Book review: More Human by Steve Hilton
Steve Hilton came to a wider public notice by being David Cameron’s guru, licensed to think the unthinkable, first in opposition, and then in government as director of strategy. The son of Hungarian immigrants he worked hard and read PPE at Oxford. His time working in Conservative Central Office brought him into contact with David Cameron, and his future wife Rachel Whetstone.
Unconventional in thinking, dress and behaviour, he was credited with a range of policies and photo opportunities for Cameron in opposition which were caricatured as “hug a hoodie”. In government he lasted two years before moving on, perhaps with mutual agreement of Cameron and Osborne, who were rumoured to be irritated by his confrontational style with ministers and civil servants combined with Hilton’s frustration with what he saw was establishment resistance to change.
He became a visiting scholar at Stanford University and CEO of a Silican Valley technology start up company.
More Human is a provocative analysis based upon Hilton’s experience in government and business, both in the UK and the USA. He argues that people are now frustrated, disengaged and angry with government, politics, their economic circumstances and their daily lives which are caused by deep structural problems in the systems that dominate our modern world. His book is effectively a manifesto and a call to action for a more local, more accountable and more human way of living that will make people more productive, more fulfilled and ultimately happier.
So is it really a book about “hello flowers, hello trees?”
Yes, a little bit because it is a combination of interesting critique and wishful thinking. Hilton makes clear that the aim of his book is to “kick-start” the debate. He admits he doesn’t have all the answers but “at least let’s ask the right questions”.
The weakness is, as he candidly admits, More Human offers an argument, not a prescription. So if it doesn’t why should those who actually work in government, business, heath, education, the armed forces etc bother to read it?
Because it does make you think and certainly those in politics or government should recognise that it is more than just managing the shop, particularly with an age of voter frustration and disillusion.
Hilton concentrates on areas where he reckons to have the greatest knowledge and experience. First, government and politics and the need to change priorities – and systems of measurement so that government focuses more on real people that abstract numbers. He argues that we need to change the way policy is made so those who make it understand the lives of those who experience it, change the structure and organisation of government so that it’s closer to people, and change our politics so as to revitalise civic life.
This chapter complements The Blunders of Our Governments (2013) by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe.
Secondly, Hilton critics our educational system where, as he puts it, there are industrialised processes for cramming knowledge into children’s heads and churning out young people equipped for the last century. This is a central theme of all his analysis that all government, political and businesses structures – less so in the latter – are based upon organisation and thought processes accrued from the past.
Third, Hilton passionately criticises our system for delivering health, which he categories as a contradiction in terms. We now have health care by bureaucracy and efficiency targets and waste which has undermined what he sees as the most natural human instinct, to really care for people. It is this human element that is at the core of his book.
By this stage the author has really worked himself up to forcefully argue, if not rage, at so many areas that negate the human element.
Our taxpayer-subsidised food system which has taken over our ability to look after ourselves; how corporate bureaucracy stifles real entrepreneurial ambitions and is also unaccountable and out of touch; how we need to nurture families to address poverty and inequality; the way in which the needs of children are undervalued and finally how we relate to the world around us.
Throughout More Human Hilton draws on the inspirational work and example of dozens of people who have learnt from their experiences and are trying to make a difference and he is generous in his credits.
For those of us interested in politics, and maybe as practitioners, the most interesting chapter is Hilton’s postscript, “The First Step” which is “fixing our democracy”. Out of touch, protecting vested interests and a closed world of privilege. Hilton wants effectively to engage or re-engage people who feel angry, frustrated and left behind. How to do this? – run for office and change the system.