What Does Steve Hilton Have To Tell Us About the True Nature of Conservatism?

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Steve Hilton, the ‘guru’ credited with convincing David Cameron to adopt the climate change agenda, has returned to the political battleground disclaiming: “I think we need a revolution, not evolution.”

Just yesterday, writing in the Sunday Times to promote his new book, Hilton argued that conservation not carbon should be the true priority of the environmental movement. He wrote: “The propaganda success of the climate change ‘movement’ has captured the moral high ground of environmental concern.”

“But here’s the problem,” he continued. “The arguments and actions associated with addressing climate change are vague, remote, distant, theoretical – far removed from the human scale.”

Hilton became friends with Cameron at Oxford University and, during their rise to power, was seen as the ideas man and used as a proxy in attempts by the press and public to understand the thinking and motives of the future prime minister.

He spent years devising headline-grabbing policies and stunts while working at the Conservative central office, from the Big Society to Hug a Husky. But, when Cameron entered Number 10, the wheels started to come off.

Hilton, famous for going barefoot, wearing t-shirts and cycling, was dismissed and derided both by rival party factions and grey-suit-wearing civil servants. His ideas were seen as dangerous, divisive and naive.

More Human

And so, he disappeared to Stanford University and took his wacky policy prescriptions with him. Until now. Hilton is making a determined bid to return to the Tory fold – and is now presenting himself as a potential Conservative mayoral candidate.

The Trojan horse for this remarkable political comeback attempt is his latest book, More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First.

And, once again, nature – and specifically climate change – is at the centre of the Hilton credo. He sounds very much like a radical, anti-capitalist environmental hardliner: a Russell Brand for one nation Tories.

The chapter on nature may come last, but it presents a deep, green agenda – and, again, calls for revolution.

Despite nature’s great importance to us, we’ve systematically disconnected from it and destroyed it,” he argues. “…over the most recent phase of human history we have become much more mechanised and industrialised [and] the costs of our way of doing things became apparent.”

Tangible Nature

Hilton expresses deep concern about the depletion of the Amazon rainforest, the extraordinary costs of the loss of biodiversity, and the destruction of “natural capital” like wetlands that can minimise storm damage.

He advises the environment movement to stop arguing about abstractions – including the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – and concentrate on the immediate, tangible experience of nature.

The former Number 10 policy advisor attacks consumerism and sets out a clear, radical and heartfelt manifesto for ensuring schoolchildren have direct, regular contact with what he calls “pristine nature”.

Road to Damascus

Hilton describes his time with the design school at Stanford as his road to Damascus and almost goes as far as apologising for not persuading Cameron to implement more radical policies at the beginning of the coalition government.

But, there is very serious doubt around the sincerity of his convictions. Hilton mentions the earlier manifesto, Good Business: Your World Needs You, a seemly radical call for corporations to take corporate social responsibility very seriously indeed.

The book was penned on the kitchen table of Linda Whetstone – the mother of Hilton’s wife, Rachel Whetstone.

Linda is also the daughter of Antony Fisher, who founded the radical free market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs. She spent decades fundraising among tobacco and oil companies for the Institute. Money came in from British Petroleum and British American Tobacco.

The IEA, in turn, published academic-style monographs attacking environment policy, regulation and calling for ever-more radical market liberalisation. The think tank specialised in formulating excuses for the further corporate exploitation of nature and people.

The Free Market

Indeed, Hilton still supports the free market proposal of putting a price on natural resources so that they can suddenly appear on the accountants’ balance sheet. He defers to the Oxford University-based economist, Dieter Helm, a hero in neoliberal climate denial circles.

So, the question remains: is More Human a much more sophisticated and convincing iteration of the same attempt to “greenwash” and lead the environmental cause in a direction which poses no threat to corporate interests or capitalism more generally?

This matters because Hilton is using his earlier access to power to lead the debate on climate change, nature and social change. Indeed, what we are witnessing is a bid to become Mayor of London and then, from that office, who knows where?

In the chapter on nature, he gives the game away: “One of the reasons I would like to be mayor of a city is to show what can happen when we take a radically different – a revolutionarily different – approach to land use,” he hints.

Hilton would take votes away from the Greens. Indeed, his vision for an empathetic and caring society is much more seductive than anything Ed Miliband mustered during the election. He may even draw support from intelligent, free-thinking progressives.

But, will he lead us into compromise with capitalist excess, directing us to perhaps well-meaning, but ultimately ineffective, policies to enjoy nature, while allowing the exponential accumulation of capital to destroy the natural environment globally and fatally damage our climate?

@brendanmontague

Photo: Policy Exchange via Flickr

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