Thursday, 18 October 2012

Being Sir Humphrey

Sir Humphrey Appleby was the most memorable character in Yes Minister, one of Margaret Thatcher's favourite telly programmes. You can see how this satirical portrait of the slippery, obstructive, manipulative mandarin would have appealed to Thatcher's self-image. Sir Humphrey represented the old world of the post-war consensus with its complacency, vested interests, feather-bedded public servants, resistance to change, outmoded working practices and centralised, statist power structures. Mrs. T was the anti-establishment rebel, the outsider, the new broom* ready to sweep the fusty, dusty old world of the Sir Humphreys away for ever.

I don't know what the old girl might have made of Conservative MP and attorney general Dominic Grieve and his Sir Humphrey-like explanation of why we can't possibly be allowed to see letters that might reveal whether or not the Prince of Wales has been lobbying ministers about whatever he's had on his Royal mind:

Much of the correspondence does indeed reflect the Prince of Wales' most deeply held personal views and beliefs. The letters in this case are in many cases particularly frank...

They also contain remarks about public affairs which would in my view, if revealed, have had a material effect upon the willingness of the government to engage in correspondence with the Prince of Wales, and would potentially have undermined his position of political neutrality...

It is a matter of the highest importance within our constitutional framework that the monarch is a politically neutral figure able to engage in confidence with the government of the day, whatever its political colour.

The Guardian

In other words, we can't possibly allow the public to know whether or not an unelected public figure has been trying to exercise undue influence on our elected representatives because if we knew whether or not he'd done anything that he shouldn't have done, that would undermine his authority, although our decision to keep this information secret should not be interpreted as an indication that he might have done anything wrong.

Fantastic stuff, and one to remember next time Thatcher's heirs try to spin the myth that they're some breed of iconoclastic outsiders who haven't been wholly assimilated by an out of touch and unaccountable establishment.

*An image still popular at Conservative Party conferences.