The following excerpt is from The English Constitution by Walter Bagehot:
Nor indeed, under our system of government, are the leaders themselves of the House of Commons, for the most part, eager to carry party conclusions too far. They are in contact with reality. An Opposition, on coming into power, is often like a speculative merchant whose bills become due. Ministers have to make good their promises, and they find a difficulty in so doing. They have said the state of things is so and so, and if you give us the power we will do thus and thus. But when they come to handle the official documents, to converse with the permanent under-secretary - familiar with disagreeable facts, and though in manner most respectful, yet most imperturbable in opinion - very soon doubts intervene. Of course, something must be done; the speculative merchant cannot forget his bills; the late Opposition cannot, in office, forget those sentences which terrible admirers in the country still quote. But just as the merchant asks his debtor, "Could you not take a bill at four months?" so the new minister says to the permanent under-secretary, "Could you not suggest a middle course? I am of course not bound by mere sentences used in debate; I have never been accused of letting a false ambition of consistency warp my conduct; but," etc., etc. And the end always is that a middle course is devised which looks as much as possible like what was suggested in opposition, but which is as much as possible what patent facts - facts which seem to live in the office, so teasing and unceasing are they - prove ought to be done.
Yes Minister was a British political satire television series that was originally broadcast from 1980 to 1984. Its sequel Yes, Prime Minister (featuring the same main set of characters) ran from 1986 to 1988. Both were written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn.
The relationship between the two primary characters in the series (The Right Honourable James Hacker, Minister of Administrative Affairs, and Sir Humphrey Appleby, his Permanent Secretary) is usually very similar to the dynamic between ministers and their permanent under-secretaries described in the excerpt above.
Earlier, in 1967, Antony Jay wrote a book called Management and Machiavelli, in which he quoted from The English Constitution several times. The book includes many other quotations from Machiavelli, Milton, Shakespeare, and Bismarck, among others. I think it is reasonable to suppose that Antony Jay had read the entirety of The English Constitution, including the excerpt above, before he began to work on Yes Minister.
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I have in my possession a paper copy of The English Constitution (second edition), written by Walter Bagehot, published in 1929 by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd in London.
The introduction to the second edition is dated June 20, 1872.
The excerpt above is found on pages 144-145 of my copy.
I downloaded a text version of this book from Project Gutenberg [link], produced by Steve Harris, Charles Franks and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team, which I used as my starting text.
Changes from the original text:
- I have removed word-breaking hyphens.
- I have not preserved the original line breaks. I treat each paragraph as a single line.
- I have not preserved page divisions or page numbers.
- I have not preserved the original indentation at the start of the paragraph.
- I have replaced double spaces after a period with a single space.
- I have substituted a hyphen with a space either side of it ( - ) for the em dash used in the original text.
- In the original text, colons and semicolons are preceded by a thin space, which I have not preserved.
- In the original text, the double quotation marks were curled to indicate whether they were positioned at the start or end of a phrase/sentence/sentence_group. I have replaced them with straight quotation marks.
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