Arts feature

Steve Hilton's model for policy reform: Glastonbury (yes, really)

Far from being a left-wing utopia, the music festival operates according to principles many Conservatives hold dear

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

There is a phrase that has been fashionable for years in wonkland — places like the upper echelons of the civil service and high-end think tanks. The phrase is ‘evidence-based policy-making’. There, I bet that’s got you going.

When I was a citizen of wonkland and heard those words from the Sir Humphreys and Lady Susans I would typically roll my eyes or head for the door, because you can generally gather whatever evidence you want to justify whatever policy you want. In the end, you have to believe in something. Have the courage of your convictions and be judged by the results.

But the reason I bring this up is not to ruin your day with policy-wonk gobbledegook, but to do something far more exciting — to admit that even I can sometimes be wrong; that occasionally there really is evidence that is so strong, so overwhelming, so spectacularly, triumphantly, incontrovertibly persuasive of a certain point of view and course of action that you just have to suck it up and concede.

For anyone interested in improving the state of our country, irresistible policy evidence of that kind is coming along next week. It’s called Glastonbury (or Glastonberry, as my new American compadres call it. For some reason I prefer that — it’s certainly better than the frankly unacceptable ‘Glasto’). If you want to know how to achieve those things the politicians promise but never quite deliver — a ‘dynamic economy’, a ‘strong society’, ‘better quality of life’ — stop looking at those worthy think-tank reports about the latest childcare scheme from Denmark or pro-enterprise initiative from Texas: just head down to Worthy Farm in Somerset, home of the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts. Really, it’s got so much to teach us.

I know what you’re thinking. The music is ‘ghastly’. The people are ‘filthy’. It’s all drug-taking and climate-change lecturing and vegan veggie-burger eating. Well, yes, there’s a bit of all of that. But you’ll find terrible music, dirty people, drugs of various kinds, political lectures and disgusting food everywhere. It’s a question of taste. Personally, I love Glastonbury.


I’ve been going on and off for more than 20 years and it accounts for some of the most special times and fondest memories of my life. Of course I understand that traipsing around muddy fields is not everyone’s cup of chai; that a night under canvas would bring many people out in hives — metaphorically if not literally; that for many people Glastonbury could call to mind entropy rather than ecstasy. But I’m not trying to persuade you to go. In fact, please don’t. It’s hard enough to get tickets as it is.

My aim here is different: to persuade you — yes, you! — as part of the great British intelligentsia to suspend questions of personal taste and consider for a moment that Glastonbury could be a model for radical policy reform.

Because Glastonbury, far from being a left-wing utopia, operates according to a principle that many politicians — especially Conservative ones — hold dear: ‘trust the people’. The festival is a temporary town of around 150,000 people. Largely, they are left to their own devices. There are no rules. No officious busybodies popping up every five minutes to tell you that you can’t walk here or sit there. No well-meaning government ‘initiatives’ to ‘help’ and ‘protect’ you. The few police officers you see are smiling and kind.

It reminds me of one of my favourite public policy experiments: the removal in the Dutch town of Oudehaske of all traffic lights, road markings, speed limits and traffic signs so road-users would be forced to interact with each other and consciously navigate the streets. ‘When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots,’ the project’s leader, traffic engineer Hans Monderman, said. ‘Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.’ By removing external controls imposed by bureaucrats, the transport system was made more human. And everything improved: fewer accidents, better traffic flow.

It’s the same kind of thing at Glastonbury. The absence of authority does not result in anarchy, but order: democratic order created by people, rather than the maddening, soul-crushing bureaucratic order we experience daily in modern life. It leads to better standards of behaviour, a civility that is sorely lacking in our bossed-about world. At Glastonbury, people are kind. They look out for others and help them. They share things. I know that kindness doesn’t sound very brainy, but isn’t a kinder world exactly what most of us want to see?

And by the way, it’s not just social policy. Glastonbury is one of the few places you can go where the tide of corporate homogenisation is held back. There’s no one yelling at you about the unexplained item in the bagging area, because the businesses are small, independent, often local. Glastonbury is a carnival of entrepreneurship.

So here’s my pitch to the policy wonks. Look at the evidence. Drop your complicated systems of control and regulation and bossy rules and annoying ‘improvements’. If you want to make the world a better place, try a simpler solution. Let people relate to each other as people; on a human scale, in a human way. Things are better when they are more human.

Just one last thing though: while the evidence of widespread marijuana and MDMA use at Glastonbury, combined with widespread order, low crime and civilised behaviour, points towards a more liberal approach to those drugsthe nitrous oxide ‘balloons’ up at Stone Circle in the early hours? It’s so un-mellow. Can we please ban that?

Steve Hilton is a former adviser to David Cameron. His book, ‘More Human’, is published by WH Allen.

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Show comments
  • grimm

    What utter twaddle. I hope this Hilton chappy does not have a major influence on government policy making because the unmitigated shallowness of this article does not bode well.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Well said. Unmitigated shallowness sums up the modern Tory party and its trust fund, childlike leaders.

  • gerronwithit

    Fortunately for me, and hopefully most readers, the above article only involves electrons and not a waste of good paper. And this guy advised Cameron….

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Says all you need to know about Cameron, that he hired this nincompoop to advise him.

    • DrWatt

      You’ll find many of these ‘blue sky thinkers’ or ‘paid consultants’ advising many local governments and councils up and down the country – which could account for the mess we are in. They get paid handsomely for their services too – some are earning six figures salaries for what is basically their pious un-evidence-based hopes of mindless drivel and tripe.

  • Teacher

    And because it’s a ringfenced economy with a captive audience spending their hard saved holiday bunce a burger costs ten pounds. It is not the real world. The co-operation is temporary and spurious.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Hilton does not inhabit the real World. He is a policy wonk. The lowest type of snide, behind the throne whisperer.

  • ant

    The fact that Glastonbury is full of the sort of people who go to Glastonbury renders this entire thesis drivel. Please go back to California.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Try going to Le Mans for the Vingt Quatre Heures.That is a proper “festival” attended by civilised and thoughtful folk. Somehow you never see a steward. Only the ticket collector and the chap that cleans the loos.
      In an ideal World the Germans would make the cars, the French would run the hospitals, the Spanish would run the railways and the Italians would do the food…..what would the British do?
      Wait for a war and try to claim the glory?

  • rolandfleming

    Steve, baby, you know when you’re, like, tripping and everything is just amaaaaazing? Imagine if your whole life was like that. One long beatific existential reality-confronting head-trip…

    It would be a bloody nightmare!

    Glastonbury is the same. A brief period of suspended reality. Escapism. NOT a model for a functioning society.

  • Precambrian

    Never take political advice from a man who dresses like a boy.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      As he is bald he has no hope of a political career, so he tries to shock with his infantile gibberish. Hilton is a monumental git and about as useful as rubber lips on a woodpecker.

  • fundamentallyflawed

    “absence of authority does not result in anarchy, but order” that’s because Glastonbury is very middle class and attracts an older clientele.

    Try going to Leeds or V festival where the average age is much younger and see what happens when 17/18 yr olds are let lose.

    • TroutMaskReplica

      Glastonbury has just as many young people as it does old. Plus Leeds and V are the complete antithesis to Glastonbury in the way it treats its attendees.

      • fundamentallyflawed

        Really? My experience tells me otherwise. As does the documented experiences of other festival attendees..

        • TroutMaskReplica

          What exactly is your experience?

  • Mystified Man

    I remember seeing this guy do a feature on This Week and I have never heard a man use so many words to say so little.

    And Glastonbury is s*** now by the way, a bit like the Conservative Party, it used to be about individual freedom but has been taken over by a load of namby pamby, play safe, trendies more interested in being there than doing anything.

    How do these fluffy morons get in such high places?

  • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

    What tosh. The silly hippies that go to Glasto’ wnat to be there.They want it to work. They have paid £250 to attend , they do not have to educate and nurture thousands of kids or care for and hospitalise thousands of the decrepid aged. They do not need to raise an army to defend their shores, or a fire brigade to douse their conflagrations. Their shabby tent city needs no paved roads or street lights and as it all lasts just 5 days needs no proper sewers or bathing facilities.
    Yes it operates on goodwill and trust. But it operates in a 5 day cossetted bubble.

    • Purple Commoner

      And some people will claim it was the experience of their lifetime before returning to stupid suited uniformity sponsored by Debenhams.

      • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

        Then they’d be wrong. It is a shambolic, unhygienic ordeal that offers little culture and even less stimulation. It is one of those quasi -religious/cultish rites of passage that our kids are eagerly urged to confrom to.

        • TroutMaskReplica

          If you think that there’s no culture or stimulation at Glastonbury, you know absolutely nothing.

  • EnosBurrows

    Ah, Glastonbury as the UK equivalent of Burning Man.

    • loser manos

      nah, burning man is way more shite. shittier music and shittier people (californian scumbags)

      • EnosBurrows

        Burning Man has, however, attained celebrity among US libertarians.

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          US Libertarians are by and large mouth breathing idiots.

          • EnosBurrows

            Well yes. So are the British ones.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      It is more a knowing middle class rite of passage that prices the oiks out with a fee of £250 plus…..and the need to travel to Somerset, buy a tent etc etc.

  • grimm

    Reading this nonsense a second time as well as some of the comments I am worried that Hilton actually is taken seriously by policy makers.

    He sounds like a man who has taken part in far too many marketing/pr brain-storming sessions where outlandish but faintly plausible ideas win you attention and kudos as a creative thinker.

    Only the laziest and most shallow of liberals would assume that order and organisation are “like soul-crushing, man”. Bureaucratic order need not be soul-crushing. If carried out efficiently and intelligently it can make life easier. The problem lies with bureaucracy that serves only the bureaucrats.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      God forbid that the feeble minded mouth breathers our esteemed electorate brought to power, rely on this imbecilic nonsense to drive their empty agenda.

    • Gary P

      Then you need Bureaucrats to manage Bureaucrats… and the night begins anew.

  • MatthewMezey

    The real examples of successful bureaucracy-free self-managed human scale organisations are profiled in Frederic Laloux’s inspiring book ‘Reinventing Organisations’ – you’ve got not excuse not to take a look, as you can read it for free here:
    http://www.reinventingorganizations.com/pay-what-feels-right.html

    The current experiment by $1bn US online retailer Zappos to remove all managers and shift to self-management (in order to free up staff creativity etc) is what Steve ought to be writing about, things like that.

    Or Buurtzorg, that has transformed community nursing in the Netherlands – without management!

    No need to come up with imagined utopias, or fanciful parallels, when the well-documented examples are out there for everyone to see.

    And they could do with some encouragement from Steve, who seems to have been given the megaphone by the media of late…

    Not that I didn’t have great times for the decade or two I used to go along to Glastonbury… It was rather magical before it had the fences, and you could wander off up the hill behind, pick wild strawberries et al – even hang around with real Peace Convoy anarchist types (aka ‘medieval brigands’) who were once allowed in for a token price, and who’ve long since been driven away…

  • Dogsnob

    “…the festival operates according to principles many Conservatives hold dear”
    Essentially, charge the masses through the nose to get pished on from a great height whilst they eat dreadful krap and wade through mud, smiling. Tell them through the media that next year will be just as uplifting.

  • Fraser Bailey

    I’m no fan of Glastonbury – once was enough – but I think there is a lot in what Steve Hilton says. He is certainly more use than all the goons in Whitehall put together.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      There is absolutely nothing of value in what Hilton says. He spews out tripe. He is a master at selling shit to fools. Luckily for him the UK is full of fools and shit.

  • velvet hart

    Is he absolutely joking? The ‘all for me’ mentality of Conservatives & their shrewd business buddies is about as far as you can get from the once kooky Glastonbury. Perhaps I am playing into his hands by even noticing Steve Hilton with a book to sell under his arm.

    This is not a model for Conservative politics. Yes, eccentric toffs have always been involved and brought a proportion of their wealth to the party. Yes, food-stalls pay minimum wages but their staff enjoy the same perks as everyone. Perhaps profit is not the only motivating factor Mr PPE.

    Knock yourself out. Try and set up a festival based on the Conservative principles you admire: only the wealthiest getting to see the headline act, betting advertising, We’ll still have the campfires but you might need some extra security. No doubt you’ll pay for this by having one centralised toilet block for the masses; food stalls going to conglomerates with the highest bids; cleaners working ridiculous hours with no perks and all so their bosses can enjoy the show.

    Don’t forget to thank the local taxi service as you leave.

  • willshome

    ” The absence of authority does not result in anarchy, but order: democratic order created by people, rather than the maddening, soul-crushing bureaucratic order we experience daily in modern life.” Er, Steve, that isn’t “trust the people” Conservatism; that actually is Anarchism. Classical definition, as backed by Bakunin, Kropotkin, Russell Brand – all the greats. Good isn’t it?

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Anarchism is the logical extension of the free market liberal nonsense propounded by the Tories. These charlatans want chaos, they cleave to the wierd dogmas of Proudhon and Bakunin.

  • Suzy61

    All well and good…but it costs 250.00 pounds to join this Utopia for a few days. It seems kindness and common sense has a price tag that most cannot afford.

    However, I do tend to agree with the message that folk get along much better when left to their own devices. Every morning on my journey to work, at a very busy junction with no controls, folk just go along with the concept that you give way to every other car…

    Likewise, I would be happy to help an immigrant struggling with completing a document in English but I baulk at the cost of official ‘translation’ services at 17 million p.a.

    Bossy officials awarding ‘special’ or ‘protected’ status to some just alienates the remainder, not least because it sends the message that the bossy official knows better than you. That bossy official is somehow a better judge of character and more virtuous than you could ever hope to be.

    My view is that most people are happy to ‘live and let live’…..but ‘obey and let live’ is the order of the day, it seems.

  • Donach

    “There are no rules. No officious busybodies popping up every five minutes to tell you that you can’t walk here or sit there.” While that would’ve been partly true at the old (up to 2000) festival, it couldn’t be further from the truth now… I’ll just pop backstage behind the Pyramid stage, then. Or have you tried walking the ‘wrong’ way from the big stages after the headliners to the ‘Naughty Corner’? The Glastonbury Festival has a huge amount of organisation, lots of security contractors, lots of rules, and lots of places you can’t be in without the right pass.

  • Sean L

    What utter piffle. The absence of authority *necessarily* leads to anarchy: that’s what anarchy *is*. And that’s precisely what happened in August 2011, a momentary absence of authority unleashing a national crime wave. That’s why even at Glastonbury, where the overwhelmingly white and middle class are paying over £200 a pop just to get a pass through the otherwise impenetrable steel fencing, there’s still a massive manned security presence.

    As for traffic, try Nairobi where there are no traffic rules at all: absolute chaos, every man for himself, matatus driving on the pavement. There are traffic lights but they’re just ignored because they have no *authority*, that’s to say everyone knows they can be ignored with impunity. If it’s not quite the same here that’s precisely because there *is* authority. 2011 merely shows how tenuous, fragile and culturally conditioned that authority is. You need to get out more mate. Really it’s a misuse of the concept of authority here: what you mean is less regulation and pointless bureaucracy, not the same thing at all.

    • Emilia

      Just read the article, and this comment is exactly what I came to the computer to write. In addition, many younger and non-native people have not had the same standards banged into them for decades, and would see the absence of overt rules as license to do as they pleased, rather than obey out of habit.

      • Sean L

        Yes you are so right, and you could equally say that kind of obedience has been banged in for centuries in that liberal democracy, the idea of an official opposition, is the culmination of centuries of internecine conflict: it’s a kind of institutionalised truce. But for Steve Hilton, Cameron and the neo-cons liberal democracy is a kind of default setting for humanity generally: you just get rid of Saddam or Ghadaffi and liberalism will just arise spontaneously. The reality is that the idea of a constitutional oppostion is of course an alien concept in many lands. Thus, as I’ve experienced myself in Kenya in 2007, elections often threaten civil war. It’s scary that you have these people in power whose facile cleverness comes with such profound political and historical ignorance…

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          Hilton is a monstrous idiot ,or an idiotic monster, or both.

  • evad666

    No doubt the financially stressed BBC will be providing its usual multi channel coverage on TV and Radio?

  • Precambrian

    “It reminds me of one of my favourite public policy experiments: the removal in the Dutch town of Oudehaske of all traffic lights, road markings, speed limits and traffic signs so road-users would be forced to interact with each other and consciously
    navigate the streets”

    That only works with smaller, less complex, situations. In metropolitan centres it would be chaos as the situation is too large and complex for an individual to relate personally to each other person. It becomes a stampede, shortly followed by gridlock.

    If you took time to think more deeply than calling people “wonks” you may discover that.

  • Hippograd

    Because Glastonbury, far from being a left-wing utopia, operates according to a principle that many politicians — especially Conservative ones — hold dear: ‘trust the people’. The festival is a temporary town of around 150,000 people. Largely, they are left to their own devices. There are no rules.

    I assume, then, that there are a lot of Pakistanis, Jamaicans and Somalis in attendance. Otherwise stale pale males would be wrecking things for everyone.

    When I was a citizen of wonkland…

    Once a wonker, always a wonker.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Hilton the total wonker.

  • Damaris Tighe

    The replacement of government by mutual kindness only works in small communities such as the Glastonbury Festival & the Dutch town. These communities are relatively homogenous & so people are willing to look out for one another. Research has shown that where communities are fragmented by, say, mass immigration, trust & co-operation nosedive & people withdraw into themselves. ‘Social capital’ is reduced.

  • Jankers

    But they spend their extended weekend living on borrowed money, junk food, drugs and alcohol while pissing wherever they stand. I fail to see how life in camp is any different to any other weekend.

  • Freddythreepwood

    ‘ The music is ‘ghastly’

    Not this year. The Moody Blues will be there.

  • Steve Neal

    He obviously wasn’t there when the fence came down or when stall holders were held up by gangstas with guns.The festival is extremely well-ordered and licensed.

  • NorthernSoul

    I love Glastonbury, but this is absolute nonsense.

  • obbo12

    Oh dear Mr Hilton appears to have forgotten that Glastonbury was the scene of several murders and stabbings between drug dealers fighting over territories. That all changed when Evias introduced rigid security on entrance and exit. No more hopping over the fence with a machete and 50k in coke wraps.

  • CharlesOJ

    “few police officers”.

    In fact, Glasto has a huge police presence.

    “Planning for Glastonbury is one of the force’s largest operations and lasts for 10 months of the year.

    During the planning process we will put into place a patrol plan,
    custody operation, CID teams, media and PR strategy, communications
    centre, traffic management plan and thorough links with their partner
    agencies including British Transport Police, Mendip District Council and
    organisers Glastonbury Festivals Ltd.”

    http://glastonburypolice.com/policing-at-glastonbury/what-do-we-do/

    As for low crime? There were 215 crimes and 75 arrests.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/glastonbury/11705757/Glastonbury-2015-low-on-crime-say-police.html

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