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The uses and abuse of Steve Hilton

By Paul Goodman
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Every boy and every girl, That's born into the world alive...

HILTON STEVEThere are as many ideas about what politics is as there are people to conceive them, but here are two.  The first is that the reach of politics is unlimited: that it is capable of ushering in the perfect society, or something very close to it.  The second is that the reach of politics is limited: that it doesn't transfigure the depths of the human heart, and thus can't bring about that perfect society.  It can only make things a little bit better, or a bit less bad.  The first sees politics as a form of social engineering; the second as a kind of human artefact.  The first sees it as a science; the second as an art.

Socialists, international and national, tend to lean in the first direction and conservatives and liberals (classical ones, anyway) plump strongly for the second, but what shapes the flavour of a person's politics is less belief than sensibility - temperament, taste and, in the Burkean sense of the word, prejudice: I have known libertarians so dazzled by ideas that theirs have come to have the smell of ideology.  Steve Hilton is not a libertarian, but his politics has about a religious flavour, a messianic zeal, unique among the Ed Llewellyns and Andrew Coopers and Patrick Rocks and other worldly creatures who make up Team Cameron.

...Is either a little radical, like Steve Hilton, or else...

If you doubt it, glance back at the feral briefing and counter-briefing about the civil service that has accompanied his departure for California: he's leaving on a jet plane; don't know when he'll be back again.  Yesterday's Telegraph reported that some civil servants now work nine-day fortnights.  Friday's Independent said that Mr Hilton wanted to cut civil service numbers by 90%.  Wednesday's Guardian announced the resignation of Ian Watmore, the Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet Office and man in charge of civil service reform.  The Independent reminded its readers of the earlier departure from the Education Department of Sir David Bell.

It sketched a fractious picture of the wars between Mr Hilton and Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the civil serivce.  The former was said to have labelled Sir Bob as "Bungalow Bob", and to have walked out of a meeting after seeing Sir Bob's proposals, which were described as "the kind of thing you would expect from a second-rate human resources department".  The latter was "said by his supporters to have described Mr Hilton's suggestion of cutting the central Civil Service by 90 per cent and outsourcing most of its policy work to think tanks and the private sector as 'nonsense' ".

Hilton v the civil service

"Mr Hilton was also accused of being unprofessional: turning up at the meeting in shorts and a T-shirt, clutching a plastic bag full of oranges. As the meeting went on, Mr Hilton is said to have started "inexpertly" peeling an orange, getting juice all over the 'crotch of his brushed cotton shorts' ".  That last detail was a low blow, but you get the picture.  Every radical will sympathise with Mr Hilton.  There are parts of the government machine that simply don't work.  The Border Agency, anyone?  Defence procurement?  The Child Support Agency?  Tax credits (overpayments and underpayments)?  The NHS IT programme?

I'm unwilling to believe that Sir Humphrey is really in charge, but personal experience has made me re-ponder the claim, at least in some cases.  The OSCT effectively controlled counter-terror policy until Theresa May got a grip on it, and the institutional pro-EU leanings of the Foreign Office mirror the institutional anti-common market instincts of the same department during the late 1940s and early 1950s.  One sober insider I spoke to before writing this piece recommended putting vast swathes of the civil service on short-term contracts.  The Public Accounts Committee has been leading the charge in making civil servants accountable for their decisions.

Can Government really reform everything at once?

I am all for putting civil servants under the spotlight.  And at a time of economic pain for voters nothing in the Professor Branestawm civil service machine can be considered sacrosanct.  But some tough questions follow from this easy sentiment, and they return us to where we started - to questions about the limits of practical politics.  The Government is confronted by an economic and financial blizzard on a scale unknown post-war.  Its aim of eliminating the structural deficit has been postponed, and its menu of pro-growth policies is limited.  The economic challenge that confronts David Cameron is as great (though different) as that which faced Margaret Thatcher.

Yet the Government has simultaneously committed itself to re-shaping the structure of the NHS; speeding up the academies programme and ushering in free schools; bringing in a universal credit and overhauling the work programme; introducing elected police commissioners and some elected Mayors; revising public sector pensions.  Margaret Thatcher only got round to substantial public service reform in her third term, and David Cameron is trying all this in a first.  It cannot be possible to follow through such a sweeping programme - not to mention master the deficit - while simultaneously carrying out a Mao-style cultural revolution to the body charged with delivering it.

What sort of civil service do we want?

There is also a big question about what kind of civil service we want.  Civil service pay is under pressure - quite right too - and pension reform is coming, if slowly and imperfectly.  But here is a limit to the amount of short-term contracting that can follow unless one wants even more rapid civil service turnover.  This would damage institutional memory and risk harming ethos - two abstractions which may have no price but are of real value.  Enoch Powell was once asked about "getting his policies through a department".  Much has changed since he was Financial Secretary to the Treasury (and much hasn't), but his answer is worth pondering:

"Oh, through a department?  I'm not sure that I like this expression that you use of 'getting one's policy through a department' as though it were a kind of resistant material.  It isn't a resistant material, it's an indispensable instrument for the execution of decision.  It's quite a misconception to treat it as a kind of almost impermeable substance that you have to punch away at...If by being overborne you mean that an intention which I still held was frustrated by those advising me, the answer is 'No'...The department is there performing part of its essential function in confronting the minister with the facts on which he has to work."

A Government that can't make up its mind

Does this mean that Mr Hilton was mistaken in working in Downing Street in the first place, or that the Prime Minister erred in appointing him?  No, because orthodoxies need zealots, need heretics, to provoke, unsettle and challenge them.  But his departure shows up something deeper than creative tension in Number 10.  It points to the bad cousin of such tension - namely, not being able to make up one's mind.  To date, the Conservative part of this Government has been half-Osborne, that most worldly politician of all (reason, calculation, limited aims and a dash of cynicism) and half-Hilton (heart, impulse, transformative ambition and idealism).

The Government's mid-term plight has been shaped largely by the lack of a majority and a shortage of money.  But trying to be all things to all men has wreaked collateral damage.


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