'We need 10,000 mayors' - an interview with Steve Hilton

An interview with Steve Hilton, Cameron's former chief strategist

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

‘Let me give you a Californian hug,’ says Steve Hilton, and I try my best to give him a Scottish one. We have met a few times before. He served as David Cameron’s chief strategist and his job was to keep out of the headlines and newspapers. In government, he took on a near-mythical status as a restless, shoeless radical who roamed around Downing Street terrifying civil servants. Then, after two years in power, he jetted off to California, where he has kept quiet. Until now.

We meet to discuss his new book, More Human, which is his manifesto for radical conservatism. It is, he says, an outline of where David Cameron’s government will go next. ‘That’s the direction we’ve already been going down. Now, with the removal of the constraint of coalition and the improvement in the economy, it just makes it easier to do more of that.’ The book is, perhaps, the closest we’re going to get to an agenda for David Cameron’s second term.

Living in Palo Alto has confirmed Hilton’s view that the UK places too much power in too few hands. As he puts it, ‘In America, economic, cultural and political power is dispersed. In the UK, centralisation is a gift to the vested interests.’ This is the theme not only of his book but of the Prime Minister’s new agenda to grant devolution to English regions.

‘I developed this very closely with Oliver [Letwin] and we had a mantra for it: you should devolve power to the individual where possible, and to the lowest level of government where that’s not possible. Only higher where necessary. It’s a very, very bottom-up approach and that informed our thinking in all sorts of areas.’ Hilton’s ideas may change their name, but they never go away. His plan for devolution is now known as George Osborne’s plan for a ‘Northern Powerhouse’: a deal where councils are given extra powers if they agree to impose an elected mayor. Hilton loves the idea.

‘Mayors are accountable in the way a council is not,’ he says. ‘Who can name their local councillor? A single accountable figure is much more democratic in a way because people can relate to them. When you are talking about reducing Whitehall’s central bureaucracy, it’s important to think of what can be carried out in a way that is more democratic because it’s closer to people.’ Britain has 632 MPs, I say — so how many mayors would he like?

‘Many more: 10,000 mayors.’ Or perhaps more. ‘Pretty much everywhere there’s a community that can be defined.’

There is one small snag: four years ago, Cameron asked voters in 10 different cities if they wanted mayors; nine said no. Surely, I ask, imposing them anyway means government becoming less human, not more human? ‘It’s a semantic argument: are you somehow not a localist if you impose localism? If you believe in localism and in decentralisation, there is no other way. How else do you get from A to B?’

His book is dedicated to Rohan Silva, a former Treasury civil servant who quit to join George Osborne in opposition, followed him into government and then left to try to test the entrepreneur-friendly policies he had advocated. The result is Second Home, a luxury office block in East London where Hilton has based himself for these last few days. It looks a massive Virgin first class airport lounge plonked in Brick Lane. There are no right angles in the building because (as we learn from Hilton’s book) ‘if you are in an artificial rectangular space, your brain is restricted’. When Hilton went to California, leaving Silva in the cubicles of Whitehall, they kept working together.

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 07.16.41
Rohan Silva in the right-angle-free ‘Second Home

They spotted some time ago that conservative principles of opportunity, creativity and creative destruction were now driving tech entrepreneurship. And even making a comeback in paperback with the work of Nicholas Nassim Taleb (‘The Black Swan’) and Richard Thaler (‘Nudge’). It was anomalous: conservative principles were flying off the bookshelves and were at the cutting edge of the new digital economy. But the Conservatives was seen as the party of the establishment, marinated in the thinking of yesteryear.

To Hilton and Silva, this was anomalous. They set about inviting Taleb, Thaler and other thinkers into No10 and sought to fuse their ideas with what was happening in government. Hilton’s book gives examples.

‘Within weeks of becoming prime minister,

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Cameron gave the go-ahead to set up a ‘nudge’ unit of our own,’ he writes. The idea was to tweak words used by government in hope of a better response. For example, a succinct JobCentre text message sending news of new jobs received a 10 per cent response rate. But personalising that message (“I’ve booked you a place. Good luck, Michael”) led to a 27 per cent response rate.

Another example comes from an entrepreneurs’ academy at Stanford University where Hilton has been lecturing for the last few years. It’s called the d.school, after the so-called ‘design thinking’ that he advocates. It’s a place where ideas are scrawled on Post-It notes to demonstrate the process of brainstorming.

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Post-It notes at Stanford’s d.school

In the book, Hilton explains how he and Silva brought this process to the British government. Some 200 senior civil servants were summoned for a seminar in ‘design thinking’. By the time it was over, Post-It notes were stuck all over No. 10’s wood-panelled state dining-room. “It’s easy to mock”, Hilton writes, “or portray as the latest management fad. In fact it’s much more than that. It’s a fundamental re-orientation of policymaking, from a focus on bureaucratic needs and priorities to the real lives.”

In government, he tells me, the civil servants did go along with that. “Where we were able to change things we had a very, very receptive audience. Jeremy Heywood [the head of the civil service] would be the first to say that we worked very well together. In the end, they are public servants, they want to see good outcomes.” The civil service problem, he says, is “not the people, definitely not, it’s the system”.

His time in government also gave him plenty of examples of the failings of the system. He once accompanied the Prime Minister on a trip to Nigeria and saw a school sponsored by DfID, the foreign aid department. It was, he writes, a ‘disaster’. He then want to see a for-profit school in the Lagos slums which held ‘rows of eager pupils happily studying in the midst of utter chaos and squalor’. Parents living on less than a dollar a day, he says, chose the fee-charging school over the DfID-backed school, which was free. In his book, he denounces the ideology that stops DfID supporting for-profit schools — and denounces the ‘sanctimonious, ignorant, hypocritical hand-wringers who argue that the evil “profit motive” must not violate the noble innocence of education’.

Of course, these hand-wringers very much include the friends he left in government — whom he’s very careful not to criticise in his many interviews. He uses less caustic language when discussing the ban on profit-seeking schools in England. ‘The cost of starting a new school is much more easily borne by an organisation that can invest that money because they know they repay investors,’ he says. ‘It’s actually a way of getting more money into schools.’ And if Cameron were to allow profit-making free schools, parents would find ‘not just a couple of extra schools to choose from in your neighbourhood but 20, 30 schools that can cover the whole range of different approaches.’

Referring to Hilton as ‘David Cameron’s brain’ is unfair to both men, but contains an element of truth. The two have bounced ideas off each other for years, shaping their mutual understanding of politics. As Michael Gove once observed, ‘It is sometimes impossible to know where Steve ends and David begins.’ At the heart of Hilton’s politics is a belief that the new ideas coming out of California express an old conservative insight: that he who governs best governs least, and that the purpose of acquiring power is to give it away, from government to the people.

Had Hilton remained in government, we would doubtless be hearing a Cameron speech under the theme ‘more human’. The name changes: once, it was the ‘post-bureaucratic age’, then the much-mocked ‘Big Society’. Now, it’s the Northern Powerhouse and, perhaps, part of the emerging ‘One Nation’ conservative agenda. Renegotiating our membership of the EU is, to Hilton, very much part of it. I ask him about a study he is said to have commissioned, which looked at how much of government work is conducted at the behest of Brussels. Is it true that a third of what No. 10 did had nothing to do with the Prime Minister’s agenda?

‘No, it was the other way round,’ he says. ‘Only a third was our agenda. The rest wasn’t. You read about that theory, and it is pretty staggering when you get into government.’ For Hilton, the frustrations proved to be too great — and when his wife landed a senior job at Google, he made the jump. ‘What I love about California is this attitude of being supportive and positive about things. When you tell someone your idea, the answer is: “Great, how can I help?” not “Well that’s not going to work.”’

His book launch the next evening, in the same venue, demonstrates how Hilton’s influence remains. David Cameron, George Osborne and Jeremy Hunt were in attendance, along with financiers, journalists, PR supremos and the curious breed of tech hipsters. Hilton paid an emotional tribute to the Prime Minister, made a few jokes at his own expense and then announced that it was Oliver Letwin’s birthday (he was, of course, present). ‘So let’s give him a big “ruling elite” rendition of Happy Birthday!’ he said. A fiddler struck up, and the people who run the country duly sang along.

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  • rtj1211

    And when I told my ideas to people, the CIA in Stanford were downloading them to companies in California. It’s called ‘power games’. With Stanford on your CV and access to the UK Prime Minister, people kiss your ass.

    If you were Joe Bloggs, they wouldn’t suck up to you so much.

    Just saying………

  • rtj1211

    I don’t mean to be rude but Steve Hilton and Oliver Letwin did NOT ‘develop’ the idea of ‘Power to the People’ – they have just latched onto it and created an aura that they did so. I was saying precisely that 15+ years ago and Denis Salamon, then Principal Consultant at ANGLE Technology’s Manchester office was within earshot when I said it in 2002.

    I have been banging on about this for 15 years and I wonder if the BBC taking down all my blog entries at their website from Google searches correlates with Steve Hilton claiming this idea as his own?? If they hadn’t, you’d see me in 2000 saying exactly what he is saying about supermarkets and food, proposing direct selling by farmers to consumer groups etc. A friend of mine was already receiving weekly deliveries in such a group scheme in San Diego in 1996, so it’s hardly novel, is it?? I’ve been banging on about biodiversity in educational provision since I don’t know when, but all you get in this country is ‘grammar schools’. Now, because Steve Hilton has gone to the USA, he’s apparently being novel. He’s not. He’s just making out he’s novel because the UK media fawn to him as some kind of ‘blue sky thinker’. Well, he’s not that blue sky, because he’s about 15 years behind me and I’m by no means the most blue sky thinker around………..

    None of this is being negative, none of it is saying this shouldn’t be done. It’s just saying that to portray Steve Hilton as some Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise displays lax due diligence at best and is wilful deception at worst………..

    • Patrick Roy

      You and Ayn Rand.

  • misomiso

    Hilton’s rage against the Left’s objection to for-profit schools is beautiful, as it exposes the absolute hypocrisy at the heart of the Guardianista establishment. It disgusts me so much that these people think they are the moral high ground when their political ideology and fear of confronting their own prejudices destroys children’s lives world wide.

    But NOTHING in Steve Hilton’s mind matters until we get out of the EU. The supremacy of European law will slowly strangle us, and no matter what the Tory pro EU people think as long as EU law is supreme, it will slowly erode our democracy and our society.

    That’s why despite everything he has achieved Cameron he is unforivable, as he chooses the insiders and the corrupt over the poor and disadvantaged. In choosing the putrid corruption of Brussels he puts the British people second to Big Business and Big Bureaucracy.

    I hope the Out Campaign completely eviscerates him and Osborne.

    But he is very good at politics, and at the moment we’re likely to stay in. But you’re all fools if you we will EVER STOP trying to leave the EU, or that we will vote Tory again after they cheat this referendum, and destroy our country.

  • little islander

    Pillars, tables, legs of chairs are right-angled. The guy in blue sits with his legs at right angle.

    • Fried Ch’i

      if I wanted a grammar toot-tootorial I’d visit the Oxford Dictionairie’s [sic] website.

      • little islander

        Yes. A compromise was made at grammar’s expense.

  • Hippograd

    Could we not just have Sajid Javid do it? Otherwise there’ll be a huge over-representation of stale pale males like Steve Hilton among the proposed mayoral community.

  • William_Brown

    I believe that our Steve has a book to sell. Really specie, this is poor.

    • Fried Ch’i

      Which is why you mention it?

      • William_Brown

        Hah! Touche!

  • Felixthecat

    Yes and ho……

    But seriously, I loved Steve in the Transporter and Lock Stock.

  • Fried Ch’i

    Advocating shoelessness in societies that worry about the lights going out puts them on one mental level with nations such as India. There really is little difference between the elite taking decisions and the plebs getting by from one day to the next and society as a whole accepting that paradigm.

    • van Lomborg

      Shoeless tutoring in Danish primary and secondary schools has been the norm for decades. We do it because we can.

  • pointlesswasteoftime


  • JonBW

    Hilton may be many things, but he clearly is not a conservative.

  • MatthewMezey

    Forget Taleb and Thaler (for now), the author who is writing about successful, creative post-bureaucratic human scale organisations is Frederic Laloux.

    The future is already out there!

    You can read his 2014 book ‘Reinventing Organisations’ for free here: http://www.reinventingorganizations.com/pay-what-feels-right.html

    I’m surprised Steve Hilton isn’t yet making the link to the kinds of case studies Laloux includes – Morning Star, Buurtzorg, Zappos/Holacracy etc.

    We need to support these organisations that are making this change – alongside pressing for the political changes.

  • derekemery

    Mayors are just another layer of bureaucracy which is why the public largely rejected them. The public do not expect mayors to use money any more efficiently than main or local government. Hence expectations are low -very low.
    Who will really benefit from their projects – the companies or the public?
    My money is on the companies every time. Companies sit close with government at any level. There is nobody there to represent the public. The public are deliberately keep in the dark until contracts are signed because they would likely object- http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jun/29/pfi-crippling-nhs

    Spending more money bureaucratically outside of London will mainly create work just for the contractors who are temporary. There is no compound interest effect to benefit the public once they are gone. I’ve never heard of a single government contract that benefited the public to the tune of 5% pa, Many need subsidies just to survive (negative interest rates for the public)

    Today only small new businesses create new jobs whereas big businesses destroy jobs http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2014/10/29/the-surprising-truth-about-where-new-jobs-come-from/
    By helping small business you get a compound interest effect leading to more jobs and wealth creation for those outside the richest 1%.

    Small businesses are routinely refused loans by big banks because they need the money to expand and do not have the bricks and mortar to put up against the loan. Hence good ideas go to waste for lack of financial backing. Alternative lenders are innovative and come up with new ways to make loans.
    If government was serious about creating economic growth it would have to back small business and the alternative lenders. Some companies will growth to become mid sized and employ hundreds. Mayors are just more of the same but outside London i.e. no compound interest effect for the public benefit and the public know it.

  • Sten vs Bren

    “we had a mantra for it: you should devolve power to the individual where possible, and to the lowest level of government where that’s not possible”

    One has to wonder how much power has been devolved to the individual in recent years.

    “Cameron gave the go-ahead to set up a ‘nudge’ unit of our own,’ he writes. The idea was to tweak words used by government in hope of a better response.”

    I think people could grow to resent being nudged by Government much as they have grwon to resent being nudged by advertising and PR.

  • EnosBurrows

    People in Manchester voted against having a mayor, but because of Osborne and the deeply conservative and entrenched local Labour Party in Manchester we are getting one in any case.

    Leadership via a chain of command might be a requisite in warfare, but government by committee is better and more democratic in civil society.

    • derekemery

      Most of the public quite rightly do not believe that another layer of bureaucracy is going to anything for them except cost them more money.
      All sorts of weirdos will want to become become mayors and the way our money is spent will be equally weird. How can you trust someone who wants to be a politician?

  • Sten vs Bren

    This mayors idea is a wrong ‘un. If you devolve the power to assist business, you also devolve the ability to resist business. If Google can get away with paying pennies in tax, think what rings they and others could run around a load of mayors.

    They’d just buy them, as in other countries.

  • Robert Price

    It is not clear to me why this guy is suddenly getting so many column inches. He has never been elected to anything and has never had a proper job as far as I can see.

    • post_x_it

      Must be related to Paris Hilton.

  • burberryblue

    Just saw Spectator Editor, Fraser Nelson on Daily Politics.
    Sad to see that he has such an irresponsible attitude toward Bilderberg, which, conspiracy theories or not, warrants more media coverage.