David Black: How Green Was My Valet
Yet again, the Conservative Party promises us a kinder, gentler more compassionate Britain. But should we believe these people, and what about Steve Hilton, the one who got away?
How comforting that the Minister for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, should choose to put on a show of heartfelt communitarian sympathy as head of a steering group for Nick Timothy’s exciting new project, The Future of Conservatism.
The “mission” in this case, writes Mr Timothy breathlessly in The Telegraph, is nothing less than “the restoration of national community – a politics based on the pursuit of the common good”. This naturally includes such virtues as “the care and love of families, and the reciprocity and trust made possible by our established norms, culture, and way of life”.
The Mother Theresa mask slipped ever so slightly when the mighty Leveller Up, Mr Gove, insisted that the families of school truants should be deprived of child benefit, but all in all it was a good day for that more nuanced gentle Conservatism. You know the kind of thing – John Major’s warm beer, old ladies cycling to church, etc, etc.
We have, of course, been here before. In 2013, when Mr Gove fancied his chances as a future Tory leader, he delivered a Keith Joseph Memorial lecture to the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies in which he outed himself as a “compassionate conservative”. This naturally struck a weird note of cognitive dissonance, given Sir Keith’s quasi-eugenicist concerns about “our human stock” being threatened by young mothers on low incomes, but thankfully that particular mad monk obsession has been largely lost in the mists of time. A declaration which certainly still rang in the ears, however, was David Cameron’s great statement of faith which began: “You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.”
On close textual analysis this “we’re all in this together” declaration was in no way offering a helping hand to the poor and oppressed. Quite the opposite. “People, in their everyday lives” urged call-me-Dave with cloying earnestness, shouldn’t “turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face - It’s time for something different, something bold - that doesn’t just pour money down the throat of wasteful, top-down government schemes”.
That this was, in its essentials, a right wing socio-economic diatribe fatuously dressed up as an expression of liberal values should not surprise us, for Cameron’s words had been written by his spin doctor Steve Hilton, the offbeat strategist who’d first suggested that a spot of husky-bothering and tree-hugging would do the P.M’s brand image no end of good, especially with the young.
Mr Hilton, a far-right radical at heart, later came to regard his old Etonian boss as a wishy-woshy backslider, especially on the matter of Brexit, and they fell out. In 2012 Steve took an unpaid academic sabbatical at Stanford University, California, and there, mixing with the Tea Party tendency and a few shock-jock radio talk hosts, he discovered his natural habitat.
During his years in the wilderness Mr Hilton wrote a book on positive populism, More Human. Suitably revised for the US market, it was promoted at launch parties in Washington DC in the week that Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination, and was soon riding the crest of a fashionable new wave.
In the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election he was invited by the Fox News Network and the Trump campaign to write cheerleading punditry for the network, and did so well that he was offered his very own Sunday primetime talk show, The Next Revolution. A few months into the new presidency Hilton was racing up the ratings, trouncing CNN and MSNBC combined, and soon had his coverage extended from coast to coast.
A sharp chill of reality threatens to spoil this seemingly endless fair wind, however, with the recent admission by media mogul Rupert Murdoch that a few of his operatives may have been somewhat cavalier with the truth in constructing the paranoid myth about the last presidential election having been “stolen” from the “rightful” incumbent, Donald Trump, by Joe Biden and his fellow usurpers.
Since the myth had already been well scotched by dozens of court judgements throughout America it was perhaps inevitable that the Fox Corporation would have to face a day of reckoning, and so it has come to pass. One party the Fox chorus deemed to be partly responsible for this alleged wicked plot to dethrone the Orange Cookie Monster was The Dominion Voting Systems Corporation, manufacturers of the electronic voting hardware used in US elections.
Some of the allegations were beyond bizarre – for example, it was falsely claimed Dominion was set up to help Hugo Chavez rig elections in Venezuela. Where the US presidential election was concerned it was accused of offering kickbacks to local officials to manipulate results in Biden’s favour, and other such monstrous things, all of which were blatant falsehoods.
Dominion submitted a detailed brief in support of its motion for summary judgement on February 16th last, since when the wheels have started coming adrift from the Fox Corporation wagon in what President Trump might have described as “a most beautiful, beautiful way”.
In its submission Dominion identifies and quotes a number of well known Fox presenters who came up with a whole flurry of damaging denunciations which some of them now seem to be regretting, as well they might. Their number included such Trump labourers in the vineyard as Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Lou Dobbs, and Maria Bartiromo. So why was Steve Hilton not on this roll of dishonour? He was, after all, promoting the same agenda, and circulating the same disinformation.
The answer may be that, as a former combatant in the British political jungle, Hilton had developed the subtle skill of deniability. For example, stating in an interview, that ‘millions of Americans believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump’ is a clever way of getting a message across without implicating oneself.
The intention, of course, is the same as that of such slack-mouthed practitioners of the black arts as Hannity and Carlson, but the statement is sufficiently opaque to allow the utterer to claim that he may not necessarily agree with those millions.
Another point in Steve Hilton’s favour was that he was working from Los Angeles and was thus usefully removed from Fox’s DC Beltway and Wall Street snake pits which had always been instinctively distrustful of hip Silicon Valley and Palo Alto types. He was, moreover, the founder and CEO of the online tech hub Crowdpac, while his wife Rachel Whetstone has held senior executive positions with the like of Netflix and Google.
Hilton is by no means a standard issue Conservative. The San Francisco Chronicle’s description of him as a “contrarian” who might nudge Fox to the middle ground helps to explain, for example, why he has expressed some qualified admiration for Democrat disruptor Bernie Sanders. There could be no question of Hilton endorsing the Vermont Senator’s leftist values, it goes without saying, so the intention, presumably, was to ruffle Hillary’s feathers.
An Oxford-educated T-shirt wearing Brit, he speaks in clipped cadences not unlike those of another restless English rebel and TV celebrity, Prince Harry, though as the son of Hungarian parents who fled the 1956 Russian invasion his background could hardly be more different.
Could Dave Cameron’s old strategist be in line to become central to a smart new strategy for the Fox Corporation? After all, he would appear to have slipped beneath the radar as far as Dominion is concerned – at least for now. Meanwhile several other stars in the Fox firmament have either departed, like Megyn Kelly, or may soon be obliged to fall on their swords.
It’s difficult to know if Rupert Murdoch will see merit in making use of him, but there can be little doubt that Succession’s Logan Roy would view him as the man to bring onside. Hilton is ideologically adaptable, given to ploughing his own furrow, and usefully detached from those high octane Fox presenters based around America’s North East corridor.
“We’re all in this together” is not a phrase Steve Hilton’s ever likely to reprise when it comes to helping out his fellow anchors at Fox.