11 November 2009

Yes Minister: A British Political Primer

These last few weeks, when I've not been staring at the keyboard until my forehead bleeds, or sitting with a perpetual frown waiting for letters that never come, or sitting listlessly with books lying forlornly open before me, I've distracted myself now and again by watching Yes Minister.

I've only ever seen the odd episode in the past, so it's a curious experience to watch it on a daily basis. It's perhaps a bit indulgent to immerse myself in so much concentrated brilliance, but, well, times aren't good.

It all seems very timely, which, given that it's a product of the early 1980s leaves me wondering whether things ever change in this country -- or any country, as I opined to a friend in Rome the other evening -- or whether this magnificent show didn't merely reflect the political reality of the early Thatcher era, but has to some degree moulded the political reality of the decades since.

The fifth episode, for instance, has a sequence which rather betrays what lies behind so much British antipathy to European integration:
'Don't the Foreign Office realise what damage this will do to the European idea?', asks Jim Hacker, the minister of the title.
'Well, I'm sure they do: that's why they support it,' replies Sir Humphrey.
'What? Surely the Foreign Office is pro-Europe, isn't it?'
'Yes and no, if you'll forgive the expression. The Foreign Office is pro-Europe because it is really anti-Europe. The Civil Service was united in its desire to make sure that the Common Market didn't work. That's why we went into it.'
'What are you talking about?'
'Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause, we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it's worked so well?'
'That's all ancient history, surely,' stumbles Jim.
'Yes, and current policy. We had to break the whole thing up, so we had to get inside. 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: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch. The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it's just like old times.''
Surely we're all committed to the European ideal!''
Really, Minister,' chuckles Sir Humphrey.
'If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?'
'Well, for the same reason. It's just like the United Nations, in fact. The more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up. The more futile and impotent it becomes.'
'What appalling cynicism.'
'Yes. We call it diplomacy, Minister.'
The real issue has always been the fear that a major power -- whether it be Spain, France, or Germany -- should have control of the Low Countries, with the key ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, as control of these could serious threaten British naval supremacy, such as it once was. Nowadays, of course, European union and integration have pretty much ensured that sooner or later both France and Germany will have full use of these ports, so Britain's approach has become one of 'if you can't beat them, join them, but keep jostling about.'

This rather explains the superficially paradoxical British approach to Europe nowadays. The British establishment generally favours enlargement, even championing the prospective membership of unEuropean Turkey, but is opposed to the streamlining reforms to enable an enlarged EU to work smoothly. In all this, of course, Britain all too often simply acts as a catspaw for the Americans, whose agent in Europe they have generally been since World War Two. 'Party Games,' the bridge between Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister ably sums up Britain's main role in that regard:

'And as far as world politics goes, of course, the Foreign Office is just an irrelevance. We've no real power; we're just a sort of American missile base, that's all.'
That's not to criticise the Americans, who are simply playing the game of nations, or the Germans and French, who are doing likewise and who some time ago decided that it was not really in their national interest to be a vassal state for anyone else; it does, however, raise the questions of why the British delude themselves that their nuclear deterrent is in any way independent, why they were so willing to have Yorkshire turned into a vital target for anyone planning a missile attack on America, why Britain eagerly signed up to the Iraqi adventure, and why British soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan.

Anyway, as I was saying, the show is superb, and it seems to improve by the season. Season Three, though it has one 'writing-by-numbers' episode, is a treasure trove of brilliance, with the darkly ambivalent 'The Whisky Priest', infused with the spirit of Graham Greene, being my choice as the series' highlight.

But for all that, though, I think the finest, subtlest, most brilliant moment in the whole series is near the end of 'Party Games', when rumours are running wild that Jim Hacker is going to throw his hat into the ring to take over the leadership of his party, and thus his country.* A scene opens with a shot of the day's newspapers lying on a desk.

The shot lasts but a second or two before the camera drifts off, so if you're not quick you might not notice how the Guardian is spelled.
* Yes, during a Parliament. An 'unelected' Prime Minister! Whoever heard of such a thing? Oh wait, hang on, isn't that the way it always works in the UK...


Tom said...

Usually it is, but you don't always have sitting Prime Ministers going into elections pledging, if his party wins, to serve "a full third term"...

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

So are you saying that a) you believe politicians' promises, b) that every politician should be held to every one of their promises, c) that you don't believe Blair ever intended to serve a full third term, which was what he said, and d) that you wish Tony Blair was Prime Minister?

Thatcher pledged to go 'on and on' before the 1989 election, as I recall, and stepped down three years later, being replaced as Prime Minister by someone from her own party without a popular election.

As for this 'pledge', can you find it anywhere? Was it party policy or just something Blair himself said? Did Brown ever say that he had no intention of replacing Blair during Labour's third term?

Tom said...

I heard it from the horse's mouth - Blair said it in a television interview with Andrew Marr a few months before the election.

I never believed any of Blair's promises but a lot of people did. Of course politicians should be held accountable to the promises they make. And yes I would rather have Blair as Prime Minister right now than Brown. As bad as Blair was Brown has been far worse and his desperate behaviour has done this country a huge amount of damage. I don't think it would particularly affect the Tories' electoral chances.

As for Thatcher, she declared her intention to "go on and on and on", but it wasn't a pledge she made. More's the pity they got rid of her (although at least in that case it was done formally, out in the open rather than behind Curry House doors).

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

I'm guessing you mean this interview, but think about what you're saying. All this can possibly have meant is that Blair, on being asked whether he planned on serving a full third term, said this was the case.

That doesn't mean it was party policy. In what sense do you think it ought to have been binding upon his party? Was it said formally in Parliament? Was it published as a formal statement in a national newspaper? Was it part of Labour's manifesto?

Ask yourself this: could Blair have genuinely guaranteed that he would serve a full term? Could he have guaranteed that he would always have the support of the party or the confidence of the Commons? Obviously, as you'll realise if you understand and care about your Constitution, he couldn't have done anything of the sort. It's completely disingenuous to pretend that his comments to Andrew Marr were anything other than an assurance that he personally intended to serve a full term.

Intentions and outcomes, as you should know by now, rarely coincide.