The Prime Minister of Great Britain

There are a lot of political issues in Great Britain today. United Kingdom is a large, industrialized democratic society and as such it has to have politics and therefore political issues. One of those issues how should executive branch work and whether the Prime Minister has too much power. Right now in Great Britain there is a great debate on this issue and I am going to examine it in detail. The facts I have used here are from different writings on British politics which are all listed in my bibliography, but the opinions are my own and so are the arguments that I used to support my views.

First let me explain the process through which a person becomes a Prime Minister. The PM is selected by the sovereign. He (or she) chooses a man who can command the support of majority of the members of the House of Commons. Such a man is normally the leader of the largest party in the House. Where two are rivals in a three party contest such as those which occurred in the 1920s he is usually selected from the party which wins the greatest number of seats. The Prime Minister is assumed to be the choice of his party and nowadays, so far as he can be ascertained, participation of a monarch is a pure formality.

Anyone suggested for this highest political office obviously has to be a very smart and willing individual, in fact it has been suggested that he be an “uncommon man of common opinions”(Douglas V. Verney). Not all Prime Ministers fitted this bill exactly, but every on of them had to pass one important test: day-to-day scrutiny of their motives and behavior by fellow members of Parliament before they were ultimately elected to the leadership of their party. Unlike Presidents of the United States all Prime Ministers have served a long apprenticeship in the legislature and have been ministers in previous Cabinets.

Many Presidents of our country have been elected and on many occasions they have never even met some of their future co-workers, such as case of Kissinger and Nixon who have never even met prior to Nixon’s appointment. Let’s now examine the statutory duties and responsibilities of the Prime Minister. Unlike the United States where the President’s duties are specifically written out in the Constitution, the powers of the Prime Minister are almost nowhere spelled out in a statute. Unlike his fellow ministers he does not receive the seals of office: he merely kisses the hands of the monarch like an ambassador.

The Prime Minister has four areas of responsibilities. He is a head of the Government; he speaks for the Government in the House of Commons; he is the link between the Government and the sovereign; he is the leader of the nation. He is chief executive, chief legislator and chief ambassador. As we can see the PM has an wide range of powers, maybe too wide. As head of the Government the Prime Minister has the power to recommend the appointment and dismissal of all other ministers. Far from being merely first among equals, he is the dominant figure.

Ministers wait in the hall of PMs office on No. 10 Dowling Street before being called into the Cabinet room. He may himself hold other portfolios such as that of Foreign Secretary(as did Lord Salisbury) or Minister of Defense(as did Mr. Churchill). He has general supervision over all departments and appoints both the Permanent Secretary and the Parliamentary Secretary. The Cabinet office keeps a record of Cabinet decisions to make sure that PM has up to date information. He controls the agenda which the office prepares for Cabinet meetings.

There is a smaller Prime Minister’s Private Office which consists of a principal private secretary and a half a dozen other staff drawn from civil service. Perhaps owing to American influence the two offices are becoming increasingly popular and there are signs that the Prime Minister is no longer content to be aided by nonpolitical civil servants. There is little doubt that if he chooses the PM can be in complete command of his Cabinet. The PM must also give leadership in the House of Commons, though he usually appoints a colleague as Leader of the House.

He speaks for the Government on important matters-increasingly, questions are directed to him personally-and controls the business of the House through the Future Legislation Committee of the Cabinet which he appoints mainly from the senior nondepartamental ministers. Since the success of his legislative program depends mainly on support of his party he must as a party leader attend to his duties and ensure that the machinery of his party is working properly and in the hands of men he could trust. Basically the PM controls his party and in essence he controls the Parliament, but that is not all.

The PM alone can request the sovereign to dissolve the Parliament and call a new election, it is open to debate whether it is this power to allow him the control of the party and the Parliament. I agree with this argument completely because if the PM doesn’t like the way it is going with his party he can always announce new election so the Parliament pretty much backs up whatever the PM proposes. This is my main argument for this paper. In United Kingdom there is no system of checks and balances like there is in United States. In UK the PM and the Cabinet make a decision which is then almost blindly supported by the Parliament.

A real democracy cannot function this way where there is one person of power and the rest can hardly do anything about it. Members of the majority party will not go against the will of PM because it means going against the will of their own party and that is unheard of in England, members of the opposing party cannot do anything because they are a minority. The Queen herself is a figure-head and does not have any real power. The PM is a link between the monarch and the Government, he keeps the Queen aware of what goes on with the Cabinet, the Government and the world at large.

Although the Queen is a fictional figure and has no real power she can damage the reputation of the Government and the entire country by one careless word. It is the Prime Minister’s responsibilities to keep the monarch well informed. Other ministers however can only see the monarch with the PMs permission (the monarch however can see whomever she chooses). As we can see, here is another illustration of PM having too much power. He basically has an exclusive relationship with the monarch and controls who can see the Queen and who cannot.

In US this is unthinkable, any congressman can request an audience with the President if he wants and if let’s say the Chief of Staff wanted to limit that in any way then he would run into some serious problems. Finally the PM is the leader of the nation. In time of crisis the people expect him to make an announcement and to appear on television. Increasingly he should be a man who can not only secure the confidence of House of Commons, but of the man in the street or rather the man in the armchair in front of the television.

Elections are ostensibly fought between two individual parliamentary candidates, but in practice they are contests between national parties which offer their own political and economical programs. The parties convey an “image” to the nation through the voice and appearance of their leaders. The Prime Minister must outshine his rival, the Leader of the Opposition. In the 1964 election, when the Liberals doubled their vote, much importance was attached to the TV performance of the Liberal leader, Jo Grismond.

The Head of State and traditional “symbol of the Nation” may be the Queen and the Royals, but the chief executive is in reality the PM. It is to his desk that ultimately all difficult problems come whether these involve participation in NATO, the balance of payment crisis, the budget-or even the royals’ love affairs(as in 1936 and again in the 80’s and 90’s). It is the PM that has to symbolize his country’s policies abroad and it is he who must personally convince political leaders in other countries that his Government can be relied upon.

The Prime Minister is also chief legislator. Through the Future Legislation Committee, he determines which bills the House of Commons will discuss during the session, and can attach whatever importance he chooses to the Immigration Bill or Steel Nationalization Bill. With few exceptions bills are introduced in the House by the Government and if they are important they require the backing of the Premier. Also he is the chief administrator. Not only does he supervise the departments and chair Cabinet meetings but he directs the Cabinet Office and the Office of Prime Minister.

In economic affairs he decides governmental strategy in conjunction with his Chancellor of the Exchequer and Minister of Economic Affairs, if there is one, and leaves these ministers to implement his policies. In defense policy he chairs the Defense Committee of the Cabinet, leaving the details to the Secretary of Defense(Army, Navy and Air Force) and the Chiefs of Staff. Foreign Affairs, normally the responsibility of the Foreign Secretary, require the intervention of the PM when really important decisions have to be made.

As we can see the PM is potentially a very powerful figure. Everything depends on how he chooses to use this power and the success with which he delegates some of his responsibilities. All PMs have had an inner circle of ministers to which he turns when quick decisions have to be taken. The more important departmental ministers tend to be the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer; but these may not compose the inner circle of the given PM. Senior ministers don’t have to be the members of the inner circle.

They usually are, but not all the time. The Cabinet is usually as follows: the PM, three to six inner circle members and the remainder of the Cabinet which number about fifteen. I think it is obvious to see why the PM needs an inner circle. In United States for example the President can approve the appointment of a person to a high political position without having ever met him/her. In Britain this would sound ridiculous, all major political figures know each other for years having probably gone to same schools together.

The Brits believe that good friends make good decision makers which to me sounds very reasonable. This fact can be viewed from two different perspectives: some people say that when a new PM is elected he usually appoints all his friends to high positions by doing this he creates an inner clique with which he governs as an absolute ruler, the opposing view says that you need to know your colleagues for years in order to successfully work with them. Both views have a point and this is a very hot topic in British politics right now. Personally I thin