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Last Updated: Friday, 25 February, 2005, 17:30 GMT
How Yes Minister made it to the top
By Martin Rosenbaum

Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne and Derek Fowlds
Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne and Derek Fowlds
Rarely does a television programme make essential viewing in the corridors of power. But Yes Minister, 25 years old this week, managed to do just that.

It is "one of the best political textbooks about the British system", according to the former cabinet secretary Lord Butler. He is not referring to some complex academic analysis of the workings of Whitehall. Rather strangely, he is actually talking about a sitcom.

But one of the secrets of Yes, Minister was that as well as making people laugh, it did reflect the way that British officialdom actually functioned - at least sometimes, anyway.

The twists and turns of the complex machinations between the Machiavellian permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby and the dogged but bumbling minister Jim Hacker have become part of our political folklore. Butler was an avid viewer - even if the series did sometimes touch a raw nerve.

On the night before the publication in 1996 of the Scott Inquiry into arms sales to Iraq, he and the minister most under threat, William Waldegrave, drafted the government's response and then sat down in front of the television to pass the time while it was being typed.

They were greeted by an episode of Yes, Minister - the one in which Hacker wants to hold an inquiry into arms exports. "No Minister, I beg you," replies Sir Humphrey. "A basic rule of government is never look into anything you don't have to, and never set up an inquiry unless you know in advance what its findings will be."

Mrs Thatcher was such a fan of the programme that she wrote a sketch featuring herself in which she gave Hacker the job of "abolishing economists"
Butler recalls: "We laughed until tears rolled down our cheeks".

It's 25 years this week since the programme was first broadcast, and among its fans are former Tory leader William Hague, who is presenting a documentary about it on Radio 4, in which several former top civil servants and cabinet ministers recount their admiration for it while sometimes having to cringe when reminded of their own foibles.


The former Tory cabinet minister Ken Clarke once met the co-writer Sir Antony Jay who was seeking possible storylines. Clarke says he tried not to give him too many ideas, but then found himself wondering if he was the basis for a new character - a health minister with a fondness for smoking.

David Blunkett was so impressed by one famous episode that he used it to harangue civil servants who he felt were more concerned with efficiency of process than actually delivering services to the public. This was the episode when Hacker is taken on a tour of a new hospital which seems to run perfectly smoothly. Eventually Hacker spots one flaw - there aren't any patients.

But has any politician worked with a civil servant who really is just like Sir Humphrey? Baroness Symons should know. Previously head of the First Division Association, the trade union for top civil servants, she is now a minister at the Foreign Office.

"Yes," she says, but then adds diplomatically, "I trust you are not going to press me further on that point as I am a serving minister."

But did Yes, Minister have serious consequences? It did cause unease in the upper reaches of Whitehall in the 1980s. Lord Armstrong was then cabinet secretary and recalls, "The permanent secretaries at the time did feel that the portrayal of Appleby was distorted and that was probably not good for the image of the civil service."

But sadly for them, if happily for the rest of us, he remarks ruefully, "There was nothing we could do about it very much." However, perhaps Sir Humphrey would have found a way.

Yes Minister - the View from Whitehall, a two-part series, is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 1030 GMT on Saturday, 26 February, and Saturday, 5 March.



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