Sir Humphrey Appleby, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service during Jim Hacker’s premiership, has rarely granted interviews since his retirement. I was extremely fortunate to manage to arrange a short meeting with him at his club, to discuss his views on Brexit]
INTERVIEWER: Sir Humphrey, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. If I may I’d like to jump straight in.
SIR HUMPHREY: By all means.
INT: Obviously the biggest issue of the day is Brexit. What are your feelings about it?
H: I rather think I’m still in shock about the whole issue.
INT: Shocked that people voted to leave?
H: No, shocked that they were allowed to vote at all. I’ve no idea what Jeremy [Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary] was thinking, allowing that to happen.
INT: You don’t believe in direct democracy?
H: Good lord, no. The general public aren’t qualified to run a country. It’s bad enough that we let them interfere with our plans by voting for a new government every 4 or 5 years.
INT: It’s not valuable to ask the people for their views on major decisions about their country?
H: It’s absolutely fine to ask them their views. It’s agreeing to do something based upon them that is ruinous.
H: Opinion polls ask people their views all of the time, and are an invaluable way to steer truculent ministers. Isn’t that enough?
INT: But opinion polls don’t allow the public to directly control government policy.
H: Not directly, no. That’s the purpose of the civil service.
INT: To turn opinion polls into government policy?
H: [chuckles] No, to use opinion polls to turn civil service policy into government policy.
INT: I’m sorry, sir Humphrey, but you’ve lost me.
H: Look, it’s perfectly straightforward. The general population are completely unfit to govern. Most of them didn’t go to good schools, hardly any of them would pass the civil service entry exam, and most of them seem to be constantly drunk or stoned [pause] Vox populi, vox cannabis, one might say.
INT: I’m sorry, Sir Humphrey, I don’t speak Latin.
H: My point entirely, dear boy. [He sips his drink] Popularity is the enemy of the civil service. If a policy is good, but unpopular, then we can implement it terribly well and, if we’re questioned about it, we can say that it was the will of our political masters.
INT: Do you say that about bad policy as well?
H: No need. If a policy is bad and unpopular we can either stall it forever, or gradually change it until it’s good. Either way nobody really cares, because nobody really liked it anyway.
INT: What about popular policies?
H: Policies that are bad, yet popular, are where opinion polls are so important. Every good civil servant knows how to use opinion polls to make a popular opinion look unpopular. In practice, of course, it’s rarely necessary to do so.
H: One can normally rely upon the average cabinet minister to make the popular unpopular simply by speaking in support of it. Referendums are different, however. Opinion polls change all of the time. If an opinion poll doesn’t show the result you want then there’ll be another one along in a few minutes which does. A referendum is like a trump in bridge; it can only be beaten by another trump.
INT: So what would happen if a policy was both good and popular?
H: Do you know, the question has never arisen.
INT: You don’t think Brexit is a good idea then?
H: I think the idea of Brexit is excellent, a truly marvellous policy. The girl [The Right Honourable Theresa May, MP, Prime Minister of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland] handled it so well to start off with; two new government departments created, expectations of massive civil service spending, decade’s worth of planning and strategy papers to be written…
INT: I sense a ‘but’ coming here.
H: But she’s letting the politicians run things, and run them to their timetable. A measured civil service approach would have allowed time for the options to be considered, the ramifications to be measured, the risks evaluated and the rewards quantified.
INT: How much time are you talking about here?
H: Hardly any time at all.
INT: But, how much?
H: Well, I’m a classicist, not a trade expert, but from my experience we’d be talking about being ready to leave in no more than 25 years…30 at the absolute outside.
INT: You feel that Mrs May is rushing things?
H: I feel that all historical evidence suggests that it’s folly to have government policy dictated by the leaders in The Daily Mail.
INT: Would you rather see Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister?
H: Yes. Yes, I think he’d make a very good PM.
INT: Really? He doesn’t seem like your sort of person.
H: Naturally I wouldn’t want him running the country…
INT: But you just said that he’d make a good prime minister.
H: Yes. Why do you imagine that’s the same as him running the country?
INT: Ah, you think that the civil service could ‘manage’ him.
H: I learned long ago that nobody is easier to steer than an ideologue. They’re so obsessed with the carrot that they don’t see you making the stick longer.
INT: But Mr Corbyn’s supporters say that he’s principled and determined. Perhaps he wouldn’t be as malleable as you think.
H: Nonsense, just look at him when he became leader of the opposition; scruffy suit, no tie, refusing to sing the national anthem. That was the authentic ‘him’. Since then somebody’s told him that he has to “play the game” if he wants to reach his goals. The idiot children he surrounds himself with have already made him a completely different person, and he hasn’t even met the civil service yet.
INT: Finally then, Sir Humphrey, can I have a simple yes or no answer. Do you think Brexit is going to be good for Britain?
H: I think that when all of the relevant factors are taken into consideration, including the factors that we do not yet know are relevant, and the factors which we considered relevant which may, on closer inspection, turn out to be irrelevant, and giving due consideration to the matters in hand, the handling of the matters due, and the unduly underhand manner in which some of the matters have been handled, my feeling is that not all that matters has been handled, not all that has been handled matters, and that that, on consideration, more consideration should have been given to the handling of what matters most and less to our dues.
INT: Is that a ‘no’?
INT: Thank you, sir…
H: …and no.
INT: Thank you, Sir Humphrey. It’s been an education.
H: Who knows, a little more of that and we may end up with a policy that’s popular and good.