The passing of British actor Derek Fowlds last week prompted the end of an era. Fowlds remained as the last living member of the comedy troika — which also included Paul Eddington, who died in 1995, and Nigel Hawthorne, who died in 2001 — that defined the BBC television series “Yes, Minister” and its successor, “Yes, Prime Minister.”
While Britain’s long-running debate over Brexit cast new light on the show, another 21st-century analogy holds as well. When President Donald Trump or others complain of a “deep state,” in which career officials try to thwart the wishes of elected politicians, they refer to the same dynamic that creators Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn so mercilessly skewered in “Yes, Minister.”
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The series featured Eddington as Jim Hacker, a politician and minister for the fictitious Department of Administrative Affairs who later becomes prime minister. Hacker’s grandiose ambitions are frequently thwarted by Sir Humphrey Appleby (Hawthorne), the senior civil servant, with Hacker’s private secretary, Bernard Woolley (Fowlds), often caught in the tug of war between the two.
Margaret Thatcher considered “Yes, Minister” her favorite television series — “Its clearly observed portrayal of what goes on in the corridors of power has given me hours of pure joy” — and it developed a cult following overseas. Reruns often still air on public broadcasting stations in the United States. As Fowlds said in a 1986 interview with Radio Times, “Both political sides believe that it satirizes their opponents, and civil servants love it because it depicts them as being more powerful than either. And of course, they love it because it’s all so authentic.”
In the past decade, real-life political events helped give the fictional “Yes, Minister” something of a renaissance. Britain’s closely fought 2010 general election, and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010-15 that resulted from it, helped prompt a West End stage production of “Yes Minister” and a television revival of “Yes, Prime Minister.” When Britain called a referendum on leaving the European Union, a clip from the show, in which Sir Humphrey explains to Hacker how Britain only joined the European Community (later the EU) for the express purpose of mucking it up, received millions of views online.
Conniving and Clumsy
The episodes of “Yes, Minister” often feature Sir Humphrey and his civil service colleagues conniving to manipulate Hacker, their minister and putative superior, to their wishes. A common tactic in episodes: Tell the minister his intended course of action is the most courageous decision he’ll ever make. Why? As Humphrey explains, a “courageous” decision far exceeds a “controversial” one. “Controversial only means this will lose you votes,” he says. “Courageous means this will lose you the election.”
But that connivance did not always result in a happy ending for the civil service nor the civil servants. For instance, in the first series of “Yes, Prime Minister,” Sir Humphrey, who became head of the civil service as Hacker rose to the premiership, faced an embarrassing incident from his past. The former head of Britain’s domestic security service, MI-5, revealed himself as a spy upon his death, despite the fact that an inquiry led by Sir Humphrey had cleared him of espionage years previously.
The treasonous official bragged in his private diary how easily he had fooled Humphrey’s inquiry. In conversations with another former civil servant, Sir Arnold Robinson, Humphrey admitted he had “rigged” the inquiry to ensure a colleague was found innocent. But both Arnold and Humphrey seem shocked to discover that one of their colleagues had acted as a spy, a possibility that, prior investigations notwithstanding, they had not seriously considered.
The third series of “Yes, Minister” contains a similar incident of bureaucratic incompetence. The impending public release of papers related to a 1950s defense contract causes Sir Humphrey no end of grief. The papers reveal that none other than Humphrey signed an agreement giving away millions of pounds in taxpayer property, a bungled contract negotiated early in his career that could haunt him at the height of his powers.
Deep State or State of Confusion?
These incidents of bureaucrats behaving badly permeate “Yes, Minister” almost as much as civil servants’ barely disguised lust for power, or politicians’ barely disguised lust for publicity and praise. Viewed from this perspective, it makes sense that one of the show’s creators, Antony Jay, held conservative political views, because the show often — without any explicit politicking by its characters — showed a government too big to manage, to say nothing of unelected bureaucrats undermining elected officials.
Critics often portray government as conspiratorial, the mantra of Trump’s 2016 “rigged” election being the most prominent example. But sometimes, the conspiracy-minded presuppose a level of competence and control that does not exist. Governments and bureaucracies often look out of the loop because they were never in the loop from the start.
In illustrating examples of both bureaucratic connivance and mismanagement, “Yes, Minister” not only provided much enjoyment to generations of viewers. By engendering a healthy skepticism of officials’ actions — because our authorities, elected and unelected, hold the same venalities and character flaws we all do — it also provided another subtle way of holding government to account.