I first saw political satire ‘Yes Minister’ and its sequel, ‘Yes Prime Minister’, as a teenager. At that time, I already appreciated the comedy, particularly the wittiness of the script and verbal dexterity of some of the characters. However, having looked at it again in my 30s, from a far more aware and worldly vantage point, I now appreciate it even more and for reasons above and beyond the original ones. The miracle referenced in the title of this post refers firstly to the brilliance of that rare achievement of combining comedy that stands the test of time solely for its comedic quality with a profundity and a clear demonstration of a truth, in this case the way we are governed and how the world appears to really work behind the scenes. The other miraculous thing however is how this show and its message seemed to slip through the net and not incite any further investigation beyond the appreciation of the humour, even in the last few years when a community known as ‘the alternative media’ or ‘the truth movement’ has risen to prominence, primarily through the Internet. I’ve seen barely any mentions of this show from the British side of this alternative media, and the mainstream seems now to regard it with nostalgia and affection merely as a much-needed exercise in the lampooning of our leaders in the tradition of the satirical magazine ‘Private Eye’ and long- running panel show ‘Have I Got News For You’, both of which involve the key participation of Oxford graduate Ian Hislop. Seeing ‘Yes Minister/Prime Minister’ as a clever and truthful comedy but no reason for uproar seems to me at the same time surprising and sadly predictable, particularly since there never seems to have been any great impetus on Hislop’s part to turn his accumulated knowledge into activism and the seeking of any change in the establishment. As we shall see when examining ‘Yes Minister’ (for simplicity, I will refer to the show in general as ‘Yes Minister’ unless referring to the sequel specifically), the maintaining of one’s career, especially one of privilege and comfort, is paramount to all but the most ideologically-driven and, some would say, foolish, and Hislop was educated at a pillar of the establishment, as were the writers of ‘Yes Minister’. I will examine the show on 2 levels, first as purely a comedy show and then in its relationship to the real world, which evidence suggests is a close and only slightly exaggerated one.
‘Yes Minister’ (1980-84) and ‘Yes Prime Minister’ (1986-88) were political satire sitcoms written by Oxford graduates Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. Jay had previously worked on the satirical shows ‘Tonight’ and ‘That Was The Week That Was’ in the 1960s before forming Video Arts with John Cleese in 1972. In 2007, he criticised the BBC and The Guardian for being ‘anti- establishment and anti-everything’, and said that the BBC staff had opinions at odds with the majority of the audience and the electorate. In 2008 he proposed, via a report, a radical reduction in the scale of the BBC’s activities. Jonathan Lynn was an actor and writer who later became a film director. Jay likened ‘Yes Minister’ to the British sitcom ‘Steptoe And Son’, with the younger idealist’s optimistic aspirations being tempered by the older person’s knowledge of what really goes on in the world. Lynnjoined the Cambridge Union and found that the prominent debaters were all ‘pompous, self-satisfied, self-important clowns’ who would later be front benchers and essentially play out the same scenes in Westminster.
Much of the material for the shows came from insider information given in the 1970s by Marcia Williams, former private secretary to Harold Wilson and a hugely influential and ‘troublesome’ figure to the former Prime Minister, and Bernard Donahue, who was head of 10 Downing Street’s political unit under Wilson and James Callaghan. These 2 sources spoke independently and off the record about how the system worked, and their identities were not revealed until much later. The 1974 publication of former Wilson Cabinet member Richard Crossman’s diaries also provided vital information, in particular on one episode that dealt specifically with troublesome diary revelations. The scenes in the show were all written to take place in private offices, rather than in parliament, because the writers realised through their sources that that’s where all the decisions had always taken place (and still do). The show has been compared with ‘1984’ in influencing the public’s view of the state, though as previously mentioned this has never quite cut through the essential trust that our leaders are foolish and corrupt but perhaps not to levels sinister enough to warrant any serious examination by the public at large. Interestingly, the pilot episode for the show had to be delayed until that year (1979)’s election, a fine example of the very politics that the show lampoons affecting the show itself before a single episode had even aired.
The Principal Characters
Jim Hacker– Minister of the (fictional) Department of Administrative Affairs (D.A.A.) and later Prime Minister. He formerly edited a (presumably progressive) newspaper called ‘Reform’.
Sir Humphrey Appleby– Permanent Secretary of the Department of Administrative Affairs and later Cabinet Secretary.
Bernard Woolley– Hacker’s Principal Private Secretary.
Sir Arnold Robinson– Cabinet Secretary (he is succeeded by Appleby but continues to appear in the show as his confidante).
Dorothy Wainwright– Chief Political Advisor to Prime Minister Hacker.
The Minister/Prime Minister Jim Hacker is essentially an idealist whose self-serving career aspirations supersede and force him to abandon his principles time and again, and whose eternal struggle is between his sense of duty to the public and some degree of conscience on one side versus his often desperate attempts at vote-winning, career advancement, and the fight to simply survive in the backstabbing cauldron of life inside the political arena. His own wife describes him as a ‘whisky priest’, the definition of which is ‘a priest who teaches higher morals while showing his own moral weakness’. A third element in Hacker’s delicate balancing act is his role as Party Chairman, where he must appear to be ‘a good party man’ and try to keep the factions of the party as united as possible amid constant small (and sometimes large) conflicts. Hacker’s Permanent Secretary and the head of his department, the D.A.A., is Sir Humphrey Appleby, who the writers saw as an embodiment in one character of the whole Civil Service ethos, seeing himself as a defender of the nation’s interests against the temporary whims of politicians who never see anything through.
This ‘temporary life’ for politicians is by design of course, as Cabinet reshuffles are used as a weapon against politicians who are starting to get things done and threaten Appleby and his cronies’s career and life of privilege, which depends on nothing ever changing, save minor and unavoidable concessions when absolutely necessary. Sir Humphrey sees Jim Hacker as the civil service’s front man, steering their policy through the cabinet and securing the department’s budget while they create activity for him, which could be overflowing ‘red boxes’ full of paperwork, crises, speeches, junkets, emergencies and even such panics as preserving badgers in Warwickshire!. Sir Humphrey actually tells his ministerial master to his face at one point that ‘you’re not here to run this department’, but generally he works more subtly, using his vast array of tricks and intelligence to bamboozle and sometimes blackmail the minister into taking the decisions that are best for Appleby and the status quo. His first exchange of the series with the newly-elected Hacker sets the tone, as they remember a previous meeting when Hacker’s party were in opposition:
JH- ‘Opposition is about answering tough questions’
Sir H- ‘And government is about not answering them’
JH- ‘Well, you answered all mine’
Sir H- ‘I’m glad you thought so, Minister’
Also in the first episode, we see the plotting of Appleby and the first evidence of him ‘house-training’ Hacker in the ways of survival and necessary compromises. With Hacker full of the need for open government, which to the Civil Service is ‘a contradiction in terms, you can either be open or be in government’, Sir Humphrey and Cabinet Secretary Sir Arnold quickly scheme to trap the patriotic Hacker over V.D.U.s (computer screens) produced in America. Hacker immediately tries to stop the order and order British ones, angering the Prime Minister, who unbeknownst to Hacker is trying to make moves to cultivate the ‘special relationship’ that has existed between Great Britain and the U.S.A. since the Second World War. Hacker is tricked into making a speech about it, Appleby playing on his patriotism and wish to criticise the previous government. He feigns ignorance of the consequences and finally Hacker, fearing one of the shortest government ministerial careers on record, asks whether they could hush it up (‘take a flexible posture’), thus making it temporarily at least ‘the closed season for open government’.
Today, Sir Humphrey is seen as a ‘comedy hero’, which may be true in the context of pure fiction, but as we’ve discussed and will see later, we can’t fully separate fact from fiction and so we are associating the word ‘hero’ with a person who is certainly morally warped by defending his precious career and could even be argued to have psychopathic tendencies. He is a ‘moral vacuum’ and jokingly refers to his hopes that the same tag will eventually be applied to his civil service underling and Hacker’s Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley, who is stuck in the middle and often involved in genuine moral quandaries. Officially, Woolley answers to the Minister, but he is at the same time having to manage his own career aspirations in the Civil Service, which are in part under the control of Sir Humphrey. Like Sir Humphrey and most of the civil service, he went to Oxford and studied Classics, ‘the study of the languages, culture, history and thought of the civilisations of Ancient Greece and Rome’. Sir Humphrey often schools Woolley on ‘the system’, a lot of which information Woolley then diplomatically passes on to Hacker. One can only admire the ability of the writers and performers to make comedy gold out of middle-aged men talking about horribly dry subjects, with no sex to tittilate the audience and with no more ‘action’ than Sir Humphrey sometimes rushing into a room to question one of Hacker’s decisions or stop him naively making a potentially damaging statement or address to the media.
There is a ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ element to the Hacker/Sir Humphrey relationship, where the servant is really pulling the strings while ever- so-politely deferring to his supposed master. He uses his superior breeding and command of language to either totally confuse him or fill him with fear, such as calling one of Hacker’s proposed policies ‘courageous’, the known implication being that ‘controversial loses votes, while courageous loses elections’. Even those in such revered positions as Prime Minister are dismissed by Sir Humphrey as ‘like actors- they just have to look plausible, stay sober and say the lines they’re given’. Sir Humphrey is an utter snob, which again puts Hacker in a position of inferiority, such as when The Employment Secretary plans to relocate 300,000 service personnel to the North to create jobs in areas like maintenance and administration, the only objection being that it’ll deny senior officers’ wives the delights of Henley, Wimbledon and their other customary social events. With the Cabinet mostly in agreement and no plausible objection to offer, Sir Humphrey decides to make Prime Minister Hacker paranoid by praising the Employment Secretary profusely, noting his popularity and talking of rumours of plots and him being touted as the next P.M. The Employment Secretary eventually resigns when he finds his proposal off the Cabinet agenda with no proper reason given, and he is quoted as referring to Hacker’s ‘dictatorial’ government. Sir Humphrey’s description of the Cabinet as ‘a loose confederation of warring tribes who can’t be trusted’ is mostly accurate and an effective weapon when required. This tactic of overpraising others to make Hacker feel threatened is explained by the idea that ‘you have to behind someone to stab them in the back’. However, the episodes were cleverly designed so that Hacker sometimes comes out on top, thus avoiding the show lapsing into predictability. Sometimes the desires of the politician and civil servant coincide, allowing them to team up to achieve victory, such as when their department is threatened with extinction.
Said department, the D.A.A., is Orwellian, a whole department set up to administrate administrators and to use or waste resources in order to make cuts in other departments. When Hacker proposes a 25% quota in women in top Civil Service positions in the next 4 years starting now, Sir Humphreys replies that ‘it takes time to do things now’, and the civil service code is apparently that ‘it takes longer to do things quickly, it’s more expensive to do them cheaply, and it’s more democratic to do them in secret’ (pure Orwell!). When Hacker does find a woman to offer a top job to in the civil service, she turns down the promotion and promptly resigns from the service, fed up of ‘circulating information not relevant about subjects that don’t matter to people who aren’t interested’, as well as the pointless intrigue and not wanting now to be Hacker’s trojan horse and ‘part of a 25% quota’. In another episode, Hacker hears of a hospital with 500 staff and no patients, because ‘they only get in the way’, a similar attitude as expressed by Basil Fawlty of the famous 1970s sitcom ‘Fawlty Towers’, who asserted that ‘running a hotel would be fine if it wasn’t for the bloody guests’. The hospital has not surprisingly won the Florence Nightingale award for cleanest hospital!Civil servants use unions and their threat of strikes to stop politicians closing useless sites that create jobs, such as the hospital ‘sans patients’. Gerald Scarfe’s animated opening titles provide warped caricatures of the main characters, clearly showing that what we are watching within the show is a distortion of reality, something not quite right.
Another interesting aspect is how Sir Humphrey, brilliantly played by the award-winning Nigel Hawthorne, often falls into spluttering incoherence and effects a ‘little boy lost’ face when confronted with situations he can’t get out of, such as the revealing of a gaffe he made as a young civil servant that cost millions of pounds, or indiscreet remarks made on a rare radio appearance when he believes the tapes have stopped rolling. Bernard Woolley has some wonderful lines, such as in the very first episode, where he compares ministers to chairs, stating that ‘some fold up instantly while others go round and round in circles’, and when he explains that ‘ministers can’t go anywhere without their briefs, in case they get caught with their trousers down!’, and his character is a vital third balancing element in the show. Episodes of the show typically start with Hacker wanting to effect change and usually being thwarted at every turn by the wily Sir Humphrey (despite the various civil service departments all agreeing ‘in principle’), who has seen previous ministers in Hacker’s position uncover the same areas of reform and so is well-skilled in stonewalling tactics, often with 5-point (or more) plans memorised that are tried and tested and almost guaranteed to have their desired effect of preventing progress and change. He usually assures Hacker that things will definitely be done but ‘in the fullness of time, in due course, when conditions allow, and at the appropriate juncture. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day’ etc…, phrases that Sir Humphrey occasionally finds used back at him on the rare occasions that he needs something done quickly, such as civil servants honours approval and pay rises.
Early on, Hacker realises that he’s trapped under the weight of contrived and tedious tasks and paperwork that are a hindrance to his genuine desire to make his mark, and in despair he laments that ‘there’s either so little information that you don’t know the facts or so much that you can’t find it’. Files are routinely buried, Woolley telling Hacker that in government speak and on official letters, a matter that is ‘under consideration’ means they’ve lost the file, and one ‘under active consideration’ means that they’re trying to find it. In a later episode, a reference is made to filing a document as the best way of keeping it hidden. As far as the information given to Hacker by the civil servants, the prime focus is to ensure that he can’t ask questions by preventing him from knowing that there’s something to ask. Cover ups are euphemised as ‘responsible discretion in the national interest to prevent unnecessary disclosures of justifiable procedures which may produce untimely revelations’. As he slowly learns how things work, Hacker eventually comes up with the classic observation that ‘you should never believe anything until it’s officially denied’, a line that astute observers of the real political world often quote and use themselves. It is interesting to consider whether some secrecy truly is necessary. Commenting on the aforementioned patientless hospital, Sir Humphrey not only defends its continued existence and administrative activity as ‘growth’ but states that ‘the public don’t care what’s done with their money as long as they don’t know about it’ (I can attest to this wilful ignorance and the feeling that the minutiae is boring, with a basic standard of living acceptable as long as the public get their treats. Even a ‘credit crunch’ can be laughed about, as I saw with a performer at an open mic singing his ‘credit crunch blues’ to the delight of the audience, most of whom probably didn’t even know what this new media buzzword actually meant). This same kind of logic is used with the issue of the expensive nuclear defence system known as Trident, Sir Humphrey explaining that ‘the defence policy is to make people secure, and Trident is good because it costs billions of pounds. If people start thinking, they’ll start talking and questioning, which is ultimately bad for everyone’. We all like to think that deep-down we are truth seekers but do we really want to know the truth about everything? Would carnivores enjoy a trip to an abattoir to see exactly how their meat is extracted and processed? Do smokers, even those who profess to genuinely enjoy it and not want to give up the habit, want to see the true state of their lungs? Do any of us want to know what precisely is in our food? Sir Humphrey may have a point, on this occasion.
After 3 series of watching this power struggle play out while Hacker is Minister of the D.A.A., the 1984 Christmas special ‘Party Games’ finally brings us to a major and crucial development in his seemingly stagnant career. The rather unlikely scenario plays out like this: While negotiating the remarkably complicated procedure for giving Christmas cards and presents, for example having to sign different cards as Minister, Party Chairman and just plain Jim etc.., with a bottle of champagne being ‘the customary surprise gift’, Hacker learns of the Prime Minister’s sudden resignation amid rumours of his being an agent for the other side. Just prior to this, Cabinet Secretary Sir Arnold Robinson has taken early retirement, with Sir Humphrey getting promoted to be his replacement after assuring Sir Arnold that he is up to the main job requirement of ‘finding questions rather than answers’ while discreetly offering to arrange various chairmanships for the outgoing Cabinet Secretary. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary are the front runners for the job of Prime Minister, both of them at the same time offering Hacker their jobs in exchange for his support as Party Chairman while also threatening him if he betrays them. Seeing that both are ‘interventionists with firm ideas’, the scheming Sir Arnold and Sir Humphrey agree on a compromise candidate with ‘an open, uncluttered mind’ who can be controlled. The Chancellor and Foreign Secretary’s MI5 files are exposed, revealing sexual and financial scandals that persuade them both to withdraw, while Hacker hints to both that he’ll help them keep their jobs if they support his own bid for the job. A public triumph is contrived for Hacker where he successfully prevents the British sausage (which contains only 30% meat) from being renamed the ‘Euro Sausage’, using the well-known trick of giving the press ‘bad news today and great news tomorrow’ for maximum impact and giving a passionate patriotic speech about encroaching European regulations and the ‘unshakeable British resolve’. With all the usual profile-raising by way of a T.V. appearance, Hacker becomes probably the most unlikely Prime Minister ever, his face a mixture of pride and utter terror as he receives the news.
With the series now renamed ‘Yes Prime Minister’ but retaining the same 3- character dynamic as before (i.e Hacker supposedly in charge and Sir Humphrey and Bernard playing the roles of unofficial advisor and assistant respectively), subtle changes occur. Hacker starts to assert himself and realise his power, the change described by the writers as like ‘a mouse who learns to be a rat’. He gets to school Sir Humphrey on dealing with the media after the latter’s indiscreet remarks and perhaps realises that the weightier topics he now has to deal with in his new job, such as ‘the nuclear question’, demand more worldliness. He is less naive now, showing an awareness of the world that comes with the job, describing a move from the House of Commons to the House of Lords as going from ‘the animals to the vegetables’ and famously saying to Bernard:
‘Don’t tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers: the Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; the The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; and The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is’ (his thunder only slightly stolen by Bernard’s remark about readers of The Sun that ‘they don’t care who runs the country as long as she’s got big tits!’).
He also acquires a very capable political advisor called Dorothy Wainwright, who is presumably at least partly based on Marcia Williams though without her destuctive qualities. Sir Humphrey of course has a huge problem with ‘that Wainwright female’, who he patronisingly addresses as ‘dear lady’ and who he clearly sees as enough of a threat to try to get her moved away from Hacker to stop her seeing what’s going on and revealing plots against him. The struggle between these competing factions and ideologies (or lack thereof) comes out about even in the show, with another famous episode involving Dorothy suggesting changing the locks on the communicating door between the Cabinet Office and the PM’s office to prevent Sir Humphrey coming in whenever he feels like it. He’s also forbidden from entering through no 10’s front door, so he tries through the garden, is spotted by Hacker, Bernard Woolley and Dorothy and waves weakly, Nigel Hawthorne again giving a brilliant performance of Sir Humphrey’s regression to the look of a small child in vulnerable situations. On this occasion, Hacker gets an office for Dorothy near to him in return for giving Sir Humphrey a new key. On another occasion, Dorothy opposes the routine awarding of the civil service’s ‘sacrificial’ pay rises after finding proposals for a 43% pay rise for top civil servants buried in a very long report, and she also suggests that civil servants be obliged to choose between honours or pensions. She feeds insightful questions to Hacker but is overheard by Woolley, who quickly briefs Sir Humphrey, a good example of how the now 4-person dynamic works. Former Cabinet Secretary Sir Arnold recommends increasing the London allowance and Outstanding Merit Awards, neither of which count as salary, and classifying less people as civil servants in order to successfully lower the increase figure down to 6%.
Dorothy appears to be a genuine reformer, which makes her even more of a problem for the Civil Service. Among her other proposals and suggestions are an idea to make local government genuinely accountable to the people, with local MPs responsible for a small number of residents and a large local council reporting to a smaller executive council, the scheme to be called ‘Hacker’s Reform Bill’. Sir Humphrey of course prefers to centralise power in a ‘British democracy’, ‘a civilised, aristocratic government machine tempered by occasional general elections’. Dorothy’s proposal even shocks a so-called progressive called Agnes Moorhouse, who calls ordinary people ‘simple’ and finds herself allied with Sir Humphrey to stop this intrusion of actionable people power. Hacker eventually decides that the people aren’t ready for genuine democracy, showing that in the end all in power are allied by not wanting to risk losing their comfortable positions. On another occasion, Dorothy gets Hacker out of trouble when the head of the National Theatre, Simon Monk, takes him to task for prioritising nuclear spending over the arts and attempts to blackmail him regarding such examples of government waste (fed to him by Sir Humphrey) as employing a toenail-cutting administrator, and demolishing an expensive office block after just 2 weeks. Dorothy proposes funding plays in more provincial areas away from the National Theatre, which serves to clearly show Monk’s self- interest rather than his passion about theatre as a whole. She also suggests to P.M. Hacker the idea of abolishing the Department of Education and having a national education service where parents choose schools and schools get paid per pupil. Once again without a real objection to work with, Sir Humphrey and Sir Arnold are nevertheless appalled, admitting that it’s a good scheme but ‘only for parents and children, not for anyone who matters’.
Hacker’s gradual realisation of his power brings to mind the famous scene from the rather profound animated film ‘A Bug’s Life’ (see links below), where the head grasshopper, remembering that one tiny ant stood up to him, explains why they go back and steal the ant’s food every year even when they don’t actually need it, the reason being that if the ants ever figure out their substantial advantage in numbers, ‘they might ALL stand up to us’. Later in the film, as the ants finally confront the grasshoppers, one makes the astute observation that ‘you depend on us’. These are the kind of ideas rarely talked about or expanded to the people, though the Occupy movement of a few years ago has left one defining legacy in its identification of the 1% who hold the majority of power and assets against the 99.9% who, like the ants, struggle to realise their consdiderable advantage in one respect at least. (In actuality, the terms ‘super-rich’ or ‘mega-rich’ apply to around 100,000 individuals in the U.S.A, which equates to roughly 0.0004% of that country’s adult population). The idea of the rich depending on the poor is well-known, not only in the clear but rarely- mentioned fact that the poor pay interest on loans received from banks while the rich keep their money sitting in bank accounts accumulating this same interest that the poor worked to pay off. ‘Yes Minister’ clearly alludes to this tentative need for the rich and privileged to keep the underclass under enough control to not threaten their elitist position while preventing an actual revolution by throwing them occasional crumbs and keeping them fighting amongst themselves. This last aspect of in- fighting is enabled by the media system of clear affiliations to competing ideologies that serve to put people in camps, playing on our tribal natures to avoid us ever coming together as one. I refer the reader back to an earlier blog post of mine called ‘The Money Myth Exploded’ where the banker, washed up on an island along with skilled and harmonious ‘ordinary men’, creates and prints newspapers with competing ideologies which blame each other for the problems of the world in order to deliberately disrupt the existing harmony and create rivalries. Disharmony is now such a common and accepted thing in society that nobody ever seeks to find its root source and causes.
On the subject of ideologies, a crucial aspect of ‘Yes Minister’ is Sir Humphrey’s lack of it, a necessity of the job considering that his job and its potential pitfalls remain the same whoever is in power. He admits at various times that ‘I’m not pro-or-anti anything’ and, when challenged with the idea that he might be a spy who believes in Communism, defends himself with the passionate assertion that ‘I’ve never believed in anything in my life!’. The left-right, liberal-conservative paradigm which is such a necessary illusion is shown to be just a state of mind or a linguistic tool when it is shown that the civil service pulls the strings no matter which ideology is supposedly in power. As Sir Humphrey says to Bernard:
‘I have served eleven governments in the past thirty years. If I had believed in all their policies, I would have been passionately committed to keeping out of the Common Market, and passionately committed to going into it. I would have been utterly convinced of the rightness of nationalising steel and also of denationalising it and renationalising it. On capital punishment, I’d have been a fervent retentionist and an ardent abolitionist. I would’ve been a Keynesian and a Friedmanite, a grammar school preserver and destroyer, a nationalisation freak and a privatisation maniac; but above all, I would have been a stark, staring, raving schizophrenic.’
Hacker on one occasion, early on in his ministry, meets his opposition D.A.A. predecessor (his supposed enemy) and is told by him of Sir Humphrey’s standard stalling techniques, which include questioning the method and timing of a particular measure, pointing out various technical, political and legal difficulties, proposing waiting until the next election and burying important memos in red boxes among other documents. Who is the real enemy? The reader may want to point out to those who really believe in the left-right paradigm that the ever-changing, periodic swings in power between the top 2 parties in countries like the United Kingdom and the U.S.A implies that the citizens continually swing between liberal and conservative, whereas in fact most elections come down to a few regions of ‘swing voters’, which in England are the ‘marginal constituencies’ that Jim Hacker is so afraid of upsetting. In reality, it is good marketing and the presentation of the image of ‘man/woman of the people’ that swings elections, and Noam Chomsky is fond of pointing out that Barack Obama’s 2009 Presidential Campaign was awarded 2 major prizes by the marketing industry in that year.
Both the shallowness and power of presentation are brilliantly illustrated on 2 particular occasions in ‘Yes Minister’. A profound speech mishap occurs when Hacker as Minister visits a local city farm and starts a speech saying that ‘the world is changing fast, we live in a world of change. The quality of life is becoming more and more important, and the environment and conservation, problems of pollution, the future of our children and our children’s children, these are today’s issues’ before suddenly making reference to concerns about high-rise buildings as we find that he’s got the farm speech confused with one he gave to the Architectural Society the previous day. The big laugh comes when he finds the right speech and it is basically the same with the relevant names changed. In one of the finest episodes of ‘Yes Prime Minister’, titled ‘The Ministerial Broadcast’, the broadcast in question is Hacker’s first to the nation as their new premier. Aside from the usual cliches of ‘go forward together, a better tomorrow, tighten our belts, all pull together, heal the wounds of the past etc…’, there are a myriad of other things to take into consideration such as whether to wear glasses (on means authoritative and commanding, off means honest and open, on and then off means indecisive), leaning (forward looks like someone selling insurance, too far back looks like he’s had a liquid lunch). If sentences are too long, people have forgotten the beginning by the time you reach the end, and sincerity is achieved by frowning and making the desired point more slowly than usual. At one point, Hacker is given a sample speech which he greatly likes, which turns out to be a recent speech by the opposition. A dark suit means traditional values while a light colour is businesslike, and a mixture might suggest an identity problem. A very modern suit, high-energy wallpaper and abstract paintings can disguise the absence of any real content in the speech. For the music, Back signifies new ideas, while Stravinsky reflects no change, and Hacker finds the need to employ some of these techniques when Sir Humphrey manages to persuade him not to reveal his grand design on an unsuspecting nation.
REALITY VS FICTION
Paul Eddington (Jim Hacker) went to Australia during the ‘Yes Prime Minister’ run and was treated like a statesman. Writer Jonathan Lynn believes that had Eddington run for office as Jim Hacker (with Lynn writing his speeches), he could have won. Very interestingly, Eddington believed that this ‘would bring the whole edifice tumbling down in ruins’ and refused. This is interesting because collapse is naturally seen as bad, as is anarchy, which by the power of language is inextricably linked with chaos. Fans often can’t separate fact from fiction, whether in comedy shows, drama series or soap operas, and there’s also the idea of entertainment winning people over documentary evidence, even when it’s satirical and mocking the ‘clear but hidden’ reality of politics. It is comedic and slightly tragic to find that the fiercely-guarded fortress of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un happily opened its doors to former basketball star and occasional cross-dresser Dennis Rodman, and politicians appearing on dancing programmes have an excellent opportunity to improve their image and careers in what American actor John Cusack calls ‘rock ‘n’ roll politics’. This phenomenon started in earnest with the 1960 John F. Kennedy/ Richard Nixon presidential debates, where those on radio thought Nixon won while the television audience saw it totally differently, JFK’s obvious allure compared to the under-the-weather, un made-up, square- jawed and average-looking Nixon apparently overriding the strength of the debating and policy content. The internet age and all the technological options for masking reality blur this line more and more, which I personally believe is by design, and this can lead to an apathetic surrender to the impossibility of finding any real truth, save that which is right in front of one’s own eyes.
Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister in the 1980s, said that ‘Yes Minister’ was her favourite programme and implied that it was at least partly true. However, many believe that, save for some inevitable comedic exaggeration, it was almost all true, in tone if not in each specific storyline. As if fact and fiction weren’t confused enough, Mrs Thatcher used the occasion of the show winning an award from the National Viewers and Listeners Association to both present the award and also to act in a short sketch apparently written by her (but actually by her Chief Press Secretary Sir Bernard Ingham) and performed along with the privately reluctant Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne (Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby). A t.v. advertisment for the chocolate bar ‘Wispa’ in the 1980s had Hacker and Sir Humphrey deciding to ‘hush up’ in a whisper how good it tasted. Perhaps the reason for the longevity of the show is exemplified by writer Jonathan Lynn finding out in 1986 that the lead stories in the Daily Telegraph (nicknamed the ‘Torygraph’ in England) in 1956, i.e exactly 30 years previously, were basically the same, namely ‘Should Britain be in Europe?’, ‘Does the special relationship between Britain and the U.S.A. threaten European stability?’, ‘How can we avert/should we be involved in potential wars in the Middle East?’, and ‘What should be done about unemployment?’. This is apparently kkown and accepted by the educated public, so why the fanfare when a new, well-marketed leader like Barack Obama arrives to take the hot seat. After watching ‘Yes Minister’, is political change really to be achieved through the current system? The mainstream are resolute in their corporate need to sell papers while simultaneously joining to pillory any voices that cut to the core of the system’s problems, such as Ron Paul in America or UKIP (the UK Independence Party) in England.
Several episodes of ‘Yes Minister/Prime Minister’ had direct links to real events. Labour M.P. Tony Benn once revealed that the drivers of the top ministers had worked out that Prime Minister Harold Wilson was about to retire when he decided that all former P.M.s should get a government car, and the idea of drivers being privy to more information than the ministers themselves was a recurrent theme in the show. Another episode features a political advisor to the P.M. called Sir Mark Spencer, his name a pun on a well-known British high street chain and a nod to the fact of top businessmen becoming political advisors, such as Lord Sainsbury. The Qumran ‘operations room’ situation, where alcohol was smuggled in from the Embassy of the ‘dry’ country for the officials to consume, was based on an actual event. The show featuring Dr Thorne’s proposed ban on tobacco advertising and smoking in public places predated the real enaction of the same bill. Also, Philip Morris in the Czech Republic issued a 2001 cost-benefit analysis of smoking similar to Sir Humphrey’s, finding that smokers’ early mortality and cigarette-tax revenue outweighed the costs of health-care and lost tax revenue from early death. The invasion of the tiny ‘St George’s Island’ in one ‘Yes Prime Minister’ episode is a reference to the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada, whose capital is called St. George’s, and nobody knowing where the island is is a reference to the general ignorance about the location of the Falkland Islands, over which Britain and Argentina fought a short war in 1982. The resignation of a top secretary of state over a defence issue and his subsequent casting of doubt on the Prime Minister’s integrity and honesty is a reference to the resignation of Michael Heseltime, who openly accused Margaret Thatcher of lying over the ‘Westland Affair’, where there was a split over whether to bail the Westland Aircraft Company out with a European or American merger. As mentioned earlier, the episode depicting a controversy over Hacker’s predecessor’ memoirs is similar to that of the Richard Crossman diaries in 1974. The civil service leaking information different to the government position happened with the Clive Ponting over the sinking of the Belgrano. Finally, a 2004 release of Cabinet papers in 2004 revealed that a French Security Officer had smuggled hugh explosives into the French Embassy in London in 1984 to test British security (just a few days after the Brighton Bombing), which was depicted in the episode of ‘Yes Prime Minister’ which dealt with Anglo-French squabbles and struggles over the building of the Channel Tunnel.
There have been many retrospectives shows about ‘Yes Minister’, which openly discuss its disclosure of government lies and corruption but always with a strange tone of affection. Clearly, nobody wants to go too far to actually upset the establishment at its core, so lampooning it is, I suppose, a kind of middle ground and a happy medium for those who wish to vent their own frustrations in a light way while enhancing rather than threatening their careers. The miracle of ‘Yes Minister’ is, as pointed out earlier, its simultaneous brilliance and profundity and also how the comedy seems to override the seriousness of serial lying to the public, including the loss of lives in the most awful way in illegal and contrived wars. Even if the public maybe do ‘get it’ (i.e understand) subconsciously, there is a need for entertainment, the ‘bread and circuses’ of Roman times, and T.V. must generally be light if it wants to win viewers. Antony Jay, who wrote party political broadcasts for Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s, the era of her premiership and the show’s run, says smilingly that the show ‘stands up well’. Doesn’t it just?!
The radio documentary ‘The View From Whitehall’, narrated by former Opposition leader and now Foreign Secretary William Hague was another affectionate look at Yes Minister’s relationship with the reality of ‘the corridors of power’, with Hague jokingly mentioning the arms to Iraq scandal and revealing that top politicians laughed till they cried when viewing the ‘Yes Prime Minister’ episode about arms deals. Hague feigns ignorance of the continual intrigue and secrecy around Whitehall, there is talk of ‘occasional agendas’ and joking reference to the drivers of the top politicians knowing more about what’s really going on than their masters, as the show portrayed. Kenneth Clarke, who was a cautious, tight-lipped source for the show, was rather bizarrely quoted as saying that ‘Yes Minister was too close to the truth to be shown to the general public’. Another contributor notes the similarity between the Jim Hacker Diaries and the real-life ones of Alistair Campbell. The writers apparently didn’t use some of the real-life stories they were fed by their sources, believing them to be too unbelievable for the public to swallow.
A BBC documentary called ‘The Secret World of Whitehall’ was, for a mainstream production, quite revealing, as we learned that the Cabinet Office was the scene for the thrashing out of the 2010 Conservative/Liberal Democrats coalition (which was almost a Labour/Lib Dems coalition, calling into question how different the main 2 parties really are). We learn that the Cabinet Secretary, referred to as ‘the real Sir Humphrey’, gets to read secret papers that even the all-powerful Prime Minister does not get to read, and Peter Mandelson states that the Cab Sec ‘exercises discretion like the calcium in his bones’, an interesting quote when you note the documentary’s Sir Humphrey reference and the continual use of ‘discretion’ in ‘Yes Minister’ as another comedic euphemism for secrecy and deviousness. The documentary discloses that Prime Minister Anthony Eden ordered the burning of papers that would have proved government lies regarding the Suez Crisis, where Britain and France came in as ‘bomb-dropping peacemakers’ to aid the Israeli assault on Egypt to assume control of the Suez Canal, a move intended to appear spontaneous but which was clearly planned in advance. Mr Downing, who the famous Downing Street residence of the Prime Minister is named after, is revealed to have been an ex-spy, and the street once contained pubs and whorehouses among its ‘jerry-built’ (i.e. shoddily- built) houses. The relationship between the P.M. and his Cabinet Secretary is revealed to depend somewhat on how much the P.M. chooses to take control, with Margaret Thatcher apparently announcing the conclusions of meetings at their outset and daring her colleagues to challenge them.
The houses at the back of no. 10 & 11 Downing Street, where the P.M and Chancellor live, are described as a cross between strategy rooms and a student union building, an interesting description considering Jonathan Lynn’s comparison between his Cambridge Union debating experiences and those of Parliament. The documentary mentions various conflicts and scandals, including P.M. James Callaghan’s split with his cabinet and advisors on the terms of an IMF loan to ease Britain’s mounting debt, Harold Wilson’s health problems caused by ‘Yes Minister’ source and the first official Political Advisor Marcia Williams, Wilson’s ‘socialist conscience against the reactionary bureaucrats’. Williams had a hold over Wilson and caused him ill health, leading his doctor to offer to ‘do away with her’. Mrs Thatcher’s ‘special economic advisor’ managed to force out Chancellor Lawson in the 1980s, and Tony Blair had 30 special advisors called SPADS, a post once held by current Coalition leaders David Cameron and Nick Clegg and in fact by 4 out of 5 opposition candidates in 2010. and . Jo Moore, SPAD to transport minister Stephen Byers, famously sent an email on 9/11 saying that it was a good day to bury bad news, such as councillors’ expenses scandals. Gordon Brown’s ‘attack dog’ Darren McBride caused a scandal when emails of his were leaked that suggested a smear campaign against Tory ministers and their wives, and Blair and Brown’s advisors organised smear campaigns against the other party, including the infamous claim about Brown being ‘psychologically flawed’. Smears, black arts and dirty tricks are all admitted but perhaps accurately described as necessary for survival and are not particularly hidden if perhaps glossed over and usually forgotten in the ever-changing ‘news cycle’ that undoubtedly dictates the views of the world of most of the general public, despite their apparent scepticism about those who govern them.
For another fictional look at politics and the role of advisors in general, the BBC comedy ‘The Thick of It’, a sitcom described alternatively as ‘Yes Minister for the 21st century’ or ‘Yes Minister with swearing’ is very entertaining but more exaggerated. A spin-off film ‘In The Loop’ is, in this author’s opinion, an example of where comedy is bad for those seeking change, as it manages to spoof the run-up to the illegal and monumentally destructive invasion of Iraq in 2003 without offering much in the way of profound insights and the seriousness that this event deserves amongst the obvious agenda of the comedy genre. For those who can stomach it, Canadian philosopher Stefan Molyneux offers a brutal examination of the true destruction of this invasion (link below), which is worth watching for the case of full knowledge and to wonder how this has been allowed to slide into history with little or no recrimination (perhaps i’ll email it to our Middle East Special Envoy Mr Blair!).
What is left to be said? Well, plenty really. Having rewatched every episode of ‘Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister’, I was left amazed at its quality and how many points of interest it brought up, but weaving it all together into one coherent whole is a task that could potentially be a whole book in itself. Examples of the truism that ‘every man has his price’ and the obvious weaknesses of those corrupted with the cocaine-like addictive drug of power are legion in ‘Yes Minister’ as well as in any single edition of the long-running ‘Private Eye’ and at various times in the daily papers, and there are too many to individually highlight, so instead here is a random selection of vignettes and quotes of interest from ‘Yes Minister and ‘Yes Prime Minister’, the common thread being that the system and the characters it attracts all tend to create traps which protect the status quo and are almost impossible to get around.
-When the President of the small African nation of Burundi is planning a speech urging Scots to ‘cast off the imperialist yoke’, we learn that Britain’s Foreign Secretary gets his news from the television, and that there are 6 options for dealing with this kind of problem: do nothing, issue a deploring statement, lodge an official protest, cut off aid, break diplomacy or declare war. Sir H knows to limit the options of the ministers, who to a man like proposals that are quick, simple, popular and cheap, rather than complicated, lengthy, expensive and controversial
-Sir Humphrey waits until ministers are in a hurry before giving them things to sign that are possibly against their best interests. In the aforementioned episode where Hacker visits the city farm and professes his love of nature over ‘concrete jungles’, he’s told that he approved an order for a car park for Inland Revenue inspectors on the site of the same farm while rushing out for an important meeting.
-One regular theme of the show is pressure to cut administration costs. The civil service are adept at making illusory cuts by redesignating certain costs as ‘technical’ and rearranging dates. The biggest fear is a ‘full independent inquiry’ but this can be managed if the inquiry chairman is ‘sound’, for example a civil servant looking for a peerage.
-According to Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley, the design and building of motorways in Britain depends on where the permanent secretary went to university, so at that time there were more motorways going to Oxford than Cambridge.
-Jim Hacker’s economy drive is stymied by having to make his own savings and cut down on a few luxuries, forcing him to weigh up this inconvenience against the positive press coverage that his sacrifices garner.
-While Hacker is trying to decide whether to take a ‘comfort over progress’ position in the E.E.C and pondering the country’s foreign policy, Sir Humphrey tells Bernard that Britain has had the same policy for 500 years, namely to create a disunited Europe, to divide and rule. The only question is whether to do this from the outside as before or from within.
-To Sir Humphrey and Sir Arnold, both M.P.s and civil servants need to be sound, discreet and ‘morally flexible’. Questions are often planted to back benchers to catch out a minister trying to ‘do things’. Meanwhile, surveillance is justified by the buzzwords of ‘terrorist’, ‘fanatic’ etc…, (just like today).
-The Foreign Office, whose secretary usually gets his news from the television, are usually given 3 options for important foreign policy moves, 2 of which are basically the same and a third totally implausible. (American comedian George Carlin talked of ‘the illusion of choice’, which is undoubtedly a common tactic to preserve power).
-In the episode that deals with The British Chemical Corporation being offered a huge contract by the Italians to manufacture ‘metadioxin’, similar to the known-to-be-toxic ‘dioxin’, we learn that the person charged with investigating and then writing a report on a sensitive topic can be discredited by saying he holds a grudge or is seeking a consultancy job with a multi-national corporation, which it seems most are at some point. Other standard ways of planting doubts are to talk of ‘a loss in public confidence’ (i.e. votes). When the ‘metadioxin’ report comes out in favour of the contract going ahead, Hacker is put in an impossible situation by the system of newspapers in Britain. If he stops the contract, the Times and Telegraph will accuse him of cowardice; if he lets it go, The Sun and Mirror accuse him of murdering unborn babies.
-On the subject of newspapers, the phrase ‘restricted information’ means that said information was in the papers yesterday, while ‘confidential’ information will be in the papers today’. In addition, the government ‘must always tell the press everything that they could find out anyway’.
-‘A speech is not to prove the truth, it’s so nobody else can prove you’re lying’.
-To the misoginistic civil servants trying to explain why women don’t get top jobs, ‘married women have too many responsibilities, while unmarried ones are not well-rounded enough’. It’s Catch-22 (sub-paragraph A!)’.
-Leak enquiries never achieve anything. If civil servants have leaked, it seems unfair to blame them as it’s the role of the politicians to take the fall. If other ministers are responsible for the leak, it’s dangerous because it could expose further information about leaks, most of which apparently originate from the Prime Minister
-Opinion polls are fixed to achieve whatever result is desired. For example, if the questions ask if you are worried about youth unemployment, a high crime rate and lack of discipline, and believe in teaching leadership skills and offering the young a challenge, you would be for National Service. However, if the questions ask about the fear of war, the growth of armaments, giving youngsters arms against their will and training them to kill, you would be against it.
-Sir Humphrey believes that as people who die prematurely from smoking cost the taxpayer less than they would in pensions and social security if they lived longer, they are ‘laying down their lives for the good of all’ . To Sir H, moral principles are ‘a selfish indulgence’, and emotion must take a backseat to cool decision-making. Sir Humphrey also calls smoking restrictions a blow against freedom (in this case, the freedom to slowly kill yourself).
-The standard excuses for not disclosing potentially damaging files, namely that they have ‘security implications’, were destroyed in floods and/or lost in the move to new premises, can potentially stop any or all files being released. If an inquiry or new policy is a failure, it can be said that ‘heavy cuts in staff and budget stretched resources’, it was ‘a worthwhile experiment that created jobs’, a certain action was ‘done before important facts were known’, or said failure was ‘a lapse by an individual which is being dealt with internally’.
-Sir Humphrey thinks that you should ‘never look into anything you don’t have to, and never set up a report unless you know the outcome’, as ‘government is about stability, not morality’. Hacker concludes that as an idealist, you must do the right thing without anyone noticing, and politics is about helping people, even in some cases ‘friendly terrorists’ (a.k.a freedom fighters).
-When Hacker first becomes Prime Minister, he learns about the ‘nuclear question’ and also that P.M.s don’t have personal cooks and that his wife is too busy to make him lunch. He muses that ‘I have the power to blow up the world but not to ask for scrambled eggs!’.
-When the post of new Governor of the Bank of England is about to be awarded, the civil service and top bankers are looking for the right man who will agree to a bailout (at the taxpayers’ expense) and a cover-up of ‘indiscreet dealings’. When Hacker wants to appoint ‘Mr Clean’ for the job, Sir Humphrey mentions that if all other methods of discrediting the writer of an unfavourabe report fail, you can hint at homosexuality or adultery, depending on his sexual preference. He also tries to defend embezzlement and bribery as ‘unsecured temporary loans invested unluckily’.
-When Hacker is found and photographed drunk as a lord outside the French Embassy, the friendlier papers describe his condition as ‘tired and emotional’.
The following links relate to topics mentioned in this article and are all well worth looking at:
https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=yes+minister – the numerous clips available will give those not familiar with the show a good flavour of it
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Series/YesMinister – a guide to some of the tropes (conventions and devices found within creative works) employed in the show
– ‘They ALL might stand up to us’ – scene from ‘A Bug’s Life’