The Five Standard Excuses of all politicians, everywhere, for everything: this week’s Friday Formula

Yes MinisterListening to the exchanges in the British Parliament recently brings back the genius of Yes Minister, a long gone British political comedy that, I am told, has been used to train French civil servants in understanding their Brit rivals, counterparts. The references are from 1981 (with links for younger readers, non-anglophiles and amnesiacs), but the excuses are as good as ever. The exchange is between Jim Hacker – the Minister, and his senior civil servant, Sir Humphrey. Script here. Jim: Five standard excuses? Sir Humphrey: Yes. First there’s the excuse we used for instance in the Anthony Blunt case. Jim: Which was? Sir Humphrey: That there is a perfectly satisfactory explanation for everything, but security forbids its disclosure. Second there is the excuse we used for comprehensive schools, that it has only gone wrong because of heavy cuts in staff and budget which have stretched supervisory resources beyond the limits. Jim: But that’s not true is it? Sir Humphrey: No, but it’s a good excuse. Then there’s the excuse we used for Concorde, it was a worthwhile experiment, now abandoned, but not before it had provided much valuable data and considerable employment. Jim: But that is true isn’t it? Oh no, of course it isn’t. Sir Humphrey: The fourth, there’s the excuse we used for the Munich agreement. It occurred before certain important facts were known, and couldn’t happen again Jim: What important facts? Sir Humphrey: Well, that Hitler wanted to conquer Europe. Jim: I thought everybody knew that. Sir Humphrey: Not the Foreign Office. Jim: Five? Sir Humphrey: Five, there’s the Charge of the Light Brigade excuse. It was an unfortunate lapse by an individual, which has now been dealt with under internal disciplinary procedures. Clip here YM – five standard excuses [h/t Wayne Diamond]

Feel free to add to the five. In development I would probably add the ‘Sex Pistols’ excuse  – when the punk band’s lead singer was asked sex pistolswhy he had just flatly contradicted an earlier statement, he replied ‘that was then; this is now’. The development equivalent is ‘The case for [industrial policy, capital controls, taxation etc] may have been convincing in the past, but because of globalization, we should now all default to [insert random ideological preference here], despite the absence of any historical example of its success.’  
Anyone got more candidates for favourite/most-annoying formulae in the field of development, politics etc? If so, send them over.

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7 Responses to “The Five Standard Excuses of all politicians, everywhere, for everything: this week’s Friday Formula”
  1. In a way the sex pistol argument holds. During the Asian Economic rise in the 1960s and 1970s, the international economic climate was that of the Gold Standard, the permeation of Keynesianism in Western countries, and less US preoccupation with laissez faire for E Asia (military importance/anti communism was more important). Right now, you have a economic climate with stronger IOs and economic norms, the end of the Gold Standard, and US idea of free market. How do you figure that developing countries will have it as easy as the EA group had in the 1960s/70s?
    Duncan: no problem with a reasoned argument that changing external context requires changing policy ideas, Jiesheng. But it’s the lazy blanket statements that annoy, whatever political quarter they come from (hence the Friday Formulae idea….)

  2. Your Sex Pistols excuse sounds a bit like what has gone down in Australian political parlance as the Gareth Evans defence (formerly the ‘streaker’s defence’). When the former Australian Attorney-General and Foreign Minister was asked to explain why he got the airforce to conduct ‘spy flights’ over Tasmania during the Franklin Dam dispute in 1983, he famously said: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

  3. Hahaha! Good stuff Duncan. I must submit, for your kind perusal, some absolute toppers from the Indian labyrinth of inscrutable bureaucrats, the following hereunder:
    1. “We are looking into it and will intimate [never inform] in due course.”
    2. “We have taken serious note of the matter and it will be scrutinised by a select committee to be expressly appointed for the purpose.”
    3. “The official concerned is (a) not in his seat (b) on tour (c) has been transferred outwards and his replacement is being transferred inwards.”
    Duncan: great additions Rahul, thanks!