Time for Sir Humphrey to retire

Just before Easter, I spent a couple of nights staying in a rather nice hotel. As it turned out, the fact that I can dimly remember watching Fawlty Towers many years ago proved to be of no help at all to me in understanding what was going on or how to navigate its processes.

I can’t imagine that anybody would find that remotely surprising. Why after all would anybody expect that a thirty-year old sitcom would be a reliable practical guide? The purpose of a sitcom is to amuse and entertain. It is not to inform or educate. The situation needs to be sufficiently realistic for the audience to recognise the context – no more and no less. And the less knowledge the audience can be assumed to have, the more licence there is to make the situation fit the comedy rather than the comedy fit the situation.

So how is it that Yes, Minister – which is to government pretty much exactly what Fawlty Towers is to hotels, but with a bit less slapstick – has escaped into a parallel universe where it is treated not just as a work of documentary precision in its depiction of the 1980s, but one which remains a useful guide to how ministers and civil servants work together today?

One possible explanation is that while an awful lot of people know what it’s like to stay in a hotel, not very many people at all have direct experience of the relationship between civil servants and ministers. But if that were the reason, you might expect Porridge to be seen as an infallible guide to prison reform, which, as far as I know, it isn’t.

So perhaps a further factor is the absence of other sources of information. The subject niche occupied by Yes, Minister is not one for which there is much competition in in anything even vaguely approaching popular culture. Civil servants generally don’t talk about it and ministers generally have other things they think it more important to talk about. And of course Yes, Minister did not create the basic trope of the manipulative mandarin outflanking the here-today-gone-tomorrow minister: it resonated partly because it expressed something which was already seen to be true. The civil service in literary fiction goes back much further, at least to C.P Snow’s novels of the 1950s and 1960s (in which the phrase ‘corridors of power’ was coined). Long before that, Dickens’ Circumlocution Office paved the way for the Department of Administrative Affairs. Snow was an insider and a believer in the strengths of the system, but you can see the distorted reflection of his depiction in the world of Yes, Minister.

The fact of an information gap does not necessarily mean that there is something being kept hidden. It may instead be that the reality is much more prosaic and much more boring than any dramatisation can be. A BBC fly on the wall documentary series about one department vanished almost instantly into total obscurity1 and first person accounts, such as they are, tend to get little more traction. Only Gerald Kaufman’s How to be a Minister comes close. Published in 1980, it reflects Kaufman’s ministerial experience of the 1974-79 government. It was out of print for a long time, but was republished in 1997, just before the election and change of government, informing a new generation of ministers. Inevitably it has a very dated feel, but it is still in print and is still a useful guide to some aspects of the core relationship.

Modern references to Yes, Minister, though are rarely to specific insights the series might have offered. The phrase is now just shorthand for a set of cliches so well understood that no further exposition is expected or offered. So David Walker, a hugely experienced journalist on public policy started a recent article:

Can we trust Whitehall’s senior people to stiffen their sinews and stand up to political pressure as pulses start racing in the year to the general election? Signs are that the debilitation of the civil service is far gone, and the norm is indeed “yes, minister”.

What are we intended to understand by that? That the norm is of ministers and mandarins playing out the Yes, Minister game? Has Walker overlooked the fact that the only reason ‘yes, minister’ as a phrase was in any way funny was that we all understood it to mean the exact opposite of what it purported to be? The humour of Yes, Minister was in the civil service offering passive – but near total – resistance to ministers, now it is being referenced to mean obsequious acquiescence in anything ministers choose to do.

More recently still, Colin Talbot, a perceptive academic Whitehall observer, has published a survey on what civil servants look for from academics, which he has chosen to call Sir Humphrey and the Professors. I am not sure what one might expect to think of Sir Humphrey’s engagement with academia. It’s certainly possible to imagine him enjoying dinner on high table at his old Oxbridge college, rather harder to think of him curled up on the sofa with a peer-reviewed journal. So is the point of the title to suggest that permanent secretaries have a social but not intellectual engagement with academia? Well, no. There is not only no evidence in the report that a single permanent secretary completed the survey,2 but the conclusions seem much more to confound the stereotype than to show evidence for it.

So what is gained from using references to Yes, Minister in those articles?3 For the reader, I would argue, precisely nothing. Knowledge of the stereotype confuses rather than illuminates: it’s not just wrong and outdated, it’s not even interestingly wrong and outdated. For writers, though, I think it’s worse than that. It’s an essentially lazy way of setting an inaccurate context and suggests acquiescence in cliché and sterotype. We could have a better informed debate if Sir Humphrey were not part of it.

I am not for one moment suggesting that civil servants and ministers should be immune from criticism – or from satire. On the contrary, the way the two work together is a critically important aspect of government and politics in the UK. Serious work on permanent secretaries and ministers, such as the Institute for Government’s recent report Accountability at the Top risks being overshadowed or misinterpreted if it is described through the distorting lens of ancient comedy. The problem which is to be the subject of the newly established GovernUp is a vitally important one, but it is hard to see any answers coming from Sir Humphrey.

In writing all that, I open myself to an obvious criticism. My career has not reached the dizzy heights achieved by Sir Humphrey, but I certainly work within the general target area of the mandarinate. As I acknowledged when writing a closely related post a couple of years ago,

I am a pompous faceless bureaucrat, devoid of anything even faintly resembling a sense of humour.

So is this all an over-sensitive fit of the vapours from a member of a class protected from the hurly-burly of accountability? I don’t think it is – but then I wouldn’t. So I take some comfort from the view of another expert external observer:

Being able to laugh at power is an essential characteristic of a free society. There is no obligation on humour to be accurate or constructive. I don’t happen to think that Yes, Minister was ever as funny as it is now remembered as having been but that’s beside the point: the problem is not Yes, Minister itself, but lazy references to it and its use as a way of avoiding the need for thoughtful criticism by the simple reiteration of a negative stereotype.

Civil servants are not mandarins. They don’t wear bowler hats. And they don’t spend their lives re-enacting old sitcoms. Sir Humphrey was a permanent secretary thirty years ago. I think we can take it that he retired long since. We should let him go.

  1. As is evidenced by the most uninformative IMDB entry ever.
  2. Or for that matter that the most used research is produced by professors.
  3. And in many others like them – I am using these two as examples only because they are very recent, not because they are even close to the worst of their kind.

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