The 1980s British sitcoms, “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister”, were selected as among the top ten television programs of all time by the British Film Institute. Written by Sir Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, with Paul Eddington as Jim Hacker, first a cabinet minister and later Prime Minister, Sir Nigel Hawthorne’s Sir Humphrey Appleby as his Permanent Secretary and then Cabinet Secretary, and Derek Fowlds’ Bernard Woolley as Hacker’s Principal Private Secretary, the series were not only hugely popular (fans included Margaret Thatcher), but were also the subject of university level dissertations.
The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business Magazine’s August 1992 edition gave a nod to the shows’ wit and wisdom under the title, “Ask and thou shalt receive”. The Globe article posited that polling results could easily be manipulated, and used a segment from a “Yes, Prime Minister” episode as an example.
Sir Humphrey’s insights into the fine art of polling came up in the context of National Service, or military conscription. The question: Would a so-called balanced sample of Britons who fairly represented the country’s demographic diversity agree to reinstate National Service? According to Sir Humphrey, it depended on how the question was posed, and he then illustrated by ‘interviewing’ Bernard Woolley, whose responses appear here in italics.
“Mr. Woolley, are worried about the rise in crime among teenagers? Yes. Do you think there is a lack of discipline and vigorous training in our schools? Yes. Do you think young people welcome some structure and leadership in their lives? Yes. Do they respond to a challenge? Yes. Might you be in favour of reintroducing National Service? Yes.”
“Well, naturally, I said yes,” Woolley admits. “One could hardly have said anything else without looking inconsistent.”
Then again, one might just as easily commission another poll, depending on one’s point of view.
“Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war? Yes. Are you unhappy about the growth of armaments? Yes. Do you think there’s a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill? Yes. Do you think it wrong to force people to take up arms against their will? Yes. Would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service? Yes.”
“I’d said ‘Yes’ before I’d even realized it,” Woolley concedes.
Humphrey was crowing with delight. “You see, Bernard,” he said, “you’re the perfect balanced sample.”
………everywhere a poll poll!