The Blob

A brief introduction to British governance

Palace of Westminster at night - Belgravia Books Collective

When David Cameron was elected in 2010 as the first Conservative Prime Minister since 1997, there was much talk about what his government would amount to.

It was already clear enough that Cameron was a ‘modernising’ Tory. Within weeks of beating David Davis to the party leadership in December 2005, he boarded a plane to the Arctic Circle on a fact-finding mission on global warming. He was famously photographed hugging a Husky dog, in a PR gesture as grand as it was shameless. In the year that followed, we had more of the same. Cameron  was to soon call for more “love” to be shown to criminal adolescents, condensed in the typical tabloid manner as an injunction to “hug a hoodie”.

Within weeks of forming a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, Cameronism had a new brand: the Big Society. This modern conservatism would, so the story went, bring power down to local communities. The state would have some role to play, but above all it would provide soft pairs of hands in the form of charities, social enterprises and grassroots organisations to help guide society (which, contra Thatcher, there was definitely such a thing as now).

This interface between the market, state, and the realm of civil society was nothing particularly new, even if its 2010 repackaging seemed novel. It built on procedures and mechanisms that, as we shall see shortly, were already established. However, a hesitant optimism about markets, a broadly favourable attitude towards the state (‘the good that government can do’), and an uncritically positive view of those things in between, seems to characterise the general Conservative consensus of the last 10 years. Both of Cameron’s successors have also described themselves in ‘One Nation’ terms.

ACTUALLY EXISTING GOVERNMENT

But what does this kind of regime look like in practice? I think one illustrative example can be found in something like the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Knife Crime. This is a group of over 70 MPs and Peers, set up to develop “cross-party consensus from parliamentarians…with particular focus on prevention and early intervention”. Fully in keeping with Big Society principles, it’s not just MPs and Peers who are involved with this group. The secretariat of the group is in fact jointly run by two charities: Redthread and Barnardo’s.

Barnardo’s is a Victorian-era institution, set up to provide accommodation and education for slum-dwelling children. It has since expanded into a variety of causes, from helping children with a parent in prison, to helping families seeking asylum in the UK, to lobbying to improve “waiting time targets for mental health services” (young people have apparently asked for this). It relies on a stream of donations from people and institutions both living and dead, and has BlackRock invest a large chunk of its money to this end for a healthy annual return; it also has a commercial activities wing. It is run by Javed Khan, a professional quangocrat with non-executive positions on Birmingham City Council, the National Citizen Service, and an NHS Trust.

Redthread is less well-known. Viewing violence as a “public health issue”, it aims to provide help for young victims of knife crime, not through confronting the stabbers themselves, but in attempting to turn around the lives of those stabbed. It funds youth workers and youth centres. It receives money from a kaleidoscope of charities – Comic Relief, the Paul Hamyln and Lloyds Bank Foundations – as well as the Home Office, the Mayor of London’s Office, Hackney Council, two NHS bodies and two police and crime commissioners. The presence of these state institutions is interesting, as it represents a hiving-off of responsibilities away from the core government and down into civil society, with the taxpayer Pound lost in a less directly accountable swamp.

Our fears are hardly allayed when we look at the MPs involved with this Knife Crime APPG, who themselves seem to emerge from this very same world. It is headed by Sarah Jones MP, Labour Member for Croydon Central. Her background is impeccable: a string of senior campaigning roles within the NHS, 2012 Olympics, and homelessness charity Shelter. She writes of having talked to “local organisations, campaigners and young people” about the issue of knife crime. The APPG’s leadership is rounded off by the likes of Kate Osamor (a far-left socialist who worked for The Big Issue and then the NHS before becoming a Labour MP), and token Tory Huw Merriman, who spent an obligatory five years as a trustee and volunteer at a youth charity in Brixton.

How about another APPG example? Just to show I’m not pulling this out of nowhere. Let’s look at the APPG on Poverty. This group is comprised of the usual set of cross-party MPs. Their latest report is about something they call the ‘poverty premium’, which claims that low-income households face higher costs for essential goods and services. Most of these arguments require justifying high time preferences and general dysfunction – people are unable to switch energy providers because they haven’t paid their bills, or are somehow forced to shop in more expensive nearby convenience stores.

The group has a joint secretariat comprised of the Child Poverty Action Group and the Equality Trust, which together donate something like £7,000 or £8,000 per year to the group and act as points of contact for public enquiry.

The Child Poverty Action Group is effectively controlled by Blairites. Its honorary president is a Labour peer. Its chair was an advisor to Ed Miliband. Others have pedigrees from various appendages of the state, as academics or BBC journalists. Others still are career charity bods. Its income comes from a number of sources, including big grant-making bodies like the Trust for London and the Barrow Cadbury Fund – but notably, half of its £1.2m in restricted funds appears to have come directly from the taxpayer via the Scottish Government.

What about the promisingly titled Equality Trust? This smaller group exists because it is existentially opposed to inequality. It claims that “this is bad for almost everyone”. This is of course a political statement, smuggled in by straddling the is-ought distinction. This doesn’t stop it from being a charity, or from claiming Gift Aid from HMRC. Its staff and trustees are the usual blend of academics and professional charity and quangocrats. Its biggest donors are the grantmaking Tudor Trust (“which tries to meet the many different needs of people at the margins of our society”) and Christian Aid.

The Poverty APPG’s recent report was itself part-funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust (which as you’ll have noticed, also funds the Child Poverty Action Group). Barrow Cadbury is one of the biggest players in the grant-making ecosystem, being a hundred-year-old Quaker group that promises to “speak truth to power” (itself originally a Quaker phrase). In their quest for “greater social justice” they “seek long-term solutions by looking at root causes of inequality”. They approved something like £5.4 million in grants in 2019, which for a dinky little democracy like Britain, bereft as it is of the kind of mega-philanthropy and Super PACs found across the Atlantic, is a fair amount. It can keep quite a few professional progressives and their families clothed and fed.

What we see here, amidst these fractalizing branches of funding, is a strange and novel kind of governance system. This system is oligarchic insofar as it involves deep-pocketed interests co-opting state power. But the fact that these interests are detached from the logic of capital accumulation shows that this is really a successful capture of monied interests by professional lefty-progressives, underpinned by a spiritual commitment to equality that can’t be reduced to material self-interest.

These APPGs, with their implicit assumptions and consensus-driven ensembles, are not exceptional. They are in a sense the purest distillation of how the business of government is conducted, even if they have little strict legislative power outside of the normative acculturation of the MPs who comprise them. What this little exercise has demonstrated is that governance in Britain does not come, in any meaningful sense, directly from The State. Rather, it comes from a system that we might more correctly call The Blob.

The Blob is hard to put anyone’s finger on. It is a mixture of state institutions, state-funded institutions, and private trusts and charities. It is a groupthink bubble. It is a network, an ecosystem, in which everyone operates with a set of similar superficial assumptions about the legitimate domain of state action derived from similar assumptions about human nature.

HISTORICAL TRAJECTORY

It has not always been this way. If you’re willing to go deep into the history – a history found in scraps of primary documentation and in-group conversation – you can see how groups like the Joseph Rowntree Trust (another big Quaker group) sought to cultivate a “counter civil service” in the 1970s in order to, in their view, better hold the government to account. Groups like the Counter Information Services, the Socialist Environment Association, the socialist urbanist group Comedia, and the Low Pay Unit all set up shop in Rowntree’s Acton Society offices at 9 Poland Street, all to lobby successive governments in a socialistic direction. For good measure, the Rowntree Trust at the time even bunged the equivalent of £430,000 to Frelimo, the Communist rebels in Mozambique, and supported socialist killers in Guinea-Bissau too. It was the 1970s – things were different then, right?

Some liberal-minded observers at the time were perceptive enough to see that something was going terribly wrong. Former Liberal leader Jo Grimond would bemoan the monster he had helped to create, arguing that the “enormous growth in bureaucracy” and “this new field of specialist committees” in Britain was making ordinary MPs, who were supposed to directly represent their constituents, act like detached Ministers. Slowly but surely, ordinary MPs were abandoning their exercise of practical reason, farming off policy to remote interest groups, campaigns and charities, or at the very least to state bodies whose logic of governance were captured by such groups.

Similarly, Conservative MP Philip Holland wrote a series of pamphlets in the 1970s attacking the “spreading arms of the state” that “stifled the initiative, regimented the life style and increasingly suppressed the freedom of the British people”, which included everything from labour arbitration bodies which were stacked in the interests of trade unions, to groups which sought to police socially acceptable thought in the name of gender and racial equality. When Thatcher was elected, Mr. Holland went much quieter. This is a perennial problem, which is that Conservatives talk a good deal out of office and then do little when they actually win.

This process of growth both in and around the state has been effectively memory-holed because this ‘set’ of people who comprised The Blob won. The election of Tony Blair in 1997 confirmed this perhaps more than anything else, in the way that his government brought in groups like the Runnymede Trust – which for some time has styled itself as “the UK’s leading independent race equality think tank” – to suckle at its bosom.

The Runnymede Trust is a particularly interesting case-study as it effectively wrote Britain’s new policy on ‘Islamophobia’, a word which didn’t exist in English political discourse until then-Home Secretary Jack Straw helped launch their 1997 report on the subject. Runnymede’s 1998 report on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain called for the creation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and a new Equality Act, both of which were subsequently adopted by New Labour. With that report – and I encourage you to read it for yourselves – we see in real-time how ‘British Values’ are gutted of any national meaning and given the empty procedural character we recognise today (Britishness being defined as ‘respect’ and ‘tolerance’).

The Runnymede Trust’s influence continues to permeate British politics. In 2019, the group issued a paper titled “Teaching Migration, Belonging and Empire in Secondary Schools”, in collaboration with the European Research Council. This paper argues that teaching the British imperial experience should be modelled on Holocaust education, which they say have “a range of shared characteristics”. The group’s work was cited in a Commons debate on school history curricula by Labour MPs Helen Hayes and Mike Kane. Tory MP Nick Gibb, the Minister for School Standards, was equally gushing, reeling off examples of the Trust’s work in influencing and changing children’s history curricula to decentre the story of the historic British nations.

Now, if I wanted to get Tatarstan to break away from Russia, I would do much the same that Runnymede is trying to get the British government to do. I would encourage schools to teach Tatar children about how their ancestors suffered, how they are different, and how they should be indebted to past generations of radical Tatar activists for inspiration. This is precisely what a group like Runnymede is doing with Britain’s own ethnic minorities, the main difference is that they are doing this with the expressed consent of short-sighted and decadent elected representatives in the name of being neutral ‘stakeholders’ and representatives of civil society. There is no way in which this story can end well.

Most people outside of the Westminster bubble will not have heard of the Runnymede Trust. Given its obvious influence on British politics in the past 30 years, isn’t that a bit strange? Compounding this intrigue is the fact that Runnymede’s donors, again, constitute a who’s who of the most powerful progressive groups in the UK today. There are state institutions: grant-making groups like the AHRC and ESRC, the University of Manchester, the Heritage Lottery Fund and of course the EHRC itself that Runnymede had helped to create. And then there are the powerful private Trusts: Barrow Cadbury, Friends Provident, Esmee Fairbairn, Paul Hamlyn, and two Rowntree groups, amongst others.

THE CONSERVATIVE COMMUNITY

The problem with ordinary conservatism as it exists in Britain is that it represents the right arm of Blob-ism. Terms like Red Toryism, Blue Labourism, all these sweet-smelling and fashionable communitarian labels, in my view they simply provide cover for the entrenchment of The Blob, of the bureaucratic, managerial state and a continuation of Blairism by other means. This ideology does not contest the basic legitimacy and assumptions of groups like the Runnymede Trust or the Equality Trust. It does not contest the swallowing up of the state by these various interests.

There is only one direction in which things like ‘People’s Assemblies’ and ‘Community Consultations’ head towards: they are always and forever captured by a professional clique of progressive activists who claim to speak in the name of the people. Whenever you see someone calling for a renewed “civil society”, for a politics that rejects “both the market and the state”, have a good hard think about what this really means in practice. It’s not church-ladies with mugs of tea at a bake-sale for wounded veterans, it’s a ‘community historian’ leading a Discussion Group on the Future of Statues alongside some Marxist professor.

To be sure, these conservative communitarians may not claim to be keen on all of what The Blob has to offer. But for all intents and purposes this is what civil society in Britain in the current year is. All such communitarian calls push inexorably in this same direction: to provide pretty lies and window dressing, perhaps the odd plume of incense, while the state is submerged into the swamp of unaccountability and run by an unknown, inept and hostile elite.

Nor, indeed, can those remaining self-described Thatcherites be let off the hook. Most have failed in calling out this state of affairs, preferring instead to focus on the liberalisation of pornography laws and the abolition of Sunday trading hours instead of the increasingly large and hostile state and unaccountable interests which now occupy government. I focus on them less simply because free-market Thatcherism is now secondary to One Nation Conservatism as the main standard on the right.

GENTLE SUGGESTIONS

The solution, in my view, is a novel kind of libertarianism (although I hesitate to use the word) that exists not primarily to further the domain of the market or promote moral libertinism, but rather to destroy this system I have described. In this political vision, entire departments, quangos and universities would be scrapped or cut upon taking power. The likes of the Arts Council and the Government Equalities Office would have to go; the likes of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport would be put to the knife and come out looking unrecognisable. Bills would be put forward to rescind and replace the likes of the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act.

If there are any salvageable bits left of these state institutions, they can be refounded with new charters and new staff. This is a broad political vision to clear out the piles of manure that have accumulated in the stables of the state over the past 20, 50, even 100 years.  

Those private bodies in receipt of taxpayer money would cease to get a penny more. With this, the private charities which operate outside of the pocket of the state would be severely weakened. There would also need to be a new Bill that yoked the private system of Trusts and charities, sullying them with onerous audit requirements and severely limiting their size and scope, with caps on personnel numbers and a far stricter definition of political campaigning, including hard limits on any money coming from abroad. Charities should be soup kitchens. Superseding the Charity Commission with a small autocratic body under the watchful eye of the executive might be one solution.

With this done, the billions of Pounds saved would enable a phenomenal government-funded giveaway to voters to get them onside, like simple fat UBI payments. This would establish a clear and direct link between the destruction of The Blob and their own financial benefit. I want to see ordinary, apolitical student types out on the lash, celebrating in the faces of literally shaking, soon-to-be-fired Criminology lecturers. I want to see builders and taxi drivers thumbing their noses at humourless harridans who used to work for the Arts Council. This is the kind of populism I want to see. It could be so beautiful.

There are, to be sure, many other things I would like such a government to do. Tearing up the sclerotic planning system to unlock decades of deferred building and capital spending, rocketing the country into economic growth, would be one. A fundamental reform of secondary education into something meritocratic rather than the penal institution it is today would be another. But I don’t want this to become a shopping-list manifesto. You get the idea: slash government where it hurts the Blob the most, and use the proceeds to fund generous cash-in-hand giveaways to the people.

Above, I called these proposals ‘libertarian’. There has been a flight from the libertarian label in the last five years or so, as it seemed to accrue a number of meanings and theoretical implications that people were increasingly sick of. I do not call myself a libertarian, nor do I intend to. Sam Bowman very cleverly decided to rebrand the Adam Smith Institute as Neoliberal in 2016 – an age-old practice of taking a term of general disparagement and using it positively. Following this line of thinking, I am perfectly happy to pitch my tent at the simple label of Populism, as a few others already have. The main object of this Populism would be the restoration of English Liberty in the manner I have roughly described.

As for what I am against, as I have said, I call it The Blob. This is a term which was thrown into politics in the last decade by Michael Gove, to describe those “leaders of the teaching unions, local authority officials, academic experts and university education departments” who sought to impede his reforms to the Department for Education. When I use the term, I use it in a similar spirit, but apply it to the entirety of the country’s political system and to more radical ends.

There are other useful words that are interchangeable with The Blob in the British context. There is Officialdom – a well-worn term used by Conservatives in the early 20th century. I have used the term Blairite too, as the Blair government oversaw an awful and unprecedented entrenchment of this Officialdom. Sean Gabb, writing in 2002, spoke in terms of an Enemy Class. Gabb of course is as right now as he was then.

My main point of difference with Mr. Gabb – the question of nomenclature aside – is positional and contextual: I am writing as the right in the UK faces a ‘communitarian moment’, as there is a flight from libertarianism both in form and in content. Numerous anti-establishment upheavals also form the backdrop to global politics in a way they did not when Gabb described his Enemy Class in 2002, giving a renewed salience to calls for its destruction.

“But what if we just take over these institutions?” I hear you say. “Let’s make the Blob work for us”. The simple answer is that we face a number of barriers which make this incredibly difficult. Firstly some institutions are, as I have said, unsalvageable. You cannot ‘take over’ the Government Equalities Office from the bottom-up or the top-down, as its existence is predicated on lies. There is no alternative to abolition. The various campaign groups masquerading as charities would need to be legislated away as best as we possibly can, or otherwise denied their government succour.

Secondly, some institutions select for the kinds of people who do not gravitate to the right. This is certainly true of public sector media organisations, which attract people with ‘high openness to experience’ and other such traits not as commonly found in rightists. This is why trying to march through the BBC would be tremendously difficult. Likewise, even bookish rightists tend to gravitate towards the competitive private sector for money and glory, which would make any kind of long march through the academic bodies equally difficult.

This is not to say that people should not strictly enter state institutions, quangos and even private charities. Perhaps there will be some limited successes in this strategy. Such a position would in any case be useful to accumulate knowledge of how the system works, and how it might be selectively revolutionised or abolished should an appropriate government manage to install itself.

It is only when these institutions lay destroyed at the hands of a radical new government that we might go about doing anything else. The Home Office could, for example, actually start tackling illegal immigration again, as the ecosystem of asylum support groups and detainee rights activists (some state-funded, others private), and the progressive academics which supported them, would now be severely weakened. The press would struggle to get quotes from such people to pad out their sob stories. Such issues would eventually lose their media-driven hysteria, and state capacity would return. The state might be leaner, but it would be stronger.

Some cultural changes would be subtle. With the Arts and Humanities Research Council and other such bodies gone, the rate of historical and societal invention would slow to a far more manageable pace. Museums of local history would stop giving exhibitions on random suffragettes who lived there a century ago, because there would be no more public money with which to do so. The sociologist talking heads for broadcast media would lose their state credentials and a significant chunk of their status, insofar as they continued to exist in public life anymore at all. Woke Capital might still play its little games for the foreseeable future, but in the context of a significant enough political upheaval those players would gradually take their cues to start adopting to a new consensus, as Capital typically does.

QUALIFIED RESERVATIONS

While what I propose is certainly radical, it is by no means inconceivable. It is hardly at odds with the British or English national character. This is a proposal that is only circumstantially radical: if anything, it is restorationist. This is not a plan for some utopia on earth. It is a correction to get things back to normal – or at least to buy 300 years of English Liberty before another reset is inevitably required. This is why I call these proposals exactly that – proposals. I am wary of ‘ideology’, and while some would no doubt retort that that is itself an ideological statement, I don’t care.

I would also like to add that these simple proposals would be good not just for Britain, but for the whole world. As the British state and British institutions are currently the producers and perpetuators of all kinds of harmful lies, from gender ideology to postcolonial theory, these norms and ideas are spread throughout Europe and the world through the medium of the English language. Cutting out these sources of ideas, while not equivalent to any comparable revolution that might occur in America, should in theory be welcomed by sensible people from Belgium to Bhutan.

I am under no illusions that the kind of government I propose would immediately be attacked by the main functionaries of The Blob. Even if elected in the most ordinary manner, it would effectively constitute regime change. There would be howling op-eds in the Guardian, there would be crooked reports, dirt-digging and spurious Twitter threads. This is why, as Sean Gabb has said, such a government would need to act swiftly and decisively. Everything would need to be done to ensure that the new government places itself on the side of The People against The Elites. The communications campaign would be demotic and uncompromising. Wedges must be driven: Young people, for example, must not be allowed to form a coalition with their redundant professors, they must be brought onside with generous remuneration and a debt jubilee. The most important thing any government can do is to never back down and never let them smell weakness.

As for how such an ideal government would be obtained, that is not within the scope of this essay. That is a discussion of tactics to be had over a pint of beer, and the coming years will see conditions fluctuate in ways we can hardly imagine. But as I have said, my proposal is not out of character for this country. I could quite easily imagine someone like Nigel Farage being sympathetic to it. I could quite comfortably imagine him, or someone like him, running on a populist platform that promised clean giveaways to the electorate at the cost of tearing down ‘the establishment’.

My proposition would in this sense be more radical than UKIP at its 2015 peak, but it could also, with its promised spoils, be more straightforwardly popular. These grand financial giveaways at the expense of The Blob would also diversify such a party’s image away from a single issue like immigration, making it more palatable than UKIP was. That would be a perfectly conventional, and perfectly viable, means of achieving power. Or perhaps we will need to wait until the White House is on fire and there are tanks on Harvard Yard. Time will tell.

The government of Boris Johnson – or perhaps more accurately, of Dominic Cummings – does seem to be marginally different to the ones of the past 10 or 20 years. Cummings may have some nice tricks up his sleeve in bringing, say, the civil service to heel. But he is one man, with his own interests and pet projects, and while he has his allies and sympathisers to be sure, he is working within the limitations of a mass party whose strategists are mostly concerned with ‘winning’ in the most narrow electoral sense. Cummings is in favour as I write this because he has shown that he can do that.

Any good work to be done within the Party has to navigate a swamp of careerism and vested interests – not impossible, but certainly difficult, even if some of these careerists are fair-weather liberals who may back a strong horse when they see one. At the very least, the Conservative Party’s comparatively aggressive attitude towards the media establishment has already dealt a welcome blow to the norms of 20th century politics. If we take nothing else from this government, it is that a strategic precedent has been set for something greater and grander in the future.

What I really want to underline here is that we need a new sense of institutionalism on the right. Garden variety right-libertarians spend a lot of time complaining about the NHS hiring ‘diversity advisors’, but comparatively little time on decrying the Equality Act which makes it compulsory. We need aims and targets that the left are forced into a corner in defending and explaining. And as anyone who understands politics knows: you explain, you lose.

We need to be honest about what we are facing. We face a specific set of governance structures that have arisen over the last century that must be dismantled. It is of utmost importance that we study these things and recognise how this system functions. The Blob of dodgy charities, fanatical universities, shadowy campaign bodies, rubbish Commissions, ridiculous Equalities departments, masturbatory parliamentary groups, and marionette-corpses of long dead philanthropists – this is all historically contingent. It wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way.