The lasting harm done by a great television series: ‘Yes, Minister’

A friend recently expressed puzzlement that That Was The Week That Was (TW3), the old British satirical television show of the early 1960s, had done ‘real political damage’, whereas Yes Minister had not. Climbing onto a trusty hobby-horse, I replied that in my view Yes Minister, broadcast from 1980, and Yes, Prime Minister, from 1986, had done much greater and more lasting damage than TW3 – not so much to contemporary politicians in the way that TW3 had done, but rather to public perceptions of the character, behaviour and ethics of senior public servants, and of their relationships with elected ministers. Of course that damage is hard to quantify. Because it was so funny, so beautifully written and performed, and its characters were so convincing, it planted ineradicably in the public mind the image of the senior British public servant as unprincipled, deceitful, cynical, snobbish, reactionary, hidebound, disloyal to and constantly at odds with his political masters, scheming and devious, working to a self-serving secret agenda that is often inimical to the public interest (and almost invariably incompatible with the policies of the elected government), defeatist, secretive, resistant to change, and guided by an ethic whose sole principle is the protection of the unaccountable power of the bureaucracy. Even now, all these years after the series ended, everyone recognises the frequent references to "Sir Humphrey", a short-hand name for all the characteristics listed above. The description of the top bureaucrat projected by Yes Minister is grossly misleading and unjust in almost every particular, but has been absorbed wholesale into the conventional wisdom precisely because there is a grain of truth in so many of the serious accusations implicit in it, and real life experience can therefore be made to seem to confirm the portrait as realistic; the accused guilty as charged.

This has produced a culture of contempt for and suspicion of our public service which has played some part (I wouldn’t say decisive, but certainly contributory) in enabling successive governments, starting with those of Thatcher and enthusiastically continuing with those of Major/Heseltine and Blair, to destroy the political independence of the public service: its ability to give ministers disinterested and if necessary unwelcome advice without fear of adverse personal career consequences; its existence as a unified body serving all government departments with a transparent, impartial and unified salary and promotion structure; its virtual immunity from corruption; its role in providing some continuity of public policy and advice based on objective experience; its sense of responsibility for ensuring that government decisions are properly recorded and accountable – in short, almost all the benefits of the Northcote Trevelyan reforms of 1853 whose 150th anniversary we ought to have been, but weren’t, celebrating last year.

I risk sounding naive when I say that until the public service was laid waste by intermittently gung-ho and ignorant governments from about 1982 to the present day (with barely a bat-squeak of protest from complacent parliamentarians or complicit media gurus), the great majority of our most senior civil servants, and even some diplomats, were motivated chiefly by an honourable public service ethos which included:
* active loyalty to the policies of elected ministers as well as to the overall national interest;
* acceptance that after warnings and forecasts had been properly aired, it was the right of ministers to decide what they wanted to do;
* the application of serious effort to make a success of the execution of ministerial policies, whatever one’s personal view of them;
* resistance to the temptation to cut corners in a way that might be laudable in a business environment but that is incompatible with proper public accountability in the public sector; and
* a commitment to the public interest rather than to personal enrichment or material gain.

We pay a heavy price in bad decisions and lack of democratic accountability for the loss of most of these elements in our public life, and for that Yes Minister is partly to blame. We laughed at it, sure, but we also absorbed its seductive and deeply seditious message.

But it was a brilliant series, which greatly enriched our public life even while subverting it.

London, 19 June 2004

3 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Methinks Sir Brian doth protest too much!

    I see the point that you are making, but it does rather smack of special pleading I am afraid. After all, as is common with comedy everyone portrayed comes out of it badly if you take it seriously: Hacker and his colleagues are hardly a sympathetic portrait of politicians, and the incidental journalists, bankers, academics, police, and even foreign diplomats, are no better; nevertheless, the most human character in the series, Bernard Woolley, is a civil servant. If you said that it has damaged trust in public life as a whole, your point might have a certain validity, but then you are denying the role of satire as a form of social comment. But it is true with such things that people tend to see what they want, and what is in their own interest, and to overlook the rest.

    Earlier this year a diplomat student of mine who had spent some time in Britain told me that he had seen it there and had liked it so much that he had bought one of the cassettes (he had also seen the House of Cards series). I encouraged him to watch it, it also being on Catalan TV at the time, and to borrow my books of the series, which he did. He had studied politics and saw it as a comment on politics in general, valid elsewhere than in Britain. My father, who was a senior local government officer, rated it very highly as a representation of how things happened in government – and he retired even before the full intensity of the Hatton lunacy in Liverpool became apparent. And finally, in Peter Clarke’s ‘Hope and Glory, Britain 1900 – 1990’ he says that they are inspired by Crossman’s diaries and describes the series as ‘the most successful seminars ever staged on the workings of the British constitution.’ A number of the incidents portrayed are evidently based on fact.

    If damage was done at all (a criticism that satire is always open to) then it was done all round, not just to the civil service.

    All the best,


  2. I thought the series was better balanced than that. If the civil servants were Machiavellianly cunning in their opposition to all change, Ministers were pretty gormless in their proposals therefor. The programme may have been as popular as it was partly because being British it firmly smacked down any notion of Government as an intellectual activity, a rather European idea. It spoke to our prerjudices. At the time I should have said that i had come across both junior and senior ministers whom were much better at what I thought were their jobs than what’s-his-name. I am lesscertain now.

  3. Brian says:

    Thanks for ‘posting’ that, Ronnie. You make a good point about the programme’s greater balance than I perhaps credited it with. But in my view that’s yet another reason for saying it was deeply damaging: it caricatured ministers almost as cruelly and lethally as it did civil servants, wrecking their standing with the public in equal measure. Of course there are and always have been some civil servants as Machiavellian as Sir H Appleby, and some ministers as gormless and self-serving as Jim Hacker, but I would argue that they have always been in a minority and that the great majority in both categories are and always have been quite strongly committed to serving the cause of the public good, admittedly as they see it (which admittedly may often be through a glass darkly as viewed via a distorting mirror). I do think that the deep and widespread public disillusionment with politics, politicians and ‘bureaucrats’ — even more with diplomats, whose socially exclusive, snobbish and stuffy stereotype, though utterly outdated years ago, dies hard, witness the ludicrous Guardian article the other day by one James Meek — still owes something to folk memories of Yes Minister, and will continue to do so as long as the series is (deservedly) re-run over and over again and quoted as freely and widely as the Germans sketch in Fawlty Towers.

    But it makes us laugh every time!