The Times can exclusively reveal the contents of a secret memo by Britain’s top civil servant
From: Sir Humphrey Appleby
To: Bernard Woolley
Subject: War in Libya: What a Godsend for Whitehall
My Dear Bernard,
I note your anxieties about the recent developments in the Middle East, but I have to tell you that they are misplaced. Let me explain why.
Whenever a new government is inflicted on us we suffer from a surge of unpleasant language. Ministers indulge themselves in disagreeable words like “action”, “initiative”, “change”, “reform” and “rethink”. They urge their departments to come up with new ideas and revolutionary proposals. They show a distressing desire to do things, usually things that will earn them column inches in the press. We have seen all too much of this lately, just as we did in 1997 and (as I remember but you will not) in 1979.
Obviously we have to feign enthusiasm for all this nonsense, and comfort ourselves with the knowledge that it will not last. Ministers are almost complete amateurs in the business of running things, and as their primary objective is promotion and re-election, rather than the orderly and efficient management of the nation’s affairs, this gives us plenty of time to let their early enthusiasms evaporate and run into the sand on to which they were built.
As with any new government, our first task has been to prevent any precipitate action. The usual devices of widespread consultation, further research and interdepartmental committees have more or less achieved this. The second task, now well under way, is to undermine the Prime Minister’s confidence in his Cabinet colleagues. One of the greatest threats to responsible government is to have a lot of ministers running their departments uncontrolled. Once the Prime Minister starts to feel anxious about what they are up to, we can persuade him to insist on Downing Street approval for all press announcements, policy initiatives and legislative proposals.
The objective, of course, is to centralise all policymaking in Downing Street. Prime ministers are touchingly susceptible to the attractions of omnipotence, and always believe that they are the only one who really understands the needs of the country and the wishes of the electors. But while this does indeed solve the problem of the overzealous departmental ministers, it creates another: the overpowerful Prime Minister.
We have of course over the years refined the techniques for stopping prime ministers from interfering with our business of governing the country. Press conferences, cabinet committees, ceremonial visits, receiving visiting heads of government — you will be familiar with all of these. Better still are overseas visits — Washington, Brussels, the United Nations, Nato, and photo opportunities with our troops overseas. And, of course, there are his political responsibilities — party committees, party conferences, visits to marginal constituencies, press interviews, and receptions and dinners for major contributors to party funds.
All of the above assist in our primary task of centralising all power in Downing Street and then making sure that the Prime Minister does not have time to exercise it himself, and consequently leaves most of it to those of us who are trained, experienced and professionally qualified to exercise it for him.
Despite all this, however, an able and energetic Prime Minister may still find time to interfere with the government of the country. We need something even more compelling and distracting. And, of course, the perfect answer is a war. The best sort of war is a small and distant one that drags on for a very long time.
We have been extremely lucky over the past 20 years to have had just the right sort of wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, to keep Prime Ministers out of our way for long periods. Some of us were worried that both of these seemed to be in danger of coming to an end shortly, so the Libyan operation has come as a godsend. There is nothing like a war to absorb, preoccupy and — let us be honest — gratify a politician. All politicians are by their nature and job divisive figures, but war is a great national unifier. It also enables a politician to present himself as patriotic, courageous, resolute and defiant.
There was a time when we only went to war when Britain was directly threatened, which severely restricted our scope. But happily our modern statesmen have found a new excuse. War is now a moral crusade, and our politicians now seek to right wrongs, not merely to defend interests. We fight to restore justice to other countries, to overthrow oppressive regimes, to defend human rights, to establish democratic government.
All we ask is that the country should be small enough not to constitute an actual danger to ourselves. Communist China is undemocratic and oppressive, but we do not hear any calls to invade it and give its citizens democratic rights and freedoms. But with any luck the Middle East will keep our government busy for the next ten years and leave us free to provide the professional administration that has made Britain what she is today.
(Sir Humphrey Appleby KCB CVO)
© Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, 5th May 2011
The comedy Yes, Prime Minister by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay is currently on tour and will be returning to the West End from July 6 for a strictly limited season at the Apollo Theatre