To what extent can the British system of government be considered a cabinet government?

Cabinet government is a system of government where cabinet is the main policy maker, it is the center of government, it is able to oversee and largely control government activities and it forms the base of collective ministerial responsibility. In recent years though, it has lost, to some extent its policy making function as large departments have become more independent and it now deals with emergencies in special meetings that the outcomes are secret.

Half a century ago the British system could be considered as cabinet government as it represented the collective identity of the government, all important domestic and many foreign policy decisions were made within the cabinet. Also, in order for a policy to be official it would need full cabinet approval and the Prime Minister was cronsidered primus inter pares,first among equals, meaining that he had a higher status than his colleagues but also implying that he could be outvoted in the cabinet. Now the UK has been described as A Prime Ministerial Government and it started around Harold Wilson’s time in 1964-1970.

Wilson realised that he could dominate the whole governing process and especially the cabinet. He manipulated the agenda of cabinet meetings, reached priveate agreements with ministers before the meetings so as to control the probable outcome and even, had the accounts of meetings written to suit his own conclusions. From this it is evident that the cabinet has some significant weaknesses. Firstly, there are some organisational weaknesses which suggest that it is small, around 22 ministers ,it meets infrequently and it does not have the power to convene as the Prime Minister has to set the time and date.

In addition to this it is shown that by the limited time of these meetings the decisions are made elsewhere which suggest sofa/kithen politics. Tony Blair was particularly famous for his kitchen politics. There is also lack of specilised knowledge as cabinet ministers may not have expertise in their appointed ministry and this is mainly because of the Prime Minister’s power of patronage. This allows him to appoint any MP from his party in the House of Commons. He could owe an old party memeber a favor

and give him/her a significant position or one of his close friends in the Conservative party, in the case of Cameron. In the coalition it is very likely that cabinet membership was agreed by D. Cameron and N. Clegg behind closed doors. In addition, the has been a further decrease in the power of the cabinet and an increase in the Prime Minister’s powers. This is strictly opposed be socialists on the left like Tony Ben. There are though certain limits to which these powers can be used such as limitations, personality, variet of Prime Ministers and the power of patronage.

For example it would be much easier to exercise power as an influential politician such as Blair and Thatcher than someone who was not as gifted when adressing the public like Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister has access to these Formal powers which are, the power of patronage which allows him/her to appoint and dismiss ministers, the power to conduct foreign policy and negotiating treaties and excercising control over the cabinet. There are also though, some informal powers which include making government policy, acting as a government spokesman and leading the nation in times of emergency.

The Prime Minister can set the agenda, when it comes to national security the Prime Minister takes the final decision, he or she selects memebers of cabinet committees and decide what they will focus on. Thatcher particularly wanted all these committees to be adressing her first and informing her about their recommendations. The Prime Minister is also in charge of the Civil Service and actually adresses them and informs them on the way to do their job. A case of this was with the change of the law with Tam Dalyell and Clive Ponting involved in the Freedom of Information Act.

There is however evidence that suggests that Britain is a cabinet government. One advantage of the cabinet system is that it effectively comes up with plans for legislations, and the limited number of members in the cabinet allows for decisions to be made realtively swiftly. Members of the cabinet often have different views, which means a variety of approaches tend to be considered. The existance of a shadow cabinet, which is made up of members of the oppostion party, means the actions of the current cabinet are constantly under scrutiny.

For this reason the cabinet is careful to be functional at all times and avoid displays of conflict or inefficiency. Furthermore, there are cabinet committees that have started to be of full use in the 1960s. They have increasingly taken over from the full cabinet in terms of policy and decision making. It contains around 5 cabinet ministers who meet regilarly to discuss a specific area of government policy. Some of these commmittees are permanent dealing with matters such as the economy, defence and foreign affairs but there also some temporary ones.

There is aswell individual ministerial responsibility which is the convention that a minister should resign if their department makes a serious political or personal error. In practice, this usually means that a minister is responsible to Parliament and must face questioning and crtiticism. If a Cabinet minister feels that he/she cannot defend a policy, he/she has the option to resign from the Cabinet. The most high profile Cabinet Minister to do this in recent years was Michael Heseltine who quit Thatcher’s Cabinet in 1986 over the Westland helicopter affair.

In conclusion, we can say that Britain has started to lose its Cabinet function and has started to become a Prime Ministerial government, which includes the PM being dominant, most decision are made in committe , meetings are short and insuffiecient, large departments have become more indpependent and there are more decisions being made in bilateral meetings. But, there are still some remaining functions of cabinet which are settling ministerial disputes, making decisions that cannot be made elsewhere, dealing with domestic emergencies, determining presentation of policy and settling caolition disputes.