Yes Minister is a British satirical television comedy written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, about the workings of a fictional department of the British government; the Department of Administrative Affairs. Much of the humor is derived from the fact that Jim Hacker, despite being the Minister of the DAA is continually outmaneuvered by his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, who insists that it is his job to run the Department, and Hacker's is only to provide a public face for it.
Through the course of three seasons of Yes Minister, Hacker establishes himself in the DAA, and then in a Christmas episode "Party Games" succeeds in becoming the Prime Minister, backed by Sir Humphrey and the Civil Service, who believe he will be easily manipulated. A sequel series, Yes, Prime Minister ran for a further two series. The show rose out of an understanding of Public Choice Economics and was a favorite of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
James "Jim" Hacker
After backing the loser in a bid for the leadership of his party (it is deliberately ambiguous as to which one), James Hacker (Paul Eddington) is given the Department of Administrative Affairs after spending around seven years as Shadow Minister of Agriculture. Although considered around tenth highest in the Cabinet, it has a reputation for being a political graveyard, much like the Home Office. Hacker has never worked in government before, and is constantly surprised and frustrated that he holds little real power, and that regardless of his promises made in opposition, all policies tend towards maintaining the status quo thanks to the intervention of his Civil Servants. As the series goes on, he starts to become more politically skilled, and in a small number of episodes, succeeds in outwitting Sir Humphrey. Hacker has an unfortunate tendency to say things that are open to other, unintended interpretations. He mentions once that "ministers... are chosen expressly because they know nothing." Hacker can be seen as an exaggeration of the typical cabinet minister; he is initially concerned with doing what is right, but then avoids making any decision that can be seen as controversial in fear of losing votes. When asked whether, when he said he wanted to do something about local government, he meant "do" something or "appear to do" something, he hastily affirmed that he meant "appear to do".
Sir Humphrey Appleby
Just as Hacker is a caricature of a government minister, the Permanent Secretary of the DAA, Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne) is a satire of the civil servant. He is arrogant and elitist and considers it his job to run the department on a common ground, regardless of which party is in power or the minister's own policy. He is shown to have little understanding of the world outside his upper-class, grammar-school educated bubble, but believes that what is best for the Civil Service is honestly best for Britain. He constantly lampoons the fact that Hacker has an "inferior" education from London School of Economics (compared to his own degrees in Greek and Latin from Oxford) and generally talks down to Hacker (and often Bernard). A lot of Sir Humphrey's humour comes from the euphemisms he uses when advising the Minister:
- "A controversial decision, Minister" (That'll cost you votes.)
- "A courageous decision, Minister" (That'll cost you the election.)
- "Have you considered all of the implications?" (That's a bad idea.)
Although Humphrey can be callous and overbearing, he is not without a form of respect towards Hacker and Bernard; in one episode he forces Hacker to protect Bernard from his mistakes, and occasionally helps Hacker to survive his ministerial career, usually in return for dropping a policy that Humphrey is against.
Sir Humphrey explained the roles of Bernard Wooley and himself to Jim Hacker in the first episode:
- Jim: Who else is in this department?
- Sir Humphrey: Well briefly sir I am the Permanent Undersecretary of State known as the Permanent Secretary. Wooley here is your Principle Private Secretary. I too have a Principle Private Secretary, and he is the Principle Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary. Directly responsible to me are ten Deputy Secretaries, eighty-seven Undersecretaries and two hundred and nineteen assistant secretaries. Directly responsible to the Principle Private Secretaries are Plain Private Secretaries. The Prime Minister will be appointing two Parliamentary Undersecretaries and you will be appointing your own Parliamentary Private Secretary.
- Jim: Can they all type?
- Sir Humphrey: None of us can type Minister, Mrs McKay types, she's the secretary
Sir Humphrey was big on verbosity:
- Hacker: When you give your evidence to the Think Tank, are you going to support my view that the civil service is overmanned and feather-bedded, or not? Yes or no? Straight answer!
- Sir Humphrey: Well Minister, if you ask me for a straight answer, then I shall say that, as far as we can see, looking at it by and large, taking one thing with another in terms of the average of departments, then in the final analysis it is probably true to say, that at the end of the day, in general terms, you would probably find that, not to put too fine a point on it, there probably wasn't very much in it one way or the other as far as one can see, at this stage.
Hacker's Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowlds) is trusted by both Hacker (who is supposed to be loyal to) and Sir Humphrey (who he depends on for his future in the Civil Service). This means that both characters confide in him, and thus the audience. Bernard is shown to be extremely pedantic, pointing out the shortcomings in Sir Humphrey's and Hacker's metaphors. For example, when Hacker announced that the idea was to "cut through red tape with a sledgehammer" he points out that it is not possible to "cut" tape with a sledgehammer. Bernard often acts very childlike; when Humphrey insists that an inert compound is one that doesn't "ert", Bernard adds that it "wouldn't ert a fly". However, Humphrey considers him to be a "high flyer" and the novelisations of the series reveal that he eventually becomes head of the Civil Service itself. Although sometimes ally of Humphrey, he also takes pleasure in conspiring with Hacker against him.
- Bernard: But, you only need to know things on a need-to-know basis.
- Sir Humphrey: I need to know everything. How else can I judge whether or not I need to know it?
- Bernard: So that means you need to know things even when you don't need to know them. You need to know them not because you need to know them but because you need to know whether or not you need to know. If you don't need to know, you still need to know so that you know that there is no need to know.
- Sir Humphrey: Yes!
- Bernard: Good. That's very clear!
Department of Administrative Affairs
The (fictional) department that Hacker leads is the DAA, the Department of Administrative Affairs, whose job it is to help administer all the other departments and to reduce needless administration and red tape. Ironically, the idea of having a department whose sole purpose is to check up on other departments is itself needless administration. The DAA's unique purpose means that the programme can use ideas for episodes that would normally fall under the jurisdiction of various other ministries, such as the Foreign Office or the Home Office. The DAA was founded in 1964, when Sir Humphrey joined the department, but the forerunner of the department was founded by William Gladstone (so, presumably somewhere between 1868 and 1894).
Portrayal of the British Government
Within the programme, the elected officials and ministers are portrayed as being controlled almost exclusively by the civil servants, who have been in their posts for much longer as they are not elected. The Civil Service is portrayed as being hideously overstaffed and overpaid and resistant to change anything about itself. Virtually all of the civil servants are upper-class with a grammar school/Oxford education but with little real understanding of the common people. Politicians in general, and in particular the Cabinet, are portrayed as being relatively ignorant and reliant on their Civil Servants.
A running joke in the series in that the Foreign Office does not reflect the views of the British people, or even the government. At one point, after being told that the elaborate reception is to "show the Arab nations whose side we're on", Hacker replies that "this may come as a surprise to the Foreign Office, but you're supposed to be on our side. Later in the series, Hacker is told "they are on our side", and Hacker seeks clarification that he meant the Americans, adding that: "for a moment, I thought you meant the Foreign Office".
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher commented that the portrayal of government was surprisingly accurate, and was a fan of the show even going so far as to write a script for the programme.