Morality? Church of England Problem.

Yes Minister (and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister) is a British political satire sitcom that ran from 1980 to 1988 with a short-lived revival in 2013. The show follows the fictional political career of the, often naïve, elected minister Jim Hacker and his constant struggle to implement effective policy against the wishes of his permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby, a career civil servant, who is committed to maintaining the status quo at any cost. An allegory for the tension between idealistic politicians and the established bureaucracy.  

Sir Humphrey is portrayed as a seasoned political operator who attempts to outmanoeuvre his opponents, and indeed the minster, through his use of obfuscation, jargon and outright manipulation to maintain control and ensure the perpetuation of the political system which he considers sacrosanct.

In the video attached, Sir Humphrey and Minister Hacker debate the role of morality in government and whether or not the civil service should give precedence to morality over political interests. Sir Humphrey puts forward the argument that government isn’t in the business of morality but rather its purpose is to guarantee the continuity of government so that it can maintain order and prevent anarchy.

How can we understand this argument in the context of Camus’ The Plague and other plague literature we have read this semester? Can it help us understand the motivations and rationale of a government that implements a quarantine or prevents external communication from within even when these policies cause so much grief to the citizens that government ostensibly serves? Does being in government necessarily mean trying to preserve order at the expense of the individual?

Once the plague comes into full force, we see the degradation of the individual as government policy becomes a numbers game and the citizens of Oran become a collective (e.g. no individual favours, no consideration of individual circumstance). All this in service of the greater good: ensuring the continuity of society. Does morality have a place in government when it conflicts with the perceived purpose of government? Perhaps more importantly, what is the purpose of government, especially in a time of plague?

I leave you with a quote from the perennially razor sharp and quick-witted Sir Humphrey: ‘ well, government doesn’t stop just because the country’s been destroyed! I mean, annihilation’s bad enough without anarchy to make things even worse! ’

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  1. How the government exercises authority in response to national disasters is indeed a theme prevalent in The Plague, as well as in the other texts we have read this semester. An interesting read to look at in this regard would be Lessons from the History of Quarantine by Eugenia Tognotti. In her paper, she looks at several epidemics that broke out over hundreds of years and how governments responded to them. Her paper, in addition to the above text prompts us to question how “the common good” is reshaped depending on a country’s interests of the time. When trying to answer the question of morality and government, something I feel plague narratives, such as The Plague, often make us question is whether morality itself is definite. Is it always morality versus common good, or can there be individual as well as group morality?

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