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Penny Mordaunt: the perfect head for the headless Tories She is the epitome of Blob ambition

'Cynics may sneer that the chief argument in her favour is that she looked good carrying a sword.' (VICTORIA JONES/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

'Cynics may sneer that the chief argument in her favour is that she looked good carrying a sword.' (VICTORIA JONES/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)


March 19, 2024   6 mins

The Westminster bush drums are beating out a death-tattoo for Rishi Sunak. Having been installed to replace the Tory membership’s own preferred candidate after her politics offended the City of London, Sunak has led the Conservative Party to a record low in popular approval. Now, rumour has it that a desperate plot is afoot in the party to replace him with Penny Mordaunt.

Mordaunt? Really? Cynics may sneer that the chief argument in her favour is that she looked good carrying a sword. Implicitly: she has the kind of robust Anglo-Saxon bearing once associated with gymkhanas and provincial church fĂȘtes, and as such might — perhaps — inspire a twitch or two of something approximating libido dominandi among those superannuated Shire Tories whose constituencies remain, through economic luck or Nimbyism, relatively untouched by Britain’s headlong Tory-managed decline. If, as a party, you’re now banking on fighting the next election from the Helm’s Deep of mid-Bedfordshire and the South Downs, maybe Penny Mordaunt really is the least worst option. Against that, we might retort that when you scratch the surface of Penny Mordaunt you find that there really is nothing but surface. But in truth it’s precisely this quality that makes her an even more ideal head for the increasingly headless Tory Party, better than the perhaps soon-to-be-beheaded Rishi Sunak.

Perhaps the first and most prescient prophet of such a politics of headlessness was the French Surrealist writer Georges Bataille. In 1936, he released the first issue of AcĂ©phale (Headless), in which he denounced rationality and the principle of leadership, claiming: “Human life is defeated because it serves as the head and reason of the universe. Insofar as it becomes that head and reason it accepts slavery.” Over the same period, he and his circle formed a secret society with the same name, in which members meditated on texts that seemed to promise acĂ©phalitĂ©, or headlessness: a vision of human social transformation away from order, prohibition, and constraint towards worldly desires, and spontaneous, shifting forms of self-organisation.

It’s rumoured that the AcĂ©phale society wanted to arrange a real human sacrifice, but that although several members volunteered to be killed they were unable to find anyone willing to perform the execution. By contrast, it’s clear from the number of Tory leaders since 2019 — Mordaunt would be the fourth since the last election, of which three were elected without going to the country — that whatever else the party lacks, it has no shortage of head-removers.

The logical end-point of this trajectory is a state of permanent leadership contest, during which (in the style of Belgium) the functions of state somehow trundle on in a state of acĂ©phalitĂ©: without a formal head. In the case of Belgium, this works because the government is already very devolved; in the case of Britain, though, when all leaders seem to be temporary stand-ins who is really in charge? Ironically, the current Tory administration owes its now swiftly dwindling majority to the Johnson-era promise of answering this question — by delivering the electorate from precisely this kind of leaderless bureaucracy.

Back in 2019, Johnson won his landslide by promising to scotch the Blob and “Get Brexit Done”, thereby defying every bureaucrat, NGO-crat and Sensible Centrist who was seeking to circumvent the referendum result. He gained his mandate and Brexit was duly Done; but the power of the Blob was in no way scotched, as evidenced by the fact that Brexit did not get Done in any of the ways that actually mattered to the electorate. Nor was it Done in any way that limited those judicial, regulatory, and other extra-political curbs that have come increasingly to characterise British public life, and whose impositions on parliamentary sovereignty and popular preference occasion such widespread resentment. (Once the cost of all the lawfare is added in, for example, even if it passes the proposed “Rwanda plan” is projected to cost £1.8m per migrant.)

But what if Brexit in this sense can’t be done? Since the referendum, I’ve found myself wondering whether the project failed, at least in its populist incarnation, because it was impossible. Impossible because we’ve somehow concocted for ourselves a civilisational order that’s too complex and rudderless for even intelligent non-specialists to govern competently. When, for example, just the safeguarding guidelines for schools run to 178 pages, and there are also curricula, budgets, estates unions, pay, funding, meals, and much else besides all clamouring for attention, is it really reasonable to expect all of the Secretaries of State for Education to have acquired a complete mastery of their brief, in the sometimes very short (there were five in 2022 alone) time they spend in the job?

But this has some less than appealing implications for how government actually works. It suggests that the majority of expertise really does rest with the headless Blob of appointees, NGOs, procedures, and interchangeable bureaucrats, that populists so viscerally loathe. But what’s the alternative? Without it, we are surely just hurtling from calamity to cock-up with a leadership of under-informed blowhards.

A third option, and the one I suspect we now enjoy, is governance in practice by the former, with the latter granted a sort of ceremonial role. As though, perhaps somewhere around the point where we gained a Supreme Court, the doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy was discarded, much as absolute monarchy was in 1688. The settlement we ended up with, after absolute monarchy was abolished, was known as “the Crown in Parliament”: constitutional monarchy, which is to say a defanged monarchy that serves as the symbolic head of a sovereign Parliament. What if, much as after 1688 we retained only a constitutional monarch, now we also only have a constitutional Parliament? Perhaps, to save our overburdened education secretaries, we set the machine on autopilot — and now we’ve forgotten how to fly the plane. If so, no one is really in charge — but a kind of headless swarm now wields authority.

That would make Britain’s de facto regime “the Crown in Parliament in the Blob”. If this is in fact how we’re ruled now, it would explain several otherwise baffling features of contemporary politics — not least the Royal Family’s current sense of both crisis and bathos. If we’ve moved to a constitutional Parliament, the living representative of the Crown in Parliament, Charles III, is now the ceremonial centrepiece of a Parliament that has itself become ceremonial. Even more than his current illness, this would help explain the sense of a once-magnificent institution ending not with a bang, but a whimper.

It’s hardly original to note how hopelessly the Conservative Party lags His Majesty’s Opposition, in grasping how this now vocal, organised, and well-resourced post-political ecosystem works. From Thatcher on, every Tory leader has made angry gestures at the Blob, while doing little either to dislodge prominent enemies within it or even cut funding to groups that oppose stated Tory aims. Despite noises to the contrary, this only grew more pronounced under Johnson and subsequent Tory leaders. By contrast, Starmer’s government-in-waiting is already making repeated assurances to that ecosystem that Labour will keep the funding spigots open, and efforts at control to a minimum.

We can assume, then, that whether endured resentfully or supported enthusiastically, this new order of constitutional Parliament will shamble on, at the head of a headless state, for which Penny Mordaunt would be the perfect, interim, largely symbolic head. For notwithstanding her jam-and-Jerusalem aesthetics, Mordaunt herself is the epitome of steely-eyed Blob ambition. After an early career oscillating through an ecosystem of PR, student politics, third-sector administration, and political campaigning, she joined Parliament as that most pro-Blob of Tories: a Cameroon. Since then, she’s risen without trace; apart from carrying the sword, the moment she came closest to being noticed by the public was after her defeat by Liz Truss in the last Tory leadership bloodbath but one.

“Mordaunt herself is the epitome of steely-eyed Blob ambition”

There, she was castigated by the Tory membership over her enthusiastic support for the most totemic Blob issue of all: gender ideology. No project better embodies the headless constitutional-Parliamentary fondness for managerial abstraction over material reality, than the drive to enforce formal sex equality by government fiat. And no figure better embodies than Penny Mordaunt the reality that where the Tory membership genuinely opposes this order, the Tory leadership only affects to do so.

Meanwhile, if the Blob (including its Tory components) reveals its seeming debt to Bataille in a reflexive instinct to amplify every marginal grotesquerie, it does so too in another key characteristic: wielding influence via elite groups with closed membership, and equally closed objectives. In practice, of course, most of these have less flagrantly occult aesthetics than Bataille’s AcĂ©phale group. Unlike them, they don’t meet by a lightning-struck oak tree; they have dull offices, stodgy mission statements, and annual filings to the Charity Commission. But they remain closed, vanguardist bodies. And their relation to official forms of power is hence every bit as oblique as in any other closed society.

No one knows how — or even if — any of this can be changed or reversed as things stand. Perhaps the age of intelligent, elected non-specialists really is over. In that case, the Labour approach of leaning enthusiastically into relationship with the Blob may make more sense than the Tory one of doing so grudgingly, while making rude gestures and frantically appointing and then beheading new heads. Certainly, if we’re stuck with this new regime, we must learn to ask a great deal more of our unelected “experts” — and find new means of holding them accountable.

For beneath the jolly hockey-sticks veneer, Mordaunt is herself an empty cipher for a Blob the Tory membership despises, but that its leadership quietly knows it cannot do without. She would do nothing to curb the current withdrawal of real power into closed cabals and permanent bureaucratic revolution. And once herself inevitably decapitated, she would be as certain as Sunak is to merge seamlessly with that ecosystem once again. At least, in the the interval, we might perhaps take comfort from the fact she looked good with that sword.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
4 months ago

But this has some less than appealing implications for how government actually works. It suggests that the majority of expertise really does rest with the headless Blob of appointees, NGOs, procedures, and interchangeable bureaucrats, that populists so viscerally loathe. But what’s the alternative? Without it, we are surely just hurtling from calamity to c**k-up with a leadership of under-informed blowhards.
Unfortunately, we’re still just hurtling from calamity to c**k-up with a leadership of under-informed blowhards, it’s just that the new blowhards are unelected. Which, of course, will merely accelerate the hurtling.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
4 months ago

That was depressing

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
4 months ago

On the contrary: i found it highly entertaining.

Rick Lawrence
Rick Lawrence
4 months ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Yes, very entertaining but depressing too

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
4 months ago

Yes. When will j watson come along to tell us that it’s all tosh and that public sector professionals are towers of Stakhanovite effort and Aristotelian wisdom with only our best interests at heart.

Adoptive Loiner
Adoptive Loiner
4 months ago

The problem, I would propose, is not that Parliament is not sovereign – it is, but rather with that Blob which sits on its green benches and what it has chosen to do with that sovereignity.

It was our parliamentarians themselves who tried openly to stymie Brexit, not some secret back room cabal, and they who agreed to surrender a part of the United Kingdom to a foreign trade jurisdiction. It is they who have allowed immigration to reach 750,000 a year, net, and they who proscribe new thought crimes daily and ban anything that offends their sensibilities.

There is a consensus view in Parliament on a whole range of issues that is entirely unrepresentitive of the views of the electorate, but is common to the narrow class of people who are selected to stand as MPs. They are the vanguard now, deciding what it is we should be thinking and imposing upon us what is good for us, whether we like it or not.

Representative democracy is seemingly dead, rather than represent the electorate they seem to see their job now as enforcing compliance with the ‘right-view’ on everything from biology to theology. The Police will not attend burglaries, assaults, thefts or any number of other actual crimes, but speak out of turn and they will be down on you faster than you can say Benson & Hedges, with the full support of our bien pensant political masters.

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago

I have nothing against Sunak, but I suspect he would look silly carrying a sword (if indeed he was even able to hold it aloft). Maybe the Tories should give the top job to Mordaunt. I mean, what have they got to lose?

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
4 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

I would have though Real Tories would want Mordaunt leading: it would clear the decks and allow a new party, with competency flowing through their veins, to show what can be done.

It’s been thirteen years of ‘at least they’re better than Labour’, and they still possibly are: but there is something called the Elastic Limit, and the country has reached it.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
4 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

What have they got to lose?
Their leader at the next election, for starters. Her constituency is a ‘bellwether’, going with change of governing party.
OK, Mordaunt has built up a fairly healthy majority since 2010, but a lot of that is due to Portsmouth being very pro-Brexit. If Labour get even a sniff of majority, she’s out. And the Tories will need another leader!

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
4 months ago

So many excuses for this failed Tory government. You don’t seem willing to consider that they are just crap at their jobs.
I’m sure we are all looking forward to a return of competency, decency and honesty when Labour take over later this year.

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago

Competency, decency, honesty and antisemitism….

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
4 months ago

maybe Harrington is a bit more intelligent than you

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
4 months ago

Remind me, which Chancellor was it who changed the way the cost of living is calculated in order to conceal from his own supporters just how comprehensively he had stitched them up and, in the process, triggered the largest upward transfer of wealth in the country’s history?
I’m sure that you’re looking forward to a return of the Labour Party – but not for the reasons you claim.

AC Harper
AC Harper
4 months ago

Whatever your hopes for a new Labour Government they will still have to govern through the same tangle of the Civil Service, QUANGOs, Public Unions, EHCR, vested interests etc that have beset the Conservatives. The mood music will be different but I expect strikes and protests to be just as bitter, illegal immigrants to still keep coming, the wealthy to protect themselves with just as much determination.
And this time you won’t be able to blame the ‘orrible Tories.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
4 months ago

As Marko from Tropojë said in Taken:

“Good Luck”

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
4 months ago

My view on looking back on the Thatcher revolution was that it was an attack on entitlement. The entitlement of various industrial workers to be subsidised by the rest of the nation. In some ways it succeeded; the UK emerged from the 80s more prosperous and stronger than it had been for many years. Of course, some suffered and many claim their enduring difficulties should be blamed on her Government. I’m not convinced but who knows?

It seems to me now that we have returned to an entitlement culture only this time the entitled are middle class educated people. Civil servants, school management, HR, health professionals, universities…Admittedly given “jobs” to do by Government overreach. Safeguarding needs a 200 document, seriously?

The struggle against the Blob is a far tougher one than the fight against the miners.

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago

It was obvious at the time (the 1980s) that the job of finishing off the entitlements was unfinished. The professional trade unions (lawyers, doctors, civil servants, etc) were largely untouched.
We haven’t returned to an entitlement culture. We never lost it. Sadly.
Of course, it has got far worse with the credentialisation of so many jobs – nursing now “needing” a degree for one.
Why do project like HS2 and East-West Rail cost so much – and often without building any rail lines at all ? Because they are primarily job creation projects for graduates and consultants.

j watson
j watson
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Last point – it’s the land purchase problems and cost. Unsurprisingly that’s a profit maximising approach not related to those you blame but rather a much wealthy hidden cohort.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Partly true. a country only needs so much infrastructure, one does not need two motorways or railways running side by side. In the latter part of canal and railway building eras , much was unprofitable.
In France once a project is rated as of national importance it is a Grand Project and land and companies bought at above market rates and far greater distances from the site. Consequently completion is quicker. Also, France is run by techical graduates of the Grande Ecoles, some of whom have military experience. Also the civil servants promotion is based upon success. Our Civil Service is run by humanities graduates who are moved every two years so no-one is to blame fro mistakes.
Simple solution is to require all heads of civil service to be Charterd Engineers with at least Grade B Further Maths A Level and be reserve officers. One would then approach the professionalism of Switzerland.
Much of Britain which worked post 1945 was due to combat experience. A Principal Engineer had built runways during the Korean War. He said if one is not being shelled or shot at, it is not a difficult job. The Police, NHS , etc between 1945 to 1982 had people with combat experience. A 6ft well built former sergeant in the Commandos/Airborne/ SF who has boxed and played rugby can sort out a brawl on his own or perhaps with one other. A surgeon said a test of good surgeon is whether they can operate when shells are landing around them !
British people no longer have the experience and Switzerland has been at peace. What Switzerland does have is an unremitting pursuit of excellence in whatever they do; and very little spare tyre middle managers ( Human Resources ) :they are professionals.

Murray Morison
Murray Morison
4 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Articulate, but hardly feasible. Those attracted to Engineering have certain skills and abilities but are more than likely to also have blind spots in both their thinking and behaviour.
Leadership and sound decision making requires a range of thinking styles and capacities of emotional awareness. Engineers will be just as limited as ‘humanities graduates’ but in a different way. I write as someone with 15 years consultancy experience with construction companies (amongst others).

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  Murray Morison

At least engineers can do something useful however…. There are vast swathes of mediocre middle management working on such wealth destroying nostrums as “diversity, inclusion and equity” not to mention climate and environmental tick box exercises.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
4 months ago
Reply to  Murray Morison

Those engineers running top construction and manufacturing companies have to be good at all aspects, from recruitment to R and D.
There has been a massive decline in those in the construction industry in the last 15 years apart from a few top consultancies. There few, if any M Macdonald’s in the British construction industry any more. .
Murdoch Macdonald – Wikipedia
I knew the Head of Exploration for RTZ he had a first degree and doctorate from Imperial and spoke about 6 languages. The people mentioned are the yeast of which we are in short supply but have plenty of unrisen dough.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
3 months ago
Reply to  Murray Morison

“emotional awareness”

euphemism for uselessness

0 0
0 0
4 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Are you really saying that the problem is we haven’t fought enough mass-participation wars in the last 80 years? I’m sure there are better ways equip society with the skills needed to run a successful country.
And to your point about all senior Civil Servants to have achieved grade B in Further Mathematics A-Level, be prepared for a massive increase in cost – everyone I know (including myself) with this is making significantly more than a top Civil Servant working in Tech due to the massive skills shortage.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
4 months ago
Reply to  0 0

No it is a byproduct. Reduce numbers, inrease quality and reduce overspend.

0 0
0 0
4 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

‘Overspend’ in relation to what? It’s the huge shortfalls in all kinds of relevant output which are the big. national hurdle and requires a wide range of innovation, not merely old industrial jags like time and motion study or quality control.

Top Civil Service innovation prize was awarded for changes to what used to be called the Troubled Families programme which marshalled big data and cross country networking with multi department service delivery to vastly improve the effectiveness of spend in helping families get past complex problems. Interestingly, this was achieved by giving each family member pertinent specialist help, an apparently prohibitively expensive idea compared to assigning a family case worker.

In this case, initial additional investment to overhaul an existing programme has delivered a wider range of more pertinent and hugely more effective services at lower annual operating costs than before, ask Mr Gove. And it’s established new formats for how local initiative can be exercised to drive national templates forwards, a matter of wide interest. Invest more and more wisely to expand outputs and use inputs more effectively.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
4 months ago
Reply to  0 0

Do you really think nationalised industries, infrastructure and MoD projects are well designed and built in the UK? What about local government? Back in the 1950s the Chief Engineer of Birmingham was ICE Preseident.
Anyone who has worked in contracting will have come across very troubled people . Demolition gangs members often have more criminal records than academic ones, some have even done time fro murder. One of the first pieces of advice I received from a very tough foreman was the nature of the people I was about to work with; delicate, refined and scholarly would not be adjectives I would use to describe them. When one foreman described another one as tasty, it did not meet he was attracted to his looks but he was good with his fists. NCB scholars had to work in in mines before going up to university. A friend spent two years shaft sinking, and he was the only man of a 20 man team not injured.
Putting through the top civil servants through a course combining the best of Woolwich and Cooper’ Hill would produce the sort of people needed as civil servants at Transport, Energy, MoD, Agriculture, Treasury and where there are large infrastructure and software expenditure occurs.
Royal Military Academy, Woolwich – Wikipedia
Royal Indian Engineering College – Wikipedia
In short Britain needs the professionalism which is taken as standard in Switzerland. In Britain many wrong projects in wrong places and poor planning push up costs.
Look at how Supermarine designed and built the Spitfire. It was said J R Mitchell could undertake every job in the factory and do it was well if not better than the man doing it. That is professionalism.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

I do feel you have a point that the old land ownership system still continues largely unreformed and this goes back probably all the way to the Norman conquest. But actually land prices don’t fully explain it. Why do coats RISE so fast on projects such as HS2?

It is difficult not to feel however that we are regulating and administering ourselves to death (in particular extremely unproductive ways). For example the diversity strategy of HS2 dwarfed the tunnelling strategy! Just reading what time to get the gist of this stuff takes up band work with of managers and project staff. I had a small taste in this working for TfL but things have got much worse since.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Many projects in the UK start at unrealistically low figures due to lack of planning by experienced people,I think in the Netherland, four prices are needed and the second lowest is taken. The lowest is often quoted by a company needy for work. Also there are too many changes in design. In Japanese projects there is a vast amount of planning meaning very little goes wrong once operations start.
The old Inst Civil Engineers contracts were brilliant for contractors where clients changed their minds and consultants lacked practical experience as this meant they could make money on claims. The New NEC3/NEC4 encourages all those to pool experience so there are fewer claims.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

So much credentialisating, and yet, in the Department of Energy, how many ministers and senior civil servants do you think have a Science or Engineering background? It is these people that share responsibility for the success of the whole project, and you can’t do that if you are ignorant of most of the underlying concepts and disciplines.

Ah, you might say, but ministers have advisors, but someone, yes someone, has to pick those advisors, and if supplier representatives are covert Climate Activists or Windmill salesmen, which they are, do you think the state employed choosers would detect it in their CVs or, even if they were told, would they know the implications?

It doesn’t look like they did: and the same looks to be true across the EU. 🙂 And if Call Me Dave couldn’t see the risks in using computer equipment from a not so friendly state, or having a Nuclear Power station, designed by another not so friendly state, no wonder he was so keen to recruit his social democrat A Listers, devoid of Natural Science and Engineering backgrounds, and little experience of industrial planning or man management.

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago

Zero (to answer your question).
I came across people like CMD at Cambridge 40 years ago when they didn’t need to publically mask their condescending attitudes to us engineers, who they seemed to consider a stock joke. I’d say I met them – but they’d never stop to talk to people outside their own circle back then.
Of course, that’s also before they found out about tech companies and Silicon Valley (which were a thing in the early 80s) and didn’t feel the need to cosy up to them and leech off them.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
4 months ago

Yes. But the real strength of the graduate class comes from its monopoly control of the media. When Theresa May somewhat timidly suggested that some of their trillions in unearned property wealth might reasonably be used to pay for their own social care the loudest howls of outrage came from the Guardian. What else do you need to know.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
4 months ago

Maybe Thatcher was a necessary corrective but she was utterly merciless towards those people whose communities she destroyed. I find it difficult to accord her any respect for the callousness she exhibited.
In the meantime the bankers she ‘liberated’ in the 80s f**k up the financial system and are bailed out by the public’s enforced largesse while obscene levels of inequality become the norm.
The very England that Thatcher idealised and came from was one she helped destroy.

Andrew Dean
Andrew Dean
4 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

A rather hysterical analysis. Thatcher didn’t destroy communities, she insisted that dying industries not be propped up by the populace. It seems unlikely that the banking crisis which came to a head 18 years after she left office can be laid at her door either. Still, her ‘callousness’ led to a greater increase in prosperity per head than anything achieved since.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dean

What a pompous response! Are you this patronising in everyday life?

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dean

Thatcher undertook major surgery which if the UK had modernised from 1870 we would have had less problems. In 1900 Eton had only one science master. Engineering started at Oxford in 1886 in a very small way. What percentage of Oxford undergraduates were engineers in 1900, 1930, 1940 ? In 1914 Britain had to buy dye from Germany via Holland. How many Chartered engineers are produced by Eton, Harrow, Winchester and the other Clarendon Public Schools? Compare with Napoleons technical education.
Clarendon Commission – Wikipedia
Many of our best engineers went overseas post 1945 or worked there because of high tax in the UK. The shop stewards in the unskilled unions such as TGWU because of the closed shop, enabled vast over manning in the un and semi-skilled roles and opposed new technology. There were demarcation disputes between lorry drivers and dockers over the introduction of containers for ships. There were demarcation disputes between metal and wood workers in ship yards.
The unskilled unions kept unskilled pay too high in relation to skill and responsibility such that a foreman electrician in 1970 was only paid 15% more than someone semi-skilled. Many of best craftsmen, foremen went to work overseas especially in Middle East due to post 1960s oil boom. A mine elctrician in the UK could go overseas and become a foreman and live in a house with a swimming pool.
When it comes to over manning of Civil Service, read Charles Northcote Parkinson’s books; there were more civil servants in Whitehall in 1953 involved with the RN than 1918 when we had much larger fleet.
Book came out in 1958 after Parkinson realised the massive increase in the Civil Service. He sold so many copies he left academia and became a tax exile.
Parkinson’s law – Wikipedia

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
3 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dean

Not really, her tenure was essentially two deep recessions with an unsustainable boom in the middle. Averaged out over her tenure growth was around 2% per annum. When you consider her stint had the North Sea oil boom, women entering the workforce in large numbers and mass sell offs in publicly owned housing and utilities it really isn’t very impressive

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
3 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

If it had not been for Thatcher, Britain would have collapsed economically. Thatcher coinides with massive increase in electronic and computer control systems making vast numbers of un and semi-skilled of no use. For example containers and electronic control systems made vast numbers of dockers and sailors redundant. The vast open cast coal mines in Australia, USA and South africa with cheap tranport to the sea meant world coal was sold at ÂŁ32/T and British ÂŁ42/T. This reduced the price of steel. Japan post 1968 develops construction techniques of very large 100,000T merchant ships, Britain does not.
In 1980 ten draftsman undertook work which a CAD technician could do in 1990.
Due to manpower shortages , Germany post 1945 developed manufcaturing using more advanced machinery requiring less un and semi-skilled labour. The development of Japn of transistors and the sillicon chips meant by 1980 computer controlled technology greatly reduced employment of un and semi skilled. As Germany had far fewer in this category unmployment was far less. Switzerland had practically no large employers of un and semi skilled labour- docks, ship yards, car assembly, steel making, mines . The move from steam to diesel trains reduces the need for large numbers of unskilled men involved with cleaning and low grade maintenance.
The USA has the same problem in the Great Lakes area such as Detroit. Over powerful un and semi skilled unions combined with introductionof computer control has meant car manufacture has greatly reduced employment and moved to non-union areas.
Advances in technology mean reduction in numbers employed in un and semi-skilled work to be replaced by smaller number of highly skilled people producing far more valuable products and services. Compare McClaren cars with British Leyland and ship building( especially merchant ships ) with making Swiss watches. Merchant ship carrying containers are fasirly basic, a nuclear submarine is not but the total mass of steel used for merchant ships is far greater than needed for nuclear submarines. Therefore cost of steel for merchant ships is more important than in makin nuclear submarines.
There is a massive deficit in understanding of trade, technology, military capability and world affairs in Britain.
A simple question what is the significance of 1453 and 1492 ?

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
4 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

What would it have looked like for her to be less “callous” whilst also achieving the same outcomes?

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
4 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

That’s a loaded question – a different approach would necessarily have altered the outcomes to a certain extent. Maybe not throwing the miners under a bus and abandoning their communities to decay and despair?

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
4 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

What kind of “different approach”? How does a government magic new viable jobs into existence for a community that was created around economic realities that no longer exist?

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
4 months ago

She wasn’t motivated entirely by economic necessity though was she?

Robbie K
Robbie K
4 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Seemed to work extensively for Harold Wilson – guess she took a leaf out of his book.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
4 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

The miners had had years of support from the state. Coal had not made money for many years.

Phil Mac
Phil Mac
4 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

You do know that Labour closed more mines than she ever did?

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
4 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

As I have said before, the NCB could have become an international mining company, the way British Gas did. This would have required far greater expertise in assessing political and economic risk and learning foreign languages. The Head of RTZ Exploration had a doctorate from Imperial College and spoke six languages; how many NCB staff are of this calibre ?
It is like climbing mountains. It is not the difficulty of the climb but the skill of the climber which is important ! J Major said the most relevant comment ” The top of 15% of British companies are World Class but the rest are not so good “. In Germany, unions are dominated by the craft unions who can read a set of accounts. Pay should be based upon profitability not production. BL produced cars few people wanted to buy. Michael Edwards said 65% of his time at BL was spent on union negotiations; well one cannot improve technology and quality when this happens.
Skilled unions such as EETPU and AEU with leaders such as Chapple, Hamond, Jordan and Laird understoood Britain needed to upskill.
Bill Jordan, Baron Jordan – Wikipedia
Gavin Laird – Wikipedia

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
4 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

That is spot on. The problem now is that the conservatives realise that their dreams of some sort of free market paradise just doesn’t work. (Like lefties of the past who would always makes excuses for why communism never seemed to work)
Consequentially they have run out of ideas completely. I find it amusing that Reform are in some respects more leftwing than labour- eg. They want the state to take a 51% control of some public utilities. I’m certainly not a fan of Reform but that at least seems a sane suggestion. But more importantly it shows that no one seriously thinks the ‘free-market’ – which was always a myth – can solve our problems.

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

Not no one.
These policies worked in Hong Kong and Singapore.
You are presumably unaware that “free market policies” and free trade were the cornerstone of Britain’s period of greatest relative wealth in the 19th century. Small, efficient and competent state in those days.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

True , but it is like a street fight. Britain fights according to Queensbury Rules but we get kicked in the balls.

Eryl Balazs
Eryl Balazs
4 months ago

All these arguments against the Blob are very seductive, especially for the genuine professionals or ‘specialists’ who try to get anything done. But why do you think so much of this has come about? One factor is expectation from large swathes of the public that if something goes wrong they have a right to litigate and make someone pay -there is so much unspoken about which is about completely and utterly unrealistic- expectations where some people get an awful lot out of the public sector, because they are good with lobbying, complaints and lawyers versus a significant group who get increasingly very poorly treated by not even receiving the basics. This has evolved and we need to all take responsibly for the destruction of professional autonomy, millions of quid spent on enquiries, reports, endless guideline and blame culture. This is down to all of us.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
4 months ago
Reply to  Eryl Balazs

Quite so. It is quite human to blame others when things go wrong. It’s quite human to wish to avoid pressure at work. I am hardly free of these tendencies, moreover, I’m approaching retirement and repaying my mortgage.

I don’t know how I’d manage if my job, when younger with a young child, were threatened (even the bullshit jobs I alluded to). Well, I’d probably cling on and hope for the best. I don’t blame the Blob and I didn’t blame the miners.

None of this means we don’t have to change and as you eloquently point out, we, the people, might have to take it on the chin. Some will suffer terribly, suffer a little. I probably won’t be hit too hard. It’s easy for me to say. Stll doesn’t mean it’s untrue.

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
3 months ago
Reply to  Eryl Balazs

Spot on. Thank you.

glyn harries
glyn harries
4 months ago

The Thatcher revolution was the resentment of the upper and upper middle classes that working class people should have any perks, tea breaks god forbid, while they themselves got long liquid lunches for granted. While breaking the trade unions allowed for a rapid rise in GDP it benefited less than half the population while destroying the communities and institutions that made Britain great. The crisis we are in now directly flows from Thatcherism.

Saul D
Saul D
4 months ago

In electing politicians we expect them to lead their departments, not to manage them. The politician, representing the will of the people, says what the department should do. It is then down to the managers to deliver these requirements. This is the principle of amateurs commanding professionals – the people in charge.
What the managers have done is inverted that leadership. When the department doesn’t deliver, the politician goes, but the managers who failed to deliver remain in place.
The revolution that is needed is a return to managerial accountability in the public sector, with political leaders able to remove under performing managers for failure to deliver.
Leaders set a target – say minimum education standards, projects delivered within budget and on-time, shorter waiting lists. It is then the managers who have to make it happen – give them two and four year targets. Give bonuses for achieving it (eg 20% of any unspent budget back as bonus, the taxpayer reclaiming the other 80%), but also remove or cycle the management team if it doesn’t deliver. Managers will negotiate on what is possible, which is fine, but leaders set the targets and managers have to make it work.
No more of the political head representing the department’s interests over that of the public, with their only job being to chivvy out more budget from the treasury on the managers’ behalf. If the Home Office doesn’t deliver on immigration control, then managers need to go. The public sector works for the people, not the other way around.

j watson
j watson
4 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

The senior civil servants can all be removed by the Minister. The problem is many Ministers are inept and faced with accountability suddenly find their destructive tendencies and slogans don’t convert as easily to constructive policy and decision making.
Good advice heard given to Ministers is pick 3 things and focus on them if you want to change things. Good advice to PMs is leave Ministers in post long enough for them to get on top of their brief. Tories failed on both these ‘vitals’ and then need a scapegoat. How many Education Sec of State we had last 5 years?

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

The senior civil servants can all be removed by the Minister.

And replaced with …?

Barry Stokes
Barry Stokes
4 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Some other failure who has been moved sideways to fail elsewhere.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
3 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Whoever the minister chooses. The fact ministers haven’t used this power and then childishly complains about the blob means the failure belongs to them

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

You appear to believe that the management (Civil Service) are in no way at fault here …
May I lend you my copy of “Parkinson’s Law” ? It explains – in a most amusing way – how bureaucracies behave when fully left to their own devices.

j watson
j watson
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

No you added quite a bit there PB. Of course nobody could claim all civil servants perform optimally They are, or must be, like many of the rest of us. But blaming them a convenient excuse from those who’s politics and policies riven with error and falsity.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

The senior civil servants can all be removed by the Minister

Dom Cummings has written extensively on the problem that this isn’t (or wasn’t) the case, and that actually firing civil servants was repeatedly found to be impossible. Orders would be given to terminate for gross incompetence, and somehow those people would stick around or be later found in a different department.
The way Cummings tells it, on arriving after years of Labour rule they discovered that the civil service couldn’t even write correctly spelled letters or repair their own lifts, let alone run a country.

j watson
j watson
4 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

Err and Cummings a track record of telling the truth?
Tom Scholar – permanent sec of the Treasury, sacked by Kwarteng. How’d he manage that then after only being in Number 11 a few days?
Think you believe what you want to believe.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
4 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

“…revolution that is needed is a return to managerial accountability in the public sector…”

I agree, but to be meaningful that accountability must have teeth – it’s the only thing that could possibly make this work. Time to bring back the Stocks and the Pillory.

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

Comment of the week.
Exactly so.
We used to know in the 1970s and 1980s the names of the people who managed British Leyland, British Steel, the National Coal Board, etc. . And the media and politicians held them accountable.
Who knows today who is really responsible for managing the NHS ? It’s certainly not Victoria Atkins. She just signs the blank cheques. And people wonder why it’s so screwed up …
We’ve developed a “Macavity class” – a cadre of people who are appointed (often amongst themselves) who are almost impossible to remove. The unionisation of the upper levels of the Civil Service is not an accident.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Red Robbo ran BL, Sid Weighell BR and Scargill the NCB, ditto for steel, railways and shipyards.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
4 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

I think the Tories mislead themselves when they claim Thatcher cut back the State in the 1980s. All she managed to do was rechannel its growth. The exponential increase in the number of regulations and regulatory agencies has created a far larger “blob” that is beyond the control of twenty odd cabinet ministers – even if those twenty were gifted managers which clearly many are not. We have a political system with the bandwidth to cope with the nineteenth century trickle of legislation not the the raging torrent of twenty first century regulation.

The resulting governmental system is not under anyone’s overall direction. Instead most of it has fragmented with each piece under the control of shifting coalitions of bureaucrats and lobbyists of all types – corporate, NGO and, sometimes, international players. With each decade the sense the politicians have lost the capacity to be effective increases. 

Meanwhile both Corporate and other players are now unable to focus on their own operations and are compelled to spend more and more time and resources on influencing government. Soft – and increasingly hard – corruption is inevitable.

It is a downward spiral. There are medicines for this disease but the first step is a widespread acceptance of the diagnosis.

Andrew R
Andrew R
4 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

Excellent comment

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
4 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

Yes. But the only medicine is libertarianism, the one thing that both the conservatives and Labour seem to agree on as being beyond the pale. I despair of Brits ever (re)finding their inner libertarian spirit.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
4 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

Libertarianism is not the same thing as reducing govt growth. Libertarians don’t believe in speed limits, compulsory education of children, and the smallpox vaccine. That’s a very different thing from understanding and combatting the 180-page child safeguarding manual.
Almost all these political problems arise from some very basic elements of democratic society malfunction known throughout history… for example, highly-motivated electors with a narrow range of electoral interests are much more effective than low-motivation electors with a broad range of interests…. another example, you need written bureaucratic codebooks when you cannot rely on common understanding and culture to inform discretion and judgment.
We live in a vast, complex, low trust, multicultural society. How else could it be governed?

xenophon a
xenophon a
4 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

The downvotes say a lot. The idiots in this commetn section who think they can tinker at the edges are deluded. The only thing that will fix this is wholescale destruction of the most of the state.

Barry Stokes
Barry Stokes
4 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

Good post….one word that screams out for attention is ‘accountability’. Where does it lie these days? It seems to me that everywhere in every government department it lies stagnant and mildewed.

Phil Mac
Phil Mac
4 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

It’s quite simple; if your organisation can’t under any circumstance go broke, it will inevitably decay into uselessness.

AC Harper
AC Harper
4 months ago

The Conservatives have forgotten the ideas of Classic Liberalism. From Wikipedia:

Classical liberalism is a political tradition and a branch of liberalism that advocates free market and laissez-faire economics and civil liberties under the rule of law, with special emphasis on individual autonomy, limited government, economic freedom, political freedom and freedom of speech. 

The bit that doesn’t get said aloud is that laissez-faire government is not concerned about the ‘safety’ of individuals as long as the free market and civil liberties ‘work’.
The Conservatives were once supporters of businesses and land owners believing that this was beneficial to everybody in the longer term. In trying to make sure that the ‘rules’ were fair and few suffered they have multiplied the bureaucracy and diminished the authority of Parliament.
And that’s how Mary Harrington’s Ceremonial Parliament has come about. Since both main Parties have similar worldviews (everyone must be free of not winning prizes) then a massive political re-adjustment may be needed. Penny Mordaunt is the antithesis of what is required.

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago

“Britain’s headlong Tory-managed decline”.
Really ?
Large parts of the country are doing pretty well. Others are not. To pretend that it is uniform – or indeed should be – is over-simplistic. There are always industries, sectors and regions in decline while other, newer ones are growing.
Most of us understand the main reasons we aren’t doing better. And that they are all fixable. Tesco works, the NHS doesn’t. We all know why. Productivity has stalled. We’ve lowered education standards and imported millions of unskilled workers. What did we expect ?
“It suggests that the majority of expertise really does rest with the headless Blob of appointees, NGOs, procedures, and interchangeable bureaucrats, that populists so viscerally loathe.”
Sort of. But the word she wanted there is authority and not expertise. The problem is that these people are repeatedly taking bad, value-destroying decisions and that the compounding effect of this has destroyed public sector productivity (a concept that is surely a non sequitur as they all move to 4 day working from home for 5 days pay).
It’s all fixable.
But yes, Penny Morduant isn’t the solution.

Damon Hager
Damon Hager
4 months ago

Painfully perceptive and depressingly acute.
Time for revolution, but who to lead? Can we borrow that Argentine gentleman?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
4 months ago

“Pam, I adore you, Pam, you great big mountainous sports girl,
Whizzing them over the net, full of the strength of five:
That old Malvernian brother, you zephyr and khaki shorts girl,Although he’s playing for Woking, Can’t stand up
To your wonderful backhand drive.”*

(*John Betjeman: ‘Pot pourri from a Surrey garden.)

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
4 months ago

Interesting that this story begins with talk of human sacrifice, and order, constraints, limits, and characterful leadership all breaking down. This was forewarned in the Old Testament, as Moses railed against the corrupted Baal-worshippers, destroyed their false idols, and reimposed some kind of God-orientated order – but only after considerable death and destruction wrought by an angry God. You don’t have to be a believing Christian, or Jew, to appreciate the metaphorical truth and power of the idea that all hell breaks loose when men and women arrogantly reject natural constraints, willingly submerge themselves into a mass formation (or blob) in which all are equally powerless, lacking in individual character, and driven only by their self-centred worldly desires and petty fears into an ever-deepening, nihilistic delusion that they can collectively act like gods, and do whatever they want without consequence or accountability.

This can’t, and won’t, sustain itself, no matter who gets elected to this or that position of ceremonial power it will all eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions – and it’s getting kinda late 


Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
4 months ago

“When, for example, just the safeguarding guidelines for schools run to 178 pages, and there are also curricula, budgets, estates unions, pay, funding, meals, and much else besides all clamouring for attention, is it really reasonable to expect all of the Secretaries of State for Education to have acquired a complete mastery of their brief, in the sometimes very short (there were five in 2022 alone) time they spend in the job?”

To me this is just a single example of the problem all across the public sector. Too much administration, too much change. It is becoming impossible to function.

Kathleen Burnett
Kathleen Burnett
4 months ago

Good summary of how the Blair reforms locked us into an ungovernable state. The blame should be placed squarely on Human Rights and its progeny.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
4 months ago

And supreme court

James Kumara-Lloyd
James Kumara-Lloyd
4 months ago

There is a natural alternative to management by the blob:
Devolve responsibility for most things to individuals, families and firms.Use choice and competition with common law protections to regulate most activities.Cut government duties to the bare minimum where this approach falls, enabling it to focus on what matters. ï»żI know this classical liberal approach is a tough sell to voters who used to be spoon-fed by the state. Nevertheless, it is still a valid approach to making our lives easier and more prosperous.

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
4 months ago

Didn’t we do that when we privatised all the utilities, post, railways and then outsourced a significant percentage of other government services to the likes of Capita and Serco?
It seems to me that in the majority of cases that has resulted in more expensive and at the same time worse services. But then again the shareholders of these companies haven’t done too badly and hey that’s what really matters.
Who cares if for example we don’t have new reservoirs, have crumbling water infrastructure and have sewage dumped in rivers as long as the likes of Sid get their divis? I know Sid was British Gas but you get my drift.
While I am it, I am still waiting for Unherd’s take on the Frank Hester / Diane Abbott story. Funny how major stories in the news become Unheard on Unherd when they don’t quite fit the editorial agenda.

James Kumara-Lloyd
James Kumara-Lloyd
4 months ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

No. All the examples you give are government-regulated monopolies that lack the elements of choice and competition. More appropriate examples are mobile telephony and airlines, where prices are significantly lower now than in the 1980s.
The issue of reservoirs is more due to government planning regulations. If we nationalised them, they would encounter similar problems. HS2, Scottish ferries and the Post Office are not resounding success stories.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
4 months ago

Penny Mordaunt is an envy response by the Tory Party to Ursula von der Leyen – if they’ve got one, we must have our own version.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
4 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Hahahahaha

Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
4 months ago

This was the biggest load of meaningless babble I’ve read in a long time. I knew we weren’t off to a good start when the writer stated that Liz Truss’s economics offended the City of London. Liz Truss’s economics continue to offen anyone unfortunate enough to have a mortgage

John Riordan
John Riordan
4 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Marcus

Really? You think our stubbornly high interest rates were solely caused by the Truss government, do you?

j watson
j watson
4 months ago

Usual tosh from this Author. The Blob meme is tiresome excuse-making by a faction of the Right that has shown ineptitude and incompetence. Just one example – Mad Liz’s budget…so the Blob includes the Bond Markets and the bank manager who raises an eyebrow when a crackpot says give me loads of dosh now and I’ll come back to you later with a plan to pay it back! It’s pathetic rubbish. Grow up for goodness sake and take responsibility for the political decisions made.
Now there is a question the Author repeatedly and consistently veers away from – how have the v rich got even richer whilst the vast majority of the rest of us have gone backwards or stagnated? Maybe there is a viscous substance at play here but it’s not made up from what the Author thinks.

Andrew R
Andrew R
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

You’re simply repeated the same useless comment from last week.

j watson
j watson
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew R

Paying attention I see AR. Gratifying. All is not lost. Although you and HB clearly having to do a ‘shift’ to aid the v rich.

Andrew R
Andrew R
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Lol and why would I do that JW? There are a dozen or so excellent comments here (not forgetting the various articles Mary has written in the past) that explain what “The Blob” is, its origins, how it operates and that’s it not just a feature of the Left.

A by-product of the Thatcher government and weaponised by Tony Blair’s, New Labour it’s a cancer on democracy and a huge waste of tax payers money.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

You’re being much too defensive. I’m sure it’s not really all your fault.

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

I agree. It is just a convenient excuse for inept government ministers who simply don’t have the ability to manage their departments. They are either completely inept like Fayling Grayling or throw their weight around like Raab, both with the same pathetic result. You don’t get the managing directors of FTSE100 companies complaining that they can’t get things done because their workforce from board members to the shopfloor is an immovable blob that can’t be made to do anything.
The Tories have had 13 years in government and have achieved nothing. Austerity and the demise of public services will be their legacy. Even worse they have facilitated the flood of money into assets (landlordism) rather than job creating businesses which has crippled our country.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
4 months ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

Spot on

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
4 months ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

C Northcote Parkinson- Parkinson’s Law 1914 Capital ships 62, 1928 -20; decrease 67.74 %. Admiralty Officials 1914 -2000, 1928- 3569 increase 78.45%.
In 1939 Home Civi Service excluding industrial employees 400,000 of which 208,000 were in Post Office. In 1950 680,000 in Home Civil Service. Reduce number in CivilService to 400,000, 1939 levels.In Parkinson’s Law, The Law and the Profits and In-Laws and Out- Laws CNP explains the increase in the numbers of bureaucrats which combined with Robert Michels Bureaucratic Oligarchy, means a state ends being run for the benefit of state employees, in particular those in the top thee levels.

FacRecte NilTime
FacRecte NilTime
4 months ago

Brava Mary Harrington!

Thank you for bringing such clarity, range, wit, style and distilled outrage to a dissection that is by turns Swiftian and Scrutonesque.

And for an intellectual honesty that does not flinch from reaching the inevitably pessimistic conclusion.

Any hope for eventual recovery has to start from here, although Lord knows how.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
4 months ago

“A journey of a million miles starts with ONE step.”*

(*?)

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
4 months ago

“…the Labour approach of leaning enthusiastically into relationship with the Blob may make more sense than the Tory one…”

But in that case, if the Tories are now polling record lows, why would things turn out any different for Starmer once the (notably unenthusiastic) honeymoon wares off? And if the Conservatives and Labour and the Lib Dems are a unaparty, will Labour also execute a sequence of decapitations once in power too?

DenialARiverIn Islington
DenialARiverIn Islington
4 months ago

“that ecosystem that Labour will keep the funding spigots open”.
No, Mary, the basic mathematics say, quite clearly, that they will not. That’s not to say that they, themselves, don’t think that they will – to the contrary. The point is, however, that they will have no choice. The unsolveable problem for the Labour Party is, simply, this. When you have 50%+ ex public-sector MP’s in your ranks; how do you cut ÂŁ150 billion per annum from welfare spending when the markets stop lending you money?
That’s what’s coming and it is now all but inevitable. What will it do to the Labour Party? Exactly what you suspect it will do……. For once, we can clearly see the future.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago

The Labour Party and the Blob are one and the same
Working in tandem towards the same agreed end
With the Civil Service acting as an approved intermediary

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
4 months ago

“No one knows how — or even if — any of this can be changed or reversed as things stand. Perhaps the age of intelligent, elected non-specialists really is over.”

I don’t think this is necessarily the case.

The problems are legion and vast, but that doesn’t mean they are insoluble. As the chinese saying goes, a wise man turns large problems into small ones and small ones into none at all.

So how to untie the Gordian knot of legislation, politicians, civil servants, quangos, judiciary, police, and the institutional monoliths of education, health and welfare? If you want to demolish a castle the most effective way is to remove the foundations. In the case of the UK these are the laws and statutory instruments, and this is where one should start. We have an ocean of legislation, some pointless, some contradictory, some damaging and some dangerous, much of it created during the Blair years. It is this that that makes it so hard to steer the ship of state. Shrinking the ocean to a much smaller lake will make it much easier to navigate; it will clarify roles and responsibilities, allow focus and enable the removal of that will does not add value. Ultimately, a reduced legal foundation will only support a smaller state as there will be no role for a larger one.

Whilst this might sound like an impossible task, we happily live in a time where the tools to do the job quickly exist: AI and neural networks. The totality of legislation and all its interdependencies could be fed in, rapidly assessed and mapped to departments, quangos, industry sectors and budgets, and then the pruning could begin.

So there is a way and we have the tools. Do we have the will?

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
4 months ago

“No one knows how — or even if — any of this can be changed or reversed as things stand. Perhaps the age of intelligent, elected non-specialists really is over.”
I disagree. The Gordian knot of politicians, civil services, quangos, laws, judiciary, courts, police and state monoliths of education, health and welfare may seem to untangleable, but as the chinese saying goes: the wise man turns large problems into small ones and small ones into none at all.
Start with the laws, these are the foundation on which the edifice of state sits. There is currently an ocean of legislation and statutory instruments, a lot of which are unnecessary, detrimental or simply bad. Shrink the ocean to a lake, it will be much easier to navigate and roles, responsibilities and accountability will become much clearer. That which does not add value identified and removed.
Whilst this might sound challenging, the tools exist: Ai and neural networks. One could very quickly assimilate the entire body of laws, and map all the interdependencies and then map to ministries, departments, quangos and associated resources and budgets. Then the pruning can begin.
So there is a way, are we have the tools. Do we have the will?

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
4 months ago

Trade and technology are Darwinian evolution in practice. A country needs to innovate which requires imagination, initiative, ingenuity, daring and a completely professional approach. Britain has been falling behind since the 1870s, first with regard to the USA, then Germany , then Japan.
Britain has been resting on it’s oars since the 1870s ( Arnold Toynbee’s term ). Since 1945 , Britain has been run by a demoralised, dispirited and defeatist bureaucratic oligarchy running politics, Civil Service, academia, The Law, The Media , The Arts , intellectuals, nationalised corporations,etc . We have civil servants running technical departments such as transport with humanities degrees when they should be Chartered Engineers from top universities with experience of designing and building roads, railways, etc. Compare with France where civil servants in charge of transport come from Grand Ecoles many with military experience. In Switzerland those running departments have not only undertaken National Service but are often reserve officersin eleite units.
This bureaucratic oligarchy is an affluent, effete impractical ineffectual clerisy who desire prestige and power but lack the spirit to be tempered by adversity and have their mettle tested in order that they develop the fortitude and professionalism to lead. Compare Leonard Cheshire VC , Guy Gibson VC, B Wallis FRS, J R Mitchell, Frank Whittle FRS , to name but a few with those running Britain today.

andy young
andy young
4 months ago

They’re currently repeating that brilliant documentary (sorry, comedy) series Yes (Prime) Minister on’t telly. It should be part of the school curriculum.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

John Riordan
John Riordan
4 months ago

“Impossible because we’ve somehow concocted for ourselves a civilisational order that’s too complex and rudderless for even intelligent non-specialists to govern competently.”

It’s a great article and others have made many comments here that I could have made myself. I’ll restrict myself to this part alone, by pointing out that the very people Mary implies are running this fiendishly complex order are, themselves, incapable of doing it properly. The country is falling apart, even as its systems of control become ever more expensive and less accountable. So, it makes no difference whether it’s beyond the intelligent generalists who once could win elections and then run the country, because it’s also beyond the specialists who assert their unique qualifications for the role.

I do not doubt for a moment that the systems possess a Byzantine complexity that is impossible to navigate for the non-expert, but I do say that this complexity is synthesised in the producer interest and has nothing to do with any emergent new complexity in the real world. The Rwanda scheme referred to above is a case in point: it is not a complex task to fill a jet plane full of migrants whose claims to asylum have been revealed as untenable and to fly that plane to Rwanda. The complexity is entirely the result of lawfare on the part of activist lawyers and judges who enthusiastically support the erection of obstructions to the proper enforcement of the law. It is not difficult, either, for the intelligent non-specialist to see that this is the case: the legal quagmire may well be impossible for the government to beat, but it is not at all hard to understand that the quagmire is there because certain factions created it and not, as they’d have us believe, because its a naturally-arising conundrum to which nobody has an answer.

Perhaps Mary is right and there’s no solution, but I would say that there is indeed a Gordian-Knot style solution in the form of simply cutting off the financial blood-supply to these cancerous growths on the body politic. Where Mary will be proved right is in the sadly-predictable scenario that nobody will take such drastic action until after Britain is bankrupt and no sensible economic migrant even wants to come here in the first place.

As for Penny Mordaunt, I hope she takes Sunak’s place just in time to see her beheaded by the electorate, if for no other reason than I like Rishi more than I like her, and while he’s been a hopeless PM he isn’t actually a bad person or an idiot. Mordaunt, conversely, is exactly the sort of shallow worthless puddle that shouldn’t be in politics at all and certainly not in the Tory Party, and the Tory Party needs a harsh lesson in this respect.

Ardath Blauvelt
Ardath Blauvelt
4 months ago

Hmmm. An apt and adept description of most Western governments today. Biden is assuredly a prime example. No one here knows who, in fact, runs the American outfit, though there are suspicions. In any case, very little is going well, at least for the countries.

We seriously don’t know what to do with ourselves as we have outgrown, out spent, and overrun ourselves into corrupt circuses with way too many sideshows to distract from the collapsing big tent. This is a helluva time to be fiddling while our world — well, we all know the rest.

Suggestions?

Guess we just keep jigging and then hope to find enough pieces left to eventually try again.

Dennis Learad
Dennis Learad
4 months ago

Just what the country wants a magicians assistant and a degree in Philosphy!! all that is wrong with the two party foul political system and the calibre of the majority of the UK government. Waht is needed are professionals quality CV’s in engineering science transport health finance ETC not people who have nothing to contribute to the country’s wealth. Mps with CV’s that include NVQs health carers, media, union officials, gym trainers etc go and be an MEP and destroy the EU corrupt institution!!

Paul MacDonnell
Paul MacDonnell
4 months ago

This is the best journalism in Britain.

Andrew Symes
Andrew Symes
4 months ago

“Risen without trace” – is that an original Harringtonism? Worth repeating anyway.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Symes

Apparently it was coined by Kitty, wife of Malcolm Muggeridge when she referred to the career of David Frost (TV personality) in the 1960s.

Michael Davis
Michael Davis
4 months ago

Your attitude is precisely what makes you part of the blob

0 0
0 0
4 months ago

People ought to be embarrassed to use terms like ‘ The Blob, ‘ which denigrates what it can’t designate. If you don’t understand how decisions are made and by whom and whether they would work better if this or that were changed , the task is to find out. Commentators touting for our attention should offer to help with that, rather than insinuating that it can all be somehow dispensed with. Jacobin revival acts are not going to cut anything anymore, not even heads from shoulders.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
4 months ago
Reply to  0 0

“Denigrates what it can’t designate”? Huh? Any particular political outcome can indeed be understood and explained. The question is: why do so many disparate questions seem to get resolved and determined in the same way, despite occurring in different departments, with different political, economic, social, etc. issues at play? Why do candidates who are elected to office on the premise that they will accomplish X, and who seemingly have the authority (political and moral) to accomplish X, nevertheless, fail to accomplish X?
The proposed answer is ‘The Blob’ – that large class of groupthink-ers who occupy the positions of sub-authority which are supposed to actually implement the will of the population. In a sense, it is all repeats of “Yes Minister” – the elected official told at every turn that some law or regulation or principle prevents him from doing the thing he was elected to do, a usurpation of elected authority by sniveling civil service appointees who couldn’t care less what the electors want.
What the ‘The Blob’ really means is something like this: elected officials seem to be unable to change conditions in this country… why is that? It is perhaps because many people who are tasked with implementing the decisions of those elected officials, disagree with the election and have committed to stopping it. In the US they call themselves “The Resistance” – though of course they would not agree this is “insurrection”! Only the ‘other guy’ is guilty of that.

David Butler
David Butler
4 months ago

The current state of affairs can be traced directly back to Tony Bliar.
He made it his mission to sabotage the underpinnings of every aspect of British society and governance.
Given the prospect of any leader with the intestinal fortitude to take on the challenge of correcting this mess, considering the inept, nonentities that infect politics, there is very little hope.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
4 months ago

I hope you’ve checked that the photo of Penny hasn’t been edited. She’s going to lose Portsmouth North anyway, so no point making her leader now.

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
4 months ago

If made leader, Penny Mordaunt would become Britain’s Kim Campbell. In 1993, facing certain electoral defeat, Progressive Conservative Party of Canada prime minister Brian Mulroney resigned. Knowing defeat was imminent, none of the big cabinet names wanted the leadership and the hapless Kim Campbell wound up as the new prime minister. The PCs went on to a record defeat winning only two seats in parliament. Campbell was pinned with the defeat while the widely hated Brian Mulroney went on to be proclaimed an elder statesman.
I’m not a fan of Mordaunt, but she doesn’t deserve that fate. Rishi Sunak is, if not the architect of the mess the conservatives are in, he’s at least the brick layer. Having engineered the ouster of first Boris Johnson and subsequently Liz Truss, who unlike him were both elected by members, Sunak deserves to wear the defeat. He’s had time, just, to save the Tories with a competent supply side economic program and even a modest effort at cutting immigration, but he’s failed to do either. Hopefully the Tory defeat will, like it did in Canada, give rise to the birth of a robust Reform Party.

Robert Blakey
Robert Blakey
4 months ago

I am not sure that the numerous accusations of incompetence levelled at the (allegedly) Conservative governments of the last decade or so are fair; to be labelled incompetent any organisation, business or individual has to actually do something themselves, rather than relying on a plethora of arms length agencies, charities, NGO’s, the Civil Service etc. to run the operation. So they can be properly judged. Outsourcing doesn’t work in business, nor in government where it should be called Abdication Of Your Responsibilities. I have no doubt that vacuous politicians such as Ms Mordaunt would be perfectly happy to continue on that road to oblivion.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
4 months ago

Another great article from Mrs. Harrington, one of the UnHerd contributors worth reading week in and week out. I especially appreciate her analogy with the Glorious Revolution. It took decades – centuries – for the outworkings of those political changes to be clear, for it to be obvious that the monarchy was now relevant only to the tabloids.
The soap opera dramatics we get with the PM’s now – Partygate for heaven’s sake! – shows the UK’s elected officials are going the same way. They are becoming part of the tourism-approved cultural artifacts of a once-great nation, which established the modern conception of democratic rule of law, and which is slowly transitioning back to its pre-modern form of governance, a sort of feudalism represented by laptops and spritzers instead of swords and visors.
You’ll be treated about as well by the local planning board as you once would’ve been treated by the High Sheriff. Hopefully they like you. Too bad if they don’t.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago

Brilliant!

Caractacus Potts
Caractacus Potts
4 months ago

This excellent article and many excellent comments on here reminded me why I subbed to UnHerd. More please!

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
4 months ago

I think Jefferson said it best. “when the government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny”. The UK hasn’t had an actual revolution since the 1650’s. What does a London bureaucrat, a court judge, or a political donor have to fear? Nobody fears the power of the parliament because nobody fears the people taking matters into their own hands. The system has too much of the people’s respect and deference. There has to be a real threat that the people will destroy the system in order to give the powerful a reason to pause. Contrast that with the USA, where we have fifty organized states to contest federal power and a heavily armed population underneath that. Powerful people here have plenty of reasons to be afraid of incurring too much of the people’s wrath. They could be gunned down by some revolutionary or a state could secede and trigger a civil war that brought the entire country down and most of the global financial system with it. Fear is the greatest motivator.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
3 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

The US is just as bigger basket case as Britain. Even the shambles at Westminster hasn’t managed to throw up an electoral contests between two 80 year old crooked sex pests, one partly and the other fully senile

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
3 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Not all revolutions are created equal. The revolutions of 1649, 1776, and 1789 were historically unique reflections of tectonic change in how humanity perceived itself post Renaissance. Most revolutions are very different from those and, instead of demarcating good, are symptoms of failed societies. What revolution in Central America, South America, or the Caribbean has lifted those societies out of perpetual turmoil? They only manifest the perpetual cycle of dysfunction swinging around the polarities of equally corrupt left and right. What shining example of the power of popular insurrection for good can be drawn from the Bolshevik Revolution, the Iranian Revolution, the Arab Spring, or Haiti? And, if the citizens of a modern English-speaking country were to take up arms in revolution against their putative tyrants, with what would these demagogues and bureaucrats be replaced? The January 6th types? Gen Z cry babies? Tea Party Boomers who want the welfare state torn down except the part that pays their Medicare and Social Security? Howling nutters like AOC or MTG? Thugs like Barbecue? Following a revolution what recipe do we use to reconcile the often widely-divergent agendas of multiple races, religions (or lack thereof), philosophies, genders, standards of living, ages, and educations that now comprise our countries? Or do some of these not count and, if so, which? Absent the installation of effective cogent governance following revolution, insurrection produces no better result than an election: an ineffective regime change.

Rachel Taylor
Rachel Taylor
4 months ago

Excellent essay, and one can think of any number of supporting examples. It is true that the State has far outrun the capacity of any Minister or government to control it. The concept of Ministerial accountability is a sick joke, where the civil servants fail and the Minister takes the blame – the exact opposite of what should happen. It is true also that, knowing they are not in control, Ministers like to grandstand well away from where they can be found out. But the question is: why are the apparatchiks of the State quite so hell bent on destroying it? The answer must be that it is that kind of person who goes to work in that kind of job. The modern democratic State has become self-destructive, as it hoovers up all the wealth to pay for itself.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
4 months ago
Reply to  Rachel Taylor

Robert Michels said all organisations end up being being run for the benefit of thos who control them- bureaucratic oligarchy. C Northcote Parkinson said the Western Roman, Mughal and Chinese empires collapsed because taxation to pay for state employees exceeded the ability to pay for them. When the Mughals taxed the Hindus farmers at 50% they produced just enough food to feed themselves.

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
4 months ago

I really *really* want Mordaunt to be the leader of the ‘Conservative’ Party when it burns to ash in the next general election. That would send absolutely the right message to all the Blue Blairite grandees who have lead the party to it’s richly deserved extinction.
I’ll be doing my small part by voting Reform, which given my CEN-member Tory MP presides over a razor thin marginal, might actually make my vote matter, which gives me a warm fuzzy glow.
I voted Tory every election since 1979 bar once (I voted BXP in the final Euro elections), but what happened to Truss was the final straw. Now all I want is for them to be not just beaten but annihilated. Labour will be ghastly, but it has to happen so election after next, we have at least a chance for an actual small-c conservative party to rise from the ashes. And for that, the Tories must pass into history, at least as currently understood.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
4 months ago

I completely agree, and to be fair to Reform UK, that is precisely Richard Tice’s strategy.

Graeme Laws
Graeme Laws
4 months ago

Vote Reform. Simples. They won’t win seats but with 15 %of the vote they will start to drag this place back in the direction of sanity. We might even get a party that knows that net zero ain’t going to happen soon, that human beings with todgers are blokes, and that regulators breed like rats if not restrained.

John Hilton-O’Brien
John Hilton-O’Brien
4 months ago

Has anyone thought of changing the national anthem ? From the sounds of it, we could just set Eliot’s The Hollow Men to music, and it would explain everything.

James Kirk
James Kirk
4 months ago

Another lengthy yaddah yaddah, blah blah about somebody she doesn’t like. No suggestion of an alternative.

Paul Rodolf
Paul Rodolf
4 months ago

Is it possible that, once Western Democracy cleared the field of any real adversaries, we became bloated and complacent?

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago
Reply to  Paul Rodolf

It’s possible. Good thing Russia has reared its ugly head again, eh?

David Walters
David Walters
4 months ago

Not convinced by this article. Society is becoming more complicated but that does not mean politicians cannot run the country. Politicians just need to get experts who support their view of the future to deal with the complexities of the day to day running of the country so that they, who are essentially leaders (not necessarily all generalists) can steer the country in the direction the majority of the country wish. The blob is left leaning at present and has been for decades. It propagates itself by selecting like minded individuals. It wants a country alien to most of its citizens but it doesn’t have to be this way. You can have a right leaning blob.

Ruari McCallion
Ruari McCallion
4 months ago

Rather good.

You omitted the example of the empty suit in The Master & Margarita but otherwise – excellent job in identifying what has happened. I thought Brexit came in the nick of time to save the UK from subservience to a Mosleyite elite ruling class & I still think it did but it was a damn’ close run thing then & the war to retain democracy is not over. Not yet, not by a long chalk.

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
4 months ago

Just imagine how much worse it would’ve been if we’d had Labour after the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Covid and Ukraine War.

Just imagine giving into every whim of the, as yet, inexperienced but privileged kids whose support Labour and advertisers relentlessly court for their survival.

Britain would be bankrupt, the economy would have been in permanent semi-recession and none of the entrenched problems would’ve been fixed, because despite high taxes, there’s never enough money for the Blob to spend.

leonard o'reilly
leonard o'reilly
4 months ago

“Impossible because we’ve somehow concocted for ourselves a civilizational order that’s too complex and rudderless for even intelligent non-specialists to govern competently.”
It’s not so much the complexity, though God knows the modern world is complex. But in the end, complexity is just an excuse. What is lacking is an enlightened hegemon, a ruling class convicted it is in possession of The Old Dispensation. But it stands convicted now of its sins, but mostly for its lack of conviction. It cannot even “cut funding to groups that oppose [ its ] aims”, in Mary’s trenchant observation. Nor does it have the will to honour its own past, or to protect its own borders.
What we have here, as Ortega y Gasset foretold, is a Hyperdemocracy, a rule of the revolting masses, “empty ciphers” like Morduant, and Cameron, and Trudeau, and Ardern, ad nauseum. But what’s to be done? All hierarchies end in fissiparity. Fissiparity is our present and fissiparity is our future. They’re calling it Diversity.
The sword is the symbol of The Old Dispensation’s authority. It is surpassing ironic that Morduant should carry it.
Terrific essay, though.

George Venning
George Venning
4 months ago

I remember when Conservatives used to deplore those undaunted old communists who would insist that “communism had never been properly tried”.
These days, it’s all conservatives complaining apout the lack of a properly conservative conservative party.
The USSR wasn’t a communist utopia because, as it turns out, you can’t impose one by force and the attempt is so inherently contradictory that everything breaks down.
The problem of Conservatism is that it is so determinedly anti-utopian that it can never actually declare what it wants to achieve. Since you can’t make the world better without having some idea of what you want the world to look like when you’re done, you end up in a fight to the death with everyone who tells you that you’re making things worse.
For example
The striking, glaring, obvious problem of Brexit was that it could never identify any coherent positive vision for what the country would look like when it was done. The assertion that buisiness would flourish was completely contradicted by businesses themselves who largely didn’t want it. The assertion that citizens would be freer was undercut by all the freedoms that the citizens were palpably losing and so on and so on.
The Rwanda policy self-evidently lacks the capacity to make even the tiniest dent on the actual levels of (largely legal) migration flowing into the country. The lack of an upside throws all of the downsides (the self-conscious cruelty and extravagant cost) into sharp relief.
And on, and on.
People will bear quite a lot of downside if you at least promise jam tomorrow. But, in the absence of even jam deferred, they will tend to get a bit obstructive.

John Tyler
John Tyler
4 months ago

I’m afraid I don’t know enough about Penny M to comment. Now, The Blob is a different matter. I have a suspicion the defining period when The Blob took control was during our membership of the EU (and its former incarnations) as the politics of Europe took over from the trade economics of Europe. It just became too complex for individual ministers to understand what was going on, which is possibly why so many were completely hoodwinked into frequently accepting the unacceptable. Sadly, the government missed its chance to tame The Blob immediately following Brexit.

glyn harries
glyn harries
4 months ago

The Civil Service has long run the UK and will continue to do so when we have politicians as stupid and ignorant as Boris Johnson or Liz Truss. It’s also possibly one of the reasons the U.K. has not veered towards fascism or communism, as the machine continues to keep the ocuntry running regardless of the politicians. It’s not particualry democratic but when our poorly democratic FPTP system throws up such political ignoramouses as B.J. then maybe it is a price we pay.

Miriam Cotton
Miriam Cotton
3 months ago

Fact is Johnson cut the head off the Tory Party over Brexit when he lost everyone who had any kind of intelligence to offer it.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago

Penny Mordaunt: like Lions Rampant, it sounds like a heraldic symbol – a tooth-marked coin tested for authenticity with a bite.

Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
3 months ago

Very good, you express so well what we sense without quite knowing what it is we feel. We sense that parliament is just for show and decisions are made elsewhere. It is ironic that Brexit was meant to ‘take back control’ while we seem to have less control than we ever had. It seems our political class had neither the ability or will to run the country for the benefit of its people.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
3 months ago

Maybe it’s just too late. The unassimilated hordes are here to stay; the entitlement state too entrenched to prune; the money gone; shared identity a distant memory. In a few decades Europe will become like Lebanon and the US like Venezuela. Both of those failed states were once civilized countries. Beruit–if you can imagine it–was once called the Paris of the Middle East.