Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Oh No, Minister: Satire Needs Scandals, Say Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay. Politics No Longer Provides Them

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Oh No, Minister: Satire Needs Scandals, Say Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay. Politics No Longer Provides Them

Article excerpt

Much has been said about how different government was when we first wrote Yes Minister--since the late 1970s, people say, the civil service has been politicised and the introduction of special advisers (otherwise known as spads) has changed everything.

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So when we considered writing the stage play Yes, Prime Minister, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the series, our first questions were: are things different now and, if so, would our task be more difficult? It turns out that most things haven't changed much at all.

There have always been special advisers. We had one for Jim Hacker in the first series; we got rid of him because he seemed too identifiable with Labour, which was in office when we wrote the first seven episodes. We knew two of them: Marcia Williams, Harold Wilson's political secretary and confidante, and Bernard Donoughue, head of the No 10 Policy Unit under Wilson and Callaghan. Then came Thatcher and her close adviser Bernard Ingham. Yet, under Blair, Alastair Campbell created such a cult of personality that everyone thought his role was new. It wasn't.

Is the civil service more politicised now? We don't think so. It is in its interest to look as though it supports the government on everything, both practical and ideological. That's what they are paid for. It is not in their interest to broadcast their own agenda. That's our job.

So, has anything changed? The answer is yes. Society has. "Shame!" MPs traditionally shout when they disapprove of something. What does that mean? Does it mean "What a pity"? Or that the statement was a shame, or worthy of shame? Or is it an instruction: "You should feel shame"? If an order, it's likely to fall on deaf ears. Since we started to write Yes Minister, shame went out of style.

Politicians, like other celebrities, reflect our society. Remember John Profumo? He had sex with a prostitute, lied to the House, and spent the next 40 years in penance. Twenty years later Cecil Parkinson, a married man, had an affair with his secretary; she went to the newspapers with the story--no shame there, apparently--and nine years later Parkinson accepted a peerage and became chairman of the "family values" party. Embarrassment, yes. Shame? Not so much. We are not moralists about sexual conductbutall satirical writing involves a moral standard, frequently self-imposed, which is not being met. Our concerns are hypocrisy and dishonesty, because those are usually the funniest. But in looking for subject matter for the play, we looked for things that still shock people. We couldn't find very many.

MPs fiddling their expenses seemed worth a mention but not much more: after all, that system was deliberately designed by the Callaghan government as a way to get around the pay freeze. MPs were supposed to inflate their expenses. …

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