Politics is universal, and a sham. So much of what we see is theatre put on for our benefit, as demonstrated by a British series from the 1980s called Yes, Minister.

Yes, Minister — and, eventually, Yes, Prime Minister — is a show about the internal workings of the British Department of Administrative Affairs, analogous to our Department of the Interior. As a satiric sitcom, this television show has to be a thousand times more realistic than the bunk you see on The West Wing.

Although Great Britain’s constitutional monarchy is an odd beast, and although its parliament is just different enough to warrant brushing up on comparative government before watching an episode or two, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of deja vu as I breeze through the 38 or so episodes. I’ve seen all this intrigue somewhere before.

One of the great tropes of the series is when one of the characters gets into a monologue about how government really works, patiently explaining that the job of the civil service is to prevent the elected officials from messing up the government. The best official, the civil service frequently says, is a puppet. Later that episode, when main character and career puppet Jim Hacker is coerced into making an ultimately successful mid-term campaign for Prime Minister, his advisers tell him exactly what he has to do.

If asked if he wants to be Prime Minister, the generally acceptable answer for a politician is that while he does not seek the office, he has pledged himself to the service of his country, and that should his colleagues persuade him that that is the best way he can serve, he might reluctantly have to accept the responsibility, whatever his personal wishes might be.

Hacker does this.

Hacker: The next Prime Minister would have to be someone you could trust. An old friend.
Duncan: Do you mean you?
Hacker: I have absolutely no ambition in that direction.
Duncan: You do mean you.


Eric: So Duncan would get No. 10. My God.
Hacker: Not if I can help it. [takes a drink] Cheers.
Eric: You don’t mean you?
Hacker: Me? My children are at the age where my wife and I would like to spend much more time with each other.
Eric: You do mean you.

I don’t know about you, but I saw more than a little bit of Fred Thompson, whose campaign peaked just before he announced his candidacy. Before that, he had no ambition. He wanted to spend time with his family.

He wanted to be the head of government, no doubt about it.

The eeriest scene involved what turns out to be Jim Hacker’s campaign speech. It’s full of melodrama, patriotism, triviality and overdone pomp. In other words, though him crying out against repressed British sausage will sound foreign to our ears, his rhetoric will remain very, very familiar.

Why is it that British shows always seem so American?

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