In this paper, I intend to analyse the extent to which the current Labour administration shows the characteristics of a presidential government. To do this, the term ? presidential’ must first be defined. A definition of a presidential government that is generally accepted by political analysts is ? a system of government in which the powers of the president are constitutionally separate from those of the legislature. ‘ The British system of government is parliamentary and does not match the definition of presidential.
Therefore, the question must be answered by looking at the individual features of a presidential government and comparing them with aspects of the Labour administration and Tony Blair in particular. I will conclude by summarising the arguments presented. In 1997 it is fair to say that the Labour party was desperate after being out of power for fifteen years. But there was hope. A relatively new face had emerged to become the leader of New Labour. In an era when political parties are run like organisations and rely on numbers and strong leaders, Tony Blair filled his party with excitement and anticipation.
He went on to lead the party to a landslide victory in the general election after a campaign that focused significantly on his personality. Inevitably, Tony Blair was idolised by his party for this achievement. However this wasn’t the first time in British Politics that the emphasis was placed so strongly on an individual. Periods of the 1980s Thatcher government were described as presidential in style. These periods coincided with convincing election victories and strong cabinet allegiance.
However as soon as public support faltered, Thatcher faced criticism from within her own party saying that she had filled the cabinet with compliant cronies. After Thatcher’s resignation in 1990, all of the leadership candidates promised to restore cabinet government. This was obviously an important issue, especially for the disgruntled Tory backbenchers that had either been dismissed from the cabinet by Thatcher or never made it there in the first place. Could this have been a significant factor in the demise of the once unassailable Thatcher?
New Labour saw the British system of government, with ministers having their own powers and separate agendas, as being potentially dangerous for policy making and therefore called for some sort of coordination. Peter Mandelson was appointed in 1997 as a minister without portfolio. Mandelson’s job was labelled ? the government enforcer’. The idea of Mandelson’s controversial post was to coordinate the government’s policy making across departments to promote ? joined-up thinking’ and ? joined up government’ (Mandelson 1997).
However, his appointment was seen by many political spectators as an attempt to centralise cabinet powers and threaten the relative autonomy of cabinet ministers. This ? centralisation of power’ was seen as a move towards a more presidential-style government. Others saw the ? integration’ as an essential strategy needed for New Labour to make an effective government and deliver on all of it’s ambitious manifesto promises. Some critics believe that rather than centralising and coordinating the powers of the cabinet, Blair is actually endeavouring to immobilize it completely.
The question of Mr Blair ? sidelining’ cabinet was raised by Mo Mowlam in 2001 when she said after she resigned that “Cabinet government is dead” and “Tony’s acting more like a president than a prime minister. ” Political commentators such as Nick Cohen have also said that the demise of the cabinet is already in effect. He describes cabinet meetings as “half an hour or less on a Thursday morning, when most of the real decisions are cut and dry before the meeting starts. ” Tony Blair is increasingly seen by politicians as a ? chief-executive’ rather than the ? chairman of the board’.
This issue was highlighted on 9 December 2004 by Lord Butler’s attacks on Tony Blair. He said the Prime Minister made key decisions based on the advice of a small group of advisers. He also said “The cabinet now doesn’t make decisions. There is insufficient opportunity for people to debate, dissent and modify”. (10 December 2004, The Times) In the US presidential government, legislative recommendations to congress come directly from the president himself after he receives advice from the executive which is appointed by him. In theory, a parliamentary government’s method of passing legislation should be for the Prime Minister, as the ?first among equals’, to consult the executive, which is part of the legislature, and reach an agreement with them before instructing parliament.
However, many members of Mr Blair’s own cabinet have criticised him for failing to take notice of them especially in the run up to the Iraq war. The issue of Blair’s foreign policy decisions is relevant in the discussion of his style of leadership. In a federal country such as the United States, the president spends relatively little time on domestic policy and much more time on foreign and defence policy. In recent years, Blair has been criticised for being ?preoccupied’ with foreign policy and neglecting traditional Labour values such as Trade Unions and other domestic issues.
Blair responded to these comments at the TUC conference in September 2004 by saying “Even if I’ve never been away, it’s time to show I’m back. ” Clare Short believed that the Iraq war was an example of Mr Blair acting like a president. She said that she had been “sidelined” by an “extraordinarily reckless” Prime Minister. When she resigned she said of Mr Blair that “he becomes increasingly obsessed by his place in history. ” Robin Cook also resigned over Blair’s conduct regarding the Iraq war.
However, not all cabinet ministers are that willing to give up their positions. In recent years, parliament has witnessed the rise of ? career politicians’. People that have aligned their education and career purely in the pursuit of becoming a member of parliament and eventually a cabinet minister. After a lifetime of working towards the positions in which they now find themselves, they would probably think twice before challenging party policy and jeopardising their career. There is certainly a strong incentive for cabinet ministers to conform to policies recommended by the Prime Minister.
The benefits to the Prime Minister of having a supportive cabinet have already been highlighted. A 14. 4% rise in people studying politics at university this year is an indication that the occurrence of ? career politicians’ is set to become more common in the future. The British Prime Minister has always had many powers which some would deem to be excessive. These include the power to: choose their election date; appoint members of the judiciary; appoint the archbishop of Canterbury; dismiss members of the cabinet and arrange committees and agendas.
In a parliamentary system of government, the Prime Minister also has the power to appoint the executive without his decision having to be approved by the legislature as is the case in the US. These powers coupled with the labour party’s massive parliamentary majority of 63% of seats make it relatively easy for Mr Blair to pass legislation and he is often accused of ignoring the House of Commons. Lord Butler recently said “We suffer badly from not having sufficient control over the executive, and that is a very grave flaw. ” (10 December 2004, The Times.)
The House of Lords, however, has been known to stand in the way of new legislation from this government, particularly over welfare reform. One of the chief features of a parliamentary government is that the head of state (in our case the Queen) is separate from the head of government (Tony Blair). However, from the English Civil War of 1642 onwards, parliament has gradually become the main power in government. The Head of State used to have many powers called royal perogatives. They had the ability, for example, to appoint ministers as well as generals of the armed forces.
Nowadays it is common knowledge that the content of the Queen’s speech is decided by the executive. It is true that the Queen still officially appoints the Prime Minister after he has been elected but this is just a formality. The Queen also has to approve new legislation brought to her by the Privy Council; however, disregarding the Council’s advice is not really an option. The Council is ultimately controlled by the government which brings the real power back to the executive which is arguably largely controlled by the Prime Minister.
Some monarchists believe that this ? funnelling’ of power away from the head of state towards the head of government results in a concentration of power that is potentially detrimental. One of Mr Blair’s most significant reforms has been the devolution of Scotland and Wales. This was viewed by much of the public as a move towards a ? Federal Britain’. John Prescott’s plans for regional assemblies would be a further move in that direction. More domestic policy decision making would be made by local government leaving central government to spend more time on foreign policy and other issues.
Some think this would automatically result in a more presidential government. Do Mr Blair’s public persona and charisma rather than his political approach make him a ? presidential’ figure? It is evident that Mr Blair values his pubic appearance highly. This was shown by the influence of his once director of communications and strategy Alistair Campbell (who won his title as “the real deputy prime minister”) with whom Mr Blair placed great trust and responsibility.
Perhaps his emphasis on public appearance is not misplaced. Maybe it is just a reflection of society’s obsession with celebrities and personalities along with the rise of the mass media that has forced him to play the game. There is little doubt that Mr Blair’s personality was a crucial factor in both of Labours recent landslide election victories. Mr Blair is often described by members of the public and sections of the media as a very charismatic individual and it is obvious that allies such as George W.
Bush, who recently described Mr Blair as “a statesman and a friend”, view him in a similar light. Some of the evidence outlined in this paper suggests that Tony Blair does run a ? presidential-style’ administration. But is it more presidential in style than any other British government? Historical comparisons must be made. A dominating personality is what much of the public would think of when describing a presidential leader. But this isn’t the first time we have seen such a powerful and strong-willed figure at the head of our government; Mrs Thatcher being a prime example.
Many MPs felt that Tony Blair’s actions in the run up to the Iraq war distinguished this government from others as being more presidential. It is evident that Tony Blair was successful in imposing his own will on that of the country. But how would other Prime Ministers have acted placed in the same situation? They may not have used the same methods of ? persuasion’ of parliament and public as Mr Blair but evidence, such as the conservative party’s initial support of the Iraq war, suggests that other governments may have acted to achieve the same outcome.
Perhaps the distinguishing factor for Mr Blair is his massive parliamentary majority and support, and ability to push through new legislation. However, the government of Mrs Thatcher again proves to be a useful counterexample with her industrial reforms being as prominent as any of Mr Blair’s legislation. Factors such as the extent of Mr Blair’s manipulation of the media are unique to his style of government. In my opinion, the combination of evidence presented in this paper does indicate the Tony Blair runs a government that is more presidential in style than previously seen in Britain.
So what are the implications of this apparent change in style? Many political commentators believe that the British government just isn’t set up to provide the necessary checks and balances for a presidential style of government and that Labour is undermining the pluralism of cabinet government. However, the fact remains that society is changing and the celebrity culture, as previously mentioned, is prevailing. A powerful and charismatic figurehead for Britain on the world stage could prove to be a useful asset in the future.
Is a presidential style of government much worse than any other? It worked for the US. References Driver & Martell, (2002), Blair’s Britain, Cambirdge, Polity Dearlove & Saunders, (2000), Introduction to British Politics, Malden, USA, Polity Heywood, (2000), Key Concepts in Politics, New York, USA, Palgrave Macmillan Mandelson & Liddle, (1996), The Blair Revolution, London, Faber and Faber Ludlam & Smith, (2001), New Labour in Government, New York, USA, St Martin’s Press LLC Foley, (2000), The British presidency of Tony Blair and the politics of public leadership, Manchester, Manc.