Bouncing the Treasury: Classic or Edgy?

In my public management course this term, I showed an episode from Yes Prime Minister and an episode from the BBC’s 2005 political satire The Thick of It, both on the topic of bouncing (i.e. outsmarting) the Treasury.

The Yes Prime Minister episode “The Smokescreen” involved Prime Minister Hacker’s stratagem to overcome the Treasury’s opposition to a 1.5 billion pound tax cut. An opportunity presented itself to force the Treasury’s hand when the Secretary of State for Health – a medical doctor and anti-smoking zealot – urged on Hacker a proposal for confiscatory taxation of tobacco products and a ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorships, which would reduce tobacco sales dramatically and diminish net government revenues by a projected 4 billion pounds. Hacker tacitly supported these then-radical initiatives to lever the Treasury into agreeing to his smaller tax cut, made the deal with Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (acting on behalf of the Treasury), then “rearranged his priorities,” and finally, bought the support of the disgruntled health minister by giving him a promotion to a ministerial position in the Treasury.

The conflict in The Thick of It is between Chris Abbott, the harassed Secretary of State for Social Affairs, and his harasser, Malcolm Tucker, a Number 10 enforcer whose role is to ensure departmental compliance with prime ministerial initiatives. In episode I showed in class, Abbott tells Tucker he has the prime minister’s support for a new policy gimmick – establishing a squad of civil servants to detect citizens fraudulently receiving social benefits. Concerned that the Treasury does not support the idea, Tucker tells him to cancel the initiative. Soon after, Tucker tells him to reinstate the squad because the prime minister doesn’t want to be seen in the media, which has caught wind of the story, to be stymied by the Treasury. This entails Abbott persuading the media to retrospectively report that he announced the initiative in a previous speech in which, then acting on Tucker’s orders, he had deleted any reference to it.

While the underlying issue – the ongoing power struggle between the Prime Minister and the Treasury – was the same in both series, the context in which it was played out was very different. In Yes Prime Minister, it all happens in private negotiations among politicians and permanent secretaries. In The Thick of It, the media is deeply involved because, in this satire of Tony Blair’s government, policies and programs are judged by the media attention they receive.

Not only is the political context of the two programs different, but the narrative style is radically different. Yes Prime Minister was classically theatrical, with a studio resembling posh Whitehall and Westminster offices, well-spoken characters (remember Sir Humphrey’s flights of bureaucratese), tried-and-true gags (in “The Smokescreen” characters entering and exiting the prime minister’s office through different doors), and an in-studio audience laughing along. The Thick of It is modern and edgy, shot with a jerky video cam in a non-descript office building, and lacking theme music or opening and closing images. Instead of Yes Prime Minister’s elegant wordplay, The Thick of It emphasizes profanity, especially curses delivered – in a deep Scots accent – by enforcer Malcolm Tucker.

So what was the students’ reaction? I was concerned that they would be put off by the profanity (none of which I will repeat here to prevent filters blocking this post), but my warning just heightened their interest. A very strong majority of the class preferred edgy to classic. Edgy represents their world. They tell me they use profanity a lot (though not in class, I’m glad to say). And they consider jerky images, non-descript offices, and supply-your-own-laughs to be much more authentic than smooth staging, fancy offices, and laughter built into the sound track.

So there you have it. I happen to think Yes Prime Minister will endure because of the intelligence of its analysis of politics and language. But, to my Net Generation students, its aura is now definitely retro.

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