What is Cabinet?
The Cabinet is the principal body which controls governmental policies and coordinating the actions of government agencies. It is chaired by the Prime Minister and includes the majority of ministerial department heads, as well as a few additional members. During times of peace, it usually has 20 members. During World Wars I and II, the Cabinet was reduced in size to enable faster decision-making.
In nutshells, cabinet is a body of advisers to a head of state who also function as heads of government departments in a political system.
Origin of the Cabinet
The cabinet system of goverment was developed in the United Kingdom. When the Privy Council grew too large to effectively debate state affairs in the 17th and early 18th centuries, the cabinet was developed. Before meeting with the more unwieldy full council, the English monarchs Charles II (reigned 1660–85) and Anne (1702–14) began consulting leading members of the Privy Council on a regular basis to reach decisions. Weekly and often daily meetings of this select committee of prominent ministers had become the acknowledged mechanism for executive government by the reign of Anne, and the Privy Council’s power was inexorably waning. After George I (1714–27), who knew little English, stopped attending committee meetings in 1717, the decision-making process inside that body, or cabinet, as it was now known, shifted to a chief, or prime minister. Sir Robert Walpole’s chief ministry (1721–42) saw the emergence of this office, which was effectively established by Sir William Pitt later in the century.
By passing a reform bill in 1832, two fundamental principles of cabinet government were clarified: the cabinet should be composed of members drawn from the party or political faction that holds a majority in the House of Commons, as well as cabinet members being collectively responsible to Commons for their conduct of government. No cabinet would be able to remain in office without the support of a majority in the Commons in the future. For a cabinet in the House of Commons, unity in the political party was the best method to coordinate support, and the party system evolved alongside cabinet government in England.
British Cabinet in Modern Times
There are around 15 to 25 ministers in the British cabinet today. They are appointed by the prime minister, who is appointed by the monarch on the basis of his or her ability to command a majority of votes in the Houses of Parliament. It was once possible for the monarch to choose the cabinet, but he or she is now constrained to simply inviting the leader of a majority party to make government. The prime minister must form a cabinet that reflects and balances the many factions within his or her own party (or within a coalition of parties). Prime minister and cabinet members must be members of Parliament. Government departments or ministries are headed by cabinet members, such as Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs and the Exchequer (treasury). Other ministers may hold sinecure offices or serve without a portfolio, but they are included in the cabinet because of the worth of their advice or debating skills. Much of the cabinet’s work is done through committees led by individual ministers, with the Secretariat, which is made up of professional civil servants, coordinating the whole functioning. The cabinet normally meets in 10 Downing Street in London, the prime minister’s official residence.
According to the official website of the British government, the cabinet, currently, is comprised of Prime Minister and 22 cabinet ministers. Along with it there are 98 non-cabinet ministers.
Every week during the Parliament, members of the Cabinet (Secretaries of State from all departments and some other ministers) meet to discuss the most important issues for the government.
Cabinet meetings were held without an agenda until 1916, and there was no formal record of the proceedings. To carry out Cabinet policy, members relied on recollections. The Cabinet Office was founded in 1916 as a department of the British government for assisting the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. It is made up of a number of units that support Cabinet committees and coordinate the delivery of government objectives through other ministries. It employs about 8,000 people, with some of them working in Whitehall. The Cabinet Office includes employees who work in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Features or Principles of the British Cabinet System
. Exclusion of the Monarch
The monarch does not take part in the politics; he does not participate in the confidential discussion of the cabinet. He does not preside over the cabinet meetings. This convention developed during the reign of George I (German by origin) who rarely attended cabinet meetings because he preferred to concentrate on his native Hanover and partly because of his inability to speak English; most of his interactions were private, and through primus inter parse i.e. the first among equals or the most senior in the cabinet. This convention was a notable step in development of the ministerial responsibility.
. Collective Responsibility
The British Cabinet is distinguished by the principle of collective responsibility. Cabinet collective responsibility is a vital mechanism for ensuring that the executive branch of government speaks with one voice, with roots dating back to the 18th century.
It means government is collectively responsible to Parliament for its acts, decisions, and policies.
All members of the Government are bound by the Cabinet’s decisions. This means that even if a minister opposes a government policy, he or she is required to publicly support it. A minister is free to express his or her opinions and dissent in private, but once the Cabinet makes a decision, it is binding on all members of the Government. A minister who cannot adhere to collective responsibility is expected to resign, according to the Cabinet Manual (2011). For example, Lord Morley and Bums, both cabinet members, resigned in 1914 when they could not approve the decision to go to war. Similarly, Lord Peter Thorneycroft, the Chancellor of Exchequer resigned in 1958 over his differences with other ministers on economic policy.
The minister must not only support the government but must also refrain from making any speech or take any action that is inconsistent with cabinet policy. The Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montague, was dismissed because he had permitted the Government of India to publish a telegram involving a major policy without the cabinet sanction.
Collective responsibility also means that if a government sponsored bill is defeated in the House of Commons, the cabinet must resign as a whole.
The idea of all ministers presenting a united front emerged in the eighteenth century to safeguard ministers from the Monarch’s attempts to weaken their power by exposing or stimulating public debate. Ministers would agree ahead of time what they would say when meeting with the Monarch, and then repeat the same advise when they saw the Monarch individually.
This idea persisted in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to secure cabinet unanimity in Parliament
. Prime Minister as its leader
According to Morley Prime Minister is the keystone of the arch of cabinet. Although all members of the cabinet stand on equal footing, speak with equal voice and act in unity, yet the presiding officer is the primus inter parse, first among equals and occupies a position of exceptional authority. He allots portfolios to the ministers. He can remove or ask a minister to resign. If the Prime Minister resigns, the cabinet must go home. For example, in 1931 Ramsay MacDonald tendered the resignation of his cabinet without the knowledge of his colleagues and in the words of Laski, with the announcement of the national government the ministers knew of their demise. Cabinet works under the policy and guidance of the Prime Minister. It is the Prime Minister who interrelates monarchy and cabinet. Furthermore, all sort of difference between the ministers are resolved and coordinated through the Prime Minister.
. Ministerial Responsibility
Ministerial responsibility, being the first and foremost principle of British Constitution, means, in the first sense, that government is required not to act irresponsibly i.e. it must not abuse the governmental powers. Secondly, it must be responsive to public opinion of the majority of the people and, thirdly, it means that the government is responsible to the parliament for its actions.
The policy of a departmental minister must be in line with policy of the government as a whole. The ministers bear the responsibility for any failure in their departments in terms of administration or policy. A minister cannot excuse himself by saying that he was not aware of what happened in his department. Every minister is responsible for the advice given to the Crown.
Implicit in principle of collective responsibility is the homogeneity of the cabinet. Since there are two major parties in the UK, the cabinet is always taken from the majority party. Due to the bi-party system the need to a coalition government is seldom. Most often, all the cabinet members belong to the same party; this political homogeneity plays a vital role in the stability of parliamentary democracy. It produces ease in governing the country.
During the war and emergencies the national government is formed comprising all the political parties, however, it is very rare.
. Secrecy of the Meetings
All the proceedings of the cabinet are always confidential. This secrecy is protected by law and convention. Cabinet members, being the Privy Councilors, are bound by oath to keep the details and decisions of the cabinet secret. Similarly, the Official Secrets Act, 1920 forbids communication of official documents and information to unauthorized persons.
The theoretical foundation of secrecy of the cabinet meetings is that a cabinet decision is an advice to the Crown and the Crown’s sanction is necessary before it is made public. The practical utility is that a free discussion in the cabinet meeting necessitates its secrecy.
Such secrets come out to public when a minister resigns and he explains the reasons of his resignation. Since this explanation involves the cabinet discussion, the concerned minister must obtain the permission of the Crown thorough Prime Minister, which is normally given.
. Coordination between Executive and Legislature
The parliamentary system of government as that of Britain’s is based on the principle of coordination of powers. The cabinet members must belong to the either house of Parliament. If a minister is taken out of parliament, he must get the membership of the House of Commons within six months. Since cabinet members are taken from the majority party in the House of Commons, most of the legislation is initiated by them.
. Cabinet Committees
Most of the Cabinet work is done through committees. The Cabinet is often overburdened with business and information. Many issues are referred to Cabinet Committees, which are appointed by the Prime Minister (or by the Cabinet) to evaluate specific questions and provide policy recommendations. Cabinet Committees have existed in vast numbers over various periods of time. From the interwar period forward, major standing committees have included the Committee of Imperial Defence, the Home Affairs Committee, and the Economic Advisory Committee. Other ad hoc committees have existed in the past, although only for a short time. Main committees normally comprises of Prime Minister, Chancellor of Exchequer and concerned minister. There is no obvious distinction to be made between cabinet matters and those that have been allocated to committees.
The Cabinet Office also serves as the secretariat to many Cabinet Committees.
. Status: Conventional or Legal?
As said in the beginning the British Cabinet is based on convention and has no legal status. Cabinet, by law, is a committee of the Privy Council. During the reign of William-III, the cabinet used to be taken from majority party in the House of Commons. It further grew when George-I left to preside over the meetings of the cabinet. However, the Ministers of Crown Act, 1937, for the first time recognized the office of Prime Minister and cabinet members as well as opposition and set the salaries for them.
Colin Turpin and Adam Tomkins, British Government and the Constitution: Text and Materials
Simon James, British Cabinet Government
Give your valuable feedback about this post in the comment section below, please.