Since we wrote the first few episodes of Yes Minister, civil servants are no longer the anonymous shadowy people of Whitehall past. Often we come across them now, blinking nervously as they are picked up by the media spotlight.
Struggles that used to be behind closed doors are now revealed: the PM vetoing the appointment of a top civil servant, or the Civil Service Commission preventing a ministers’ plan to appoint their own permanent secretaries. The Freedom of Information Act made such revelations possible, and politicians now regret it as much as civil servants told them they would. After all, without that act, the MPs’ expenses scandal might never have emerged.
It all started for Antony Jay and myself back in 1962. The shadow cabinet’s spokesman for Home Affairs was the Labour MP Frank Soskice, a campaigner against capital punishment. Soskice started a petition to secure a posthumous pardon for Timothy Evans, who in a notorious case was hanged for a murder he didn’t commit. Millions of signatures were collected and it was handed in to the Home Secretary.
But Labour had since won the 1964 election. Soskice had been appointed Home Secretary. And when his own petition was handed in to him, he rejected it. As Will Rogers said, “There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.”
Antony Jay and I didn’t know each other then but it struck us both as one of the most darkly comic and strangest stories we had ever read. I was a law student. Tony was a TV journalist and he started wondering what could change a man’s opinions so completely that the moment he gets into office he would reject his own petition. It had to be something to do with the civil service: there must be a difference between a minister’s policy and the Ministry’s policy.
Until Yes Minister, comedy shows portrayed civil servants as boring people who wore bowler hats and drank a lot of tea. But the popular image of them was completely false. Our first source was Richard Crossman who died in 1974, leaving his three-volume Diaries of a Cabinet Minister covering his time in government from 1964 to 1970, published despite a monumental legal battle by the government to suppress it.
On his first day in office, daunted by the huge pile of letters in his in-tray, his private secretary tells him that if he doesn’t want to reply to them himself all he has to do is move them to the out- tray and the civil service will take care of them. On the very first page Crossman’s private secretary says, “Yes Minister” to him when he patently means “No Minister”.
The diaries revealed how the civil service actually runs the country. To encapsulate this enormous subject into a series of half-hour situation comedies we invented an “umbrella” department, the Ministry of Administrative Affairs, enabling our minister to get involved in almost any matter involving administration or bureaucracy. The idea of a ministry that administrated other administrators delighted us. Although in reality the department would have been huge, we felt that we could preserve the essential dramatic truth by narrowing it down to just three people: the minister, the permanent secretary and the minister’s private secretary who hovers some- where in between and has allegiance to both. Neither of us had ever been in the civil service, though Tony had been head of a department at the BBC, which was more or less the same thing.
Gradually we acquired living sources. Politicians like to leak and they knew that we wouldn’t identify them. The higher up they get the more indiscreet they become, and at a good lunch with some fine wine they’ll tell you plenty. Civil servants are much more discreet, but special advisers are not very discreet at all. And, contrary to popular belief, there were plenty of them in those days, although not as many as today.
We found that life sometimes imitated art. We invented a scene, inspired by the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, in which 11 people piled into Jim Hacker’s first-class railway sleeping compartment to discuss a sudden crisis. We subsequently discovered that an identically ridiculous scene actually had taken place in Harold Wilson’s sleeper on the way to a party conference in Blackpool. We invented, for the NHS, an empty hospital with 500 administrative staff and auxiliary workers but with no doctors, nurses or patients. We gave it The Florence Nightingale Prize, awarded to the most hygienic hospital in the region. Then we discovered that there were, in fact, five or six such hospitals, or wings of hospitals, in the UK. One of them had just one patient: Matron, who had tripped over some scaffolding and broken her leg.
We were learning to think like the civil service. Margaret Thatcher let it be known that it was her favourite programme. Tony was delighted about this because the publicity was so huge, but it bothered me; I told everyone that we’d also had enthusiastic responses from leading Labour Party politicians Tony Benn, Roy Hattersley and Gerald Kaufman. I felt the PM was trying to co-opt the popularity of the show in support of Thatcherism.
Were we full of righteous indignation at the power of the civil service? Absolutely not. Werewe trying to change the way things were done? We had no such delusions of grandeur.
No drama has ever changed the world. The most that art can do is make people look at something in a new way, with fresh eyes. We were writing comedy, and we simply found all the hypocrisy and humbug richly entertaining.
People often ask us how we differ from The Thick of It, which, according to Armando Iannucci, was much influenced by Yes, Prime Minister. Tony and I found it very funny but apart from the obviously different visual styles – they are making a mock-documen- tary whereas we shoot the whole show in an hour in front of a live audience – the big difference seems to be that The Thick of It says how horrible or useless their characters are. But we always understood, loved and sympathised with Jim, Humphrey and Bernard. Tony and I always felt that if we had any of their jobs, we would behave the same way. It’s human nature.
Sir Humphrey’s sense of duty requires him to protect the country from squalid, vote-grubbing politicians who make short-term choices simply to get re-elected. But the job of the PM is to get re-elected. Humphrey sees himself as the custodian of the national interest and the protector of Whitehall. Jim regards Sir Humphrey as an unelected, undemocratic elitist who puts his interests before those of the people.
Jim is like Graham Greene’s whisky priest. Like most politicians, he went into it because he wanted to do good. But by the time he reached the top of the greasy pole he has swallowed so many compromises that his moral compass is no longer reliable. Staying in power has become the priority; how else can he create a better tomorrow?
Although the civil service lost ground to the Spads [special advisers] in the Blair and Brown years, that may now be changing. The coalition agreement was written by the cabinet secretary, and clearly a divided government puts much more power in the hands of the permanent officials. So the pendulum may be swinging back. But this is not because of the theory that politicians are more professional nowadays. If by “professional” one means that many more of them have never worked in the real world and only ever had political jobs, that would be true. There is no evidence, however, that this results in greater political skill. Probably the opposite.