Monday, November 23, 2009

Book of the Day: The Yes Minister Miscellany

A few weeks ago, my new publishing company, Biteback, published The Yes Minister Miscellany by Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, the creators of the popular series. It's a fabulous Christmas stocking book, full of wonderful wit and repartee, with quotes and extracts from the series as well as some new material including obituaries of the three main characters, Jim Hacker, Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard. Antony Jay wrote about the series in Saturday's Daily Telegraph.

This was the first book I commissioned for Biteback, and so far it is selling really well. It's a small format, £9.99 hardback, and will make a great Christmas present for anyone in politics or the civil service. Anyway, as a taster, here is the obituary for Sir Bernard Woolley KCB

b 15 July 1944 d 4 November 1995

Despite his first in Greats , few of Bernard Woolley’s contemporaries would have expected him to end his career as cabinet secretary and head of the civil service. He was a genial and easy-going colleague, but did not- at least in his early appointments- show any sign that he was cut out for leadership, and his first private secretaryship was to the comparatively lowly Department of Administrative Affairs. It was however to prove a formative experience. His minister was Jim Hacker, a politician who had never previously held government office, and whose interests, it has to be said, were more in securing personal and political advantage than in the impartial and orderly conduct of the nation’s affairs. This created for Woolley a conflict between his natural instinct to avoid confrontation and his obligation to uphold, and to impress on his minister, the standards of conduct and rules of procedure that the civil service expected of cabinet ministers.
In this he had two advantages.

The first was that Hacker, while not lacking a certain political guile, was ignorant of the machinery of government after a parliamentary career spent entirely in opposition, and furthermore had neither the intellect nor the willpower to conduct an effective campaign against the system. The second advantage was that his Permanent Secretary was Sir Humphrey Appleby, a true mandarin of the old school, who supplied the backbone that nature had denied to Woolley. Appleby was a devout believer in keeping ministers in their place, leaving it to the experts in the civil service to conduct the nation’s affairs in a consistent and disciplined manner. This underlying conflict between the aims of his ministers and those of his Permanent Secretary could have made life difficult for a new Private Secretary, but in fact it proved to be the making of Woolley. His charm, his helpfulness and his essentially amenable nature gained his minister’s confidence, while his loyalty to the service and his commitment to its standards kept Sir Humphrey reasonably satisfied with his discharge of a Private Secretary’s duties. It was indeed no small achievement to keep the peace between two men whose personalities and objectives were so widely at variance, and Woolley must be given full credit for it.

It is clear in retrospect that this was the high point in Woolley’s professional career. The decline began with the wholly unexpected elevation of Jim Hacker to the premiership. Against Sir Humphrey’s advice Hacker took Woolley with him into Downing Street as Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, raising him to a level of seniority he could never have expected, and no one would have forecast, when he entered the service. For a while he continued to fulfil his useful function as a buffer between Hacker and Appleby, but after Hacker’s resignation he was promoted to Permanent Secretary and then, with the election of a new government and Sir Humphrey’s retirement, to Cabinet Secretary. It was then that the qualities of emollient diplomacy and discreet compromise, which had served him so well in the more junior role, proved to be his undoing when something more robust was called for.

The new government arrived with a commitment to informality and a determination to impose its party political will on the civil service communications machine. . Decisions which used to be taken round the table in the cabinet room at number ten were now taken on the sofa in the study, and political advisers who had previously been politely sidelined by officials were now given formal authority over them. Such innovations would have appalled Sir Humphrey, who could have been trusted to resist them a’ l’outrance, but Woolley did not have the subtlety or the steel of his predecessor. Some of his colleagues urged him to refuse to implement the new system and challenge the Prime Minister to dismiss him. Others believed he should resign , making his reasons public. In the end, however, his predilection for co-operation and compromise, and his distaste for confrontation, overcame his personal instincts and his professional principles, and in the words of a contemporary political commentator, “like an inverted Julius Caesar, he came, he saw and he concurred.”

With the benefit of hindsight we can see the disastrous consequences of both of Bernard Woolley’s capitulations. Informal decision-making led to unparalleled confusion and inefficiency in the higher reaches of government, and giving political advisors formal authority over career civil servants steadily turned government information into party propaganda. Many political historians attribute to these two decisions the subsequent public contempt for politicians, political institutions and also political processes which reached its apogee with the parliamentary expenses scandal many years later in the spring of 2009. It would be unjust to hold Woolley exclusively accountable for all the weaknesses and failures that characterised the years subsequent to his appointment, and it is by no means certain that a courageous and principled stand on his part would in fact have served to protect the formalities and proprieties of the Appleby era from the depravations of the incoming modernisers. Woolley himself always maintains that the change was inevitable, and that he could be of more use staying in his place and working to mitigate its worst effects than by a dramatic gesture which left others to clean up the mess. Clearly we shall never know, but equally clearly the Bernard Woolley years will never be remembered amongst the most glorious in the history of Her Majesty’s civil service.

While he did not have that many admirers, his warm personality and inexhaustible good nature ensured that he had a large number of friends, and he was always a popular figure at the public events he attended regularly, and in the charitable organisations to which he generously gave so much of his time after his retirement. His favourite activity was his work as advisory editor to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and he is remembered with respect and affection at the Oxford University Press.

You can buy the book HERE.


Unknown said...

I pre-ordered this from Amazon and having now read it can thoroughly recommend it.

Andrew said...

His jokes were rubbish and would have disqualified him from high office!

Ben said...

At a considerable discount on Amazon too! I've bought two copies.

Charlotte Corday said...

Sir Bernard is dead? But he's younger than me!