From: Sir Humphrey Appleby
To: Bernard Woolley
Subject: Addressing Ministers
This is a problem that often arises with a new administration. Nevertheless when ministers ask us to address them by their Christian names (or ‘first names’ as I suppose we have to say), it is absolutely imperative that we demur and continue to use the title of their offices eg ‘Yes, Secretary of State’, ‘Yes, Chancellor’, ‘Yes, Minister’.
It is not just a question of convention; it goes much deeper. We absolutely have to preserve the fiction that these people, as elected representatives, are running the country. It is of course obvious to even moderately informed observers that they cannot be doing so. They do not have the training or the experience, and the system denies them the opportunity to acquire it. They do not have the continuity – the average minister’s tenure is about eleven months. And they do not have the security of office; they face the sack every five years or less, with the result that securing re-election takes precedence over all other considerations. And their selection process is laughable.
We in central government, on the other hand, are rigorously selected and spend thirty or more years learning the business of our departments. There are half a million of us controlling a budget of six hundred billion pounds, compared with a handful of temporary political incumbents whose parties struggle to raise a few million, mostly from dodgy millionaires. Obviously, therefore, the governance of the country is in our hands. Whether this is a good or bad thing may be debatable; what is beyond question is that it is so.
This is not to say that the politicians are completely useless. Their preoccupation with re-election gives them a sensitivity to popular opinion and a skill in handling press and public relations which can be helpful to us. They are, if you like, our marketing consultants who can tell us the best ways of presenting our actions and decisions, and occasionally suggest changes in policy. But they are temporary. Every five year they have to pitch for our business and may lose it to a rival agency, while we enjoy continuity and permanence.
Clearly the British people must be protected from exposure to these realities of modern governance. They need the fiction of democratic government and popular sovereignty, and it is our job to see that they retain it. This means that we must show the deepest possible deference to their elected representatives, provide them with large offices, chauffeur-driven cars and a staff of high quality. We must exalt them. We must present them as superior beings, as our masters, and behave like self-effacing minions in their presence. It is a small price to pay for the privilege of running a great country. But it means that any idea of addressing them by their first names runs the risk of exposing the illusion and must be resisted at all costs.
(Sir Humphrey Appleby KCB CVO)
© Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, 26 August 2010