The Prime Ministerial Government Thesis Underestimates The

?The Prime Ministerial Government Thesis Underestimates The Constraints On The Power Of The Prime Minister.? Essay, Research Paper

The Prime Ministerial government thesis has discredited the view of the Prime

Minister as ?primus inter pares? ever since it was voiced by R. A. Crossman

in his introduction to Bagehot?s The English Constitution and Mackintosh in

his The British Cabinet. A number of academics and politicians adhere to the

view of Prime Ministerial dominance in modern British government. Tony Benn

has written that ?the present centralisation of power into the hands of one

person amounts to a system of personal rule in the very heart of our parliamentary

democracy.? But how far does the theory of Prime Ministerial government correspond

to the realities of British Government? It can be argued that the Prime Ministerial

government thesis seriously underestimates the many constraints under which

Prime Ministers operate in practice.

There is no doubt about the abundant powers at the disposal of the PM to which

Crossman drew attention, saying the PM ?is now the apex not only of a highly

centralised political machine but also of a highly centralised and vastly more

powerful administrative machine.? His position as Leader of the majority party

in the House of Commons together with his position as head of the government,

thus combining legislative and executive powers, amounts to ?an immense accretion

of power.? Benn has emphasised the vast powers of patronage in the hands of

the PM: the appointment (and dismissal) of ministers, senior judges, bishops

of the Church of England and the heads of a range of public services such as

the chairman of the BBC. He also decides who should receive honours, notably

peerages, and has the major influence in the appointment of senior civil servants

like the Permanent Secretaries.

Many of the PM?s powers derive from the powers of the royal prerogative. These

extensive powers are wielded independently of Parliament and effectively give

every PM the powers of Head of State. They include the right to appoint all

ministers, to dissolve Parliament and so set the timing for a general election,

to be in charge of the armed forces and the security services, to negotiate

treaties and other diplomatic agreements and to summon and chair Cabinet meetings.

The proponents of Prime Ministerial government believe that the cabinet is the

tool of the PM and that, in practice, government policy has long ceased to be

decided at Cabinet meetings. PMs use Cabinet Committees (several of which they

chair themselves), bilateral meetings with individual ministers, the No. 10

Policy Unit, the Cabinet Office and the Private Office, Think Tanks and ?kitchen

cabinets? of personal aides nad advisers (Alistair Campbell, etc.), to shape

policy and present it to the cabinet as a fait accompli. The cabinet as a collective

body has been reduced to a clearing house and ratifier of decisions already


There are numerous examples of Cabinets being sidelined, fom Attlee?s decision

to develop nuclear weapons to Mrs Thatcher?s personal decision to remove trade

union rights from workers at GCHQ. Unlike his or her ministerial colleagues,

the PM is not tied up with a particular department and is ultimately responsible

for co-ordinating government policy across the board. His or her potential impact

on policy-making is therefore enormous and a pro-active PM like Mrs Tatcher

intervened extensively in departments and left her personal imprimatur on an

array of policies from education to local government and privatisation.

All of this suggests that the PM can act as a virtual autocrat, but the reality

is different. Constituationally Britain has Cabinet government. This means that

only the Cabinet can authorise government decisions. True, most PMs try to manipulate

the Cabinet to go the way they want, but no PM can defy the Cabinet or hold

out against its unified opposition. There are as many examples of Prime Ministerial

defeats in Cabinets as victories. Neville Chamberlain was crucially overruled

by his cabinet on sending an ultimatum to Germany in 1939. Maggie Thatcher in

fact endured many bruising battles in Cabinet over economic and fiscal policy

in her first administration, and over Europe and entry into the exchange rate

mechanism in her third administration. Her aggressive and unyielding style of

leadership led to the successive resignations of powerful ministers like Heseltine,

Lawson and Howe. They became formidable political enemies and were instrumental

in bringing about her own resignation in 1990.

The relationship between a PM and his or her Cabinet colleagues may be anything

but one of easy domination. John Major faced damaging criticism from several

ministers (one of whom, Redwood, challenged his leadership in 1995) and these

divisions sapped his authority. Equally damaging can be party divisions. The

PM?s party in the Commons is a further limitation on his power. For example,

with a small parliamentary majority during Major?s ministry a handful of rebels

were able to delay and even defeat various measures on the European policy.

None of the weapons in the PM?s armoury, such as the withdrawal of the whip

of calling a confidence debate, could enforce the necessary unity on the party;

the rebels knew that they enjoyed the covert support of members of the cabinet.

Even with her majority of 144, Maggie Thatcher lost control over her backbenchers

when they brought about the defeat of the Shops Bill in 1986. Both Wilson and

Heath suffered demoralising defeats at the hands of their own supporters.

Every PM enjoys fixed, formal powers, but the extent of his or her power overall

depends on a number of variables. These include the PM?s personal abilities,

political circumstances and ?events?. No two PMs are alike and no one can know

how a particular PM will manage a crisis. Eden?s strategy over Suez was a miserable

failure while Mrs Thatcher?s courageous (or foolhardy) strategy over the Falklands

was an astonishing success. ?Strong? and ?weak? PMs tend to come in cycles:

the dynamic Lloyd George gave way to the pacifying Baldwin; the confrontation

Thatcher to the conciliatory Major. Of course the latter was not blessed with

the former?s solid parliamentary majorities and string of election triumphs.

How would Mrs Thatcher have fared in less favourable circumstances? Was she

in fact a ?lucky? PM thanks to North Sea Oil, General Galtieri and Arthur Scargill?

Heath would no doubt call himself unlucky over the outbreak of war between Israel

and Egypt in 1974. This led to the economic crisis which resulted in his electoral


No model, least of all a catch phrase, can be anything more than a gross oversimplification

of the dynamics of political power in British government. Prime Ministerial

hegemony has existed but only for limited periods. Thatcher is testimony to

both the potentialities of, and the limits to, the office of Prime Minister.



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