How ‘Yes Minister’ may have hit on truth over early UK-Saudi talks on defence deal
“Do not let a minister know what everybody else knows, Bernard”
– Sir Humphrey Appleby, permanent secretary to Jim Hacker
Investigators at the Serious Fraud Office examining a massive UK-Saudi military-communications deal should take time out to watch an old episode of ‘Yes Minister’.
It was shown six years after senior British civil servants agreed to allow the payment of “agency fees” in two Saudi deals then being negotiated, including one to overhaul the national guard’s communications systems.
The political satire has refused to go away, with a new series set in a contemporary coalition government due to air soon.
‘The Moral Dimension’, first broadcast in 1982, lampooned Whitehall over clinching big business deals in the Middle East.
Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay, the comedy’s writers, had Jim Hacker, minister for administrative affairs, leading a UK delegation to the fictional oil sheikhdom of Qumran to seal a £350 million deal for British Electrical Systems (BES).
There is inevitable obfuscation from Hacker’s permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, when Bernard Woolley, the minister’s principal private secretary, hears that the deal was won through bribery.
Lynn believes that the UK has long engaged in corruption to win defence contracts. “Common sense suggests that it is true, and always has been,” he told Exaro. “If you sell to a country in which bribery is an accepted part of the culture, what else would you expect?”
With discretion that would win nods of approval in Whitehall, Lynn felt unable to discuss the current bribery allegations against the UK company, GPT Special Project Management, which last month became the subject of a full criminal investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.
Exaro has made a series of revelations about the company’s contract with the Saudi national guard. On Friday, we named executives who allegedly approved £14.5 million of irregular payments in relation to the contract.
Meanwhile, in an official reception in Qumran, Sir Humphrey arrives in Arab robes and headdress…
Jim Hacker (JH): “Can’t believe my eyes! What are you here as? Ali Baba?”
Sir Humphrey Appleby (HA): “Minister, when in Rome…”
JH: “We are not in Rome, Humphrey. You look ridiculous. I suppose if we were in the Fiji islands you’d be dressed in a grass skirt.”
HA: “The Foreign Office takes the view that, as the Arab nations are a very sensitive people, we should show them whose side we are on.”
JH: “Well, it may come as a surprise to the Foreign Office, but you are supposed to be on our side.”
Bernard Woolley expresses anxiety to a Qumran government adviser about a rosewater jar gifted to Hacker and his wife.
Adviser: “Your English customs are very strange. You are so strict about a little gift, and yet your electronics company pays our finance minister a million dollars for his co-operation in securing this contract. Is this not strange?”
Bernard Woolley (BW): “You don’t mean…”
Adviser: “Of course. I work for the finance minister. I got my share of the money for keeping my mouth shut.”
BW: “I see. Would you excuse me for a moment?”
Bernard finds Sir Humphrey.
BW: “I have just found out the most terrible thing, Sir Humphrey.”
HA: “Oh dear me.”
BW: “This contract was obtained by bribery.”
HA: “Of course. All contracts in Qumran are obtained by bribery. Everybody knows that. It’s perfectly all right as long as nobody knows.”
BW: “Shouldn’t we tell the minister?”
HA: “Certainly not.”
BW: “But if everybody knows –”
HA: “Everybody else. Do not let a minister know what everybody else knows, Bernard.”
Back in London, Hacker reads media reports alleging bribery in the contract. “Is there something behind it, Humphrey? I want to know the truth, Humphrey.”
HA: “I don’t think you do, minister.”
JH: “Will you answer a direct question?”
HA: “I strongly advise you not to ask a direct question.”
HA: “It might provoke a direct answer.”
JH: “It never has yet!”
Hacker presses the issue: “Are you telling me, Humphrey, that the BES contract was won by bribery?”
SH: “Oh minister, I do wish you wouldn’t use words like bribery.”
But Hacker’s resolve is undermined after a journalist, fortunately for Sir Humphrey, spots the rosewater jar at the minister’s home.
Back in the real Whitehall, the Ministry of Defence has batted away awkward questions about bribery allegations.