Yesterday’s documentary, Five Days That Changed Britain, was rather interesting in many ways – most striking was the apparent political power that the civil service has to mobilise and worry the politicians. The cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, didn’t quite make the same mistake as Sir Humphrey (Yes (Prime) Minister), when he agreed to an interview with the BBC (anyone who has watched Yes (Prime) Minister will remember Sir Humphrey being caught off guard explaining how the government could halve unemployment.)
Or did he?
O’Donnell quite clearly influenced the discussions, and came across very impartial. The interview clearly left no confusion over O’Donnell’s preference, he felt there needed to be a coalition, as minority government’s are too unstable, and it needs to happen fast – the markets won’t wear it otherwise. This clearly had an influence on the negotiations, as he was pivotal within them. The civil service had their own plans for the form of the future government, and were clearly in the driving seat when it came to two parties who hadn’t been in power for quite some time (well never the LibDems, but including Liberal Party here) trying to work out what to do.
It creates interesting questions around the role of the civil service and how true Yes Minister is when it comes to political reality. Yes Minister, to those who haven’t watched it, shows the civil service constantly running rings around the ministers and the prime minister. Sir Humprhey, firstly a permanent secretary, then the cabinet secretary, is always intent on blocking any reform Mr Hacker, first cabinet minister then prime minster, ever has. To an effect, changes never happen, and a bit like Inception, he plants ideas within Hacker’s and other ministers’ heads, which the ministers soon come to believe were their own.
Questions also exist around the role of the Queen’s secretary and the Queen herself – the Queen apparently didn’t want Brown to leave until a deal had been made to serve his ‘constitutional’ duty. But if i remember rightly, her constitutional duty is to stay outside political affairs – and therefore, it is rather improper for her to have influence over the outcome, as it appears she did.
The documentary posed more questions than it answered. It was an interesting look into the running of the government. Thatcher took Yes Minister quite literally and used it as a tool to try to modify and slim down the civil service. Indeed, it does look as though those five days have provided us with a real life example of the political reality Yes Minister most likely has in political life.