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, and Carole Talbot have published a survey on what civil servants look for from academics, which they have 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 though Colin Talbot has subsequently made clear that there were permanent secretary-level respondents,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 stereotype. 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.

Update

Colin Talbot has responded to this post in the form of a rather personal attack on his blog. I was sorry to read it because I have followed his work with interest for quite a while. He describes me as ‘ill informed’ and ‘intemperate’ and as writing a ‘diatribe’. I described him as ‘a perceptive academic Whitehall observer’. I am not attacking him personally, I am criticising his choice of title for an otherwise wholly unexceptionable report.

Once past the colourful language, Colin raises what is in the end the serious and important question behind all this: is it the case that the civil service has changed over the last thirty years in a way which makes the Sir Humphrey description inaccurate? Leaving aside the question of how accurate it was in the first place, Colin argues that

institutional configurations of Whitehall and its central actors have not fundamentally changed, despite some superficial modifications.

I can certainly see the power of that argument, and it may be that the difference in our views has something to do with how we see Yes, Minister as well as how we see Whitehall. Yes, Minister isn’t really about institutional configurations, it’s primarily about a single central relationship. Colin’s research is undoubtedly more systematic than my experience, but I have seen quite a few permanent secretaries and quite a few ministers in quite a few departments. I have not seen people behaving like characters from Yes, Minister.

Yes, Minister is what it is: it would be silly to criticise it for being inaccurate and I don’t. But I still don’t think it helps our collective understanding to treat it more seriously than it treats itself.

Finally, Colin expresses great concern that I referred only to his authorship of the report. I have amended the text to name both authors and I am happy to do so, though his assumption of bad faith in the omission is ungrounded. I have also included the additional information he provided that there were permanent secretary-level respondents to the survey.

 

 

  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.

Comments

  1. Sir Humphrey is far too kind a figure for the rentier self-serving incompetents we have now. It is all we have, alas. “The enemy within” is perhaps more accurate. Would you prefer it?

    1. Since you ask, yes on balance I would. I don’t agree with it as a description, but at least it’s trying to be one.

  2. Apologies if you felt this was a personal attack, it was meant as a personal defence of Carole and myself. I felt your piece impugned our research, read things into a single phrase that weren’t there in order to score some points and ignored one of the authors. If perhaps you’d said anything substantial or positive about our report I might not have responded so negatively. But again, apologies.

    1. I am sorry if I seemed to impugn your work, that was not at all my intention. My post was not primarily about your report at all, I was using it as an illustration of the use of the Yes, Minister meme and, as you said, there isn’t a strong link between the title and the content. I did read the paper and found it interesting but didn’t feel I had anything particular to say about it, given the wider topic of the post. My comment on it was intended simply to make the point that the survey’s scope was wider than the title could be read as implying. If that came across as being dismissive of the underlying research, I regret that.

      I am also sorry not to have given proper attribution to the research: that was careless though I don’t accept that it was sexist (it was the result of coming to the work through the frame of your tweets, and I am pretty sure that I would have equally overlooked a male co-author).

      But I stand by the view that using Sir Humphrey as a collective noun for senior civil servants is unhelpful and a bit pejorative. There are many criticisms which can be made both of the civil service and of the partnership between ministers and civil servants (and I don’t think I can be accused of being an apologist for the civil service on that, here, for example), but implying that it all comes down to manipulative permanent secretaries and indecisive ministers obscures more than it illuminates.

      The interesting question is how we make the system as a whole work better – and that is the debate I hope we can continue.

  3. I wonder if theres a new obsession around advisors not officials. I remember those cringy documentaries gordon brown had made on him during 1997 which showed an almost alan partridge type of politics. Whelan all smug and manipualtive ( even if he wasnt ) Balls like the professor in bagpuss ! Theres a new generation of people making piss poor references to thick of it because of it !!!

    One thing I have noticed is that autobiographies etc give little about the machinery of government away. Benns were fantastic if now severly dated. Those I read of the Thatcher era and Blair era ( admittedly not all ) just dont give the same sense of that relationship ….

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