Magazine article The Spectator

Bitter Truths

Magazine article The Spectator

Bitter Truths

Article excerpt

Tragically, I missed the recent reality TV show in which celebrity love rat (and, weirdly enough, brother of my old riding teacher) James Hewitt was filmed receiving hand relief from a young woman desperate (very, clearly) to win £10,000. Instead I'm going to talk about something if possible even more depressing: Armando lannucci's new sitcom The Thick of It (BBC4, Thursday).

What's depressing isn't that it's bad it's not: it's quite brilliant, the new Yes, Minister - but that it dissects with such merciless accuracy the failings of the New Labour project that you find yourself thinking, 'Phew! Thank God, we've finally seen through those charlatans. Imagine how awful it would have been if we'd gone and elected them for a third term!', before realising a millisecond later: Oh, Christ ... '

The running joke in Yes, Minister was that while politicians may wish to change the world with their big ideas it's the civil servants who really run the show and forever ensure that things stay exactly as they are because that's the way Whitehall likes it. At the time, the series probably seemed like a trenchant satire on bureaucracy gone mad. Now, though, it comes across more like a rose-tinted tribute to the golden era when politicians still had ideals and when civil servants weren't pliable nobodies in the service of sinister spin doctors but voices of tradition and authority with the power and good sense to keep the government's more excessive idiocies in check.

In The Thick of It when nothing happens it's not because of Whitehall obstructiveness but because for nothing to happen is at the very heart of the government's ideology. If something happens, then there's always the possibility that voters might object, which won't do at all. Far better merely to create the illusion of momentum (forward not backward, anyone?) by announcing and reannouncing endless eyecatching policy initiatives to be rolled out at unspecified intervals in the bright and glorious future.

This, at any rate, was the theme of the opening episode. A new minister (Chris Langham) has been given what he imagines is the prime ministerial go-ahead for an eye-catching initiative, only to be told by the evil Alastair Campbell figure (a magnificently reptilian Peter Capaldi) seconds before the press conference he has called to announce it that when the Prime Minister said 'should' it meant 'yes, it would be a nice idea', rather than 'I want this thing to happen.' The pay-off, of course, is that, having gone to extravagant lengths to turn the announcement into a non-announcement (blaming earlier hints that there was going to be an announcement on a disgruntled civil servant), they then have to reannounce it because the Prime Minister has changed his mind. …

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