Government by Ministers

What is true for parties is also true for individuals. A collection of individuals cannot last long in a Cabinet if there is no unity of purpose

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

In the days when the monarch had absolute power in the United Kingdom, Parliament was not an instrument of national policy. The monarch held the reins of government and consulted Parliament only when consultation was imperative. Most often, the King went to Parliament when he was in need of money and even that could be avoided so long as there were non-parliamentary methods of raising funds. The choice of Ministers was not controlled by Parliament. Most of them were supporters of the government, so much so that Sir Robert Walpole came to be known as “Minister with the King in the House of Commons.” But as time went on, development of ministerial responsibility became inevitable. As the powers of the monarch were curtailed, those of Parliament increased. The Ministerial system grew gradually. It gathered pace after the accession of George I and was almost complete by the accession of Queen Victoria.

The Ministerial System

Today it is the Cabinet which directs the House of Commons. Its functions is to govern the country in the name of the party or parties which give it a majority in the Commons. To use Professor Harold Laski’s words: “it provides Parliament with the policy upon which decisions are to be made. It pushes a stream of tendency through affairs by obtaining for its course the approval of the sovereign organ of the state.” Professor Laski’s view is that the Cabinet “secures that approval because it is primarily a committee of the party in power”. Today monarchy is a symbol — a very important symbol round which the whole nation rallies — and sovereign power lies in the hands of Parliament.

The Duration of a Ministry

To be successful, the Cabinet depends upon the support of the Party in power. Any change in its programme and policy makes it run the risk of losing that support. In the old days when ministerial responsibility was not complete, a defeat did not necessarily lead to resignation. When Walpole was compelled to resign, his resignation was followed only by a reshuffling of posts. The British Cabinet today depends on the House of Commons of which it is an integral part, unlike the American system where the President carries on even if he does not command a majority in the House of Representatives and in the senate; only a two-thirds majority can affect his position. A defeat of the British Cabinet on a major issue of policy leads to the resignation of the whole Cabinet, and if no other man can secure a majority, to the dissolution of Parliament and an appeal to the electorate. Defeat on questions of procedure do not as a rule kill the ministry.

The Prime Minister

The most important person in the ministerial system is the Prime Minister. “He is central to its formation, central to its life and central to its death.” The Cabinet is what the Prime Minister makes of it. He has considerable powers and, if he has a strong personality, he can always influence his colleagues and party supporters. A strong Prime Minister can compel the resignation of a minister but here he runs the risk of being abandoned by the supporters of that minister and thus forfeit his majority. The choice of the Prime Minister is the responsibility of the Monarch. In theory the monarch is free to choose whoever he likes but in practice his range of choice is limited by the fact that he can only appoint somebody who can command a majority in Parliament. Queen Victoria’s dislike and distrust for Mr Gladstone did not prevent the latter from becoming Premier. The Queen offered the Commission to Hartington and Granville but both refused because they were not in a position to form a ministry without Mr Gladstone and the Queen was obliged to call for the latter and ask him to form a government.

The choice is determined by public opinion and party representation at Westminster. In 1940 when Mr Chamberlain found that he had lost the support of his party for his war policy and for the way in which his government was conducting the war, and a coalition had become necessary, he offered to resign but did not recommend Mr Churchill. It is said that he was in favour of Lord Halifax but when the Labour opposition expressed their readiness to serve in a government led by Mr Churchill the King had no other alternative than to call for Mr Churchill and ask him to lead the country at that grave hour.

The function of the monarch is well stated by Dr Jennings as follows: “The King’s task is only to secure a government, not to try to form a government of whom he approves.”

The Choice of Ministers

The Prime Minister is alone responsible for the choice of his ministers but his choice must be approved by the King from whom they get their seals of office. Of course the Prime Minister selects members of his party who would support his policy and would make effective government last. He must make a judicious choice, because in doing so, he builds a “corporate entity the members of which will be collectively responsible for one another’s acts”. In practice the monarch does not object to the inclusion of persons whom he does not like. Queen Victoria succeeded in preventing the appointment of some ministers but since then, almost all the ministers proposed by the Prime Minister have been accepted. The distribution of portfolios is a question to which the Premier must give careful attention. Some men are by nature equipped for some posts and their appointment to those posts is inevitable. The Cabinet provides the policy and the programme and the rest is done by the Civil Service. Of course, it is the minister’s duty to see that the Civil Serice does it.

“Political heads of department,” says William Harcourt, “are necessary to tell the Civil Service what the public won’t stand.” All the ministers do not sit in the Cabinet and all are not in charge of government departments. Mr Attlee’s views as expressed in his book ‘The Labour Party in Perspective’ are that some non-departmental ministers are necessary to act as chairmen of Cabinet committees and to co-ordinate policy and administration in the various fields for the Cabinet. In the Labour government of 1945-51, Mr Attlee lived up completely to these views.

Collective Responsibility

The rule of collective responsibility was laid down by Lord Salisbury in 1878 as follows: “For all that passes in Cabinet, each member of it who does not resign, is absolutely and irretrievably responsible and has no right afterwards to say that he agreed in one case to a compromise, while in another he was persuaded by his colleagues.” The members of the Cabinet must accept its decision or leave it. No minister has the right to speak in public against the decisions of the Cabinet while remaining in it. He is fully responsible for the decisions taken, and cannot divest himself of responsibility for an unpopular vote and decision without endangering that corporate entity which the Cabinet is.

Collective responsibility provides unity in the Cabinet. The absence of this rule would mean weak and short governments, which would but discredit parliamentary institutions. Professor Laski made the point that the “secret of collective responsibility lies in the fact that the Cabinet is rooted in the Party System.” This system brings men of similar political ideologies together and makes it possible for them to work as a team. Without collective responsibility, the Cabinet is most ineffective and collective responsibility is possible only where the party system prevails.

Coalition Governments

In the history of the U.K., there have been very few coalition governments. Disraeli said that England does not love coalitions. Under the party system, each party has a programme and a policy different from those of another party. In normal conditions coalitions can only be brought about by a suspension of principles, and history has shown that coalitions break down very easily. During the two World Wars, England was governed by coalition governments and in both cases as soon as war conditions disappeared, there were re-alignment of parties and the coalitions broke down. After the First World War, the Conservatives decided to withdraw their support to the Lloyd George government at a private meeting and this put an end to the Liberal-Conservative alliance which was so necessary during the war years. Again in 1945 the Labour Party decided to withdraw from Mr Churchill’s coalition government and the latter could not do otherwise than recommend the dissolution of Parliament and fresh elections.


What is true for parties is also true for individuals. A collection of individuals cannot last long in a Cabinet or in an Executive Council if there is no unity of purpose and unity of action. Each will come with his own ideas and political habits, and it will not always be possible to reconcile them. Unless there is a common danger to keep them together, they will fight on every major issue. Collective responsibility will be impossible. Such conditions would means death to all. To keep the coalition going, principles will have to be sacrificed. Representative government will be threatened and when it is destroyed, democracy will but stand on its head.

Friday 28th September 1956

* Published in print edition on 11 January 2019

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