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Nothing Changes

February 5th

Today we had a meeting about the Europass. This was a completely new development. I’d never even heard of it. … It seems that [it] is a new European Identity Card, to be carried by all citizens of the EEC. The FCO, according to Humphrey, is willing to go along with the idea as a quid pro quo for a settlement over the butter mountain, the wine lake, the milk ocean, the lamb war, and the cod stink.

Apparently, the PM wants me to introduce the necessary legislation.

I’m horrified by this.

Sir Humphrey was surprised by my reaction. He thought it was a good idea, as I’m known to be pro-Europe, and he thinks that a Europass will simplify administration in the long run.

Frank and I tried to explain to the officials that for me to introduce such a scheme would be political suicide. The British people don’t want to carry compulsory identification papers. I’ll be accused of trying to bring in a police state [...]

I asked Humphrey if the Foreign Office doesn’t realise how damaging this would be to the European ideal?

“I’m sure they do, minister. That’s why they support it.”

This was even more puzzling, since I’d always been under the impression that the FO is pro-Europe. “Is it, or isn’t it?” I asked Humphrey.

“Yes and no,” he replied of course, “if you’ll pardon the expression. The Foreign Office is pro-Europe because it is really anti-Europe. In fact, the Civil Service was united in its desire to make sure the Common Market didn’t work. That’s why we went into it. Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for the last five hundred years – to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought wars with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule.”

“But that’s all ancient history!”

“Yes, minister, but it is, in fact, current policy. It is necessary to break up the EEC, so we had to get inside. We had previously tried to break it up from the outside, but that didn’t work. Now that we’re in, we are able to make a complete pig’s breakfast of it. We can set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch… the Foreign Office is terribly happy. It’s just like old times.”

Yes, Minister, “The Writing on the Wall”

ID cards, lies and duplicity over Europe… the book from which I’ve taken the bulk of this quote was published in 1981. The TV series which I’ve been re-watching and inspired me to post it first aired in 1979. Both are as relevant today as they were then (another episode is about an austerity drive). They’ve aged far, far, better than the highly celebrated – and much more recent – The Thick of It, for example: it was about the Blair administration; Yes, Minister is about the delusion that these here-today-gone-tomorrow administrations make a blind bit of difference in the face of our real government, the Civil Service.

If you’ve never encountered Jim Hacker, Sir Humphrey, and the Ministry of Administrative Affairs, I highly recommend you remedy the defect. The first series in particular is exceptional. Think of it as an education. Johnathan Lynn and Anthony Jay were – are – both political animals, and had contacts who were even closer to the centre of the permanent government; they weren’t making it up. Maraget Thatcher, when she met them, is reported to have said, “It’s very good. How did you know?”.

13 Comments

  1. Single Acts of Tyranny says:

    That’s a very fair summary, I would just suggest the civil service itself has changed since Sir Humphrey’s day. From what I read it’s much less competent and more partisan.

  2. RAB says:

    There’s a new series starting soon, but I think it’s on Sky dammit, and I don’t use it. I went to see a stage version of it in the Theatre Royal Bath last year. Brilliant!

    Yes SAoT, the the Civil Service has definitely changed. The Thick of It is probably close to the current truth, expletive deleted, thick as pigshit and totally incompetent.

  3. Paul Marks says:

    Yes – alas the FO (and so on) are not like that now (if they even were then).

    These days the top people are Guardian, Independent, and FT reading “liberal” (read collectivist) trash. They really believe in the E.U. and so on.

  4. John Galt says:

    “But that’s all ancient history!” “Yes, minister, but it is, in fact, current policy.”

    This was probably true up until Heath / Wilson, but the degradation in civil service recruitment has deteriorated as its scope has expanded. Most of the senior members of the civil service are just time servers waiting to collect their pensions.

    Impartiality was always a joke, the only difference is before they would only propose / enact legislation which protected and enhanced the civil service. Nowadays they are consumed with the fulfillment of the liberal agenda (supported by Common Purpose, just the old Communist Party with new branding and marketing).

  5. Sam Duncan says:

    Yes, John, I think you’re right. Up to a point. At that level, I’m not sure the Civil Service has changed all that much. In style, perhaps – Sir Humphrey’s bureaubabble has given way to the effing and blinding of The Thick of It – but as you say, it was never as impartial as advertised. Which is really what I was trying to show: the permanent government has policy of its own, and it always wins. What has changed is that party policy (in all parties) has grown closer to it. The Service is more open about its intentions, and the pols are less responsive to public opinion. A modern Hacker would be less shocked and take less “house-training”. He’d probably even be ready to give the Europass a try, as we saw with the Blair government.

    Also, the reason for their enthusiasm for the EU may have changed. (Although I’m not entirely convinced: we know British “influence” is nonsense. Humphrey’s story at least makes sense. Mind you, Arthur Salter was British, so…)

  6. Mr Ed says:

    In WW2, a visiting American diplomat stopped a passing soldier in Whitehall and asked him which side the Foreign Office was on. ‘Ours, I think’ was the reply.

  7. Mr Ed says:

    In the good old days, the Civil Service was run by honourable men.

    Traitors like Burgess, MacLean and Philby wouldn’t have been tolerated for too long….

  8. NickM says:

    As an exchange on Y(p?)M went…

    Hacker: “Does anyone know what the foreign office is doing?”
    Humphrey: “Well, the Foreign Office – and the Kremlin.”

    Absolute shocking magic.

  9. John Galt says:

    @RAB:

    I wouldn’t out-do yourself to try and see the new Yes Minister as reviews have been pretty abysmal.

    Better off just watching the original as they are genuinely funny and as timeless as ever.

  10. Paul Marks says:

    The stuff about Common Purpose (and Agenda 21) is real.

    It is all over the place.

  11. John Galt says:

    I’m not too worried about Agenda 21, although I accept it is a conspiracy theorists wet dream, in reality it is another drug induced UN hallucination.

    However, Common Purpose, those subversive fuckers mean business. They are the 21st century equivalent of St. Margaret of Thatcher’s “The Enemy Within”.

    The sooner Common Purpose have their fake charidee status withdrawn and are smashed, scattered to the four winds, the better.

  12. PhilB says:

    The Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister books are Machiavelli for the 20th (and now 21st) century.

    Machiavelli is a much maligned writer. His books are never read but much quoted by the ignorant …

  13. Roue le Jour says:

    Sam,

    the permanent government has policy of its own, and it always wins.

    The view I have held for some time now. (Since a member of Wilson’s government said as much in a TV interview.) I regard Government ministers as ceremonial appointments.

    Though I normally think Sir Humphrey is bang on the money, in this case he is wrong. The bureaucracy is pro EU because the EU is an alliance of bureaucracies against the common enemy, the people and their representatives.

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