politics to grasp how much and how swiftly this culture of deference has collapsed. What are the causes? We pointed in the ConservativeHome Manifesto to the erosion of the foundations of the mass middle class – homes that younger people can buy, well-paid jobs, a return on saving (and the collapse of final salary pensions). The anger at the MPs’ expenses scandal was fed by squeezed living standards.
Hilton worked hard to open Westminster and Whitehall up, and the transparency and accountability revolution under the Coalition owes much to him: Theresa May’s crime maps, Gove’s overhauled Ofsted, Hunt’s MyNHS data information service, Francis Maude’s Contract Finder site. The 2015 election campaign was better than the 2010 one, in which Hilton had a big hand. But his energy, ideas, and eclecticism still have a big contribution to make.
I would like to see him back in Downing Street, though I’m not sure he would go. But either way, what matters is that the best of his ideas gain traction. (This site has long argued that the Conservatives should move towards a voluntary cap on donations of £50,000 each.) For example, Hilton wants poorer workers to gain from the imposition of the Living Wage on firms, whose loss would be made good by cuts in business taxes.
In our manifesto, we suggested instead cuts in employees’ and employers’ National Insurance Contributions, since some poorer people don’t gain from the raising of the tax threshold. Hilton’s idea might be brought in gradually, be made voluntary rather than be imposed on firms by coercion – and take priority over the raising of the threshold of the 40p rate. And whether he’s right or wrong about Tesco in particular, his general point on crony capitalism is sound.
The banks, the big energy companies, undeserved trade union privileges, charities funded on compulsion by the taxpayer which then lobby government for more money (a phenomenon brilliantly described by the IEA’s Christopher Snowdon): all these vested interests need a smaller place in the public square, and the smaller charities, organisations and voluntary groups – of the kind that work in the Centre for Social Justice Alliance, tackling the root causes of poverty – need a bigger one.
Hilton gets all this. So does Jesse Norman, whose talents are being under-used by the Party. The front-bencher who grasps it best of all is Robert Halfon, who has a feel both for the very poorest (he worked in Renewing One Nation during the opposition years) and for what used to be called “the rising class” – the C1 and C2 voters who help to define his Harlow constituency. Hilton’s thoughts need Halfon’s action.