Yes (but), Prime Minister: Sir Humphrey responds to a missive from David Cameron


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The Independent Online

This week, The Independent revealed that David Cameron wants his civil servants to write in clearer prose, with less jargon. The response of Sir Humphrey Appleby, Britain’s leading mandarin, has been leaked to our news desk. We reproduce it here in full.

“Dear Prime Minister. It has come to the attention of the Department for Administrative Affairs that you would like the submissions made to you and, presumably, to the Cabinet Office, and indeed the wider penumbra of the ministerial team, as well as essential private secretaries, permanent secretaries, deputy permanent secretaries, under permanent secretaries, ‘chief executives’ (a role still regretfully quite undefined, Prime Minister), and other senior personnel, to be rather briefer and to the point. No prolixity, please!

“That is certainly an admirable aim, and one often aspired to by some of your distinguished predecessors. Winston Churchill famously remarked that ‘broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all’. Mrs Thatcher, you may remember, sent a remarkably similar memo around Whitehall in 1988 (before the internet, Prime Minister, always something of a double-edged sword, we feel). Mr Blair also had the clever idea of making submissions so short that they could be written on Post-It notes, which had the added advantage of promoting candid discussion of policy options across sofas, without the need for costly, cumbersome record-keeping and archiving. They are now beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.

“Speaking personally, Prime Minister, if I may, I have often found that a well-chosen phrase from the classical languages can be an economical (if you’ll pardon the Greek expression!) way of getting a point across. You may have noticed how the Mayor of London, Mr Johnson, deploys these with no hint of condescension to the public, indeed quite the opposite. Like Mr Johnson, I would certainly not accuse you, in promulgating your new policy, of ignoratio elenchi. Yours, Sir Humphrey.”