Artillery Row

Beating the Blob

You could be forgiven for thinking Labour won the election

The Conservative party is trapped in a nightmare of its own making. Number 10 is rocked by scandals, support in the polls is plummeting, the Northern Ireland Protocol (Chekhov’s car bomb) waits patiently for its return to the newscycle. As with every good nightmare, there is the sense of unease that something remains undone.

That something would be “conserving”. Set aside economic policy, where the Conservatives and Labour are still just about separable — although the new interest in higher taxes, spending and regulation is rapidly eroding this gap — and judge the period on the social axis: same-sex marriage, net migration at record highs, the march of progressive ideas through academia, business and press and into government speeches. You could be forgiven for thinking that Labour won the 2010 election, and every bout subsequent.

The centre of gravity in Parliament is well to the left of the general population

Why is that the Conservative party governs in such a fundamentally unconservative way? Part of the issue is that the average Conservative MP is, on social issues, basically indistinguishable from the average Labour voter, while the average Labour MP is to the left even of this. The centre of gravity in Parliament is well to the left of the general population.

A second part of the answer — and a partial cause of the first — is that the infrastructure of British politics is not designed for the right. When Michael Gove and his then-Special Advisor Dominic Cummings attempted to shake up the English education system in 2014, they found themselves publicly at war with what they termed “the Blob”: an amorphous conglomerate of civil servants, academics and unions that acted to gum up change and ensure stasis in the interests of its members. Rightwards reform is received as violent revolution, whilst the constant leftwards drift goes unremarked and unchallenged.

When Cummings made his way to Number 10, so did the concept of the Blob, expanded to include the BBC, various quangos, much of Whitehall and what is sometimes called “civil society”. The example of hate crime policy is illustrative of the general idea. The concept is not dissimilar to Curtis Yarvin’s “Cathedral”, or the Trumpian “deep state”. Critics of such accusations point out, not unreasonably, that coordinating so many constituent parts would be almost impossible but this misses the point entirely. The purpose of a system is what it does, and individual elements responding to an ecosystem of incentives that produce given results can act in a remarkably coordinated way, when those incentives point in the same direction.

Abstracted to the level of the system, the Blob looks something like this: Ideas are generated in academia, which is funded by the state. These ideas are promoted by charities that exist to act as campaigning organisations. These charities receive significant funds from the state, and from a handful of well-funded left wing organisations that exist to disburse grants. While there are many organisations promoting various policies, the number substantively funding them is substantially lower. These arguments receive a positive hearing in the press and in the parts of Whitehall beyond direct government control — which, after all, funded their creation.

The Blob is not so much a machine as the intellectual background radiation

When the time comes for policy to be made, there is a well-funded and (effectively) well-coordinated lobby advancing specific lines of argument. Part of the Blob’s efficacy is down to the fact that there is so little money in British politics. MPs lack the budget to hire significant research capacity, and are desperate for information and material. A small grant for a report here, or a panel debate there, can end up having a vastly disproportionate impact, particularly when MPs are already somewhat sympathetic to your point of view.

The Blob is not so much a machine as the intellectual background radiation of British politics. Under a Conservative government, it conserves its gains. And under a progressive Labour government, it advances them. Anyone looking to govern in a Conservative manner should understand how this system works. There is no immutable law — whatever Conquest may have claimed — that says charities or academics must be left wing, but there is a tendency for the activist class to draw substantially from the left.

When the fields are broadly left wing that offer status or opportunity to drive changes in lieu of cash (the absolute essence of blobbery), it’s no wonder that things work the way they do. Setting up explicitly right wing institutions is challenging for this reason. When John M. Olin established his charity, he gave it instructions to spend down its capital within a generation in order to avoid the sort of institutional capture he observed at the Ford Foundation.

One very basic proposal might be that organisations listed as charitable enterprises cannot receive more than a given percentage of income from public bodies. Not all government funding need be included: competitive research tenders which charities apply for could be exempted as provision of services, although the subject of those tenders would have to be monitored. What we should be keen to fix is the ease with which a browse through the Charity Commission or Companies House turns up outfits with vastly disproportionate ratios of grants to donations. If an organisation derives a significant majority of its income from the state, it should be treated as an accountable part of the government rather than an independent charity. Another route would be to start in academia, or to more stringently limit the ability of charitable foundations to stray from their original purpose.

Tackling the Blob is an uphill battle precisely because it’s a described outcome rather than an actual entity. Efforts have to be made on multiple fronts, and each individual effort will often have only marginal impacts on the whole, while weathering blistering criticism from the system’s self-defence mechanisms. But something must be done. Otherwise, the Conservative party will find itself swallowed by the Blob.

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