It is impossible for anyone involved in politics to write without lying. The act of joining a party and committing to collective discipline compels loyalists to “take one for the team” when required. They do not want to give aid to their enemies or cause distress to their friends, so they avoid the questions that anyone else would ask automatically.
The omissions of Steve Hilton, a former adviser to David Cameron, are so easy to attack that the chance to take apart his More Human feels like an invitation to commit a crime against humanity. Hilton bubbles with wide-eyed, gee-whizz infatuations. He bounces round the world burbling out his enthusiasm for this startup in London that may one day transform healthcare or that researcher in Chicago who found the best way to persuade teachers to raise pupils’ standards. He has no great theory to interest political philosophers. If you boil down his arguments, you find platitudes so folksy and banal a Girl Guide leader could repeat them.
■ Big is bad. Big hospitals, big bureaucracies, big governments, big corporations, big banks and big farms ignore the needs of the individual.
■ Get out into the real world. No civil servant or politician should propose top-down plans for alleviating poverty unless they have lived with the poor.
■ Let kids be kids. Children need good families, no, really they do, and safe streets and access to the countryside so they can enjoy “wholesome play”.
■ Give peace a chance. The more we use communications technology to know and “empathise” – one of Hilton’s favourite words – with each other, the less likely we are to hate and kill each other. For, he warns, “lack of mutual understanding can lead to grave injustices, civil unrest, even tragedy”.
“Even tragedy?” Crikey, who would have thought it? As the eyelids sag and head slumps towards the chest, all you can mutter is: “How true, vicar. How very, very true.”
And when you throw your head back with a start, you are shaken from your slumber by memories of the record of the Cameron government Hilton helped create. To quote the most shameful example, Hilton describes how he took up the theories of Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein, which were all the rage a few years ago. Government should exploit knowledge of our mental biases to “nudge” us into taking the right decisions, they said. Cameron agreed and established a Behavioural Insights Team to nudge the unemployed.
It found that if staff at jobcentres texted details of vacancies to the unemployed, they achieved little. But if they added a greeting – “Hi, Joe Bloggs…” – they produced a better response, and if they signed off with their name – “Best of luck, Pete” for instance – the unemployed felt they were just dealing with a friend who wanted the best for them.
At no point during this chirpy tale does Hilton mention that Cameron has presided over a welfare system that practises state-sponsored inhumanity. It stops benefits at random or to meet Whitehall targets and leaves hundreds of thousands so short of money they must beg at food banks. Although he thinks of himself as an independent writer, Hilton lacks the ability to turn on his friends and produce a truthful account of their rule.
But the very incoherence that makes More Human a bad book does not necessarily mean it is offering bad policy. Conservatism has become a shrivelled ideology because all its proponents can say is: “Cut the state and let business do as it pleases”. Hilton has no time for dogmas of the left or, more interestingly, the right. He has the sense to look at how markets work and is willing to challenge them when they fail. He does not just go for the obvious target of banks that privatise profits and nationalise losses. He writes well on how the food industry has corrupted government into allowing the vast cruelty of factory farming, which surely our grandchildren will regard as one of the worst crimes of our age. And he is as contemptuous as the most radical green of the state’s willingness to let “cheap” food conglomerates pump their products with addictive levels of sugar, salt and fat and pass the health costs on to the taxpayer.
His restless desire to zoom between continents grabbing at whatever solutions real or phoney tech companies and postgraduate schools can offer is not wholly ridiculous either. Hilton may be faddish, but he is trying to find empirically tested and workable policies that may make life better. He is clearly, too, a kind man. The list of his platitudes I gave earlier may be adolescent in their naivety but they remain true or at least the world would be better if they were true.
We should hope that his friends in power take notice of them, for a reason I do not think has sunk in yet. The left agitprop of the past five years has failed and deservedly so. The crude refrain that our rulers are “Tory toffs” led to an electoral catastrophe because the emphasis on class strikes most outsiders as irrelevant. To condemn a politician for going to a private school, and leave it there, is like condemning him for being black. Your point is what? That they should be rejected for who their parents were? Nearly all the leaders of the centre-left are middle class and university educated and strike the broad mass of people as no different in their accents and background from their opponents.
Just as seriously, by treating Conservatives as an undifferentiated block of class conspirators, the left ignores differences within conservatism. Hilton offers practical improvements to his former colleagues who will be in power for five, maybe 10 years. The magnitude of the left’s defeat means that at the level of the Westminster government Conservatives are all there are and all there can be. To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, the rest of us have no choice but to learn to depend on the kindness of Tories.