The cliché “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” can’t be more true about political satire than about the Yes, Minister (1980-84) and Yes, Prime Minister (1986-88) BBC TV series. When I first watched them on PBS, I didn’t have a clue about economics, and more particuarly about public choice theory — which Buchanan described as “politics without romance.” Now that I know the basic principles of economics and political economy, my appreciation of the series has deepened.
The characters are priceless, the writing flawless, the casting brilliant. The principals are Jim Hacker, the minister and later the prime minister, played by Paul Eddington; Hacker’s permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey, played by Sir Nigel Hawthorne; and Sir Humphrey’s principal private secretary, Bernard, played by Derek Fowlds. Here’s a scene that tells you more about what governments actually do, quite contrary to popular romantic notions about governments.
Sir Humphrey is the consummate cynic. He doesn’t question the ends — he just gets on with getting things done.
“Bernard, I have served eleven governments in the past thirty years. If I had believed in all their policies, I would have been passionately committed to keeping out of the Common Market, and passionately committed to going into it. I would have been utterly convinced of the rightness of nationalising steel. And of denationalising it and renationalising it. On capital punishment, I’d have been a fervent retentionist and an ardent abolitionist. I would’ve been a Keynesian and a Friedmanite, a grammar school preserver and destroyer, a nationalisation freak and a privatisation maniac; but above all, I would have been a stark, staring, raving schizophrenic.”
Sometimes I think that if every politician and bureaucrat were to watch the whole series, perhaps governance would not be so pathetic. They should make it required viewing in the Indian Administrative Services, at the very least. The babus may learn something. But then maybe they won’t learn anything. Still, we non-babus get a better understanding of how babu-dom works. Thank goodness.
PS: I forgot to point out to a brilliant pun in the conversation.
Humphrey: The sale of arms abroad is one of those areas of government that we do not examine too closely.
Hacker: Well I have to, now that I know.
Humphrey: You could say you don’t know.
Hacker: You’re suggesting I should lie?
Humphrey: Oh, not you, minister.
Hacker: Who should lie?
Humphrey: Sleeping dogs.