Classrooms are the wrong place to learn about British politics. Teachers try to instil the idea that the UK is run by courageous politicians and phlegmatic civil servants. I received a far more realistic education from Yes Minister, and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister, the 1980s television satire written by Jonathan Lynn and Sir Antony Jay — the latter died this week, aged 86.
Growing up in a household with politically engaged parents, there was always a copy of The Daily Telegraph or Private Eye magazine around. Current affairs were in the air, so it was no surprise one Christmas morning to find a Marks and Spencer boxset of Yes Minister under the tree. I settled down with a Cadbury selection box and learnt about Westminster and Whitehall.
Although the final episode aired a year before I was born, it is still the essential guide to what goes on in the corridors of power — the wiliness of the mandarins, the sheer hopelessness of politicians trying to achieve anything. Prime ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron have attested to its authenticity. Even Margaret Thatcher left her study to tune in.
Out of all the great British political satires, none are as engaging or timeless as Yes Minister. Its genius lies in the artful avoidance of partisan politics — we never know which party is in power. The Thick of It, a more recent satire of the spin-drenched New Labour years, is already a little dated.
There is much to appreciate about Yes Minister, not least the casting: Nigel Hawthorne as the confusingly eloquent functionary Sir Humphrey Appleby, Paul Eddington as the hapless minister (later prime minister) Jim Hacker and Derek Fowlds as the junior civil servant Bernard Woolley.
The signature witty tone is set in the first episode by Bernard, then the minister’s principal private secretary. Welcoming Hacker into his office, Bernard remarks: “It used to be said there were two kinds of chairs to go with two kinds of ministers: one sort that folds up instantly and the other sort that goes round and round in circles.” Hacker often thinks he has outwitted his colleagues until Sir Humphrey’s final droll “Yes, Minister”, confirming his triumph.
For those looking to understand the British establishment Yes Minister covers all of the essential areas. One of the sharpest pieces of dialogue is Hacker’s often-quoted description of who British newspapers cater for: “The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country; The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; The Financial Times is read by people who own the country; The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country, and The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.” Decades later, in the age of online news, this still holds true.
Yes Minister’s caricature of Britain’s relationship with Europe was also ahead of its time. “We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing,” as Sir Humphrey once remarked. Welcome to Brexit, folks. Hacker’s scaremongering over the “Eurosausage” replacing the British banger helped take his career from the fictional Ministry of Administrative Affairs to 10 Downing Street. It was perfectly mirrored by Boris Johnson’s claims about Brussels and bananas during the EU referendum. Much attention will be paid to Whitehall over the next few years as the mind-boggling process of Brexit begins. There will be plenty of references to shadowy Sir Humphreys clashing with their masters.
Lynn and Jay helpfully captured the zeitgeist one final time. Their last Yes Minister script earlier this month imagined how this will play out. As Sir Humphrey asks of Brexit: “I am fully seized of that notion and completely on board of course. But. What does it mean, exactly?” Satire and reality are now one and the same.
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