Steve Hilton: Brexit's all about flexibility

EXCLUSIVE: David Cameron's friend and former guru gives an insider's view of dealing with EU bureaucracy and explains why he thinks it's holding the British economy back.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 31 May 2016

Steve Hilton’s entrance into the Brexit debate may have given the PM a headache last week, but it won’t have come as a huge surprise. Anyone who’s read his book More Human will know that the former Tory big shot and founding member of Team Cameron has a big gripe with dehumanising, centralising, bureaucratic systems. Somehow, one imagines this disqualifies him from membership of the EU fan club (under sub-section 178, paragraph 3, if I recall correctly...).

MT caught up with him in the office of a north London tech firm, T-shirt and all, where we discovered his time running political start-up Crowdpac in sunny Silicon Valley may have hardened his attitude even further. Either that or he drank the Kool-Aid. You decide.

In a nutshell, why should we leave the EU?

There are specific things you can point to. In many respects we have the most pro-enterprise employment law already in Europe. But it’s not as pro-enterprise as many parts of the US and the reason for that is the EU. I wouldn’t rest my case on that, though.

There are risks staying and leaving, but the basic risk is no one knows what will happen in the future, certainly not 40 years from now. The question is what’s the best way to handle future risks and changes to the global economy – I believe the best way is if we’re able to make decisions in the national interest, with less compromise than what’s involved in being in the EU.

Isn’t compromise just a part of democracy?

There’s always compromise in government. It’s ridiculous to pretend that outside the EU we’d have a completely free hand to do what we wanted, but we would definitely have more control and could move quicker, and that’s in the interest of British business. Flexibility’s at the heart of this.

Let’s say the EU does 100 things in a given period. Twenty of them we’re perfectly fine with – we may even have initiated them. There are 80 we don’t like and think are damaging. You’re not going to stop all 80, so you decide which of these you really don’t like. Let’s say there are five of those. The price of stopping those five is accepting the other 75. We still think they’re damaging, but you’ve got to prioritise. It results in the fairly ludicrous situation where the government of the day is implementing policies that it really disagrees with. I don’t see how anyone can argue that’s anything other than totally democratic.

Wouldn’t we have to accept the baggage of European regulations even if we leave, Norway-style?

I don’t understand that argument. Californian tech firms operate in Europe but they don’t have to accept European employment law [in their own countries]. In any case the driving factor behind success in trade is underlying factors like comparative advantage, quality of supply chains and exchange rates, not bureaucratic rules. The idea that our entire economic prospects are bound up with whether we’re in the EU is just foolish.

As far as comparative advantages go, Silicon Valley’s in a pretty good place. How far does the UK have to go to catch up?

We’ve made huge progress in making the UK an attractive ecosystem for tech businesses, but there’s a lot further to go. One of the hardest things to replicate is the incredibly open and generous culture. You could be at a social event [in the Valley] and someone will ask what you’re working on. You explain your start-up idea and they say ‘oh my friend Jim would be really interested in that, you should talk to Jim’. That night you get an email connecting you. The next morning there’s an email from Jim saying let’s have a coffee next week. The week after Jim could be your co-founder. It’s a completely different world from here, where people say ‘what’s in it for me?’ and ‘my assistant will set up a meeting in three months’.

How have you found crossing from the world of politics to being an entrepreneur?

I’ve honestly found it the hardest but most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. There’s much more accountability and this constant pressure to lead the team in a way that inspires them. It’s not a machine where you can press buttons, it’s a team of people. In the Valley, the labour market’s incredibly competitive and start-ups can’t compete on salaries, so it’s all about inspiring the team.

Your book rails against global elites running ‘inhuman’ systems. Quite a few of MT’s readers fall into that category. What’s your message to them?

It’s not your fault. It’s the system. Members of the elite, without designing it like this, end up centralising power in government and the economy. The real lesson is if you want to be more human, it’s not about changing your behaviour, it’s about changing the structures and systems within which you operate.

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