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     Volume 8 Issue 53 | January 16, 2009 |

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Yes Prime Minister

Neeman Sobhan

How about a Prime Minister with a monocle?
Ha! You don't know what the hell I'm talking about, right? Well, I don't know about you, but I have had an overdose of election, democracy and things political. I need a few laughs. So I have been revisiting one of my favourite TV comedy series----that classic of British humour about the goings- on of political life: the 'YES MINISTER' and the 'YES PRIME MINISTER' shows from the 1980's. Remember?

The incisive wit of the sitcom described the eternal clashes between politicians and the Civil Service, brilliantly revealed through the characters of Jim Hacker, who becomes first the Minister of Administrative Affairs and then the Prime Minister; his slightly baffled private secretary Bernard Woolley; and the inimitably cynical and wily Permanent Secretary of the cabinet Sir Humphrey Appleby. In real life, apparently, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was so fond of this comedy series that she once wrote a sketch for it herself and performed in it.

To return to our world, where our own Prime Minister is gearing up to take on a new role and a fresh image, I was thinking of the episode where Jim Hacker, the new Prime Minister of the TV show, is getting ready for his first broadcast with his image consultant Godfrey guiding him:
Godfrey: “Will you be wearing those glasses (during TV broadcast)?
Hacker: “Oh, what do you think?”
Godfrey: “Well, it's up to you, really. With the glasses on you look authoritative and commanding. With them off you look honest and open. Which do you want?”
Hacker: “Well, I want to look authoritative AND honest.”
Godfrey: “It's one or the other, really.”
Hacker: “How about starting with them off, then putting them on while I'm talking?”
Godfrey:” That just looks indecisive.”

Bumbling and inadvertently wise, Bernard Woolley chips in: “Er....what about a monocle?”


So much for images and illusions. Now, to the facts and fiction of government, like the role of the opposition.
Hacker: “Well, the opposition is about asking awkward questions.”
Sir Humphrey: “And government is about not answering them.”

Yes Minister? the popular TV sitcom. Photo: cedarlounge.files.wordpress.com

Ooops! I don't really want to hear any cynicism right now, I just want to smile. But as we follow the training of an ingénue like Jim Hacker in the tangled path of government, we too, see that behind the clever repartees of old Sir Humphrey Appleby the universal reality of politics, governments and administrations cannot be denied. It's all a cautionary tale with a dose of laughter.
Hacker: “You know, your trouble is you are more concerned with means than ends.”
Sir Humphrey: “There are no 'ends' in administration, Minister, except loose ends. Administration is eternal.”

So Hacker has to learn quickly this special language or 'gobbledygook 'of administration. And who best to teach this than the master of convoluted bureaucratese, Sir Humphrey Appleby himself.
Sir Humphrey: “With respect, Prime Minister, I think the department will react with some caution to your rather novel proposal.”
Hacker: “You mean they will block it.”
Sir Humphrey: ”I mean they will give it the most serious consideration and insist on a thorough examination of all the proposal, allied with detailed feasibility study and budget analysis before producing a consultative document for consideration by all interested bodies and seeking comments and recommendations to be included in a.... more wide-ranging document considering whether or not the proposal should be taken forward to the next stage...”
Hacker: ”You mean they will block it.”
Sir Humphrey: “Yes.”

Even Hacker's private secretary, the gentle Bernard Woolley, has devious lessons to impart:
Hacker: “What am I going to do with all this correspondence?”
Bernard:”You do realise you don't actually have to do anything, Minister.....we can draft an official reply.”
<>H: “What's an official reply?”
B: “It just says....'the matter is under consideration' or if you feel so inclined 'under active consideration.'
H:”What is the difference?”
B:” Well, 'under consideration' means we've lost the file, and 'under active consideration' means we're trying to find it.’


In spite of his initiation into the quagmire of administration, here is a well intentioned Hacker holding forth:
“Bernard, the government is here to govern, not merely to preside like our predecessors did. When a country is going downhill, it is time for someone to get into the driving seat and put his feet on the accelerator.”
Bernard: “I think you mean the brake.”

With our own Prime Minister ready to get behind the steering wheels of the national jalopy, we too, can hope and pray that the brake, accelerator, the clutch, the indicator, the rear view mirror AND the horn will all be used, and with some discretion, too.

And since we are hoping and praying, may we also beseech that the politician's habit of indulging in verbiage, carried over from the campaigning podiums will be left far behind? Even Jim Hacker had to learn that words can get you elected but it is mostly ACTION and NOT speechifying which will matter in the everyday running of the country. Here is Prime Minister Jim Hacker pontificating to a journalist and illustrating this point:
Hacker: “But the broad strategy is to cut ruthlessly at waste while leaving essential services intact.”
Journalist: “Well, that is what your predecessor said. Are you saying that he failed?”
Hacker: “Please let me finish, and we must be absolutely clear about this, and I would be quite frank with you, the plain fact of the matter is that at the end of the day it is the right, no the duty, of the elected government in the House of Commons to ensure that government policies, the policies on which we were elected and for which we have a mandate, the policies for which after all the people voted, are the policies which finally when the national cake has been divided up, and may I remind you that we as a nation don't have unending wealth, are the policies...........I'm sorry, what was the question again?”

Then, in the following episode, if we replace the word 'unemployment' with something from our national agenda, say lowering food prices, the comedy would still be relevant. Who knows if we will also be doing our own wondering?
Sir Arnold: “I presume the PM is in favour of this scheme because it will reduce unemployment.”
Sir Humphrey: “Well, it looks as if he is reducing unemployment.”
Sir Arnold: “Or looks as if he is TRYING to reduce unemployment.”
Sir Humphrey: “While as in reality, he is only trying to LOOK as if he is trying to reduce unemployment.”
Sir Arnold: “Yes, because he is worried that it does NOT look as if he is trying to look as if he is trying to reduce unemployment.”


Comedy says with a laugh what we can't sometimes utter with a straight face. These day s after dinner conversations are often about who is getting which ministry. Reminds me of a line from 'YES PRIME MINISTER': “Did you know 'A' has got Foreign Office; 'B' has got Health; 'C' has got 'Energy'....?” “But has anyone got brains?”


The words of a cynic like Sir Humphrey make us laugh, but it's a nervous laugh that often chills the heart for being true. Here he is coaching innocent Bernard in the ways of men.
Sir Humphrey: “When you wish to suggest someone is perhaps not the ideal choice.......?”
Bernard: “......you rubbish them?”
Sir Humphrey: “No, the first stage is to express absolute support.”
Bernard: “Why?”
Sir Humphrey: “Because you don't want to be on record as saying someone is no good. You must be seen to be their friend. After all it is necessary to get behind someone before you can stab them in the back.”


In some of the episodes the press also had its nose tweaked. I recall:
Hacker: Don't tell me about the Press. I know exactly who reads the papers. 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 people who actually do 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; The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think the country is actually run by another country.....”


Today I shared these bits and pieces because as we in Bangladesh look forward to the nation's participation in the world of parliamentary democracy, this much acclaimed TV comedy seems more and more relevant. It was based on a book by Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, and the words of Lynn must be remembered to temper our expectations and to make us more vigilant.
“Not a single scene was set in the House of Commons, because government does not take place in the House of Commons. Some politics and much theatre take place there, but government happens in private. As in all public performance, the real work is done in rehearsal, behind closed doors. Then the public, and the House, are shown what the government wishes them to see.

Am I being a bit cynical like Sir Humphrey Appleby? No. I just want us all to beware. And isn't it true that forewarned is forearmed? Yes, Prime Minister! We will be watching you.

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