Has Prime Ministerial authority been allowed to grow unchecked?
There is little to prevent a Prime Minister with a parliamentary majority doing whatever he wants. It is often said that the British Prime Minister has mutated into a de facto President. However democracies with presidential systems also have strongly entrenched constitutional checks on executive authority. In the absence of these checks, some argue that the modern Prime Minister’s office is better understood as a de facto president.
Others take a less pessimistic view and point out that even apparently strong leaders have been toppled once they start to lose sight of the sentiments at ‘grass roots’ level (for example the defeat of Margaret Thatcher as leader of the Conservative party in 1990). The informal mechanisms for reigning in the leader are arguably still operative and effective. The fact that the current government is a coalition of two political parties may also limit the powers of the Prime Minister.
Has the Government of Britain become a ‘sofa government’?
Prime Ministers commonly rely on a very small circle of close advisors, who are commonly neither elected politicians nor career civil servants. Sometimes these advisors become well known personalities in their own right – Alastair Campbell (who was given the power by Tony Blair to issue directions to civil servants) is an example – but many are not public figures. It is arguably these unelected groups which hold the real executive power in modern Britain. Some argue that the number of special advisers should be limited, to ensure that the decision-making process is handled by those that have been elected to this post, rather than by ‘professional’ policy-makers. Others further argue that, even if such special advisers are to be retained, they should not be employed from the public purse, especially in view of the fact that their appointment is overtly party political.
However, the contrary view is that, in the absence of any requirement for those standing for election to have any specific expertise, it is essential that the Prime Minister has the ability to access the advice and talents of third parties, especially in the light of the increasing complexity of many of the issues dealt with at Ministerial level and the variety and scope of issues under discussion. The Prime Minister needs this sort of specialist input, it is argued, in order to be able to judge the recommendations made to him by the various departments of Government.
Does the doctrine of Collective Cabinet Responsibility have any real meaning?
Until the middle of the twentieth century, many constitutional theorists conceived the Cabinet as a collegiate executive and the Prime Minister as only a ‘first amongst equals’. Some think that this is not a tenable description of cabinet government today. Up until the end of the last Labour Government, it was not clear how many policy decisions were actually made, or even seriously debated, in Cabinet meetings. It has been argued that the Commons has become a rubber-stamp for executive decisions and indeed that the Cabinet is in turn a rubber-stamp for decisions taken by the Prime Minister and his advisors. It will be interesting to see how the dynamics of Collective Cabinet Responsibility will change while we have a Coalition Government. There have already been areas set aside for agreed differences, and it has also been agreed that no Liberal Democrat Minister can be removed without the consultation of Deputy PM Nick Clegg.
Under the doctrine of collective responsibility, all Cabinet members are jointly accountable for Government decisions. It can be argued that for most Cabinet members, this is responsibility without power. Should the Cabinet therefore have greater powers to insist on being consulted on major decisions? Should it even have the power to veto decisions of the Prime Minister? Or is strong government more important than the requirement for consultation and accountability? Would a Prime Minister be ham-strung if he always had to seek consent before making his position clear on controversial matters?
Or perhaps, does the extent to which Cabinet consultation takes place depend on the strength of position of the Prime Minister at the time?
What is the appropriate relationship between the media and politics?
In a speech in November 2009, Baroness Buscombe, Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, stated that the press has ‘filled the democratic deficit in recent years.’ She also said that ‘the freer journalists are to criticise, scrutinise, and analyse, the more trustworthy institutions become. That is because without freedom of the press, there is no real accountability to the public.’
There are few who would disagree with the principle that a free press is fundamental to a functioning democracy. But what is the relationship between our politicians and the media?
During the Blair era, it was common for the Prime Minister’s office to leak policy initiatives to selected journalists, sometimes before even the relevant Government Minister had been informed. Access to information was conditional on sympathetic coverage. It was the era of spin.
However the media is powerful. Some feel that the Government of the day is too easily influenced and distracted by the views of the media and that trivial matters are allowed to ‘hijack’ the attention of our senior politicians, for example when Gordon Brown expressed a view as to the health of Susan Boyle, a contestant on a television talent show. The Sun has recently announced that it has switched its allegiance from Labour to the Conservatives. Reported attempts by Gordon Brown to persuade Rupert Murdoch to change his son’s mind appear to have been unsuccessful.
The media can and does hold politicians to account – the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the expenses scandal is ample proof.
Where should the balance lie?
Should voters have a bigger say in the selection of the Prime Minister?
Twice in the last twenty years, the Prime Minister has been an MP who did not fight a general election as leader of his party – John Manjor and Gordon Brown.
It seems anomalous that the PM can be appointed without any electoral endorsement. So are we voting for a party and what it stands for, or for an individual and the vision of that individual? Those who argue against introducing some sort of presidential style electoral system point out that continuity of the ideology of the ruling party is more important that the identity of the person who is the leader of that party. They also point to the flexibility of our existing system which avoids the need for a general election if an issue arises which forces a Prime Minister to stand down.
It can also be argued that the introduction of presidential style elections is not the point: the point should be to scale down the powers of the Prime Minister, to redress the balance by strengthening the powers of the Commons and to reduce the omnipotence of the Government as a whole. This would involve unpicking many of the departments of Government which now exist. Is this desirable or even feasible?
Does Ministerial responsibility have any meaning in today’s society?
Traditionally, government Ministers were responsible for the errors and misjudgements of civil servants in their departments. If the matter was sufficiently serious, the Minister was expected to resign, even if he was not personally at fault. In recent decades, responsibility for the implementation of government decisions has increasingly been devolved to a diverse range of state agencies which are portrayed as operationally independent. Today, little remains of the doctrine of Ministerial responsibility: Ministers commonly publicly blame civil servants and the heads of state agencies when administrative shortcomings are exposed. The argument is that to expect Ministers to take responsibility when the departments they head are large and complex is unreasonable.
On the other hand, many commentators ask, if Ministers, who ultimately are the people with the power to change the way decisions are made and the mechanisms that guide decision-making, are not prepared to take responsibility, then who will answer to the taxpayer for money wasted or to wronged parties for injustices committed against them?
Need To Know
In Britain the term the ‘Executive’ refers to three bodies – the Government, the civil service and the Monarchy.
The government of a state is like the management of a company. It runs the state on a day to day basis and makes important decisions about the direction of the country. The political party (or group of parties) which gains a majority of the seats in the House of Commons is invited by the Queen to form the Government.
The British Government, headed by the Prime Minister and supported by the Cabinet, has a large number of broad, undefined, mostly unregulated powers; in practice there is no easy mechanism to challenge powers or hold the Government to account in their exercise.
The Government is scrutinised by Parliament in the House of Commons and House of Lords, but the effectiveness of that scrutiny can vary according to the size of the Government’s majority in the House of Commons. In recent years, the House of Lords has become more critical. There are also a variety of intra- and extra-parliamentary institutions such as select committees, various watchdogs, the courts and of course the media which attempt to hold the Government accountable with varying degrees of success.
Why does it matter?
The traditional picture of the British constitution is that Parliament is supreme: the Executive is drawn from Parliament and therefore is accountable to Parliament. This assumption can prove to be wrong though, because the political party which makes up the Government can dominate Parliament if it holds a large majority of the seats in the House of Commons.
The Civil Service is bound to implement policy determined by the Government and a strong Government can find means to by-pass or neuter the effect of Parliamentary scrutiny. The powers of the Monarch are in practice entirely vested in the Government.
This raises the question of how ‘democratic’ our system of government really is, how effective are its checks and balances, and how the public can be protected from an ‘over-mighty’ Executive.
- Sir Robert Walpole appointed First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons; often seen as the ‘first’ Prime Minister of the UK
- The beginning of the convention that the Prime Minister should be chosen from the House of Commons, not the House of Lords
- Creation of Cabinet Office and Secretariat
- The Crichel Down Affair—Sir Thomas Dugdale resigns, accepting responsibility for the actions of his department’s civil servants
- Questions for Procedure for Ministers published—the forerunner to the Ministerial Code
- The Nolan Report published, setting out the seven principles of public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership
- The Scott Report raises questions about the current status of ministerial responsibility after it finds that government ministers failed to tell Parliament the truth about arms deals to Iraq
- The Ministerial Code published
- devolution of large areas of government to legislatures and national assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
Although the Government is drawn from Parliament, in practice they are functionally separate. Parliament consists of the House of Commons (comprising all the Members of Parliament who have been successfully elected following a general election) and the House of Lords (comprising the unelected peers). The political party which gains the largest number of elected Members of Parliament in a general election is invited by the Queen to form the Government.
The political parties other than the party which forms the Government are together termed the ‘Opposition’ or the opposition parties.The Government consists of the Prime Minister and his Ministers, the senior ones being in Cabinet, the others being ‘outside’ Cabinet, and the whips. In total, the Government numbers over 100 MPs and peers.
As a collective body the government has access to a vast range of powers and resources: in particular, the royal prerogative, statutory powers, and the various departments of state, staffed by civil servants.
The Prime Minister
The Prime Minister is the Queen’s chief adviser, and presides over the Cabinet. The function of the Prime Minister is to provide leadership, direction and coherence to government. The Prime Minister is often said to be the first minister amongst equals, although many now think the Prime Minister has become a great deal more powerful than other Ministers.
Appointment of the Prime Minister
Following a general election, when the Queen invites the political party or parties who have the ‘confidence’ of the House to form the Government, it is the leader of the dominant party who is approached first by the Queen and it is the leader of that party who will therefore become the Prime Minister. It is up to the political parties themselves to decide who will be their leader, but each party has its own method of selection.
The Prime Minister is not, therefore, directly selected or elected by the voting public, as only those voters who are registered to vote in the constituency for which the Prime Minister has stood in the general election will have had the opportunity to vote on his election.
By convention the Prime Minister is drawn from the Commons: the last time a Prime Minister came from the Lords was in 1902. However, there is nothing which prevents a political party from choosing a member of the House of Lords from being the leader of the party, so that it is technically possible for the Prime Minister to be unelected.
Powers of the Prime Minister
The Prime Minister’s Office is divided into three sections — policy and government; communications and strategy; government and political relations — in other words, the Office provides the Prime Minister with his or her own set of resources. The expansion of Number 10, along with the broad range of powers the Prime Minister personally holds, have led to concerns that British government is becoming more ‘presidential’.
Every Prime Minister needs to have a degree of personal authority over the Government, but the powers of the British Prime Minister are exceptionally wide. They stem from the royal prerogative, constitutional convention and political practice. They are not found in statute. These powers include:
Power of patronage
The Prime Minister is able to appoint (and dismiss) a large number of figures to public office, including Ministers. In an era of Coalition Government, there will also now have to be concessions for appointments to the Liberal Democrat party. There are no guidelines as to how these powers of appointment ought to be exercised, even though the appointments may confer upon those selected considerable powers and salaries.
Power within Government
The Prime Minister largely decides which of his Ministers will form the Cabinet. He summons meetings of the Cabinet, determines the Cabinet agenda, chairs Cabinet discussions and sums up what has been decided, he can even choose to bypass the Cabinet altogether.
Furthermore, the Prime Minister also determines the mechanics of government; he can create, merge, abolish or modify any and all Government departments, deciding which individuals or Ministers have which responsibilities and powers. There are no rules or procedures governing the manner in which the Prime Minister can do this, or any limits on the number and frequency of such changes.
Cabinet ‘reshuffles’ are also a prominent feature of British Government. There are many reasons why a Prime Minister may reshuffle his Cabinet (moving Ministers from one job to the next, whether or not new departments are created) including ‘personnel management’ where Ministers are moved in order to make sure that their skills are deployed as efficiently as possible, implementation of new policy or the removal of dissent from within the Cabinet.
Power within Parliament
The Parliament Act 1911 provides that the maximum length of any Parliament is 5 years, so general elections must happen at least every 5 years. Apart from this general restriction, currently there are no provisions which specify the way in the which the date of a general election is to be determined. The Prime Minister has the power to dissolve Parliament at a time of his choosing, which means that the Prime Minister has the power to determine the date of the next general election (as long as it occurs no later than 5 years after the previous election). In practice, this gives the Prime Minister and his political party an advantage over the other parties.
However, the Coalition Government have outlined that they intend to introduce fixed term Parliaments of five-year terms, thereby removing this power.
Power within the Party
The Prime Minister has the power to choose the Whips – the party officers who help ensure party discipline both within the House of Commons and in the House of Lords. The Whips not only ensure loyalty to the party line within their own parties, they also communicate with their opposite numbers in other parties through the ‘usual channels’.
The Prime Minister is also the principle spokesman for his political party, by virtue of his position as leader of the party.
Power on the national and international stage
The Prime Minister is the principal representative of Britain in the international political arena and in this capacity has direct access to other world leaders and heads of state. The Queen is the Head of State and fulfils a crucial diplomatic role.
However, it is the Prime Minister who has the power to engage in international political negotiations.
The power to declare war rests with the Prime Minister alone. He can consult the Cabinet or Parliament, but he is not bound to do so.
Limitations on the powers of the Prime Minister
Notwithstanding the apparently sweeping powers of the Prime Minister, there are nevertheless limits on that power in practice. First and most crucial is the support of his own party. A so-called backbench revolt can make it impossible for a Prime Minister to press home his policies.
The unbridled use of power is also controlled by virtue of the fact that, as the most prominent politician in the country, the public will generally hold the Prime Minister exclusively responsible for any major mishap that occurs whilst he is in charge.
Currently, of course, the fact that the UK now has a coalition may change matters. It may be that the Prime Minister’s power is curtailed: for instance, David Cameron is no longer able to solely determine the composition of his cabinet, or remove Liberal Democrat ministers without consultation with the Deputy Prime Minister. In countries with coalition governments, the rate of ministerial turnover drops—that is, fewer ministers are removed from their posts because of coalition dynamics.
Ministers are the politicians appointed by the Prime Minister who hold senior office within the Government, such as heads of Government departments or of divisions within those departments. Most ministers come from the House of Commons, but some are peers, who represent the Government in the House of Lords. Not all Ministers sit in the Cabinet. Below Cabinet level, peers are often appointed as Ministers because of their expertise, because they can represent the Government in the House of Lords, and because as a Minister free of constituency duties, peers are free to carry on government duties while the other departmental ministers are campaigning.
By law there can be no more than 95 paid Ministers in the House of Commons. There is no limit on the number of Ministers in the Lords, but there are usually not more than 20, or about one-fifth of government.
There is a hierarchy of Ministers (in descending order of status):
Secretary of State: these are the most senior ministers, and are responsible for the overall workings of a department.
Minister of State: often responsible for a particular area within a department
Parliamentary Under-Secretary: often responsible to a Minister of State in a particular area
Parliamentary Private Secretary: have an ambiguous status, and are usually not treated as ministers; they have a variety of tasks but one key role is to keep an eye on the mood of the backbenchers
Ministers from outside Parliament
Gordon Brown, on the back of proclaiming that he would build a ‘government that uses all the talents’ appointed eight junior ministers with no parliamentary experience by putting them in the House of Lords. PASC (The Public Administration Committee) accepted this as long as each appointment was justified to Parliament. The Procedure Committee have since stated that in their view Secretaries of State in the upper chamber should face a Commons question period in Westminster twice in each parliamentary session.
The Machinery of Government
The Government is divided into departments, usually organized by subject and function. The departments are a major source of state power. Currently, there are 24 departments, staffed by civil servants who are required to be politically impartial and usually, but not always, headed by a Secretary of State.
In theory, the Minister determines policy and makes decisions, while civil servants advise the Minister and implement policy; in practice this distinction is often blurred, which may cause problems for the convention of ministerial responsibility, as discussed below.
Cabinet is a creature of convention, and has no formalised legal powers; but it is, in theory at least, the most important decision-making body in British government. Cabinet is where major government decisions are debated and ultimately determined. It usually numbers about 20-25 members, and consists of the most senior government Ministers—mostly MPs, but there are usually a small number of peers as well. The Prime Minister determines who will sit in Cabinet, although certain offices of state are always represented.
The Cabinet meets every Tuesday in the Cabinet Room at Number 10 Downing Street.Cabinet has changed a great deal over time. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was the sole decision-making body, senior government Ministers coming together to discuss and decide great affairs of state. However, Cabinet committees began to proliferate to meet the demands of modern day government. Decisions began to be taken outside Cabinet proper, as it was too cumbersome for all Ministers to decide upon every pressing matter. Meetings of the full Cabinet have decreased as cabinet committees have increased.
Cabinet committees (and sub-committees) consist of a smaller number of Cabinet members, and are usually chaired by senior Ministers, or occasionally the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister decides who sits on Cabinet committees. They exist to relieve the burden on Cabinet decision-making generally, and to ensure decisions which are made at Cabinet level have been discussed fully. As of July 2009 there were 17 Cabinet Committees and 28 Cabinet subcommittees, and as of May 2010, there were 15 cabinet committees and an unconfirmed number of subcommittees.
Cabinet has a number of functions.
* It controls the legislative programme
* It challenges and supports the Prime Minister’s leadership
* It oversees relations with Parliament
* It ensures Ministers’ accountability
* It coordinates the work of different departments.
The Cabinet Office
The Cabinet Office together with the Treasury, provides the ‘head office’ of the Government. The Department states its three core functions to be:
1. Supporting the Prime Minister – to define and deliver the Government’s objectives.
2. Supporting the Cabinet – to drive the coherence, quality and delivery of policy and operations across departments.
3. Strengthening the Civil Service – to ensure the civil service is organised effectively and has the capability in terms of skills, values and leadership to deliver the Government’s objectives.
There are three Ministers working in the Cabinet Office, 18 Cabinet Office units (departments) and 10 Cabinet Office public bodies. The Cabinet Office and all its component parts are staffed by Civil Servants.
This bureaucratic heart of government is the prime vehicle for communication between the Cabinet and the Civil Service and the monitoring of the delivery of policy by government departments.
Special advisors are temporary civil servants who provide a party-political dimension to advice, which civil servants are not permitted to do. The rise in special advisors has prompted concern about a move towards a ‘presidential government’ and has led to calls to impose a cap on the number of special advisors employed. Currently there ar e no plans by the Government to do so.
Although they provide a party-political outlook, special advisers are paid from the public purse. The terms and conditions of their employment are regulated by the Cabinet Office, which also maintains a code of conduct for Special Advisers. Although Special Advisers are broadly expected to comply with the same standard of conduct as Civil Servants, they are exempt from the general requirement that civil servants should be appointed on merit and behave with impartiality and objectivity so that they may retain the confidence of future governments of a different political complexion. In other words, they are expressly permitted to be politically biased.
The Powers of Government
The Government is able to function because it has a wide range of powers which derive from a number of different sources. These can be summarized as:
* Prerogative powers
* Statutory powers (the prerogative and statutory powers are sometimes together referred to as Executive powers)
* Parliamentary legislation
* Delegated legislation
* Prerogative legislation
* Administrative rule-making
* Guidance and codes of practice, voluntary agreement and self-regulatio
The prerogative powers, although limited in number, are broad, undefined and rarely subject to Parliamentary scrutiny. They are the remnants of the powers of the Monarch, transferred from monarchy to the Government, and which have never really been subject to parliamentary ratification. For this reason the prerogative, or royal prerogative, is regarded with great suspicion.
The principal royal prerogative or ‘Ministerial executive’ powers include the following:
Government and the Civil Service:
Justice system and law and order:
Powers relating to foreign affairs:
Powers relating to armed forces, war and times of emergency:
In addition to the prerogative powers exercised by the Government are the so-called Constitutional, or personal, prerogatives. Many of these powers are the most important prerogative powers in British government. They are often said to be personal to the Monarch and only exercised by her; but in practice it is either the Prime Minister who exercises these powers, or the Monarch does, but with very little discretion at all. These ‘personal’ prerogatives include:
* The power to dismiss the Government
* The power to assent to legislation
* The appointment of the Prime Minister
* The power to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament
* The appointment and removal of Ministers
Most executive powers of the Government now stem from statute. Generally speaking, a statute will vest power in a Secretary of State, giving him great discretion. In practice, such power is delegated to a departmental official.
Governments are in control of the legislative process. They initiate legislation, have the resources of the civil service behind them, and have various institutional advantages to ensure legislation can be passed. Governments usually have the majority in the House of Commons, and can therefore control the business and direction of Parliament; they control select committee membership and have various procedures to ensure the passage of legislation (for instance, through programming and fast track measures). Parliament – usually under the direction of the Executive – passes about 30-50 statutes per year.
In theory, only Parliament can legislate; but many statutes delegate to the Executive a power to pass secondary, or ‘delegated’ legislation. Primary legislation is often kept clear and simple; but modern governance may require immediacy, flexibility and detail, which may be best achieved through delegated legislation. The key problem with delegated legislation is the extent of the delegation – which can often be very broad – coupled with the lack of Parliamentary scrutiny or acceptance. Delegated legislation takes the form of statutory instruments, which have been increasing over the years: well over 3000 SIs are passed every year. The increase in use of delegated legislation is kept under scrutiny by various parliamentary bodies.
There are some limited areas in which the royal prerogative to enact legislation without reference to Parliament still exists. Such legislation is made by ‘Orders in Council’, orders that have been approved at a meeting of the Privy Council personally by The Queen. Prerogative legislation can also be used to amend the constitutions of the few remaining colonies.
Ministers and government departments often draw up rules stating how discretionary powers will be exercised. This is to ensure consistency and fairness; but they may be labyrinthine and they are not challenged easily.
Guidance and codes of practice, voluntary agreement and self-regulation
The Government also attempts to influence particular bodies who may prize their autonomy, such as local government, the police and the City of London.
In theory, all Ministers, including the Prime Minister, are individually and collectively accountable to Parliament. This responsibility is a convention, but to some extent has now been formalized in the Ministerial Code of Conduct.
Individual ministerial responsibility
All Ministers are responsible for:
* their private conduct
* the general conduct of their department
* acts done (or left undone) by officials in their department
There are a number of ways in which Ministers can meet their responsibility:
* Giving an account
* Providing information
* Amendatory action
Resignation is the most drastic answer to a breach of ministerial responsibility. In practice, the requirement of responsibility is met by more commonplace means, such as by answering questions in Parliament or by appearing before a select committee. In practice, breaches of ministerial responsibility, even serious breaches, may not lead to resignation.
One key issue is the extent to which Ministers can be held responsible for the actions (or non-actions) of their departments. At the turn of the 20th century, it was assumed that a Minister had direct control over what went on in his or her department. But because of the expansion and complexity of modern government, it is not possible for Ministers to know of every decision made by the civil servants who work under them.
Moreover, most civil servants have now been transferred to work for executive agencies, which makes the lines of responsibility even more unclear. Ministers can claim they are only responsible for general policy; administration and implementation is the responsibility of civil servants.
Collective ministerial responsibility
By convention all Ministers must abide by collective ministerial responsibility, or collective cabinet responsibility: they must publicly support decisions made in Cabinet, or resign. Collective ministerial responsibility has three aspects: unanimity, confidence and confidentiality.
* Unanimity: Ministers are expected publicly to support Cabinet decisions, because unity and cohesiveness is vital to government.
* Confidence: the Cabinet is expected to maintain the confidence of the House. That is, its decisions must be accepted by a majority of all MPs voting in the House of Commons. If they do not, the Cabinet is expected to resign.
* Confidentiality: what is said in Cabinet, stays in Cabinet. This ensures an environment in which Ministers can freely speak their minds, but also reinforces unanimity.
The Ministerial Code of Conduct
This is a code of ethics and procedural guidance, and to a large extent has codified individual and collective ministerial responsibility. Key to it are the seven principles of public life (often known as the Nolan principles): selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
Until recently, there was no means of investigating allegations of breaches of the code. However, an independent adviser has been appointed to investigate allegations of breaches of Ministers’ interests.
Other methods of accountability
Apart from the principle of Ministerial responsibility, the Government may also be held to account in other ways:
* by answering to The House of Commons and the House of Lords through parliamentary questions, select, joint and grand committees;
* by being lobbied through informal channels – both the Government and individual ministers are aware their actions must be acceptable to the governing party as a whole;
* on occasion, the judiciary may call the executive to account; the extent to which the new Supreme Court will feel free to challenge Government actions is as yet unknown;
* ultimately, the Government’s actions will be judged every 4-5 years by a vote of the people;
* the role of the civil service is to serve the Government, but at least theoretically its institutional knowledge and continuity may provide a brake on ill-thought through action;
* various other bodies (Quangos) may exercise scrutiny of executive action, such as the Commission for Standards in Public Life and the National Audit Office;
* the media also routinely challenge politicians individually and collectively.
More detailed commentary on each of these forms of scrutiny will be found in the relevant sections of this website.
External limitations on government
Membership of the European Union has constrained British governments in several ways, not least in terms of the ability of governments to enact legislation in various areas of law such as environmental protection, employment, and competition; but in matters like the control of immigration, goods, capital and services as well.
There are various kinds of international constraints on the ability of the government to act. For instance, Britain is subject to the rule of various international institutions and organisations, such as the United Nations, the International Court of Justice and the World Trade Organisation—so, for example, the UK cannot simply impose tariffs on goods and services at its leisure: it may become subject to WTO dispute resolution procedures.
Governments may be constrained by foreign policy. It has been argued that Prime Minister Tony Blair took the UK to war with Iraq in order to maintain the ‘special relationship’ with the US, in spite of strong domestic and international opposition. This also provides evidence of the dominance of the executive over Parliament. Equally the UK remains able to exercise external sovereignty against smaller countries, such as Iceland. In the recent credit crisis, Britain froze large amounts of Icelandic assets under anti-terrorism laws. In short, the UK is a member of the international community, which is like any other society—it has strong and weak members, some capable of exercising greater power and influence than others.
What do others think?
House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee Report: Taming the Prerogative: Strengthening Ministerial Accountability to Parliament
Government Green Paper The Governance of Britain (2007)
This paper updates the progress of the 2007 proposals:
The Governance of Britain: Review of the Executive Royal Prerogative Powers Final Report
Demos: The Culture of Churn for UK Ministers and the Price We All Pay
3 Reports suggesting improvements to the way Whitehall, and particularly the executive, are performing:
Institue for Government: Shaping up: A Whitehall for the Future
Better Government Initiative: Good government: Reforming Parliament and the Executive
House of Lords Constitution Committee: The Cabinet Office and the Centre of Government
Special advisers, House of Commons Library, September 2010
The Collective Responsibility of Ministers, House of Commons Library, November 2004
- Peter Hennessy The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders since 1945 (Penguin, London, 2000)
- Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon The Powers Behind the Prime Minister: The Hidden Influence of Number Ten (HarperCollins, Hammersmith, 2000)
- Anthony Seldon: The Cabinet System - in Vernon Bogdanor (ed) The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003)
- Diana Woodhouse: Ministerial Responsibility - in Vernon Bogdanor (ed) The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003)
- Philip Norton Parliament in British Politics (second edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2005)
- Rodney Brazier Constitutional Reform: Reshaping the British Political System (third edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007)
- FN Forman and NDJ Baldwin Mastering British Politics (fifth edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2007)