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Big Society, small thinking

Hal Austin

Steve Hilton is a master of ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ and a former guru to prime minister David Cameron.

He is also a kind of ‘grand theorist’ to what used to be called the broadsheet press, for his alleged innovative ideas and blue-sky thinking.

However, in a secular post-ideological age, when everyone assumes a right to be original in his or her thinking, Mr Hilton has climbed to the top of the greasy pole of public intellectuals.

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His new book, More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First, has a catchy title even if the content is part of the ill-thought out waffle that passes for social thought in this age.

In fact, from the content of his book, Mr Hilton is not a public intellectual at all nor even an original thinker; rather, he is a purveyor of poorly thought-out ideas that will appeal only to those too lazy to think for themselves. It is also a book lacking in understanding.

In his introduction, Mr Hilton referenced official rudeness to the general public, as if it was unusual. He should try being a member of a minority group in London.

I will give an example of what I mean. Sometime ago I tried signing up with Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, to do a refresher course in a subject in which I already have a post-graduate qualification.

I took the precaution of taking along my certificate as proof, but to my amazement the young woman registering the new students told me I had to take a test as proof that I was capable of coping with the course work. Isolated incident? Not at all.

Mr Hilton is the creator, or at least one of the creators, of the ‘Big Society’ idea, the self-deluding myth that do-goodery would do us all some good.

In a poorly articulated argument he talks about the limits to economic growth, but this is not original.

Since the 1960s, leading economists such as Andre Gunder Frank and Sir Arthur Lewis, up until now have been preaching the same thing.

Half truths do not a guru make and More Human has added almost nothing to our collective knowledge.

It is a modern form of secular cultism; state socialism has failed, market capitalism has failed, state capitalism has shadows of repression and authoritarianism. What is there left that defines human sociality?

Part of the folly of cultism is that, as individuals, we do not like to be left behind in anything that is fashionable, whether it is clothes, a popular football team or ideas.

Few of us spare the time to look forensically at these fast-cascading ideas to see if they are really worth the paper they are written on.

And, like most things in the age of Twitter, there is a globalisation of cultish ideas most of which last as long as ice cubes next to a burning furnace.