Student Life: The Comedy of Great Power Politics: Why Yes, (Prime) Minister is the Greatest Show on Earth

by Niro Kulendrarajah

To people who already dig Ancient Greece, it is no surprise that politics and theatre played into each other. Ideally, theatre informed the demos about the interplay between man’s intentions and the usually opposite outcomes that result from it. In reality, I suspect the theatre experience was probably similar to a night at the movies but I prefer to keep my snobbish preconceptions about Ancient Greece intact. While contemporary shows like House of Cards and West Wing make similar commentaries about politics by showcasing the trials actors must go through, the British for the longest time have relied on making equally meaningful commentaries through the use of sitcoms. And for me, there is no greater apex of political satire (or any comedy for that matter), than Yes (Prime) Minister.

“Politician’s logic:
We must do something.
This is something.
Therefore we must do it.”

Yes Minister starts off with a Cabinet Minister of the department of Administrative Affairs (a hilarious poke at bureaucracy doublespeak) with his unmovable Permanent Secretary and adorable Principal Private Secretary. As the minister is elevated to the position of Prime Minister in Yes Prime Minister, we see the team tackle (or get tackled by) issues like nuclear deterrence, military intervention, European integration, and diplomacy at the United Nations. I would suspect the sequel is more attractive to NPSIA students but I would heartily recommend both series.

“In government, many people have the power to stop things happening but almost nobody has the power to make things happen. The system has the engine of a lawn mower and the brakes of a Rolls Royce.”

While Yes (Prime) Minister aired back in 1980, it is probably one of the strongest comedies I have ever seen. Its ability to make grave matters trivial and trivial matters grave allows it to be a timeless portrayal of the workings of government. At the center of this political comedy are the Right Honourable Jim Hacker (played by sitcom legend Paul Eddington), Sir Humphrey Appleby (pronounced apple-bee and played by Nigel Hawthorne), and Hacker’s private secretary Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowlds). These three figures are familiar political archetypes. Jim represents the concerned citizen-turned-politician desperate to change the system (and win votes). In contrast, Humphrey acts as the embodiment of bureaucracy who is not concerned with what the people want or changing things but simply keeping the bureaucracy running. Bernard himself represents the education entry-level civil servant hopelessly caught between the two ends. What we end up seeing is these two opposing forces crash into each other to the detriment of the government and society at large.

“It is only totalitarian governments that suppress facts. In this country we simply take a democratic decision not to publish them.”

What makes the show so great is that these characters are not simply exaggerations but are humanly portrayed by the actors. We not only see Jim fall victim to the cunning Humphrey’s web of bureaucracy but we see moments where Humphrey is bested (and humiliated by the fact) himself. Here, the political goals and actions become personal. However, unlike shows where great men are crushed by hard decisions, what we see are narcissists of all kinds fumbling over each other’s’ shadow. Not only do we see Jim’s best intentions fail or divert into absurdity but we also see Humphrey’s cold rationality fall apart at the unluckiest (and hilarious) moments. Misperceptions, assumptions and deceit paint a picture of government unable or unwilling to get anything done because it can barely keep itself together.

“The Foreign Office are not spineless. It takes a great deal of strength to do nothing all the time.”

Despite being a comedy, we are treated to serious discussions of ethics, philosophy, logic and even language (one of the authors must have studied in philosophy at Cambridge because there are too many subtle references to analytic philosophy). Unlike sitcoms that shamelessly pull at heart strings with very special episodes, Yes (Prime) Minister never loses its playfulness and innocence when it openly talks about issues such assassination, terrorists, and even religion. While some charge the show with a conservative bias (it openly mocks ‘big government’ and Thatcher herself was a big fan of the show), no one really gets away unscathed in these arguments. No side is really winning in Yes (Prime) Minister in the long run. And if anything, the show inadvertently points to the middle ground that politicians and civil servants must tread not only to have good policy but any policy at all. In this sense, the show is not only hilarious, deep and intelligent but it is an excellent aid alongside their education to any student of politics interested in the civil service.

To finish, I would like to leave the last word to Sir Humphrey:

“Bernard, I have served eleven governments in the past thirty years. If I had believed in all their policies, I would have been passionately committed to keeping out of the Common Market, and passionately committed to going into it. I would have been utterly convinced of the rightness of nationalising steel. And of denationalising it and renationalising it. On capital punishment, I’d have been a fervent retentionist and an ardent abolishionist. I would’ve been a Keynesian and a Friedmanite, a grammar school preserver and destroyer, a nationalisation freak and a privatisation maniac; but above all, I would have been a stark, staring, raving schizophrenic.”

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