Interview: Steve Hilton

Longer stuff
June 6, 2016

S­­­teve Hilton was so unconventional during his time as Tory party spin doctor that when they came to parody him in The Thick of It, they had to tone him down. “He wears something I would never wear,” complained actor Vincent Franklin, “these ridiculous half-shorts, half-trousers.”

Amid the charcoal suits of the Tory cabinet, Hilton stood out like an Oompa-Loompa at a funeral. There’s a brilliant picture of him sandwiched between a besuited David Cameron and George Osborne; Hilton, a foot shorter than either, sports a bright yellow v-neck, looking for all the world like he’s just photobombed them.

The £180,000 a year advisor was part of the team that would force stuffy civil servants to attend “design-thinking workshops”, he was the brains behind the Big Society and, legend has it, a one-time advocate of investing in “cloud-bursting technology” to create more sunshine.

He’s also a key architect of the modern “compassionate” Conservatives, responsible for detoxifying the party after three straight election defeats, and a staunch ally of Cameron, who made Hilton godfather to his late-son Ivan (Hilton’s enemies gave him the nickname “pint-sized Rasputin” because of his uncanny ability to influence the PM).

But just two years into the coalition government, he took a sabbatical, moving to the US to lecture at the prestigious Stanford Design School. Four years later he’s still there, living with hisUber executive wife Rachel Whetstone, their two children, a brood of chickens and, famously, no mobile phone. “It’s easy to parody,” he smiles, “but it’s great.”

Last month, however, in a move that fortuitously coincided with the release of the paperback version of his book, he rejoined the British political debate, throwing his weight behind the Brexit campaign and – reluctantly – putting himself in opposition to Cameron. For a week solid he dominated both the news and opinion pages, appearing on every political panel show, even claiming that his former boss is a secret Brexiteer (which Cameron denies).

To anyone who’s read More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First, his views will hardly come as a surprise. It’s a treatise against bureaucracy and centralised power in all of its guises, be it education, health care, banking or politics. There are few problems in the world, according to Hilton, that can’t be solved by making things smaller. The European Union must have him waking up in cold sweats.

What’s more surprising is that Hilton, a man once known for his desire to remain behind the scenes, who rarely granted interviews, was willing to stick his head so far above the parapet. “That used to be the case,” he says. “Now I want to be out there making the arguments myself. That’s why I wrote the book.”

We meet in a coffee-shop outside Broadcasting House, where he’s been packing in waves of interviews – he reckons I’m number eight or nine. There’s no yellow v-neck today, only a relatively conservative t-shirt and cords, and a less conservative pair of white and neon-orange Adidas trainers, emblazoned with the name of his tech start-up, Crowdpac. The west coast clearly agrees with him – he’s tanned and toned, the weight he put on after quitting smoking long gone.

More Human has been variously described as “Marxist”, “revolutionary”, and akin to the ramblings of Russell Brand, none of which are remotely accurate. At its heart lies a very traditional kind of conservatism, the notion that the market, in its purest form, will triumph over interventionism. Hilton believes that most people are fundamentally good, and that they tend to flourish when untethered from the distant, centralised institutions of 21st century life.

He spins a narrative – sometimes convincing, sometimes naïve – of nice people battling a cold, inflexible system; great teachers being punished for success, doctors and nurses distanced from their patients. He’s critical of policy-makers’ reliance on statistics, instead weaving a tapestry of anecdotes involving successful, small-scale enterprises from as far afield as Nigeria, Mexico and Sweden.

The EU, he tells me, is the epitome of a distant, bureaucratic system: “It’s something I’ve believed for more than 20 years,” he says. “The EU centralises power, taking it away from people and giving it to Brussels.” Given this stance, I wonder if he sees Brexit poster-boy Boris – a man with whom he has a somewhat ambivalent relationship – as the next PM. This appears to make him genuinely angry.

“Not at all,” he splutters. “David Cameron is elected for a full term and that’s what he should serve. I think the whole argument is completely ludicrous and undemocratic and everyone briefing about it should stop. The whole point of the referendum is to take a really important decision out of the realm of party politics. It’s about where we want to go as a country.”

And were does he think we’re going?

“In many respects we’re moving in the wrong direction. Yesterday I saw an astonishing story about the government closing down community pharmacies: you have Jeremy Hunt sitting in his office with a map of England putting dots where he thinks they should go, deciding how far you should walk to the pharmacy. I’ve never heard of something so ludicrous – it’s indefensible, mad. That’s what’s happening but we don’t even call it out because we’re so used to this system of insane bureaucratic centralisation.”

The private sector can be just as bad, he says, railing against anti-competitive supermarkets and the “corrupt cartel” of banks, which he says are “basically part of the public sector”. Britain is particularly guilty, he says, far more willing to overlook anti-competitive practices than our American cousins.

Silicon Valley, meanwhile, sounds like a capitalist utopia. Hilton lives out in the suburbs, which he loves, despite previously considering himself an “urban person”. His son, Ben, attends a hippyish Khan Lab School – not unlike our Steiner schools – where children are encouraged to be independent and creative (in More Human, Hilton argues that smartphones should be banned for the under-16s).

“Silicon Valley has a casual, informal, outdoors sort of vibe. There’s a cultural understanding of the connection between your family life, your time in nature, your health and your wellbeing. This is where the most valuable companies in the world are being built, but people don’t work long hours – they prioritise time with family and friends. People collaborate and are open and generous with their ideas – that’s the big difference from the UK.”

He’s taken advantage of that culture to start Crowdpac, a website that matches voters with candidates, acts as a fundraising platform, and makes it easier for people to run for office. It’s been live for some time in the US and recently launched in the UK. He’s also started putting together suggestions for modernising the Republican Party, paving the way for a more active role in US politics.

And yet he seems inexorably drawn back to Westminster. His wife summed it up for him when she said if he doesn’t run as a candidate, he’ll regret it. “I think those of us who have a strong point of view about how things should be need to get involved.” He won’t rule out seeking office in the US, but it doesn’t seem to hold the same allure for him as politics here. He almost went for the safe Tory seat of Surrey Heath in 2005 but lost out in the selection process to Michael Gove. So would he run as an MP?

“No, that’s a terrible idea.”

Another advisory role?

“I’m not interested in working for anyone else. I’ve done that. I want to pursue my own agenda.”

What about running for one of the provincial mayors he champions in his book?

“If you’re going to be mayor of somewhere, you have to know the place.”

So that leaves the Mayor of London, then?

“Yeah. But I doubt it will happen.”

Speaking of the Mayor of London, what did he make of Zac Goldsmith’s widely-criticised mayoral campaign, which tried to link rival Sadiq Khan with Islamic extremism?

“I thought it was astonishing that Zac’s campaign – of all people – was the one that, through carelessness to put it generously, brought back the ‘nasty party’.” It’s safe to say Goldsmith’s campaign wouldn’t have got Hilton’s sign-off back in the detoxifying days.

A more pressing concern for the Conservatives will be regrouping after what promises to be a bloody final few weeks of the referendum campaign, which, whatever the result, will be followed by recriminations and soul-searching. They’ll need some bright, snappy ideas to unite them behind a common cause. I know a man who has one or two.