Steve Hilton Masterminded Cameron's Climate Crusade - But Was it Just Greenwash?

The International Policy Network was one of the UK’s most prominent climate-denying think tanks but in 2011 it closed its doors as science triumphed over ideology. The DeSmog UK history series continues.

The International Policy Network (IPN) was an offspring of Antony Fisher’s free market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), and its board was composed of Fisher’s two children, Linda Whetstone and Michael Fisher.

But Whetstone’s son-in-law, Steve Hilton, would by happenstance turn out to be the architect of the IEA's greatest woes. In 2011, the think tank closed its doors, apparently due to an internal battle where science finally overwhelmed both ideology and the lure of dirty oil funding. 

Some have speculated that Whetstone may have been influenced by her daughter, Rachel, now vice president of global communications and public affairs for Google. As it happens, Rachel is married to Hilton.

Blue Sky Thinking

Hilton was the golden boy at the Saatchi and Saatchi advertising agency where he claimed credit for the 1997 devil eye poster attacking Tony Blair. He was soon recruited into the heart of Conservative Central Office - now know as Conservative Campaign Headquarters - and it was during this time that he would meet Rachel.

Hilton avoided the media but became well known for his informal style and zen-like blue sky thinking. In 2006, Hilton joined David Cameron’s election campaign where he advised him to intensify his green campaigning.

We need a Conservative response to the environmental challenge, sharing responsibility between government, business and individuals,” Cameron argued in March that year during a speech in Scotland.

These words closely echoed the philosophy espoused by Hilton's book Good Business, written on Whetstone's kitchen table, which dismissed Karl Marx and then argued environmentalism and corporate social responsibility, when done well, could boost profits rather than just being a drain on resources.

How genuine Hilton’s commitment to human rights and environmentalism was would be fiercely debated at dinner parties throughout the coming years. His detractors often point to a Daily Mail article quoting the Prime Minister’s ‘green guru’ saying “I’m not sure I believe in [climate change]… My focus has always been more on using green issues to improve the quality of life.”

Hug-a-Husky

In April, Cameron delivered his now infamous rally for voters to “Vote blue, go green.” The Conservative leader went the extra mile to become the poster boy of the environmental movement and the face of climate change.

That month, he also visited a Norwegian Svalbard glacier arriving on a sled drawn by handsome black and white fur huskies. The “hug-a-husky” press junket dominated the newspapers the following morning.

Julian Glover at the Guardian reported: “Steve Hilton, the Tory leader's image-maker behind the trip, received a text message from an ally back in London. 'Simply brilliant - that was worth a thousand speeches.'”

Nick Boles, founding director of the Cameron-supporting Policy Exchange think tank, said at the time: “The picture is all that counts. It is complete gold dust… He can't do an endless series of them, next month jumping out of a plane over the Amazon, the month after scuba diving in a coral reef.”

Aggressive Marketing

Cameron then handed silver birch saplings to journalists at another press conference to plant at home and in front of the TV cameras switched his own home energy supplies to a green provider.

The aggressive marketing of the Conservative party as the champions of the climate agenda was peppered with clear promises by the young hopeful that as Prime Minister he would not be railroaded into abandoning his green vision.

In October he said: “I am passionate about our environment… we saw [in a previous debate] the scale of the threat from climate change. I know that we have within us the creativity, the innovation, the technological potential to achieve green growth - sustainable prosperity. The Stern Report will tell us that the tools of success are in our grasp.”

Just days later Cameron added: “If you want to understand climate change, go and see Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth. Today, I want to tell the British people some uncomfortable truths. There is a price for progress in tackling climate change.

Yes of course low-energy light bulbs, hybrid cars - even a windmill on your roof - can make a difference and also save money. But these things are not enough. Government must show leadership by setting the right framework - Binding targets for carbon reduction, year on year.”

Climate Crusade

The Cameron climate crusade was a masterstroke as it turned Blair's campaign of choice into just enough rope that he might hang himself. His Conservative hunter chided: “So come on Prime Minister. It's your last few months in office. It's your last Queen's Speech. Use it to do something for the environment.”

Hilton didn’t just have a strong influence on Cameron’s campaign. He surely must have had an impact on his wife’s opinion on climate change too. Google has donated millions to climate change causes, including creating 21 Google Science Communication Fellows.

Could it be then that these family ties to Cameron’s climate campaign meant the IPN could no longer exist as a credible climate denial machine?

Up next in the DeSmog UK epic history series we look at how Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth became target practice for Koch think tanks and the Tea Party caucus in the Republican Party.

Photo: Huffington Post via Creative Commons