Yes (Prime) Minister – The Most Cunning Political Propaganda Ever Conceived
by Dan Haggard
The BBC series Yes Minister and its sequel Yes Prime Minister are two of the most renown and acclaimed television series ever made. They are timeless classics that can be watched and re-watched over and over again. Anyone who has seen them will express their admiration for the shows without hesitation. However, what many people don’t realize is that the shows were written by an advisor to Margaret Thatcher – Sir Anthony Jay – and were perhaps one of the most cleverly disguised vehicles of right wing propaganda ever conceived.
For those who don’t know of it, the series follows the exploits of a British MP James Hacker and his management of the ministry for administrative affairs, and then subsequently, the Prime Ministership. He is thwarted and manipulated at every turn by the chief public servant assigned to his department, Sir Humphrey Appleby. We learn fairly quickly that it’s the public service, not the democratically elected government, that really runs the country; and that their chief aim is to protect their own power, comforts and privilege. Hacker tries to get the upper hand, and occasionally succeeds, but rarely in the sense of actually doing any public good.
If you have friends on the left side of politics, one of the most amusing things you can do is either ask them about, or introduce them to Yes (Prime) Minister. If they are astute you’ll at least provoke an entertaining rant about its evils. But if they are not, you’ll get to watch them recount their favourite scenes and episodes; laughing all the while, praising the show for its incredible wit, acumen and insight into human nature. You’ll then get to watch their discomfort when you tell them that it was written by an advisor to Margaret Thatcher and that she was its biggest fan. And when you reveal that it is a propaganda piece for the right, a confused and pale pallor will stretch across their face that will be somewhat akin to the expression of a jock being told he had just had sex with a gay man.
If you want to be really mean, and perhaps even threaten your friendship, you can accuse your socially conscious brethren that their enjoyment of the show demonstrates that they secretly do agree with the essential psychological truths that underlie the economic theories of the right. While on the outside they profess to believe in the altruistic core of the human spirit, on the inside they delight in the satire of the essentially selfish and petty human animal.
Okay, maybe you shouldn’t do that – it’s too mean! But you should definitely educate them as to the true intent of the show. Sir Anthony Jay, along with the Thatcherites, believed in a political theory called public choice. This theory originated in the works of Kenneth Arrow, Duncan Black, James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, Anthony Downs, William Niskanen, Mancur Olson, and William Riker. They attempted to apply the principle of rational choice theory to the realm of political theory.
Rational choice theory is the view that individual were autonomous units that act purely in their own selfish interest. There were no altruistic saints that sacrificed their own comfort for the comfort of others, rather everyone aggressively sought to position themselves at the expense of others. The best you could hope to do was to achieve a maximal equilibrium which allows each individual their greatest share. Out of this view came the ideal of freeing individuals by means of the free market which in turn led to the heady 80s where individual greed ruled the world (and in more recent times as well).
Applied to the political realm, rational choice theory became public choice theory. Led by James Buchanan, they challenged the idea that public servants and politicians act in the public good. Rather, they really only pursue their own interests and seek to consolidate their power at the expense of the people they were expected to help. The solution was to radically curb the power of government, thereby enabling the freedom of the masses.
To espouse the ideals behind public choice theory, Sir Anthony Jay began writing Yes Minister. Once you understand the philosophy behind it, it becomes impossible to view the show in any other way. The public servants, as exemplified by Sir Humphrey Appleby all work to thwart the government where it tries to break down the barriers preventing social progress. But even though the politicians express a desire to help the people, they ultimately end up only serving their own interests as well. The only real difference between Humphrey and Hacker is that Humphrey is at one with his selfish nature, where Hacker cannot admit it to himself. This lack of self-awareness allows Humphrey to easily manipulate him. Most of Hacker’s noble plans are shelved because Humphrey either shows or engineers it such that to pursue the noble policy would damage Hacker’s own self interest.
The show played directly to the cynicism that the public has for their elected representatives and the political process as a whole. It was so well written, and so genuinely funny that only recently has it been outed as the propaganda piece that it really is, with Adam Curtis making the criticism in his documentary – The Trap. One might of course wonder if its status as right wing political schill in any way lessens the quality of the show. I won’t cast judgement. No matter what your political beliefs, its very hard to deny the immediate appeal of the show and its brilliance. But you can’t ignore the role it was intended to play. You have to keep in mind that it was intended to manipulate your beliefs and your ideals. The one thing you must do is watch it with a very careful and critical eye.