Vol. 2 No. 10 · 22 May 1980

Informed Sources

Antony Jay on the literature that lay behind his BBC Television series, ‘Yes, Minister’

2113 words

I do not know exactly when the idea for Yes, Minister began to take root, but it must have been more than fifteen years ago. It was in April 1965 that the Home Secretary told the House that ‘no useful purpose’ would be served by re-opening the inquiry into the Timothy Evans case. This was despite a passionate appeal from Sir Frank Soskice, who said in 1961: ‘My appeal to the Home Secretary is most earnest. I believe that if ever there was a debt due to justice and to the reputation both of our own judicial system and to the public conscience … that debt is one the Home Secretary should now pay.’

The remarkable feature of this event was that the Home Secretary who rejected Sir Frank Soskice’s impassioned appeal for an inquiry was Sir Frank Soskice. This wonderful comedy situation, though reported in the press, did not seem to provoke any particular public merriment: but I remember reflecting, when I recovered my breath, that some very strange and potent magic must take place inside Whitehall, some mysterious inverted alchemy that can transmute gold into such base metal. Many times since then the public pronouncements of ministers have shown the power of this alchemy: we have heard independent educators extolling the virtues of comprehensive schools, anti-Europeans suddenly beginning to defend the EEC, former Israeli sympathisers arguing the Arab case, conservative economists seeing the virtues of incomes policy, and good liberals defending the strictest interpretation and application of immigration rules. It all indicates that behind the ministers’ policies, and sometimes in conflict with them, there lie the ministries’ policies, policies that are long-established, deeply entrenched and cogently argued by all the experts and officials upon whom the minister depends for his information, advice, briefing, speech-writing and letter-answering.

Clearly this conflict of policies comes into sharpest focus in the persons of the Cabinet Minister and his Permanent Secretary, and it suddenly came to me that this relationship, if taken to its extreme, had all the ingredients of a classic situation comedy: two people whose background, ambitions and motivations pull them in diametrically opposite directions, but who are held together because of their deep dependence on each other. It is the heart of every husband-and-wife sitcom, and of one of my favourite of all comedies, Steptoe and Son, which I always saw as a husband-and-wife comedy in disguise.

The relationship has two further features to commend it. In the first place, it lets the viewer into a private world, and one which he is highly unlikely to experience directly. There is a considerable bonus for a comedy if it has a documentary dimension, and the reason I enjoyed Porridge more than Going Straight was precisely and only because of the additional information and insights into the (literally) closed world of prisons that the first series provided. In the same way, Dad’s Army gave extra joy by the little documentary touches that recreated the minutiae of life during World War Two. And second, comedy also has an extra appeal – at least for Jonathan Lynn and me – when it is actually about something, in the sense that Butterflies and The Good Life are about something.

Johnny and I were writing the first script of Yes, Minister at the time that I was deeply involved with Milton Friedman in developing his series Free to Choose, which my company was producing. In the course of an editorial meeting, he observed that in fact the central practical issue of the next decade was whether the political systems of the free nations could regain control over their administrative machines. This certainly confirmed our feeling that our series was about something worth discussing, and many conversations with others over the past two or three years have confirmed it. At lunch only last week the High Commissioner for a West Indian country was describing to me how, as Minister of Agriculture, his plan to restructure agriculture on the basis of small manageable units was completely defeated by his permanent officials, who were committed to big units, big plans and big budgets. Hic et ubique ...

If Johnny and I had been seeking, first and foremost, to change the system, the series would have been much easier to write. We would have been drawing on argument and ridicule as our prime source: Facit indignatio versum. But neither of us – I think I can safely speak for my co-author – is at all sure of what the change should be. Clearly, both the total victory and the total defeat of the Civil Service bureaucracy would be equally disastrous for freedom and democracy. Our only firm belief on the subject was that the underlying conflicts between ministers and ministries were better brought out into the open than kept secret, but even that belief did not have any of the passion that makes for campaigns or crusades. What drew us together was the perception of a whole range of comic possibilities within the conflict, and a desire to develop them and to share them with as many people as possible. The trouble is that the fuel that keeps that sort of situation running is not indignation but information, which is always much the harder to come by: in Jeremy Isaacs’s phrase (about television current affairs), ‘comment is free, but facts come expensive.’ And even if one had the money, there remains the fact perceived by Aziz in A Passage to India that the coin that will purchase the exact truth has not yet been minted. Anyway, in this case, access to the heart of the drama could not be bought for cash: the actual private meetings between the Cabinet Minister and his Permanent Secretary share the impenetrable secrecy of the confessional. Even if you were permitted to sit in on such a meeting, how would you know if what took place in your presence bore any relationship to what happened when you were not there? It is what management consultants call ‘the light in the refrigerator problem’.

Nevertheless, we did have some information to go on. The first breach in the wall of ministerial secrecy was the publication in the Sunday Times in June 1973 of Barbara Castle’s address to senior civil servants, with the sort of first-hand description of bureaucratic erosion techniques that I had never seen published before:

I remember Andy Cohen, the Permanent Secretary, trying to wear me down. He used to come in on policy points and things like appointments. He would be in my office about seven times a day saying: ‘Minister, I know the ultimate decision is yours, but I would be failing in my duty if I didn’t tell you how unhappy your decision makes me.’ Seven times a day. One person against the vast department.

I have copied this from a yellowing cutting torn eagerly from my favourite newspaper seven years ago.

I had always thought this was the first real public disclosure of the friction between politicians and civil servants, but in fact it had been preceded by Marcia Williams’s Inside Number Ten, published in 1972. This seemed to emerge from the reviews as an essay in vindication and vengeance interspersed with titbits of political gossip, and I did not read it at the time; it was only at the start of the research for Yes, Minister that I discovered how much sharp observation and serious analysis it contained. It was left to Douglas Hurd, her successor at No 10 when Heath moved in, to pay tribute to its underrated importance, and his book, too – An End to Promises – is most illuminating about that private relationship on which British government pivots.

And yet despite all these valuable sources there is one that stands out above all the others for candour, authority, and sheer volume of precisely recorded detail: Richard Crossman’s The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, especially volumes one and three which cover the years when he was at the head of two major spending departments, Housing and Health. I am in any case a sucker for diaries, and not just because they so often have a freshness, vividness and authenticity that reflective memoirs so rarely achieve. Above all, I love their lack of hindsight, their record of events as perceived and interpreted at the time. If your interest in history is in why people acted the way they did, then you need to know, not what the facts were, but what they believed them to be, and this wonderful fallibility is at the heart of a good diary’s appeal.

I am bound to admit to some personal moral ambivalence about the publication of the Crossman diaries. I have absorbed enough of the Establishment ethic and bureaucratic tradition to see how difficult government would be if you suspected that all your colleagues were busy noting down every informal discussion and chance remark for publication in a few years’ time: it could inhibit free debate and honest opinion in a very damaging way. But in the other scale I have to weigh the public service of bringing out into the open so many facets of that all-important relationship between an elected minister and the permanent officials of his department. George Moseley’s advice on how correspondence could be transferred unread from the out-tray to the in-tray is of course famous, as is Crossman’s early battle with Evelyn Sharpe over the separation of land planning from housing, but there are many other fascinating revelations all the way through: the deliberate fixing of meetings at awkward times, the suppression of embarrassing reports by officials, the official bluff of saying some person or organisation will object when in fact they do not object at all, the freezing out of non-departmental advisers, the alteration of agreements when writing minutes and reports so as to bring them closer to what the officials wanted – the way these and many other devices are minutely recorded day by day makes the diaries a uniquely full and credible source of enthralling information. The credibility is curiously enhanced by little human incidents like the bottle of hair lotion which broke inside the red box and made all the Cabinet papers smell deliciously of bay rum.

Those 2,300 pages were an invaluable source for Johnny and me as we wrote the successive episodes of Yes, Minister – indeed we return to them again and again for refreshment and renewal but they brought us an additional benefit too: the simple fact that they had been published made all sorts of other people willing to give us, in confidence, a great deal of information that otherwise they might have kept to themselves. One of our small sorrows has been how much of this accurate information, carefully researched, is simply not believed by the general television public. The idea that the Foreign Secretary might learn a piece of foreign news from television, that an African state could hire a plane from Freddie Laker and have it painted up as its own national airline, or that an important government policy discussion could take place in a first-class sleeping compartment on a British Rail express – these incidents are attributed to our powers of comic invention rather than to the results of our research into the circumstances in which government is actually conducted, as opposed to the stately and dignified fantasy that most people believe.

There was, of course, an imbalance in out sources of information: almost all the published information comes from politicians and not civil servants. A spectacular exception was Leslie Chapman’s Your Disobedient Servant, but even though it is one of the best documented and most revealing studies of British bureaucracy ever published, it can hardly be said to redress the balance. We sought to do so by private conversations with civil servants, but they were as you would expect – models of loyalty and discretion. Political journalists and former civil servants were a great deal more helpful, and we hope that with their help we managed to avoid making the minister into too much of a paragon or martyr. But there is a crying need for The Diaries of a Permanent Secretary to set alongside the Crossman epic, and if any present Permanent Secretary is reading this I can assure him of two immediate purchasers if his record of events contains anything like the same sort of detailed account and critical judgment of Cabinet Ministers that Crossman’s diaries give of civil servants. I have to admit, however, that I think it extremely unlikely that any present or future Permanent Secretary will ever publish such an account: tradition, nature and even etymology conspire to suggest that it will remain a permanent secret.

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