Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Bureaucratic Infighting: Yes, Prime Minister

For a more humorous look at the phenomenon I tried to describe yesterday, I heartily recommend the 1980's Britcom Yes Minister, and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister.

The show follows a fictional British cabinet minister, Jim Hacker (who becomes the prime minister in the sequel), as he tries to reform the Department of Administrative Affairs and trim the vast bureaucracy. At every turn, however, he is resisted by Sir Humphrey Appleby, the head civil servant in the department, who sees it as his mission to rise in the bureaucracy himself, to protect the jobs of other civil servants, and to deflect all accusations of misfeasance in the civil service. Over the course of 38 episodes, the show was able to cover the entire spectrum of British politics and bureaucracy.

Many of the references are uniquely British--such as Sir Humphrey's snobbish references to the "two universities" and the personal secretary's conern for niceties of Greek syntax--but can be picked up after a little background reading.

More importantly, although the show was made in the 1980's and thus contains a few out-dated references (e.g., the Soviets), it remains surprisingly topical today. For instance, the episodes about scandal in the City (the London equivalent of Wall Street) and bank bailouts could have been filmed this year. Here's the beginning of one episode--ignore the cheesy intro music:

(Here are part 2 and part 3 of the episode.)

But most amazingly in my opinion, everything about the foibles of politicians and bureaucrats rings so true. Yes, Prime Minister can be viewed as a sociology of bureaucracy. Quite an amazing accomplishment for a TV satire.

As a final aside, Yes, Prime Minister also touched on other topics. Here is a very funny explanation of the Church of England, which might explain the need for Pope Benedict's promulgation of Anglicanorum Coetibus:

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