More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First

by Steve Hilton (reviewed by Isabel Hardman)

Steve Hilton was David Cameron’s blue-sky thinker, the intellectual underpinning of Downing Street. He left, frustrated that his ideas weren’t being put into practice – and now he’s offered some of those ideas to a wider audience. His book, More Human, promises a glimpse of a ‘World Where People Come First’, and even when it fails to do that, it does offer us a glimpse of one of the brains behind the early David Cameron project.

How Steve Hilton’s brain works is pretty fascinating in itself. More Human does look at the way the world isn’t really built for real people with real lives and real struggles, but it still manages to take an upbeat tone, as Hilton takes the reader on a tour of projects, schools and businesses that are operating in the More Human way that he favours. His enthusiasm for these projects, from a snazzy-sounding workspace in East London run by his friend and former Downing Street colleague Rohan Silva to an adventure playground where children can play with real hammers and nails, paints a picture of a man constantly captivated by ideas, and things that look nice, too.

His ability to get enthusiastic about better ways to run businesses that don’t screw people over, or schools that don’t damage and constrain children does make More Human very readable: it’s almost as though you’re having an extended coffee with someone you’ve just met but who is so fizzing with ideas and anecdotes and enthusiasm that you end up having lunch and supper in order to talk more. But many of the chapters don’t feel much meatier than that sort of extended chat with an interesting and well-travelled friend.

The author is good at diagnosing the problem, but flits between solutions that he finds exciting or that look nice, often failing to produce the evidence that shows they really work.

His chapter on education is particularly disappointing: setting the reader up by describing the severe mental damage that the South Korean schooling system, held up by many as an example of high standards, has wrought upon its pupils, but then failing to tell us what should replace the drive for standards beyond offering a jumble of examples of nice schools that the author has visited. This includes Steiner schools, founded by someone who believes illnesses can be explained by problems in our previous lives, which has led to a failure to vaccinate many pupils in those schools for measles (something Hilton doesn’t mention). At no point does he answer the question of how can we prepare children for the world of work, where punctuality and accuracy are essential, while not turning them into soulless, uncreative little robots, as he fears.

Similarly, his chapter on food initially captivated me as someone who also worries about intensive farming and animal welfare. Both Hilton and I keep chickens, and we both know that the way most chickens are farmed is inhuman: they do not see natural light and they do not have enough space to be comfortable. Hilton argues that ‘in the case of eating factory-farmed animals it’s cruelty by proxy’ and sets out the long-term damage to the environment of intensive farming. He cleverly exposes some of the myths of the food industry: ‘free range’ chickens aren’t scratching about for worms and merrily taking dust baths as mine do, but living in huge, cramped barns. ‘Corn-fed’ chicken sounds dead posh, but means nothing about the conditions in which that corn was fed.

But then his solutions include Booths, which is a lovely but expensive supermarket in the North of England, and The Food Assembly, which runs ‘weekly, two-hour ‘assemblies’ – pop-up markets – where producers and consumers come together to fulfil their orders’. But at no point does he explain whether the normal cost-conscious consumer can afford these new, More Human systems of production.

Chickens are crammed into barns and fattened fast on corn because that’s the cheapest way of raising an affordable lump of meat. Perhaps he believes we should change our diets so that we eat less meat and spend a little more on the produce that we do buy, but he doesn’t go into that. Perhaps middle-class types like me could afford Booths and pop-up markets, but Hilton doesn’t consider whether everyone could.

But it’s when Hilton moves away from the interests of worried middle-class types that his writing isn’t just captivating, but also practical. Poverty, inequality and childhood are the best chapters in the book, real thought-through practical calls to action in tackling great issues facing our society.

How do you turn people’s lives around? By intervening in a more human way, Hilton answers, describing Louise Casey’s Troubled Families programme, which works on the basis that every family has multiple problems. How do you protect childhood? By treating children like children on every level, not leaving them exposed via a smartphone to things that even adults would have struggled to find and watch a decade or so ago. It is on smartphones that Hilton is at his most furiously passionate: he clearly believes that they are as dangerous to a safe childhood as leaving your child to wander the streets at night, and he makes clear proposals on what to do about them.

In these angry passages about childhood, Hilton’s prose is at its best. And his defence of free markets in his business chapter is worth pinning on a wall. For a blue-sky thinker, he does manage to steer clear of empty phrases and waffle most of the time – though he does give the sense that his mind has jumped further ahead than the reader’s at times.

For instance, he never bothers to explain what the founder of charity Community Links David Robinson means when he says ‘within the hub model there is no wrong door’, hopping quickly along to say that ‘it is an entry point that allows people who need services to access them in a convenient way in a comfortable setting with people they know and trust’. You’re left wondering how many doors this entry point has. And when you get to the end of the book, you’re still not sure what Steve Hilton’s More Human world would look like, other than that it might contain a lot of pop-up markets and funky playgrounds.

 

Isabel Hardman is Assistant Editor of the Spectator. She is on Twitter @IsabelHardman.

 

 

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The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold us Well-Being

by William Davies (reviewed by Anthony Seldon)

This a book crackling with intellectual energy and outrage. William Davies is very angry indeed about many things, but principally about capitalism and happiness, and the interaction between the two. It is a book that will provoke, irritate and captivate in equal measure, depending where one stands on the subject of capitalism, religion and one’s views on happiness and wellbeing.

It could be read with advantage by all evangelists for the cause of happiness because it makes many telling points about the claims, the techniques and the dangers of companies and governments who are cynically fixated on the pursuit of happiness.

It would have been an even better book if Davies was not so concerned to condemn all aspects of those who are working to alleviate unhappiness and enhance wellbeing. As he himself writes, ‘Aristotle understood happiness as the ultimate purpose of human beings, though in a rich and ethical sense’ [my italics]. Regrettably, he does not probe this rich and ethical dimension of happiness, because it is precisely the one that most advocates of wellbeing or positive psychology, in my experience, are pursuing. He says that he is not trying to trivialise the suffering of those who are unhappy or depressed, but rather his target is those people who are guilty of ‘entangling…hope and joy within infrastructures of measurement, surveillance and government’. But the good work to alleviate mental torment is denigrated by implication in his indiscriminate assault.

The book quotes the author Simon Critchley on its back cover, saying that ‘Davies convincingly shows us how the happiness industry is the new frontline of capitalism [with] its accompanying horrors of mindfulness and wellbeing’. If the author didn’t approve of this critique of his book, he shouldn’t have let it be placed on the back cover, because this kind of ignorant rant does his cause no favours. How can wellbeing be a horror? How equally can mindfulness be described in these terms when the author has so little understanding of it?

Davies opens his book expressing outrage that ‘a truly elite monk’, Buddhist Matthieu Ricard, addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2014. Davies is too het up to listen to Ricard’s message, from which he could learn much, and worse, he describes ‘mindfulness’ as a ‘relaxation technique formed out of a combination of positive psychology, Buddhism, cognitive behavioural therapy and neuroscience’. In fact, mindfulness is the faculty that all humans possess to be simply aware of the thoughts and feelings in our mind, moment by moment, and which goes back to the very origins of man. Such a simple error on page 2 of the book undermines faith in the remaining 312.

The book suffers from a lack of self-awareness. Many of the sinister surveillance techniques which he describes so vividly apply still more to totalitarian regimes. At the very heart of liberal democracy is a desire to let citizens lead their own lives, in as far as it is compatible with civil society. The non-capitalist societies which Davies presumably admires have control and scrutiny of individual behaviour at their very heart. Yes, digital technology and developments in neuroscience offer new and potentially damaging opportunities for intrusion into individual liberty. But they are as likely, more so in fact, to be exploited by non-capitalist regimes, based as they are upon planning and control.

The book equally fails to appreciate that the wellbeing agenda sits more comfortably with those on the left of centre than those on the right, which is precisely why right wing politicians and newspapers in Britain have been at the forefront of trying to trash it. To declare an interest, I founded ‘Action for Happiness’ in 2011, as an organisation to try to bring individuals together to raise the wellbeing and happiness levels for themselves and their communities.

My two co-founders are figures of the left, LSE academic Richard Layard and the former head of Tony Blair’s No 10 policy unit Geoff Mulgan. The main concern of many of our supporters and fellow travellers is not to make capitalism even rawer in tooth and claw, but to ameliorate its worst aspects. Is it so reprehensible of governments and indeed business to be trying to measure and improve the wellbeing of individuals, rather than being obsessed by purely monetary targets? Throughout the book, there is an insinuation that there is something unsavoury, sinister even, about such attempts.

The book fails to acknowledge properly that the goal of positive psychology, which provides the theoretical underpinning to much of the wellbeing initiatives, is the alleviation of individual unhappiness and human torment. Professor Martin Seligman, the pivotal figure in this field, was a leading authority on depression before realising that individuals can do much themselves to reduce their depression and live a more fulfilling life without resort to drugs. Young people can indeed be taught how to do this at school, he says, which is important given the alarming rise in adolescent and student mental health problems. But even this work is treated cynically by the author, who wrongly describes it as based on ‘learning to block out unhelpful thoughts and memories’.

Davies could have written so much a better book if he had taken the trouble to understand more and condemn less. Worldwide, depression and anxiety account for a growing proportion of all kinds of illness, yet even in prosperous countries, only a fraction of those who would benefit from proven and cost-effective treatments benefit from the help that they need. This book ill serves the very people that Davies should be trying to help by failing to discriminate sufficiently between institutional mind manipulation and thoughtful attempts to improve the human condition.

 

Anthony Seldon wrote Beyond Happiness and is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

 

 

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