What is ‘The Blob’?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


In the 1950s sci-fi movie, The Blob was a jelly-like creature that landed from space, growing as it consumed every person or town in its path. Seized on by Ronald Reagan’s education secretary, William Bennett, to collectively describe the growth of teachers, public servants, lobbyists and unions who resisted reform, ‘the blob’ was popularised in the UK by Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, depicting their frustrations at perceived intransigence to reform at the Department for Education.

Since then, the blob has mutated to become a catch-all pejorative term that collectively describes those resistant to the government’s wishes. The BBC and the judiciary are branded as the blob due to perceived anti-Brexit bias. The blob is also blamed for the downfall of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, whose respective pro-Brexit and low-tax worldviews were seemingly resisted or sabotaged within government. Meanwhile, Home Office civil servants allegedly resist implementation of the Rwanda deportation programme, aided by anonymous ECHR judges and activist immigration lawyers boasting of removing clients from flights.

Some say the blob serves as evidence of the dominance of a ‘new elite’, including the civil service acting in tandem with a new graduate class now dominating academia, NGOs and the so-called ‘Charity Industrial Complex’. This shapeless, shifting obstacle to reform acts deliberately to stop policies they oppose, reinforcing a particular status quo at the expense of the concerns of voters. Democratic decision-making, critics say, is under threat by new forces in society that are richer, more influential, and more ideological than ever.

However, the term itself has many critics. Simon Case, the UK’s most senior civil servant, has described use of ‘the blob’ as ‘dehumanising’. Others say overuse of the term, allied to its lack of specificity, allows the Tories and other critics to turn a despondency with institutional resistance into an all-purpose conspiracy theory, used to delegitimise valid concerns of their opponents.

Others point out that, ironically, without critical challenge from civil servants and the third sector, the government could end up in its own echo chamber. Critics of government policy are now being banned from even speaking to civil servants – seemingly undermining the very democracy that those worried about the blob are supposedly concerned about.

Is grouping together such a wide range of experts, political actors and civil society institutions either accurate or useful? Has the civil service really been captured or is this just the latest manifestation of conspiratorial thinking? To what extent is the blob just a convenient scapegoat for politicians to deflect from their own failures? And if a notional blob does, in reality, present resistance to change, what steps could be taken to challenge it?

Professor Ian Acheson
senior advisor, Counter Extremism Project; visiting professor, school of law, policing and forensics, University of Staffordshire

Nick Busvine OBE
consultant; founding partner, Herminius Holdings Ltd; advisory board member, Briefings for Britain; former diplomat, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Poppy Coburn
assistant comment editor, Daily Telegraph

Professor Bill Durodié
chair of International Relations, department of Politics, Languages and International Studies, University of Bath

Alastair Donald
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; convenor, Living Freedom; author, Letter on Liberty: The Scottish Question