Where does decision making power lie in the British executive

Where does decision making power lie in the British executive

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Where does decision making power lie in the British executive? “The Cabinet is the core of the British constitutional system. It is the supreme directing authority. It integrates what would otherwise be a heterogeneous collection of authorities exercising a vast variety of functions. It provides unity to the British system of government.” It is with these words that Sir Ivor Jennings began when he sought to describe the mechanisms of the British political system in 1936 1 . Political commentators often comment disparagingly on the constitutional changes that the executive has undergone since that time. Foley describes some leaders, such as Thatcher, as conducting themselves in a “presidential” 2 manner; Lord Hailsham spoke in 1973, pre- Thatcher’s election, of the “elective dictatorship” that was emerging in Britain and as early as 1963, in his introduction to Bagehot’s The English Constitution , Richard Crossman commented that “the post-war epoch has seen the final transformation of cabinet government into Prime Ministerial government” 3 . In this essay, I will discuss where decision making power should lie in theory, within the British executive. I will then go on to evaluate whether theory is akin to reality, or whether theory and practice are at odds with one another as is suggested by some of the aforementioned thinkers, and lastly I shall look briefly at what we can expect from a Brown premiership. It is important to realise that in theory, Britain is governed by a system of cabinet government. Briefly, this means that the Prime Minister is simply primus inter pares , and his role is that of overseeing and co-ordinating the Cabinet’s work. There is no legal reason why the Prime Minister should be so dominant, as most statutory powers reside with individual ministers – a Prime Minister’s power resides largely in a mix between convention and the royal prerogative, by which he exercises the powers of the crown. His role is to chair the cabinet. In turn however, once a policy has been decided upon, it is the duty of a minister to support that policy in public, if not necessarily in private. If they feel they are unable to do so, that minister must by convention tender his resignation, as Geoffrey Howe did in 1990 over Europe, or as Frank Field did in 1998 following his disagreements with Harriet Harman regarding welfare policy. The civil service is the other branch of the executive, and its raison d’être is to advise and service cabinet and its committees, and subsequently to implement their decisions. As the Times put it in 1977 “the constitutional position [of the civil service] is both crystal clear and entirely sufficient. Officials propose. Ministers dispose. Officials execute” 4 . The Whitehall Civil 1 W. I. Jennings, Cabinet Government [1936] 2 Michael Foley, The Rise of the British Presidency [1993] 3 Bagehot, The English Constitution [1963] 4 Page 1 of 5
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Where does decision making power lie in the British executive

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