Commentary Magazine


Yes Minister — From the 1980s, A Practical Guide to Politics in 2008

During this season of strenuously given promises for political “change,” I find myself  turning to the DVDs of Yes Minister, the 1980-84 BBC sitcom I’ve been watching via Netflix. (British shows require less commitment than American ones; Yes Minister aired only 22 episodes over those four years, then inspired a less well-regarded sequel of 16 more, Yes Prime Minister.) Yes Minister ruthlessly satirizes the way idealistic politicians find themselves stumbling into the gears of bureaucracy that may be greased by their carcasses or may spit them out — but in any case will keep running smoothly. 

The series is an advanced seminar in political reality. Member of Parliament and newly elected cabinet  minister Jim Hacker arrives at his office — he’s the new head of the Department of Administrative Affairs — ready to clean up government. He wants less waste, more transparency and fewer perks for office-holders. He is opposed at every turn by his Permanent Secretary, a natty, smiling, witty and unfailingly courteous blot on Hacker’s ambitions. The Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, parries every effort to improve government, sometimes out of direct self-interest (planning to retire one day and take a sinecure at a bank, he helps guide the bank’s application to add six stories to its headquarters despite the minister’s pleas that the move would mar the beauty of the skyline). More often Sir Humphrey seems to act out of an instinctive sense that the way things have always been done is the correct way.

By the end of the first episode, when Sir Humphrey has briskly shoved Hacker’s political consultant to the side and proven his own indispensability by withholding a press release that would have destroyed the minister’s career, it’s clear both that Hacker can’t function without Sir Humphrey — and can’t accomplish anything with him around. And the follies begin.

Sir Humphrey loves red tape, overstaffing, centralized planning and needless regulation. The more complicated everything is, the more power civil servants have. In one classic episode about a just-completed hospital that has 500 employees but no patients, Sir Humphrey gives an eloquent explanation why every employee is absolutely necessary. In another episode, in which it is revealed that a hangar used only to store copper wire is kept heated at 70 degrees at all times, Sir Humphrey privately reveals to Hacker the real reason — employees have been growing mushrooms there since 1945, the only perk in a tedious job — but in a public hearing frames the issue as one of compassion and welfare. The workers, he announces, spend a great deal of time going in and out of the building, and it can get cold there in winter.

In the same episode, Sir Humphrey argues that office supplies, the purchase of which is centrally directed at a cost of four times the retail price, must continue to be requisitioned through a central authority because otherwise the power of “considerable government patronage” would be placed in the hands of junior staff.

Every reform Hacker proposes is a noble one, yet the reason why each is shot down also makes a loony kind of sense. As Sir Humphey puts it in one of many hilarious aphorisms, “There’s an implicit pact offered to every minister by his senior officials. If the minister will help us to implement the opposite policy to the one he’s pledged to — which once he’s in office he will see is obviously incorrect — we will help him to pretend that he is in fact doing what he said he was going to do in his manifesto.” You can hear the clank and whirr of those forklifts, laden with regulations, that Bill Clinton and Al Gore drove cheerfully around for the cameras when they first arrived in the White House before they added mountains of more regulations. And when Hacker grasps his lapel and delivers his next big idea, he has a habit of slurring his words into Churchillian tones of righteousness that make you giggle at the gap, known to all except him, between principle and reality. One pictures Barack Obama arriving in the White House and discovering that rhetorical splendor doesn’t hold anyone’s taxes down or improve anyone’s health care.

The work of two remarkable satirists, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, Yes Minister has more to say about politics than a hundred pundits all speaking simultaneously.

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