The power game

Classic sitcoms Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister popularised the notion that true political power is held not by elected officials but by éminences grises who operate behind the scenes. 

We speak to the shows’ co-creator and a number of former ministers to find out whether mandarins in the Sir Humphrey Appleby mould really do pull the strings, whether the people we vote for are genuinely able to make big decisions and whether — heaven forbid — the electorate ultimately has the final say.

Charles Wilcox, Investment Director, Rathbones

Hacker (after three days as PM): “So far my premiership has been a great success, and I’ve been asking what I can do to continue this run of success.”

Sir Humphrey: “Have you considered masterly inactivity?”

Hacker: “No, a Prime Minister must be firm.”

Sir Humphrey: “Indeed, Prime Minister. How about firm, masterly inactivity?”

The verbal jousts between hapless minister Jim Hacker and his scheming Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, are as funny and as relevant today as when they were first broadcast more than 30 years ago. For many people, both inside and outside politics, they have come to encapsulate the vexed relationship between elected officials and civil servants.

The conceit at the core of the pair’s dynamic is simple enough: each believes he runs the country. Hacker, a politician prone to stirring idealism yet ultimately most concerned about his own re-election and legacy, reckons he and his fellow Cabinet members are in charge. Sir Humphrey, a Machiavellian nightmare made flesh, thinks — and, the viewer is often led to infer, apparently knows — that the strings of power are actually pulled by faceless bureaucrats.

It seems fair to suggest that Yes, Minister and its successor, Yes, Prime Minister, have proved pivotal in popularising the latter school of thought. After all, Sir Humphrey’s supreme mastery of obstructiveness and obfuscation frequently gives the impression that Hacker is at best a mere figurehead and at worst a helpless puppet. Yet the idea of the éminence grise — an influential but unseen decision-maker — existed long before the shows exposed the alleged inner workings of Whitehall.

The original éminence grise was François Leclerc du Tremblay, a 17th-century Capuchin friar who served as an adviser to Cardinal Richelieu during the clergyman-statesman’s rise through the ranks of both the Roman Catholic church and the French government. Describing him in The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas wrote: “His name was never pronounced but with a subdued voice, such was the terror inspired by his Grey Eminence.” Whereas Leclerc wore a grey robe, Sir Humphrey is an éminence grise clad in immaculate pinstripes.

But do modern-day Leclercs really exist? Are the corridors of power still stalked by real-life Sir Humphreys? There is certainly some evidence. Consider, for instance, the experience of Margaret Hodge, who held several ministerial roles during the premierships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In 2007, having been named Minister of Culture and Tourism, Hodge was shocked to discover that only a quarter of new appointments to the boards of national museums and art galleries went to women. She concluded that the prevailing wisdom, to quote Sir Humphrey in a memorable episode about gender equality, was that the person chosen should always be “the best man for the job”. Hodge quickly forced through change, ensuring that women accounted for almost half of such positions.

Yet two years later, having taken compassionate leave after her husband was diagnosed with leukaemia, she was astonished to find her approach had quietly fallen by the wayside while her back was turned. “The department had reverted to its old habits,” she writes in her memoir, Called to Account. “Only a quarter of the public appointments made during the year that I was on compassionate leave had been given to women. That really taught me how fleeting the influence of ministers sometimes is — and how entrenched the civil service culture can be.”

Former Chancellor Norman Lamont has fonder memories of his senior civil servants, though he recalls there were instances when he sharply disagreed with them and had to assert himself. “I don’t believe civil servants ever deliberately thwarted me,” he muses when interviewed by Rathbones Review in Westminster. “Or maybe they frustrated me without me really knowing...”

Now aged 75, Lamont was Chancellor under John Major and Chief Secretary to the Treasury under Margaret Thatcher. The latter was a self-proclaimed fan of Yes, Minister and in 1984 even co-authored a sketch in which she starred alongside Hacker and Sir Humphrey; according to files released by the National Archives three years ago, she was not averse to supplying the show’s writers with “bureaucratic gems” during her period in office.

Lamont claims even the Iron Lady herself was occasionally exasperated — and, like Hacker, foiled — by her civil servants. “No-one, not even her enemies, would say Mrs Thatcher made no difference,” he says. “She was a very determined person. She was also a very unreasonable person, although that was part of her secret — I think George Bernard Shaw once said that progress depends upon unreasonable people. But even she felt frustrated in power.”

To underline his point, Lamont recalls a story about another Prime Minister. “Harold Wilson was entertaining someone in 10 Downing Street once,” he says, “and the band was playing on Horse Guards Parade. Wilson turned to his guests and said: ‘Do you hear that? They’re playing a tune I asked for today. That’s about the only real power I have.’”

In trying to decipher all the manoeuvring, argues Lamont, it is essential to recognise what sets civil servants and politicians apart. “The civil service are the experts who work with the politicians to analyse and come up with a solution,” he says. “It’s the politicians who have to sell that solution. So in politics you have to be an executive and on the stage with greasepaint on. People may sneer at politicians taking account of public opinion and backing down, but that’s why politics is called the art of the possible. You can only do what public opinion will wear.”

Another ex-minister, John Nott, agrees that the notion of politicians holding great and lasting power is to some extent illusory. “I think I had quite a lot of power when I was head of my prep school at 12,” he says. “It’s the only time in my life when I’ve been able to order anyone around.”

Now 85, Nott was Defence Secretary during the Falklands War and also served in the Treasury under Edward Heath and as Trade and Industry Secretary under Thatcher. He stresses the importance of elected officials and civil servants working together for the greater good. “I always had excellent civil servants supporting me,” he says, “but then I knew what I wanted to do. I think if they know their minister is determined about what he wants to achieve you can get very great and necessary support — though they’re intelligent human beings, of course, and want their feelings to be known by their ministers.”

Nott does sense, however, that the overall balance of power has shifted in recent years — and that it has shifted in the favour of politicians. He cites as an illustration the recent resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, who quit as the UK’s ambassador to the European Union after criticising the government’s “muddled thinking” over secession from the EU.

“That’s an example of a direct clash between an experienced civil servant committed to one course and the political classes who wanted a different course,” he says. “The politicians won out. And the reason why the British voted to leave the EU is that they don’t like their lives being run by civil servants in Brussels. Brexit was a revolt — not against politicians but against the bureaucracy of unelected mandarins.”

So what does the co-creator of Hacker and Sir Humphrey think? Jonathan Lynn was an established actor and scriptwriter when he started work on Yes, Minister in the late 1970s. He now lives in New York but spoke to Rathbones Review during a visit to London.

It was Lynn’s writing partner, Antony Jay, who first spotted the comic potential in portraying the struggle between politicians and civil servants. Jay had worked in broadcasting, public relations and speechwriting — most notably for the Tory Party — and saw Yes, Minister’s protagonists in the mould of Jeeves and Wooster, where the servant is abler than the master, or Steptoe and Son, where the son has aspirations and dreams and the cynical father crushes them.

Today Lynn feels he and Jay may have contributed to the shift cited by Nott. By making politicians more alert to the potential machinations of their civil servants, he says, Yes, Minister probably helped tip the balance of power towards elected officials. Even so, he is reluctant to ascribe sympathy to either the Hackers or the Sir Humphreys of the present age.

“The argument against civil servants having too much power was that they were the unelected establishment, elitist and didn’t care about the will of the people,” he says. “Politicians, on the other hand, will do anything for short-term advantage.”

Lynn is especially sceptical in light of the vote for Brexit, which he believes was born of deceit. He questions both the honesty and competence of politicians. “Every politician has only one aim — to get re-elected,” he says. “A second, slightly bigger aim is to get their party re-elected. But that’s it.”

“I'm used to politicians’ lies, and the Brexit campaign saw some real whoppers,” he adds. “For MPs everything is subordinate to winning and keeping power, based on some narcissistic view that they can handle things better than anybody else. Well, that’s true only in a tiny handful of cases. Mostly, whoever comes in will do just as badly as their predecessor, because politicians are amateurs when it comes to government.”

Like Lamont, Lynn sees strong parallels between the world of politics and the world of the theatre. “Politicians are actors,” he says, “and some are better than others. Trump, for instance, is brilliant at playing the role he has created. But the acting required to win an election is wholly different from the acting required to run a state or a country.”

Stage? Greasepaint? Acting? Roles? It all sounds suspiciously like an endless cycle of life imitating art and art, in turn, imitating life. Maybe the closest we can get to the truth is that everyone — the Hackers, the Sir Humphreys and even the electorate — has some sort of grip on the strings of power and that those strings, unfortunately but inevitably, are therefore sometimes hopelessly entangled. The éminences grises plot behind the scenes; the politicians don their make-up and stride out from behind the curtain; and the audience reserves the right to change at least some of the cast if it doesn’t like the show.

It may not be a recipe for consistent success, but nobody ever said it would be perfect.
To quote Hacker’s hero, Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others.”

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