The Good Fight
Jonathan Lynn on How Government Works (and "Yes, Minister")

Jonathan Lynn on How Government Works (and "Yes, Minister")

Yascha Mounk and Jonathan Lynn discuss why the dysfunctional relationship between politicians and civil servants made for great TV, and what that tells us about the nature of politics.

Jonathan Lynn is an English writer, director and producer. Lynn is best known as the co-creator of the series Yes Minister and its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister. He also directed the films My Cousin Vinny and The Whole Nine Yards.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Jonathan Lynn discuss how his television comedy about the inner workings of British government became Margaret Thatcher’s favorite show; how political satire has evolved over the decades; and the value of producing art with collaborators who hold different political views.

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: It's a particular pleasure for me to have you on the podcast because I admire much of your work and because you're the creator of a show that probably did more than any other television show to teach me English—and certainly more than any other television show to help me understand the United Kingdom. Now, my audience is mostly American. It's very international, but it's mostly American. 

So for those who may not know Yes, Minister, tell us a little bit about what the show is and how it came to have such a remarkable influence on British culture and British politics.

Jonathan Lynn: That's such a big question. I can tell you what the show is. It's a situation comedy, 39 half-hour episodes—actually 38 episodes, one of which lasts an hour. And it's about the way the British government worked in those days and, largely speaking, still does. It takes place in the office of a cabinet minister; he's one of the three principal parts, and he has a permanent secretary, who's head of the civil service, called Sir Humphrey, and the minister has a private secretary who truly is the servant of two masters because he owes his career to Sir Humphrey, the senior civil servant, but he has to please the minister who he's working for at this time. And they're usually in opposition with each other. 

I'm not making this sound very funny, am I? What the show is about is how the British government works. What we wrote about could apply to any government we've had in Britain for the last 60 or 70 years. It could apply to a Labour government, it could apply to a Tory government. In fact, the first series was written when there was a Labour government in power, although it never got on the air until Mrs. Thatcher came to power.

You asked me about its influence. Well, I can't explain that. We expected it to last for six episodes. We thought that would be a lot of fun and that would be that and to our surprise it seemed to take over the political world and it got to a state where on whatever night it was being broadcast the House of Commons would empty because everyone was in the bars watching the show. Mrs. Thatcher announced it was her favorite program. At the end of the first series there was a request from the queen to see tapes of the show. And it seems to have become a sort of a fixture on the British landscape. And when people talk about civil servants now, they call them “Sir Humphrey.” This is bewildering to me. Does that answer your question in the most general terms?

Mounk: It does very much. By the time I went to England for university in the early 2000s, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister were not only the key way to view and understand British politics, it had also become part of a sort of firmament of the great British comedy shows from Fawlty Towers to Blackadder.

Part of the brilliance of it is that it's a very, very simple show, right? By and large, it is a combination of two or three characters sitting in an office and speaking with each other. 

Lynn: That's right, and we were surprised by its success and by its continued success, because it doesn't have any of the ingredients which are normally associated with a successful television series. It's three men talking. They're talking about government. There is no action. There are no fights. There's no explosions. There's hardly any women. We didn't expect and we still don't understand why that has remained so popular. What was interesting to people was that they didn't really know what happened in government. They knew what happened in politics and they thought politics was government. They voted every few years and they read the newspapers. 

But what they never saw was what happens behind the scenes. And behind the scenes you have a bunch of very high-powered, very intelligent civil servants who were recruited straight from, in those days, Oxford or Cambridge, but now from all the universities, who essentially ran the country. They knew what to do. They were experts. Now, a cabinet minister, on the other hand, is a complete amateur. He's appointed by the Prime Minister, usually to a department about which he or she knows nothing. They're reshuffled every year or two—in the case of the recent Tory government, every month or two for party political reasons. The Department of Administrative Affairs probably had two to three hundred thousand people working for it across the country: If you can imagine being made head of that, the titular head of it, knowing nothing about it, you would be utterly dependent on the civil servants. And the civil servants know that.

And the civil servants don't really want ministerial interference because they regard themselves as custodians of what's right and wrong about government. The politician, the minister, is someone who comes and goes and in any case is only there for maybe a third of his time because he has to be in the House of Commons many days, or if he's a member of the Lords, the House of Lords. He has to go to his constituency every weekend. And he has all kinds of public relations jobs to do. So the result is every government department is essentially run by the civil servants. In British political history, there have been a few ministers who were genuinely in charge of their department, intellectually up to the civil servants and knew enough about it. There was Denis Healey when he was Minister of Defense. There was Roy Jenkins when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer (that's the treasury minister). There have been a few. But mostly these ministers can't cope and by the time they know anything about their department, they're moved on to another job by the Prime Minister in some reshuffle. 

So what you've got is politicians who regard civil servants as unelected, elitist, self-appointed people who run the government and get in their way; and the civil servants regard politicians as people who will do anything for short-term electoral advantage to win votes and can't be trusted with the nation's destiny. So there's a huge conflict there. In comedic terms, it's an old formula: P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Bertie Wooster is an example of the servant who is more able than the master. 

Mounk: I hadn't thought of Humphrey as Jeeves and Jim Hacker as Wooster. It makes a lot of sense, actually. And of course, there is the ongoing theme throughout the show of Sir Humphrey slightly looking down at Jim Hacker in particular: Humphrey, I believe, went to Balliol College, Oxford, whereas Jim Hacker only went to the LSE, which Sir Humphrey seems to think of as a great embarrassment. 

If there is a kind of political thesis of the show, it is, in a sense, the hollowness of democracy, isn't it? I mean, there is a suggestion (and I think what you said just now goes in the same direction) that we think that we vote for these politicians and they're going to change the laws and change the way the country is run in accordance with the will of the electorate. But you're saying that it’s actually the civil service that really runs the show, that really knows how things are done and is incredibly capable of frustrating the political will of the minister. So I guess the first question I would ask is, do you think that's right? Do you think there is a hollowness to British democracy because of the strength of civil service, and perhaps to democratic systems in other countries as well? And how should we feel about that? 

I think the show is a little bit ambivalent in what we might think about that. Margaret Thatcher, I think, saw it as a great indictment of the civil service. But a lot of the people who watch the show end up sort of identifying with Sir Humphrey: I had more than a few contemporaries in university who decided that they wanted to join the fast track of the civil service, as it was then, because they actually tremendously admired Sir Humphrey. So is it true that the civil service has such outsized power over politics? And how should we feel about that? Is that a scary fact and a fact that should make us angry?

Lynn: Well, we weren't trying to make anybody angry. We were just showing what was, and what largely still is. Because most people didn't know what the civil service did at all. They thought of them as kind of dull people with bowler hats who sat around drinking tea. And the only civil service they came across were very low level people at the labor exchange or in other government departments. But they didn't ever come across the people who run the country, which is 3,000 civil servants in Whitehall. Does it make democracy hollow? Yes. Democracy is hollow. But so is autocracy, for other reasons.

What it does show is that if a minister particularly wants a special policy to get through and perseveres, the minister can do that. But out of the vast array of governmental decisions that have to be made day in and day out, I would say that the civil service gets its way on about 90 percent of them. And the minister gets his or her way on about 10 percent of them. But they may be very important matters indeed. They may be what the minister really wants to achieve. So it does bring democracy into question in a way. Except that sometimes Jim is right to fight for what he wants and sometimes Humphrey is wrong to resist it. Sometimes Jim gets what he wants; sometimes he doesn't. 

It's also one of the reasons why politicians like the show, because it gave them an alibi. Because they could say to themselves, and they could say to the public, “Well, we didn't get this done, which we promised. But the system, the civil service, stopped us.” To which the civil service would reply, “Well, what you wanted was really a bad idea.” We once used a famous old line when Sir Humphrey said, “Minister, if you must do this damn silly thing, don't do it in such a damn silly way.” So even when the civil service were opposing Jim, they were sort of helping him. They were helping him to make it something that could function.

I don't think it means that democracy is hollow. I think it just means that you can't have unlimited faith in politicians or in the system. You know that old Latin tag, who guards the guards? Who guards the civil service? Well, they have to guard themselves, because most politicians are not capable of doing so.

Mounk: I am struck by the way in which the show illustrates political processes. If Max Weber says that politics is the “hard boring of hard boards,” that it takes this tremendous will and power and energy to change things in the direction you want, I think that Yes Minister is the best illustration I've ever come across to illustrate that. And I've always dreamt of teaching a lecture course that's an introduction to politics in which the beginning of each lecture would be a clip of Yes Minister or Yes Prime Minister.

But I want to dig down into some of the ways in which Britain and other democracies have perhaps changed. It strikes me in this show that everybody, including the elected politician, though particularly the civil servants, have this incredibly strong sense of values and norms that are larger than themselves. Now, sometimes they're rather silly norms. Certainly, Sir Humphrey is somebody who we would think of today as exclusionary and bigoted in various ways. He's certainly very rigid. He has an idea of how things are done because of tradition and longstanding norms that he's unwilling to be flexible on. But they also, in a sense, give a political system a mooring, right? There are guardrails that are given to him by generations of tradition and the way in which he has been raised to conceive of his job and his role. And it seems to me that this is something that is largely absent from public life today.

Do you think that we've lost that strong sense of traditions and norms, and for good or for ill?

Lynn: I think the perfect example, the current example, of what happens if you lose the norms and the traditions is what Donald Trump did when he was president and what he would do if he became president again. He didn't care about the norms. He didn't care what was usually done. He didn't care about tradition. He just did what he wanted. That's why the norms are important. That's why the rules are important. That's why they should only be changed carefully. 

That would be Humphrey's position. Because there's no British written constitution (there is, of course, a huge unspoken constitution), governments can take power and make changes that only they want—for instance when Tony Blair changed Prime Minister's Question Time to only once a week, I think, when he reformed the House of Lords. That was a huge constitutional change. They abolished the office of Lord Chancellor except in name, and created a Ministry of Justice (to me, the words Ministry of Justice are a kind of contradiction in terms: Justice cannot be dispensed by a government department).

The norms are important, and the norms have changed, much less so here than in America, where I live now. And that's both good and bad. We were always very careful when we wrote this show not to take sides, not to comment. We wanted the audience to make up its own mind, and we thought everybody would hate the program. The result was, curiously, the civil servants loved it because it showed around the country that they were so brilliant, and the politicians loved it because it showed that the civil service was an obstacle. And liberals liked it because they thought it had a vaguely liberal sort of feel. And the strange result was that people across the political spectrum and the civil service really liked the show because in some ways it reflected what all of them thought.

I don't think political drama should tell people what to think. Most political dramatists write plays with a message. We didn't have a message. We just said, “This is what happens. And isn't it absurd?”

Mounk: I've been reflecting on some attempts to create new political sitcoms in the United Kingdom or the United States. And perhaps the most successful writer of political sitcoms for the last 20 or so years has been Armando Iannucci—whose work I also appreciate and admire, though it's never going to be quite as formative to me as Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister—and I'm trying to reflect on how the shows that he has created are similar or different. 

I want to start with The Thick of It, which is a British political sitcom. It was sort of partially incorporated into a movie that some American listeners to the show may have watched called In the Loop, which is really all about the run-up to the Iraq War, but shared some of its cinematographic universe with The Thick of It, which is this pre-existing sitcom about Whitehall and British politics. Now, some of the things are similar in that show, but it strikes me that there's also some real differences. One difference is visual: You go from the kind of old-fashioned, wood-paneled interiors and armchairs that I associate with Yes Minister to the kind of “hot desk” office feel that is much more typical of a modern corporate environment in The Thick of It

But it's also a different thesis about how government works. If Yes Minister is extremely competent people in the civil service knowing exactly how things are supposed to be done and impeding, in certain ways, the will of the elected politicians, to me, The Thick of It as well as In the Loop (and, in the more American incarnation of it, Veep, which is also created by Armando Ianucci) has a very different thesis. It is people who are not very competent, who might be smart and energetic, but who are continually discombobulated by new turns of events, whose plans never work out as they want them, whose catchphrase is not something like this is “the thin end of the wedge,” but the “omnishambles,” right? 

To what extent do you think shows like The Thick of It or In the Loop (or, if you wish, Veep) reflect a genuine change in the times? To what extent does that suggest that the world is no longer that which it was when you wrote Yes Minister? And to what extent do you think this is just a different creator's sensibility in what they perceive about the political world?

Lynn: I would say it's the third of those. It's a different viewpoint. The politicians are not competent in The Thick of It. But Jim, in Yes Minister, is not really very competent either.

It takes a different vantage point. It's much more about PR. Peter Capaldi's character, which I think was based on Alastair Campbell, was very, very funny.

Mounk: Peter Capaldi is the director of communications in The Thick of It and he's based on Alastair Campbell, who is the director of communications in Tony Blair's government.

Lynn: That's right. And this was sort of about Tony Blair's government. And the jokes were a very different sort. I mean, Peter Capaldi was funny just because he spoke in this constant stream of obscenities, which was a very funny idea. But I'm not sure that that was necessarily reflective of anything other than that character. Veep, I think, was a really good show. I mean, I think The Thick of It was too, but it wasn't really analyzing the system. We were the foundation of Iannucci’s shows, which he's often said, because we analyzed how the system worked. 

Veep takes it a step further, I think. The vice president has really very little clue about norms, about morality, about anything other than just trying to win. She's entirely about public relations. So I think what Armando did was he wrote much more about the public relations aspect of government, which is huge, than about any systems, which is what we were doing.

Mounk: Could you say that the two shows are motivated by different formative experiences? I mean, you started to write in the last years of the Labour government before Margaret Thatcher, and it was a time in which Britain was stuck in stasis, in dysfunction, which had been particularly clear in that last Labour government, but also in the previous Conservative government. There was a sense of immobility, a sense of the norms and traditions being very strong, but the country falling apart nevertheless. And so the animating concern was this question of continuity and change, right? He wrote that coming out of the experience of Tony Blair winning a big victory in 1997, and the sense that there was a very, very disciplined messaging machine. Alastair Campbell, who's much more charming, winning and warm in person than Capaldi’s character, imposed this message discipline on the leading members of the Labour Party: the famous line that everything is about the one-liner that is going to be delivered on the news (I think Tony Blair is meant to have said a line that sounds like it could be from one of those sitcoms: “This is not a time for soundbites. I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders”).

Politics was all about soundbites. And then as Iannucci’s career goes on, those politicians come to be less and less competent. By the time we get to the wonderful character that Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays in Veep, we're really in the heart of that kind of incompetence. But that seems to also reflect a larger shift in assumptions that the public has about politics. Where perhaps in the ‘70s and ‘80s they thought, “Well, people in charge of our politics don't listen to us very much. They're probably quite brilliant, but they're kind of stuck in these old ways,” today people feel that politicians are all incompetent and venal and pretty self-interested. The span of that goes from House of Cards, where they're self-interested, venal, Machiavellian and brilliant, to Veep where they're self-interested, venal, and complete idiots. But there's a kind of disenchantment with the ability of the system to actually deliver to people, which to me seems to be expressed in the contrast between the world of Yes Minister on the one side and the world of Armando Iannucci on the other.

Lynn: Well, I think you analyze it very accurately. I don't think he was interested in the system. I think he was interested in criticizing, very funnily, what the public sees and thinks about politicians and about political parties. We weren't really writing that.

Of course, that was an element of what we were writing, but we were writing not about party politics in any way, and not really about winning elections. Of course, there were jokes about it. I'm very bad at quoting my own stuff, but Jim Hacker had this thing about, well, if you say something courageous, it means you’re putting the election in doubt.

Mounk: Humphrey, when he tries to stop the elected politician from doing something, says “Oh, that's very courageous, Minister.” And Hacker says, “Courageous? Oh my God, let's not do that.” I'm butchering the line. But that is roughly the idea, right?

Lynn: Yes, that's right. But I agree with you. And I think Armando Iannucci's shows reflect the ‘90s and then the 21st century. And Yes Minister reflects how it was in the 1980s.

My contention, and I think the public believes, that on the whole, things haven't changed as much as you would think. In other words, Armando focused on one aspect of government, and we focused, I think, on the whole system. But I really don't know. I have no real opinions about this. I'm not a critic. And I think he writes very, very funny shows.

Mounk: You're a Brit, but you have lived now for a good amount of time in the United States. I've tried to tease out the question about temporal change, whether the world of today is the same as the world of Yes Minister. I'm going to pose to you a geographic question now: To what extent do the same dynamics obtain in the United States? 

One obvious difference, for example, is that in the British system, I believe a new minister gets to appoint basically two people: one special advisor who advises them on policy and one special advisor who advises them on their press work. And that is effectively it. Other than that, it is the civil servants who are running the show. In the United States, of course, an incoming presidential administration gets to appoint, I believe (I may be getting the number slightly wrong) 3,000 political appointees. So it’s not just 30 people who come in. It is a huge swath of the upper echelons of the administrative state that are political appointees, put in there to implement the political program of the new president. 

Does that make for a fundamental difference in the United States? Does that mean that the world of Yes Minister is less applicable in the United States? Or do you think that the fundamental dynamics remain similar?

Lynn: I don't think it was entirely applicable, for the reasons you suggest. I mean, in the State Department, I think it's about six levels down from the Secretary of State before you get to permanent officials. In the Foreign Office, that would be unthinkable. It's all about the permanent officials.

It's hard to know what the ultimate difference is because both countries make huge political errors in terms of foreign affairs. But the system is different. We were asked several times to adapt Yes Minister for American television and we really couldn't find a way to do it: There wasn't a person who was the equivalent of a Sir Humphrey. I think the systems are completely different. It used to be about checks and balances in different parts of the administration. Britain doesn't really have checks and balances. It has the opposition, which at the moment is Labour, which will have fewer members in the House. And it has the House of Lords, who are able to ask all kinds of questions, but they don't ever really stop anything happening that the government wants.

The government has a much freer hand, actually, in Britain, to do what it wants than it does in the States, especially as the States consist of 50 federated states, which all have different laws about many things anyway. 

I don't think the two countries are very comparable politically. I think they work very differently.

Mounk: I agree with you that there is no Sir Humphrey in the American system. There are, in fact, I believe, about a million federal employees in the United States, many of whom do incredibly valuable and important work. But in part because you didn't make the American version of the Yes Minister, it's very hard for most Americans to imagine what they do. And of course one of the reasons you didn't make the show is that none of them have quite the kind of role and the kind of prestige that Sir Humphrey, the permanent secretary of a big Whitehall department, does in the United Kingdom. If I were to locate one similarity though, it may be in a new set of cultural self-understandings of the contemporary American elite. And I wonder what you make of that argument. 

I don't think that anybody today has the self-perception that Sir Humphrey had in the 1980s, based on self-consciously being the establishment, in being the sound person who stands up for the things that have always been done (because doing anything else would be a kind of betrayal).

Lynn: Well that's right, because Yes Minister changed that. Politicians decided they really didn't want that. They hadn't quite grasped it themselves and they decided they wanted it to be different.

Mounk: How would you go about making a political comedy about the United States in 2024? Or do you think that sort of the anger in the system is too intense and the stakes are too high to effectively make a political comedy at this juncture? What advice would you give to a 30 year-old who wants to do that today?

Lynn: I would say it's really high-risk. The comedy about Donald Trump is also so obvious.

I think Veep did the best job that was possible in terms of a comedy show about American politics or American government. I don't think there's much more to be said. I think the people who would appreciate the show already know everything there is to know about it. And the people who wouldn't appreciate the show would just be full of hatred. 

There are people like Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney and The Lincoln Project who actually have an understanding of what Trump wants to do to democracy. But they're now a very tiny proportion of the Republican Party. It's only a very broad brush satire that you would use, and that people do, about Donald Trump. You could write something subtler about the Democratic politicians. But I didn't write about politics. That's what I keep saying. I wrote about government. And although politics is a part of government, what Tony [Jay] and I were interested in was how the system worked or didn't work. And the system has essentially broken down here in America. There's now a huge division. There's no common agreement about norms, rules, how to behave, how not to behave, how you should do things, how you shouldn't do things. That's gone for the moment. It may come back. I hope it does. But it's gone.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.