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No, Minister

March 5, 2021

It feels like an act of subtle subversion by the BBC. Despite wetting itself with fear of a government that seems intent on cutting it down to size, Britain’s hallowed broadcasting institution chooses this moment to offer us a re-run of Yes, Minister on terrestrial prime time.

For those who were too young to catch it when it first appeared (or too un-techy to find it on the internet), Yes, Minister is a wicked satire on the efforts of a rookie minister to break free from the self-preserving stranglehold of a cynical civil service. It’s a scream. And despite the absence of modern tech baubles and the obligatory profanity of the current era, it has aged miraculously well.

Episode 2, which aired this week, involved the attempt by Jim Hacker, the minister, to extract political advantage by switching the visit of the leader of an oil-rich African nation to Scotland, where, coincidentally, three by-elections are about to take place. When the leader threatens to embarrass the government by making an inflammatory speech about the curse of colonialism, he manages to extract a whopping great loan on very favourable terms as the price for moderating his language. Oh, and that money will be spent on buying drilling equipment made in Scotland.

It was a joy, all the more so because of the comic fireworks that the writers packed into the short space of thirty minutes.

Forty years on, the writers would surely snort with grim amusement at the antics of the current government, which has just agreed a hefty settlement out of public funds of the law suit by Sir Philip Rutnam, the senior civil servant at the Home Office, for constructive dismissal. His complaint was on the grounds of bullying by the minister, Priti Patel, who had already been found to have broken the ministerial code because of similar behaviour against other civil servants whom Sir Philip claimed he had attempted to protect.

Up in bonny Scotland, an alleged breach of the ministerial code by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon connected with the unsuccessful prosecution of her predecessor Alex Salmond for sexual offenses is being treated by her Conservative opponents as a resignation matter. Priti Patel escaped that fate, even though if Sir Philip’s testimony had been heard in open court she may well have been forced to resign.

Meanwhile, the Health minister, Matt Hancock, continues in office with impunity after having been judged in the High Court as having broken the law by failing to publish the details of COVID-related contracts within the statutory deadline. In his defence, he said that he would do it again if it was in the national interest. So much for the rule of law.

The same approach is being taken in Northern Ireland, where the government is pushing back the imposition of border controls agreed with the European Union a mere three months ago because, surprise surprise, they’re afraid that they will trigger shortages of food and other supplies in the province.

In Yes, Minister, there was always a get-out-of-jail card played at the end of the episode that spared embarrassment and resignations. This government’s failures are clear to see well beyond the dusty corridors of Whitehall. And yet, despite spending tens of billions of pounds on an ineffective test and trace programme and doing murky deals for the supply of equipment needed to protect doctors and nurses from the ravages of the first wave of COVID, in a recent opinion poll the Conservatives have increased their lead over Labour to thirteen percentage points.

Which suggests one of two explanations. Either that Labour are incapable of providing any meaningful opposition. Or, more likely, that the public are so intoxicated by the success of the vaccination programme and the scent of freedom in their nostrils that they are willing to forgive the government almost anything – even the adverse consequences of Brexit as they unfold under cover of a greater darkness.

I suspect that Sir Humphrey Appleby, the conniving head of department in Yes, Minister, would have succumbed to apoplexy by now. Or, if he was still alive today, enjoying a comfortable retirement in Surrey, he would have been amazed that his successors have not managed to rid themselves of their shameless and incompetent political masters. Or at the very least, that they haven’t had the courage to say No, Minister.

From → Politics, UK

  1. Fortunately, we have DVDs of many of the “Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister” episodes. I think Sir Humphrey, if he were alive today, would have managed to ‘scotch’ Bumbling Boris.
    ( by the way, I have been compiling a catalogue of derogatory adgectives beginning with “B” to enable myself to let off steam at the barking of bumbling Boris.
    We so need Sir Humphrey’s loquacious tirades.
    Can’t we invent a convenient ghost to liberate our detestation of the Boring Boris.

  2. I should have written “Browbeat Bumbling Boris.
    I have more negative adjectives to describe Boris than I have used here.
    Anyone want to suggest some, send them to me, they will be welcomed.

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