June 9, 2021

Our institutions are in a state of civil war. Matthew Rycroft, the Home Office permanent secretary, was recently caught on Zoom saying, in time-honoured Yes, Minister style, that there’s no need to “slavishly” follow the Government’s official agenda on diversity and inclusion. Because ministers aren’t unanimous in their support, for example Johnson’s recent ending of unconscious bias training, Rycroft said “we can carry on doing things that we were previously doing”.

The modern Tory Party is fond of picking fights with such unaccountable political forces. During the Coalition government, for example, Michael Gove used “The Blob” as a metaphor to describe the interconnected ecosystem of think tanks, teachers’ unions, campaigners and teaching targeted by his education reforms.

The Blob, a 1958 sci-fi movie, depicted a gelatinous alien that consumes everything in its path. And the kind of public and charity-sector organisations Gove denoted as “Blob” are, if not quite all-consuming, at least amorphous: a grey zone between government, charities, committees and other institutions.

Since the Tories rode to power in 2019 on a promise to defeat the Remainer Blob, Tory cannons have increasingly been trained upon this shadowy enemy. Gunfire is now regularly heard in an intensifying battle over the ideological focus of public institutions.

Liz Truss, for example, recently recommended that UK public bodies leave the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme. This “kitemark” programme, which at £3.2m delivers Stonewall’s single largest source of income, charges institutional and corporate members £2,500 a year or more to vet employment policies and practices for “LGBT+ inclusion”.

Led by grassroots feminist and gay-rights campaigns such as LGB Alliance and Sex Matters, there’s been a growing backlash against policies promoted by the Diversity Champions scheme. And in response, high-profile bodies have begun to back away. The Equality and Human Rights Commission allowed its membership to lapse, joined recently by University College London, the University of Westminster and Channel 4, Ofsted and the Ministry of Justice.

But how did Britain get to a point where it seemed reasonable for actual government departments to have their HR policies written by a highly politicised lobby group? How, in other words, did the Blob take over?

Prior to World War II, the relation of civic institutions to government was far less symbiotic — and far less elite. For example, some 27,000-odd pre-war “friendly societies” supported families at times of crisis in return for small regular contributions, and at their peak boasted a working-class membership numbering some 14 million.

But the mass, state-managed war effort made mass solidarity seem imaginable in Britain — and in turn drove the foundation of the welfare state. Civil society bodies and Labour leaders alike worried after Labour’s shock 1945 election victory that rolling out mass welfare would precipitate a decline in voluntarism and civil society institutions.

Four years later, a submission by St John Ambulance to Lord Beveridge observed how the British public assumed “the state will provide” and that “the man-in-the-street considered the Brigade’s work was over’. And so, indeed, it came to pass with the creation of nationwide welfare: membership of “friendlies” began to plummet.

Another raft of voluntarism fell to the pincer movement of declining religious observance and female workforce participation. The Mothers’ Union, founded in 1876, boasted 400,000 members by 1921. But it saw its membership halve to 222,000 by 1993 and haemorrhaged another 100,000 over the next decade. Some 75% of women with dependent children now work, up from 50% in 1975. It’s probably not a coincidence that membership of the Mothers’ Union plummeted over the same period: who has time for charitable fundraising and campaigning on top of kids and a job?

But as historian Matthew Hilton argues, civil society bodies haven’t so much disappeared as changed. Over the twentieth century, “service organisations” — those that do “good work” in particular places — were replaced by state-controlled welfare. And meanwhile, campaign-based NGOs have flourished.

Another voluntary organisation that’s declined dramatically since its twentieth-century heyday is the Women’s Institute. But as WI historian Jane Robinson notes, WI membership fell in no small part due to the WI itself encouraging women to enter public life — where many migrated into the Blob, in which women today make up 68% of the workforce.

And here perhaps we can see how and why such bodies have come unmoored from Britain’s great unwashed. Civil society organising has always attracted middle-class do-gooders; but thanks to the welfare state, there is less need today for those do-gooders to come into direct contact with the objects of their beneficence.

Instead, they join quangos, an acronym coined in the 1970s — the same decade that the bodies themselves drew the ire of Margaret Thatcher, who promised in 1979 to slash this proliferating and unaccountable sector.

But in 1994, The Independent reported that, far from shrinking quangoland, under the Tories quangocracy mushroomed until there was one such body for every 10,000 inhabitants of Britain: 5,521 of them, about three times as many as officially acknowledged by the Government, spending £46.6bn.

This is difficult to confirm, because the actual number of quangos is a highly political matter and depends on how you define them. What’s certain, though, is that quangocracy is by no means a Labour phenomenon. Cabinet Office data from 2002, five years into New Labour, lists 834 quangos. But toward the end of the New Labour decade, a 2009 Tory White Paper counts around 750 “Arm’s Length Bodies” — hardly evidence of growth. That same paper suggested these were funded to the tune of £80bn — which, adjusted for inflation, is not a huge jump on the amount spent in 1994, during the Major years.

In evoking a gelatinous, all-devouring alien life form, Gove’s “Blob” formulation implied that it is a feature of obdurately Leftist bureaucracies. But what if the Blob’s persistence is less evidence of Britain’s pernicious institutional anti-Toryism than evidence that Thatcher-style “limited government” is a mirage?

After all, four out of five quango staff kept their jobs after Cameron’s “bonfire of the quangos”. This stubborn persistence, if not growth, of quangos under Tory administrations suggests “limited government” is, in practice, more a matter of hiving off policy delivery into arm’s-length bodies.

It’s likely the Tories would justify this by claiming that “independent” bodies will be less noxiously Left-leaning than those in the pay of government. For example Ofsted, a key site of battle in Gove’s war on the education “Blob”, was set up under the Major government to replace Local Education Authority school inspections. The Major administration claimed LEAs were biased and inconsistent; but Tories also sought to kneecap a set of institutions they accurately understood as hostile to Conservative policy. Similarly, Gove’s drive to create academy schools spoke the language of school standards, while seeking to sap the power of LEAs viewed as institutionally Leftist.

But it’s far from clear that simply being removed from direct government control makes public bodies less hostile to the Tories. Objectively speaking, quangocracies flourish under Tory rule; but the Taxpayers’ Alliance reported last year that in 2018-19, more quangocrats than not preferred to bite the hand that (however covertly) feeds them. According to the report, 47.4% of political declarations from quango staff were pro-Labour, compared to 31.6% pro-Tory. Et tu, Brute.

Even those bodies created with resounding rhetoric about “independence” have a tendency, it seems, to drift leftwards. Faced with this realisation, the Johnson government has given up pretending that the Blob can be culled or made apolitical, and has instead (rather belatedly) begun populating it with conservatives. Predictably, this has prompted howls of rage from a Blob long accustomed to a pleasant lack of viewpoint diversity.

But while we may watch with interest the Tories’ newly Gramscian approach to Britain’s institutions, we shouldn’t make the mistake of treating “the Blob” as something alien. It’s not hostile, and nor is it a plot by “the metropolitan elite” to steal political agency from the masses.

It’s us. For whether it’s whipped into shape by Victorian matrons, self-organised by working class communities or funded by the state, society is more than just individuals and light-touch government.

Over the individualistic twentieth century, we outsourced the purpose of self-organised social provision to the state. As a side-effect, we ended up professionalising the pursuit of social good so that well-meaning people could go on pursuing it. That may have come with advantages and disadvantages, but it wasn’t a Left-liberal conspiracy.

Tory governments presided over this growing quangocracy, whose existence served as a huge accounting fiddle. It shifted off the official government books a host of social and regulatory functions whose necessity was denied by the Thatcherite commitment to individualism and limited government.

But in displacing parts of its own government machinery into superficially “independent” bodies in the name of “limited government”, post-Thatcher Tories succeeded mostly in snookering themselves. They fantasised about an apolitical version of the “good”, and created supposedly “independent” bodies oriented toward this apolitical good. By handing civil society functions to these bodies, they could embrace Thatcherite individualism while pump-priming civil society on the sly.

But there is no such thing as an apolitical version of the good. Nor, naturally, are there independent bodies dedicated to delivering it. If the Tories aren’t well-represented in the (not at all apolitical or independent) Blob today, that’s on conservatives for having so long declined to join and shape it.

It’s late in the day indeed for the Tories to be grasping the magnitude of their misapprehension. And it will take frank reappraisal of some long-cherished Tory delusions before they’re able to address a political enemy largely of their own making.