Civil Service Faith (and Folly)


The Complete Yes Minister: The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay, Topsfield, Mass: Salem House, 514 pages, $19.95

Margaret Thatcher never misses an episode of "Yes, Minister," a television spoof on the British bureaucracy. She believes that bureaucrats pull the wool over the eyes of her ministers by use of the same methods depicted on the series and recently wrote the authors that their "closely observed portrayal of what goes on in the corridors of power has given hours of pure joy."

One of the most popular British comedy series of recent years, "Yes, Minister" is now being shown on U.S. public television stations, and a volume based on the series is in bookstores. The Complete Yes Minister traces a year in the life of a fictitious government minister, Sir James Hacker.

Sir James is a complete naif, and his advisers—all old-timers in government—outwit him at every turn. He wants to tackle "the key issues of our time," trying, for example, to implement open government and satisfy "the public's right-to-know." Sir Humphrey Appleby, his unfaithful and scheming Permanent Secretary—the top civil-servant advising Hacker—makes certain that change is blocked at every turn.

The Complete Yes Minister is ostensibly the transcription of tapes that Sir James used in creating his diary. Readers are left to figure out for themselves if any given account is: (a) what happened, (b) what Hacker believed happened, (c) what he would have liked to have happened, (d) what he wanted others to believe happened, or (e) what he wanted others to believe that he believed happened.

The script writers for the series, Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay, adapted their material for this book. The chapters—each representing an incident during the service of Sir James—are complemented with departmental memos between Sir James and other top civil servants, reminiscences by Sir James's colleagues, transcripts of disastrous television interviews, newspaper clippings, candid photographs, and editorial comments by "compilers" Lynn and Jay.

The two are old hands at comedy. Jay was a founding member of the British Broadcasting Corporation's nightly news magazine and has been a writer for David Frost's bitingly satirical "Frost Report." Lynn, who graduated from Cambridge with a law degree, wrote the screenplay for the mystery spoof Clue, a movie based on the popular board game.

In 1983, "Yes Minister" became the first television program to win for three years running the British Academy's award for Best Comedy Series. The accompanying book was on the British bestseller lists for 56 weeks. Both the series and the book have become to politically interested Britons what Doonesbury is in America—a cult classic. Comedian Joan Rivers is a staunch fan and says, "The good news is that 'Yes Minister' offers an insider's look at how government works; the bad news is that I laughed all the way through."

Sir James's adventures begin with his election to Parliament and the return of his party to power after 20 years in the political wilderness (he is probably a Conservative of liberal leanings). Sir James is finally given a government ministry—to his disappointment, the uninspiring Department of Administrative Affairs. The agency, created to control the civil service, is staffed entirely by 23,000 civil servants content with the status quo.

They are naturally concerned that they will soon have a new boss. They assemble in the administrator's office before his arrival to plot strategy. "What are we to do?" wails one young bureaucrat. "A new man is going to upset all of our plans and tell us what to do."

"Nonsense, Smithers," retorts another."You obviously haven't been here long. Let me briefly tell you the purposes of a Minister in this department: 1) he is to defend our interests before the prime minister in all matters, especially that of our budget; 2) he is to be kept out of the office on junkets and inspection tours as much as possible, so we can proceed with the business of government; and 3) he is to take the blame for any mistakes made in this department, especially if they are made by one of us. Is that clear?"

The astonished junior civil servant asks, "But will he go along with this?"

"My dear boy," the senior man replies, "We will convince him that he is master of the universe and we are his faithful servants. Wait and see."

Sir James is immediately introduced into the complexities of the civil service. "What's the difference," he asks his private secretary, Bernard, "between 'under consideration' and 'under active consideration'?" Bernard grimaces and gently tells his superior, "'Under consideration' means we've lost the file. 'Under active consideration' means we're trying to find it!"

As he becomes initiated into how government really works, Sir James slowly realizes that "a controversial decision will merely lose you votes, a courageous decision will lose you the election." Conservatives and libertarians disappointed in the Reagan administration will easily recognize that line of reasoning.

After realizing that he is completely at the mercy of his civil servants to extricate him from difficulties they often create, James mournfully notes the Three Laws of Civil Service Faith: "It takes longer to do things quickly, it's more expensive to do things cheaply, and it's more democratic to do things secretly." One day, an exasperated Sir James confides to his diary: "I had to establish whether or not this lie was true."

One of the most delightful episodes in the career of Sir James is the account of his trip to the fictional oil sheikdom of Qumran, where he is to ratify the contract for a large export order. This episode includes bungling bureaucrats, shady oil sheiks, tainted money, tabloid journalists on the scent of scandal, and British officials, out of their element in this liquorless Moslem milieu, darting into a back room to spike their orange juice with some bracing booze.

Upon his return from Qumran, Sir James opens his Financial Times newspaper to discover allegations that the contract was won only after British government officials bribed their Qumran counterparts. An incensed Sir James demands a meeting with Humphrey, wanting to know the truth. "I don't think you do, Minister," Sir Humphrey says. "Will you answer a direct question, Humphrey?" Humphrey hesitates momentarily. "Minister, I strongly advise you not to ask a direct question," adding, "It might provoke a direct answer." "It never has yet," rejoins Sir James.

If The Complete Yes Minister has a fault, it is its length (over 500 pages), which may be too long for American readers not intimately familiar with British politics and social conventions. This is easily remedied by picking up the book and reading at random. A good chuckle or even a guffaw is only a few pages away.

The authors plan to tour the United States promoting their book. Perhaps they will stop in Washington long enough to pick up some material for an American version of "Yes, Minister."

John Fund is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.