Cut and paste politics

Adam Somerset reviews Steve Hilton’s book, More Human.

Steve Hilton: More Human, published by W H Allen

Steve Hilton was at the centre of government, in Downing Street, for the first two years of the Coalition. His self-description now in this somewhat gaudy book is “the CEO of a tech start-up and husband of a Google executive.” Whatever verdict historians of the future may reach on the unique fixed-term coalition of 2010-15 they need not trouble themselves with “More Human” for insight or material. It is a book of lightness, composed of generalities, a trawl through press cutting, and at its heart evasive of the demands and the toughness of responsibility of real politics.

There is an early technique taught in drawing known as negative space; the student is guided to the outline not of an object but to the space that surrounds it. Similarly, an early look to an index reveals what is in a book and what is not. Recent Cabinet papers may not be seen for thirty years but some guesses might be made as to what absorbed government attention. The following are absent from the Hiltonian index: devolution, defence, fiscal policy, security, social security, welfare, pensions, Islam, automation, terrorism, tax shelters, crime, espionage, cyber-attacks. It is the kind of Index that features General Electric but not Germany, Frito-lay but not France, Chipotle (another fast food chain) but not China, Walmart but not Wales.

Waffle joins easily to self-advertisement: “failing to put people at the centre of the policy-making process”…”a vehicle for real people power…we need to start by getting fresh voices in the conversation (That’s why I started my company Crowdpac).” As it happens the United Kingdom is on a new journey of distribution of power. Bristol is just a rapid Intercity ride from the Hilton habitat. Directly elected mayor George Ferguson may or may not be doing interesting things- he has the disadvantage of an anachronistic geographical boundaries to his area of authority. But “More Human” is not troubled with real reports from politics’ front line when cut-and-paste from other books is much easier. “More Human” trots out familiar dated anecdotes: top cop Bill Bratton in New York, Mayor Bloomberg in the same city, Labour’s notion of skipping judicial process and giving police the powers to march low-level offenders to cash points for instant cash withdrawal is hauled out once again.

Hilton occasionally alights on an arresting point. In the campaign of 2015 one party leader in Wales declared reservations about the PISA educational scores but used it to attack Labour’s record in Cardiff Bay- but you can’t have it both ways. According to Hilton the methodology for PISA means “students given a maths or reading score without having answered a single reading or maths question.”

Government carries the responsibility to infrastructure. The lure of current expenditure over capital expenditure is colossal. Hilton does not mention that in comparative rankings his new home of the USA features poorly- lower than many European countries- in the quality of its infrastructure. He observes that the tendency to “massively under-invest in infrastructure because of the system of accounting.” He is correct in that a national balance sheet would record depreciation of capital assets as a real phenomenon. He does not trouble himself with the research that some nations, New Zealand the beginner, have begun to treat their capital assets in such a manner.

Hilton is now a paid-up member of the tech aristocracy- remember that “husband of a Google executive”- but wholly uncritical. He does not care for the ubiquity of pornography. “We need better policing of the border between children and technology” is obvious, bland and unprescriptive. In the confessional manner of this book he writes “I’m obviously alert to the fact that my children might lose out because they aren’t wearing or carrying the latest smartphone…that’s a terrible choice, for me and for all parents.”  But he would never critique the tech titans of Cupertino and Menlo Park. They probably are, according to their own estimation, the smartest guys in the world. It is the Internet’s dirty secret as to what proportion of global bandwidth, all those server farms and the vast environmental damage, is used for the transmission of pornography. No search engine will tell you. The smart guys could put in filters that worked but those quarterly earnings statements are the things that matter.

Hilton borrows from Charles Handy, without acknowledgment, on the notion of subsidiarity. “Power- and budgets- should be devolved to a level just high enough to be practical”. But that is a decision that has to be made and he does not really get decision-making. He gets a dig in at Stafford Hospital but his touching in and out of health issues is lordly and shallow. He likes Estonia’s Electronic Health Record systems but does not look to the fact that it is linked to identity cards. His reference to the aborted NHS database is strictly a press cuttings job. He does not mention the intellectual nullity of its concept, that data integrity is incompatible with a hundred thousand access points. Nor does he touch on its cause, the debauching of cabinet government and its replacement with the voice of “sounds good, yeah, go for it” from the sofa.

“Perhaps Restless Leg Syndrome really is a medical condition but does it require a prescription of ropinirole?” he asks, the voice only of the young and the fit. Well, yes, is the answer, the condition at its extreme is a torment. He frowns on “the eighty-six billion tests on back pain…much of it on unnecessary MRI and CT scans, prescription pain narcotics” but eschews the facts behind it. If reward is related, as in the USA, to procedures then tests will balloon and that is even before the culture of litigation. Where trust- and re Fukuyama trust is a deep cultural creation- is the bedrock of the patient-practitioner relationship then overall health is better. Hilton does not care for the twenty billion, or fifth of the budget, that the NHS gives to end of life care but has nothing to say about the alternatives. Across the Atlantic it is much higher, a third of health being spent on the last six months of life.

As for small politics he likes the idea of the Iowa caucuses, “small scale gatherings in homes and school gyms”. According to universal press comment the Presidential-Congress breakdown is cause for universal dismay. The confrontation derives directly from those early primaries where candidates woo the faithful with positions of escalating extremity. “Being Human” is candidate itself for the limp lettuce award for political writing of 2015.

Postscript: the Guardian, in its saddening cycle of cost-cutting and skimping, commissioned a review of “More Human” from a professor of English rather than a political commentator. The reviewer got the style right- “the book’s prose is strewn with earnest cliches and high-minded pieties” but was naturally biliously anti-Tory in tone. He included the mocking of a fellow academic, his target a neuroscientist of high eminence in experimental psychology. The ignorance of those in the arts and humanities of other fields is a regular; the pride they take in their ignorance an equal regular.

Adam Somerset is a Welsh Critic.

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