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Yes (Prime) Minister – The Most Cunning Political Propaganda Ever Conceived

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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.

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March 17th, 2010

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12 to “Yes (Prime) Minister – The Most Cunning Political Propaganda Ever Conceived”


  1. Dylan DelliSanti says:

    I don’t understand how someone can honestly believe that people become more altruistic when they work for the government. People are always,to a degree, greedy. When they work for the government their greed is really exposed, because they did not recieve the same profit-loss signals that private employees do, since the government’s revenue comes from taxation and not voluntary exchange.

    • Paolo says:

      People don’t choose to go into politics, as opposed to say economics, as a means of enriching themselves unless they are living in a totalitarian state or a state in breakdown. They do go into politics with a certain level of idealism, particularly those on the left side of the spectrum. That this idealism becomes eroded over time is par for the course but to suggest the prime motive is greed is kind of silly.

  2. Kenneth says:

    It’s an interesting historical note, but it’s also a one-sided reading of the situation — Hacker as MP is only rarely doing something for purely noble purposes, often acting in cold political calculus for his own needs. One episode has Appleby showing the moral fortitude to stand up to Hacker’s shockingly cavalier attitude towards bribery (in so many words, of course) which he backs down only after threats of retribution from Hacker. Bernard is often shown as being genuinely altruistic but, realistically, must also look after his own needs as a career civil servant.

    If this is propaganda, that means the civil service can’t be trusted to put its own needs above the nation’s, and the political class is unable to do that which is “courageous” because, as it was aptly put, that’s just a euphemism for political suicide. It’s not telling us to distrust just Whitehall, but everyone at Westminster as well, which by extension meant the Thatcherite government.

    • Dan Haggard says:

      Hi Kenneth,

      I completely agree – except small Government was exactly what Thatcher believed in. So seeing Hacker as self-interested reflects her own mistrust in government and the need for its breadth to be curtailed.

  3. herring says:

    Rational choice theory is not inherently right wing. The assumption that everyone is greedy and act in their own self interest, even at the detrement to others is actually an extremely strong arguement to introduce laws, regulations, economic incentives and penalties to make sure the interest of the individual agrees with that of the population in general. This is generally referred to as market intervention and is decidedly left wing in character.

    • Voskhod says:

      Indeed. You’ll hear critique of Government from both the left and right-wing. And while Small Government is often associated with the Right, some on the extreme Left advocates for the abolition of the State altogether.

      From another perspective, a story about an entrenched upper class bureaucratic elite and bourgeois politicians that only pretends to look after the interest of the working class reads like Marxist propaganda.

    • Dan Haggard says:

      Not sure this is entirely correct. Yes – the selfish, irrational aims of individuals might serve as a motivation for larger government – but what public choice theory argues is that if you apply rational choice theory consistently, then you get the result that the people in power will just act selfishly as well and will use their power to feather their own nests. So their answer is to distribute power as widely as possible.

      But yes – as long as you can find some kind of circuit breaker between rational and public choice theory then you can keep the two distinct and then perhaps argue for large government on the basis of the former. But you have to pony up with the argument. The existence of public choice theory creates that onus.

      • Mike says:

        But, “distributing power as widely as possible” does *not* mean unrestricted capitalism. In a fully capitalist society, power is heavily concentrated with those who have the money, and those without have absolutely zero power. In a democracy, whilst the leader does have a lot of power, they are restricted by the requirement that they need to remain popular enough to get re-elected. In a capitalist society, conversely, the rich can use their money to get what they want, by either bribing or threatening the poor into going along with their agenda.

        In general, the best system is one where everyone has as equal an amount of power as possible, and where the government exists primarily to provide services to the people. To achieve this in practice, you need a relatively equal society (in particular, one with little poverty) so people are not easily open to bribery (not to mention the basic human decency of not leaving people to starve to death or die of easily-treatable illnesses…), open and accountable government, easy access to unbiased information (so that people can learn what is truly happening and make decisions accordingly), significant public involvement in the process and a government structure with many checks and balances and as little centralised control over parliament as is possible (so that MPs are freer to follow their own consciences and decide issues on their merits).

        Personally, though, I don’t believe that people do act in their “rational self-interest” in general. However, some people most certainly do, and those people tend to be the most likely to obtain positions of power. The reason for this is simply that, to become powerful, you have to be willing to lie unashamedly and to discard your principles when necessary to gain power (either by maintaining or gaining power within your party or gaining power *for* your party, as with Nick Clegg). There are most definitely MPs who do what they honestly believe is “right” (and that applies to all the parties, even the Tories), but they are almost always backbenchers with little real power. If they attempt to move upwards, they either end up discarding their principles for power (which is aa basic requirement for Ministers, due to the requirement that they always follow the party line) or else losing their job for their principles.

        Whilst “small government” is a right-wing catchphrase, the idea of a relatively weak government with as little power as is necessary to do its job (which is to provide services which individuals cannot provide for themselves, such as policing, defense and (arguably) healthcare and a welfare state) is one which is just as common to certain sections of the left-wing as it is to certain sections of the right-wing.

  4. Charis Wilson says:

    I think that trying to argue between the rational actor theory and public choice theory miss the point. Rational actor theory assumes that everyone will make the “best” choice, while public choice theory is really just rational actor theory writ large, that is political events are really the aggragated results of the actions of multiple rational actors, be it voters or politicians.

    However, I think both views are missing a critial element, which Herbert Simon point out, most of us do not always make purely rational decisions. Instead we make decisions that are “rational” in view of the specific situation’s boundaries. Thus while as a perfectly rational decision choice, I should have a salad for lunch, as it is better for me, my decision choices are bounded by the fact that I have to get something for lunch in between running to the post office to drop off mail and to pick up my clothes at the dry cleaners. So I decide, instead, to swing by the fast food joint to pick up something so I can make my 1 p.m. meeting. In essence my choices are not the result of purely rational evaluations of all possible options and outcomes, but instead are outcomes of a limited review of limited number of choices, which are in turn limited or impacted by my own natural ability (or inability) to think analytically. Instead of being a rational actor, I am a satisficing one.

    Politics and government are no different. The voters satisfice because they don’t care enough, or have enough time, to wade through every detail of every candidate and issue. The politicians satisfice because they do not have time to read every word of every bill and every message from every constituent and the government employees have to make decisions with multiple, and often contradictory, constraints placed on them. They are told you have to enact the No Child Left Behind Act but they are given no budget to do so. Or they are hired to do one job, but are assigned so many “additional duties as assigned”, because we have to do less with more, that they end up doing quantitatively more work of a lower quality.

  5. md2 says:

    I’m seriously confused. I think that the author misinterpreted the theory, or he is true, only the methods to enact on this social issue are totally different, (I.e; pollies doing jack shit until the government collapses, believing in the naive notion that people will live in ‘freedom’, whilst in actual truth they’ll will be prey to the largest selfish groups; the coglomerates, in which they can set up an authoritarian corporate regime, and or let society decend into anarchy because they’re is simply too many people on this earth, period, to rule over) Great, now I sound crazy! The point is that is that these ideas are complete bunk.

  6. Kevin says:

    I’m interested in this critique of YM. I am a progressive type who probably would walk into what you’re describing where a socially conscious type is unaware of the show’s philosophical pedigree. Suppose Humphrey is the implementor that you get in the end. You can call your noble idea Head Start, but at the end of the day you get Humphrey capturing it and smiling about the pot of money that it represents. If I’m a new politician on the left, I don’t think viewing YM makes me less likely to try again next time and try to do it right! Say I’m Ted Kennedy trying to get the minimum wage increased (to take American rather than UK examples). Maybe it makes me more savvy about the A-Z of Humphrey’s tricks. I think that’s why Armando Iannucci likes the program so much. It’s how to recognize spin- how not to get snowed.

    I’m interested to see what Curtis has to say about the show. Good review, Dan.

  7. Yes Minister has the simple message that government cannot be improved, because the strongest forces are dead set against change.

    The main difference between Sir Humphrey and Hacker is that Sir Humphrey is both much more intelligent than Hacker, and also far more knowledgeable about the workings of his department. Since he has all the answers, he controls the dialogue.

    The problem with dismissing it as simple propaganda is that its theories track very well with how well big government serves the people – that is, barely at all.

    D



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