A fictional diary spoofs a British civil servant's hold on power

The Complete Yes Minister: the Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, by the Right Hon. James Hacker MP. Edited by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay. Topsfield, Mass.: Salem House Publishers. 514 pp. $19.95. Suppose, just suppose if you can, that you've got yourself elected to the British Parliament and Mrs. Thatcher, however unlikely it may seem, has chosen you to be a member of her Cabinet. Then, dear reader, you begin to understand what ``Alice in Wonderland'' is all about. That is, if you take ``Yes Minister'' at its madly comic face value. And sometimes I suspect we can, for it has a wild kind of inverted logic.

It purports to be the diary of James Hacker, the new, eager, but not terribly bright minister of administrative affairs, who starts his job in the happy expectation that he can do something - like cut budgets or reduce red tape - the kind of thing we would all do in his place. But he reckons without the Civil Service.

In the offices in Whitehall where the job of governing the nation is actually done, ministers may come and ministers may go at the whim of the ballot box, but the civil servant, serenely above politics, goes on forever, clinging firmly to power, thwarting the politicians at every turn. That's his job, if the authors of this book are to be believed. So he stands firmly on the three articles of the civil servants' faith, which are, according to Hacker: ``It takes longer to do things quickly, it's more expensive to do things cheaply, and it's more democratic to do things secretly.''

Bitter experience has taught Jim Hacker. His private secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, the villain of the piece, is a civil servant par excellence. Suave, patrician, unfailingly courteous and cooperative on the surface, he is lethally manipulative underneath, coolly confident of his power.

Whenever Hacker would like to get something done, Sir Humphrey is ready to stop him. After all, if you do nothing, mistakes aren't made. Should worse come to worst, stamp it ``secret'' for ``if no one knows what you are doing, they don't know what you are doing wrong.''

Never, Sir Humphrey believes, set up an official inquiry unless you know in advance what the findings will be. Always write the final communiqu'e on any meeting before the meeting is held.

Putting a minister down, and keeping him down, takes no great skill. If he seems to be getting his way, lead him into a trap from which only Sir Humphrey can rescue him - at a price.

Sir Humphrey never actually lies. Ask, for instance, ``I heard that there is a rumor going around that there might be a Cabinet reshuffle. Is that true?'' Yes, says Sir Humphrey. By that he means yes, there is a rumor going around, not yes the rumor is true.

In fact, like Humpty Dumpty, Sir Humphrey insists that words mean what he wants them to mean. ``I am absolutely in total sympathy with your objective ... but these things take time'' means ``I will fight you tooth and nail.''

Not that using words to blur the issue is limited to Parliament - witness the phrase used to muffle the effects of Black Monday on Wall Street (``longtime overdue correction''). And recently the Boston Globe called bribes ``gratuities.'' (Sir Humphrey called them ``creative negotiations.'')

I am more worried by what Antony Lynn told a New Times interviewer: ``The irony is that when we sat down to create the ultimate absurdity - a hospital with an administration and no patients - we discovered that there really were hospitals in England with new wings and no patients. We've come to the conclusion that we're more or less telling the truth.''

When ``Yes Minister'' ran as a series on British television it was said to be Mrs. Thatcher's favorite. The book was on the country's best-seller list for 75 weeks and has appeared on some US public television stations and cable networks.

Pamela Marsh is a free-lance book reviewer.

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