SOMEDAYS, you realise perhaps dear old Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey weren’t that far wrong.
Fans of the old series, reputedly a favourite of Mrs Thatcher, will recall how Paul Eddington was ever trying to introduce a new political rouse, only to be baulked by the wily, and quite wonderful Nigel Hawthorne.
I can’t imagine what it might be like to be a Whitehall mandarin, nor even a politician, but in all administrations of whatever political colour worldwide, I suspect such a pairing is ubiquitous worldwide. The tension between the civil servant and the politician.
The difference of course with Britain is that in theory, dear old Blighty is steeped in history, and the home to the mother parliament. Notwithstanding the fact that ‘Englishness’ has somehow risen out of that group of Anglo-Saxon/Friesians who clung to the East coast of what would have been a Celtic overlordship on their first arrival, the utter transformation into what John Major described as being a country of old maids, cricket, not to mention the Mother Tongue, if you forgive the BlackAdderism, is remarkable.
Somewhere in England must today reside the ultimate exemplification of ‘Englishness’ in the very modern vernacular, at least to those of a certain viewpoint. Perhaps it is also a means by which we might define such.
Those of the old white Anglo Saxon persuasion - and I use those words both carefully and knowingly in the light of the multi-cultural sensitivities which prevail, might suggest that it would ideally be the type of person who lives within sight of a village cricket green, has a church, a vibrant village hall which serves quiche and cucumbers, and in which many of its members are of the traditional ‘professions’: lawyers, chartered surveyors, estate agents, city bankers, stock market traders etc; airline pilots, maybe even journalists, business execs, dentists, private businessmen et al.
The metonyms perhaps say it all - a bathroom stocked with Molton Brown products, perhaps a garden house or gazebo – not in the modern uPVC style, but one which is slightly distressed neighbouring a freeze frame; perhaps a goldfish pond in some spare part of land which seemed to be going spare; or a Romano-Grecian sculpture hidden among ferns; a double garage with those four-square set windows combined with the smell of cobwebs and two-stroke oil.
Perhaps it is in Windsor, St Albans, Mayfair, the rolling Weald, the realms of Harrogate and Ripon and all the old places of the old Roman legacy. But perhaps this is much an idyll as it is an ‘ideal’. Others would suggest it the very antithesis of their ideology. Others might argue that such places now only truly have become avatars in the distant colonies. Those parts of England which have so successfully transported themselves to new cultures that they have outlived their origins.
Sir Humphrey would have been no stranger to the path of the ‘establishment’. Writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn imagined his background to a tee.
Sir Humphrey ‘won’ a classical scholarship to Winchester College before reading Classics at Baillie College, Oxford, where he got a First. After National Service in the Army Education Corps he entered the Civil Service. From 1950 to 1956 he was the Regional Contracts Officer, an assistant principal in the Scottish Office, on secondment from the War Office (where he was responsible for a serious mistake that was revealed in "The Skeleton in the Cupboard"). In 1964 he was brought into the newly formed Department of Administrative Affairs, where he has worked until his appointment as Cabinet Secretary. He is recommended for the KBE early on in the series in "The Official Visit". The Dean of Baillie describes him as "too clever by half" and "smug" ("The Bishop's Gambit").
On Humphrey's possible private situation, Jonathan Lynn commented: "We always supposed that Sir Humphrey lived in Haslemere, had a son at Winchester and a daughter at Bedales and that his wife was a sensible woman who made cakes for church socials and enjoyed walking the family bulldog.
‘I think that Humphrey's hobbies were reading (mainly biographies), listening to classical music, and occasionally visiting the RSC, the National Theatre or the Royal Opera House, where he was on the Board. His holidays were probably spent walking in the Lake District and, occasionally, sailing in Lymington. On the whole, he had a slightly warmer relationship with his dog than his family."
Sir Humphrey represents, in many ways, the perfect technocrat. He is pompous, arrogant, and elitist and regards his less-well-educated minister with some contempt. He frequently uses both his mastery of the English language and even his superb grasp of Latin and Greek grammar to perplex his political master and to obscure relevant issues under discussion. However, his habit of using language as a tool of confusion and obstruction is so deeply ingrained that he is sometimes unable to speak clearly and directly even in circumstances in which he honestly wishes to make himself clearly understood.
He genuinely believes that the Civil Service knows what the average person needs and is the most qualified body to run the country, the joke being that not only is Sir Humphrey, as a high-ranking Oxford-educated Civil Servant, quite out of touch with the average person but also that the Civil Service identifies whatever is 'best for Britain' as being 'best for the Civil Service'. Jim Hacker, on the other hand, tends to regard what is best for Britain as being whatever is best for his political party or his own chances of re-election.
Yes Prime Minister is now more than 20 years old, and now haunts the west wing of UK Gold, but the more you watch modern politics, you inevitably see echoes of the marvellous paring of Hacker and Appleby.
The greatest political deal on the international stage must have been that of 1962 when Kennedy and Krushchev hammered out a deal at the brink of what many thought might have been a nuclear Armageddon.
The story goes that at one stage the Russians were very close to firing a missile from a submerged sub at the height of the crisis, but it was only the actions of a free-thinking commander which baulked the disaster.
White House later called it "Black Saturday," the US Navy dropped a series of "signaling depth charges" (practice depth charges the size of hand grenades on a Soviet submarine (B-59) at the blockade line, unaware that it was armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo with orders that allowed it to be used if the submarine was "hulled" (a hole in the hull from depth charges or surface fire).
The decision to launch these required agreement from all three officers on board, but one of them, Vasili Arkhipov, objected and so the launch was narrowly averted. Few realise how close we came.
One can only perhaps draw a modern parallel with the financial meltdown on 2008; quite how the disaster was averted is perhaps again unknown to many, but one can only imagine the all night slogs and political ‘deals’ which must have been forged in that period. The 2015 election must be the next test.
Life will always be a deal – between the environmentalist who wishes to preserve the Site of Special Scientific Interest for the threatened Natterjack Toad as opposed to those building developers who wants to raze the site for £10m. Only politics can then decide – but at what level and what tier is it then made? And then, how to measure real value to society?
Those who recall Yes Prime Minister will recall Hacker’s intervention to save Benji the dog lost on dangerous Dartmoor, and the multi million pound helicopter mission to save him, rather than see him being blown to smithereens – all seemingly for glowing headlines the next day and thus votes.
Twas ever thus and will be, one suspects. Either way, the only certainty is that some sort of deal will be made along the way in our political futures. Of course, we will invariably be the last to hear of such.