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In the UK, the executive consists of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet including the most senior ministers and Secretaries of State, chosen by the Prime Minister. The Cabinet is the committee at the centre of the political system and the supreme decision-making body. Therefore, Cabinet government is the system of decision-making by the Cabinet, taking the central position of power in government. As explained in his book “The English Constitution”, Walter Bagehot describes cabinet government as “a board of control chosen by the legislator to rule the nation”.
The main functions of Cabinet governments are to decide the main directions of domestic and foreign policy, to control the agenda of Parliament according to the Prime Minister, to coordinate the policies with other government departments such as the Ministry of Defence or Health, to allocate expenditure of government, to create long-term planning and to fix difficulties or problems. While these functions have generally remained the same within the past few years, certain traditional aspects and features of Cabinet government have changed, specifically within the coalition government of today.
Traditionally, the British Prime Minister has been referred to as “primus inter pares” which means “first among equals” where the Prime Minister is first among his Cabinet, taking part of the collective decision-making. Therefore, the Cabinet takes decisions about legislation and the executive collectively. However, the Prime Ministers powers are greater as he has the ability to chair meetings, set agendas, and decides who speaks about what. One of the most important features Cabinet governments holds to make decisions is the doctrine of collective responsibility. This doctrine gives a chance to all members of Cabinet to participate in decision-making and policies to be discussed. As well as taking part, the Cabinet must support each other and their Prime Minister to defend public opinion and honour their government even if they disagree. However, to make efficient collective responsibility, a minister will be fired by the Prime Minister if they are unable to support the government in decisions or will be expected to resign. Although the cabinet has no legal powers, it has collective responsibility to Parliament so all members are bound to support Cabinet decisions even if they were not present.
In addition to Cabinet meetings, a range of Cabinet committees meet in smaller groups to consider policies with other ministers who are closely involved with the relevant issue. These committees are set up in order to reduce the workload of government to maximize efficiency and time. Each committee carries out a significant part of the cabinet system chosen by the Prime Minister. This system proves to be efficient as the Cabinet and PM do not have enough time or people to go through every policy therefore these committees make a more efficient Cabinet government.
The modern Cabinet has evolved from traditional and constitutional changes with the creation of a Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition. Because of the two-party leading system in the UK, features and disagreements have erupted in the Cabinet changing cabinet government and reducing collective responsibility. Firstly, the agreement between the two parties relating to the Alternative Voting system has also caused abruption within parliament. Both parties working in coalition together have opposed opinions about the referendum suggesting a change in voting systems. While the Conservatives vote No and the Lib-Dems vote Yes, conflict arises in Cabinet and collective responsibility is temporarily suspended. The fact that the two leading parties are campaigning and voting against each other defeats the purpose of collective responsibility and makes the government loose legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
Another example is the nuclear power agreement where the Conservatives want to make plans to expand the nuclear power plants. The Conservatives will be allowed to bring plans allowing new construction to go ahead before parliament however; the Lib-Dem s will abstain from any vote on the matter. The Lib-Dems have long opposed any nuclear construction and instead support the idea of non-nuclear electricity to help the environment. Although this issue brought many conflicts and controversy in the beginning of the coalition, the government has agreed a process that will allow the Lib-Dems to maintain their position while allowing the government to bring forward their plans for construction to be possible. However, this is still questionable to UK citizens as their disagreement may cause them to loose legitimacy.
Various Prime Ministers have different opinions on collective responsibility and cabinet meetings and because of this, they have exercised their power in different ways. For example, in earlier days under Blair and Thatcher, cabinet meetings were rare and they preferred bilaterals including the PM and two Departmental Ministers. Today, ministers are too busy to take interest in a whole range of government policies. Nowadays, it is more difficult to hold them responsible for decisions taken within their own departments. Because of the rapid influence of media, parties rely on the popularity of the prime minister. Because coalitions are all about compromise, this challenges collective responsibility because two different parties with different ideologies sit in Cabinet and must try to come together to make decisions, however complicated this may be.
Although Cabinet government does bring more sovereignty and power to the government, the political and decision-making authority of the cabinet has been gradually reduced over the past years, claiming its role has become a more “Prime Ministerial” government. Collective responsibility has already said to be decreasing in the past years but with the introduction of a coalition government, it will be much harder to them to retain collective responsibility to produce an effective government. Although there is somewhat collective responsibility in this coalition, temporarily suspending it may end the role of cabinet governments if continued.
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