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David T Breaker: Steve Hilton - traditionalist in disguise

By David T Breaker

News that Steve Hilton wants to pull out of the EU and the ECHR is of little surprise to me; that he is frustrated with the snail's pace of Whitehall, and the seemingly endless U-turns caused largely by the opinion poll government that seems to have developed, is even less surprising. You see, what many seem to have forgotten, or in reality never noticed, is that Steve Hilton is a traditionalist and always has been; frustration is thus perfectly natural.

Steve Hilton has never exactly been loved by Tory traditionalists. However, the lack of warmth has more to do with surface cultural differences than policy ones. "Steve hasn't worn a tie in over a year," a 'source' told the Telegraph once, as if neckwear and Toryism were somehow intrinsically linked. The arrival at CCHQ of bike-riding, baggy shirt-wearing, California dreaming Steve - sending out emails promising "more cool stuff" and talking about "great examples of how harnessing the insights of behavioural economics and social psychology can help you to achieve your policy goals in a more effective and light touch way" - was like the arrival of a Martian for some. The fact this train of thought was unapologetically American-inspired, and Californian at that, didn't help. (If you want to lose an argument in Britain, cite the US as your example or influence). Yet none of this modernising style - even the removing of shoes in the office, standard in Japan I note - should have distracted from Hilton's substance and work ethic, which are both very firmly rooted in Tory traditionalism.

The son of Hungarian immigrants fleeing the Soviet Union who met working at Heathrow, he's worked his way up through hard work, intelligence and endeavor. He's a believer in supporting marriage and families; a proponent of radical "big bang"-like reform of nearly everything, a passionate meritocrat, defender of free speech and unashamed individualist. A private sector background, he's a person who likes to get things done; that's how you succeed in the private sector, yet the civil service naturally find Hilton's brisk pace objectionable, demanding, impatient. His dismissal of opinion polls as ephemeral snapshots, easily warped by wording or a current short term news story, shocks and unnerves the "pursuit of power" wing headed by George Osborne and pollster Andrew Cooper. Hilton knows attitudes change when improvements are visible; his message is simple: "Everything must change by 2015". It's all very Margaret Thatcher, isn't it?

Now there have been mistakes in the radical re-branding exercise that Hilton has lead, largely because the raw ingredients didn't gel. The bike riding works for Boris, it just doesn't suit Cameron; visiting the Arctic and driving huskies would likewise probably suit Boris, who'd make it hilarious, but was a flop for Cameron. The issue was always the lack of compatibility - visually and personality wise - of Cameron and each plan; each idea didn't suit him and so looked like a gimmick. Changes to the visual message - flitting from tieless to tie, Dave to David, etc - was a further issue, though one that can certainly be blamed on not fully Hiltonising the image due to uncertainty as much as on Hilton (the photo of Cameron and Obama cooking on a barbecue in suit and tie being the prime example of this indecision over style). The airbrushed poster with its confused message ("I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS") was likewise a disaster. Yet anti-modernising sneers at these set backs forget that between 1992 and 2005 the party was a non-stop branding disaster; hated, despised, feared. Something had to be done, and though there's been mistakes, the lighter, brighter, friendlier Tory image has been a good start. Sometimes you have to take risks, sometimes they don't work out, but taking on the anti-modernisers to create an electable party is once again all very Margaret Thatcher, surely?

I guess whether you see Steve Hilton as a true traditionalist or not depends on what you call a traditionalist; whether you see it as being a conformist to surface cultural attributes and not being too radical policy wise, a kind of Macmillan, or as a policy vision, willingness to be radical, unashamed impatience and reforming zeal, a kind of Thatcher. Traditional to the Tory Party of bowler hats or to the party of "Big Bang" market reforms. I'm a strong believer in the latter, and don't see much point in politics without getting things done, which is why I'm such a fan of Hilton. The government needs Steve Hilton, he's the driving force behind it all, especially the reforms loved by true Conservatives. Like the ravens at the Tower of London, if he goes, the project will fall. That cannot be allowed to happen, and to avoid this catastrophe Hilton needs support; it's time traditionalists looked past the surface and recognised one of their own, Steve Hilton, the standard bearer of our party's radical traditionalism.


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