Yes Minister Series 1 Yes Minister Series

Quotes from the dialogue


"Two kinds of government chair correspond with the two kinds of minister: one sort folds up instantly and the other sort goes round and round in circles."

"If people don't know what you're doing, they don't know what you're doing wrong."

"It is sometimes difficult to explain to Ministers that open government can sometimes mean informing their Cabinet colleagues as well as their friends in Fleet Street."

"Minister's language: 'We have decided to be more flexible in our application of this principle' means 'We are dropping this policy but we don't want to admit it publicly'. "


"A career in politics is no preparation for government."

"'The matter is under consideration' means we have lost the file. 'The matter is under active consideration' means we are trying to find the file."


"Asking a town hall to slim down its staff is like asking an alcoholic to blow up a distillery."

"Politicians must be allowed to panic. They need activity. It is their substitute for achievement."

"The argument that we must do everything a Minister demands because he has been 'democratically chosen' does not stand up to close inspection. MPs are not chosen by 'the people' - they are chosen by their local constituency parties: thirty-five men in grubby raincoats or thirty-five women in silly hats. The further 'selection' process is equally a nonsense: there are only 630 MPs and a party with just over 300 MPs forms a government and of these 300, 100 are too old and too silly to be ministers and 100 too young and too callow. Therefore there are about 100 MPs to fill 100 government posts. Effectively no choice at all."

"Seven ways of explaining away the fact that North-West region has saved £32 million while your department overspent:
a. They have changed their accounting system in the North-West.
b. Redrawn the boundaries, so that this year's figures are not comparable.
c. The money was compensation for special extra expenditure of £16 million a year over the last two years, which has now stopped.
d. It is only a paper bag saving, so it will have to be spent next year.
e. A major expenditure is late in completion and therefore the region will be correspondingly over budget next year. (Known technically as phasing - Ed)
f. There has been an unforeseen but important shift in personnel and industries to other regions whose expenditure rose accordingly.
g. Some large projects were cancelled for reasons of economy early in the accounting period with the result that the expenditure was not incurred but the budget had already been allocated."

"There has to be a nuclear bunker in Whitehall. Government doesn't stop merely because the country has been destroyed. Annihilation is bad enough. Without anarchy to make it even worse."

"The press described the Prime Minster as 'overwrought' today. In fact he was overwrought as a newt."


"Stalling Cabinet Ministers: the 5-stage formula
1. The administration is in its early months and there's an awful lot to do at once.
2. Something ought to be done but is this the right way to achieve it?
3. The idea is good but the time is not ripe.
4. The proposal has run into technical, logistic and legal difficulties which are being sorted out.
5. Never refer to the matter or reply to the Minister's notes. By the time he taxes you with it face to face you should be able to say it looks unlikely if anything can be done until after the election."

"The Opposition aren't really the opposition. They are only the Government in exile. The Civil Service are the opposition in residence. "


"Civil Service language: 'Sometimes one is forced to consider the possibility that affairs are being conducted in a manner which, all things being considered and making all possible allowances is, not to put too fine a point on it, perhaps not entirely straightforward.
Translation: 'You are lying'."

"The Prime Minister doesn't want the truth, he wants something he can tell Parliament."


"Almost anything can be attacked as a failure, but almost anything can be defended as not a significant failure. Politicians do no appreciate the significance of 'significant'. "

"The emotions of the environmentalist lobby are rooted more in Thoreau than in anger."

"If Civil Servants did not fight for the budgets of their departments they could end up with departments so small that even the Ministers could run them."

"Private Secretaries have divided loyalties - to their Minister and to the Civil Service. Whose side are they on when the chips are down? It is their job to see the chips stay up."


"The Official Secrets Act is not to protect secrets, it is to protect officials."

"The perfect representative on a government committee is a disabled black Welsh woman trades unionist."

"Conjurors offer the audience any card in the pack and always get them to take the one they want. This is the way we in the Civil Service get Ministers to take decisions."

"It is my job to protect the Prime Minister from the great tide of irrelevant information that beats against the walls of 10 Downing Street every day."


"People do not want to know how welfare money has actually been spent. Nobody asks the priest what happen to the ritual offering after the ceremony."

"Why should we close a hospital because it has no patients? We don't disband the Army just because there isn't a war."


"'This would create a dangerous precedent'. Translation: 'If we do the right thing now, we might have to do the right thing again next time'."

"Avoiding precedents does not mean nothing should ever be done. It only means that nothing should ever be done for the first time."

"The Letters JB in capitals are one of the highest Commonwealth honours. They stand for Jailed by the British. The order includes Gandhi, Nkrumah, Makarios, Ben Gurion, Kenyatta, Nheru, Mugabe and many other world leaders."

"Foreign Office Honours: CMG - 'Call Me God'. MCMG - 'Kindly Call Me God'. GCMG - 'God Calls Me God'."

"No one really understands the true nature of fawning servility until he sees an academic who has glimpsed the prospect of money or personal publicity."

"The surprising things about academics is not that they have their price, but how low that price is."


"Ministers have an enviable intellectual suppleness and moral maneuverability. Translation: You can't trust them further than you can throw them."


"It is only totalitarian governments that suppress facts. In this country we simply take a democratic decision not to publish them."

"How to discredit an unwelcome report:

Stage One: Refuse to publish in the public interest saying
1. There are security considerations.
2. The findings could be misinterpreted.
3. You are waiting for the results of a wider and more detailed report which is still in preparation. (If there isn't one, commission it; this gives you even more time).

Stage Two: Discredit the evidence you are not publishing, saying

1. It leaves important questions unanswered.
2. Much of the evidence is inconclusive.
3. The figures are open to other interpretations.
4. Certain findings are contradictory.
5. Some of the main conclusions have been questioned. (If they haven't, question them yourself; then they have).

Stage Three: Undermine the recommendations. Suggested phrases:

1. 'Not really a basis for long term decisions'.
2. 'Not sufficient information on which to base a valid assessment'.
3. 'No reason for any fundamental rethink of existing policy'.
4. 'Broadly speaking, it endorses current practice'.

Stage Four: Discredit the person who produced the report. Explain (off the record) that
1. He is harbouring a grudge against the Department.
2. He is a publicity seeker.
3. He is trying to get a Knighthood/Chair/Vice Chancellorship.
4. He used to be a consultant to a multinational.
5. He wants to be a consultant to a multinational."

"To suppress an internal government report, rewrite it as official advice to the Minister. Then it is against the rules to publish it, so you can leak the bits you want to friendly journalists."

"Going from Commons to the Lords is like being moved the animals to the vegetables."


"The Common Market: We went into it to screw the French by splitting them off from the Germans. The French went in to protect their inefficient farmers from commercial competition. The Germans went in to purge themselves of genocide and apply for readmission to the human race."


"If you are not happy with Minister's decision there is no need to argue him out of it. Accept it warmly, and then suggested he leaves it to you to work out the details."


"A good political speech is not one in which you can prove that the man is telling the truth; it is one where no one else can prove he is lying."

"Politicians speeches are not written for the audience to which they are delivered. Delivering the speech is merely the formality that has to be gone through in order to get the press release into the newspapers."

"Ministers do not believe they exist unless they are reading about themselves in the newspapers."

"It is our job to tell Select Committees the truth and nothing but the truth. But it would be profoundly inappropriate and grossly irresponsible to tell them the whole truth."

"Ministers must never go anywhere without their briefs, in case they get caught with their trousers down."


"Any statement in a politician's memoirs can represent one of six different levels of reality:
a. What happened.
b. What he believed happened.
c. What he would have liked to have happened.
d. What he wants to believe happened.
e. What he wants other people to believe happened.
f. What he wants other people to believe he believed happened."

"Civil Servants need great flexibility. They have to be constantly prepared to change horses in mid stream, as politicians change what they are pleased to call their minds."

"The Civil Service must always have the right to appoint the best man for the job, regardless of sex."

"Too much Civil Service work consists of circulating information that isn't relevant about subjects that don't matter to people who aren't interested."


"Terms for describing bribes when drawing up contracts:
1. Below £100,000
- Retainers
- Personal donations
- Special discounts
- Miscellaneous outgoings
2. £100,000 to £500,000
- Managerial surcharge
- Operating costs
- Ex-gratia payments
- Agents' fees
- Political contributions
- Extra-contractual payments
3. £500,000 +
- Introduction fees
- Commission fees
- Managements' expenses
- Administrative overheads
- Advance against profit sharing"

"Politicians' language:
- Special development areas = marginal constituencies.
- Assistance to areas of economic hardship = pouring money into marginal constituencies.
- Descentralisation of government = moving government offices into marginal constituencies."


"All governments departments are lobbies for the pressure groups they deal with. The Department of Education lobbies the government on behalf of teachers, the Department of Health lobbies for the doctors and hospital unions, the Department of Energy lobbies for oil companies and so on. Each department of State is actually controlled by the people it is supposed to be controlling."

"The Civil Service is neither right wing nor left wing. Political bias varies from department to department. Defence, whose clients are military, is right wing, where as Health, dealing with health unions and social workers, is left wing. Industry, dealing with employers, is right wing; Employment, dealing with unions, is left wing. The Home Office - police, prison warders, immigration officers - is right wing. Education - teachers and lecturers - is left wing. The result is a perfectly balanced and neutral Civil Service."

"Leak enquiries are for setting up, not for conducting."


"Reorganizing the Civil Service is like drawing a knife through a bowl of marbles."

"Government is not about morality, it is about stability; keeping things going, preventing anarchy, stopping society falling to bits. Still being here tomorrow."

"It is axiomatic in government that hornets' nests should be left unstirred, cans of worms should remain unopened, and cats should be left firmly in bags and not set among the pigeons. Ministers should also leave boats unrocked, nettles ungrasped, refrain from taking bulls by the horns, and resolutely turn their backs to the music."

"A minister who finds out that the government is doing something illegal does not have to tell the Prime Minister. Just because he's caught something nasty, he doesn't have to go round breathing over everyone."

"Government is about principles. And the principle is, never act on principle."

"A Politician's dilemma. He must obviously follow his conscience, but he must also know where he's going. So he can't follow his conscience, because it may not be going the same way that he is."


"Politics, as defined by Roget's Thesaurus: Manipulation, Intrigue, Wire-pulling, Evasion, Rabble-rousing, Graft."


"Administration is about means, not ends. The only ends in administration are loose ends."

"The three most unreliable things in public life: Political Memoirs, Official Denials and Manifesto Promises."

"It is possible to remove everything of significance from a file released under the 30-year rule by saying that it is complete except for:
a. A small number of secret documents.
b. A few documents which are part of still active files.
c. Some correspondence lost in the floods of 1967.
d. Some records which went astray in the move to London.
e. Other records which went astray when the Department was reorganized.
f. The normal withdrawal of papers whose publication could give grounds for an action for libel of breach of confidence or cause embarrassment to friendly governments."


"To watch a Cabinet Minister in action is to watch the endless subordination of important long-term issues to the demands of urgent trivia."

"As long as there is anything to be gained by saying nothing, it is always better to say nothing than anything."

"The first rule of politics: never believe anything until it's been officially denied."

"'The Government's position' means 'the best explanation of past events that cannot be disproved by available facts'."

"If asked if he wants to be Prime Minister, the generally acceptable answer for a politician is that while he does not seek the office, he has pledged himself to the service of his country, and that should his colleagues persuade him that that is the best way he can serve, he might reluctantly have to accept the responsibility, whatever his personal wishes might be."

"Solved problems aren't news. Tell the press a story in two halves - the problem first and the solution later. Then they get a disaster story one day and triumph story the next."

"If any sentence in a television broadcast has more than twenty words, when it gets to the end most people have forgotten how it began. Including the person speaking it."

"Things don't happen just because Prime Ministers are keen on them. Neville Chamberlain was keen on peace."

"If a job's worth doing, it's worth delegating."

"Politician's logic:
We must do something.
This is something.
Therefore we must do it."

"The problem of the Ministry of Defence is that in peace time the three armed forces have no one on whom to vent their warlike instincts except the cabinet or each other."

"If we cannot refute the arguments in a paper, we simply discredit the person who wrote it. This is called playing the man and not the ball."


"It is important to put political advisors in rooms as far away as possible from the Prime Minister. Influence diminishes with distance."

"Our job is to see that the PM is not confused. Politicians are simple people; they like simple people; they like simple choices and clear guidance."

"We do not have to accept a political advisor just because the PM likes her. Samson liked Delilah."


"In government, many people have the power to stop things happening but almost nobody has the power to make things happen. The system has the engine of a lawn mower and the brakes of a Rolls Royce."

"When anybody says 'It's not the money, it's the principle' they mean it's the money."

"Being an MP is a vast subsidized ego-trip. It's a job that needs no qualifications, it has no compulsory hours of work, no performance standards, and provides a warm room, a telephone and subsidized meals to a bunch of self-important windbags and busybodies who suddenly find people taking them seriously because they've go the letters 'MP' after the their name."

"The Prime Minister is much more worried by discontent among back-benchers than among nurses and teachers. Nurses and teachers can't vote against him until the next election. Back-benchers can vote against him at 10 o'clock tonight."

"The Prime Minister wants Cabinet papers circulated earlier. But there are grave problems about circulating papers before they are written."

"Wearing two hats is not difficult for those who are in two minds. Or have two faces."

"A Civil Service computer strike would bring government to a standstill if it were not for the fact that it is already."

"Since Cabinet Ministers are incapable of understanding a paper more than three pages long, we put a one-page summary on the front. The Janet and John bit."

"If you do not want Cabinet to spend too long discussing something, make it last on the agenda before lunch."

"It is unthinkable that politicians should be allowed to remove civil servants on grounds of incompetence. Of course some civil servants are incompetent but not incompetent enough for a politician to notice. And if civil servants could remove politicians on grounds of incompetence it would empty the House of Commons, remove the Cabinet, and be the end of democracy and the beginning of responsible government."

"Foreign policy is made in the Foreign Office. Therefore the Cabinet cannot pursue it's own foreign policy unilaterally. The country cannot have two foreign policies."

"There was nothing wrong with appeasement. All that World War Two achieved after six years was to leave Eastern Europe under a Communist dictatorship instead of a Fascist dictatorship. That's what comes of not listening to the Foreign Office."

"Britain should always be on the side of law and justice, so long as we don't allow it to affect our foreign policy."

"It was a good idea to partition countries like India and Cyprus and Palestine and Ireland as a part of their independence. It keeps them busy fighting each other so we don't' have to have a policy about them."

"Diplomacy is about surviving to the next century. Politics is about surviving until Friday afternoon."

"The public aren't interested in foreign affairs. All they want to know is who are the goodies and who are the baddies."

"Foreign policy must be made in the Foreign office. It cannot be left to fools like Fleet Street editors, back-bench MPs and Cabinet Ministers."

"Ministers are ignorant not because we do not give them the right answers but because they do not ask us the right questions."

"It is well known that in the Foreign Office an order from the Prime Minister becomes a request from the Foreign Secretary, then a recommendation from the Minister of State, finally just a suggestion from the Ambassador. If it ever gets that far."

"Press statements are not delivered under oath."

"The Foreign Office is a hotbed of cold feet."

"A somewhat unorthox procedure means The act of a gibbering idiot."


"Politicians are like children; you can't just give them what they want - it only encourages them."

"Any unwelcome initiative from a minister can be delayed until after the next election by the Civil Service 12-stage delaying process:
1. Informal discussions
2. Draft proposal
3. Preliminary study
4. Discussion document
5. In-depth study
6. Revised proposal
7. Policy statement
8. Strategy proposal
9. Discussion of strategy
10. Implementation plan circulated
11. Revised implementation plans
12. Cabinet agreement"

"The Treasury does not work out what it needs and then think how to raise the money. It pitches for as much as it can get away with and then thinks how to spend it."

"Government is not a team. It is a loose confederation of warring tribes."

"There is a moral principle involved in the government's attitude to smoking. But when four billion pounds of tax revenue is at stake, we have to consider very seriously how far we are entitled to indulge ourselves in the rather selfish luxury of pursuing moral principles."

"The history of the world is the history of the triumph of the heartless over the mindless."

"Pontius Pilate would have made very good Civil Servant."

"You can't put the nation's interest at risk just because of some silly sentimentality about justice."

"The Foreign Office never expect the Cabinet to agree with any of their policies. That is why they never explain them. All they require is that the Cabinet acquiesce in their decisions after they have been taken."

"The Foreign Office are not spineless. It takes a great deal of strength to do nothing all the time."


"Getting the PM to choose the right bishop is like a conjuror getting a member of the audience to choose a card. With the Church of England the choice is usually between a knave and a queen."

"The bench of bishops should have a proper balance between those who believe in God and those who don't."

"Bishops tend to live a long time, perhaps because the Almighty is not all that keen for them to join him."

"In Arab countries women get stoned when they commit adultery. In Britain, they commit adultery when they get stoned."

"We cannot leave the appointment of Bishops to the Holy Ghost, because no one is confident that the Holy Ghost would understand what makes a good Church of England bishop."

"An atheist clergyman could not continue to draw his stipend, so when they stop believing in God they call themselves 'modernists'."

"The Church of England is primarily a social organization not a religious one."

"Nowadays bishops only wear gaiters at significant religious events like the royal garden party."

"The plans for a new church in South London had places for dispensing orange juice, family planning, and organizing demos, but nowhere to celebrate Holy Communion."

"Theology is a device for helping agnostics to stay within the Church of England."

"The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England. God is an optional extra."

"The Foreign Office aren't there to do things. They're there to explain why things can't be done."

"People have said a lot of unpleasant things about the Foreign Office, but no one has ever accused them of patriotism."


"Irregular verbs:
I have an independent mind
You are an eccentric
He is round the twist"

"If you believe the security of the realm is at risk you don't hold a security enquiry, you call in the Special Branch. Government security enquiries are only used for killing press stories."

"Giving information to Moscow is serious. Giving information to anyone is serious. Some information would do Britain less harm if given to the Kremlin than if given to the Cabinet."

"We dare not allow politicians to establish the principle that senior civil servants can be removed for incompetence. We could loose dozens of our chaps. Hundreds maybe. Even thousands."

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"Let's hear a 'Yes' for Jim Hacker" by Mary Blume
(International Herald Tribune, Monday, May 2, 1988)

Copyright © 2011 Jonathan Lynn. All rights reserved.