This essay mirrors the roles of the Prime Ministers and their Cabinet members, and discusses how dominant the role of Prime Minister is in the British system of Government, and to what extent can the power be exercised. The essay begins with a vivid explanation of what the core executive arm of the British government is made up of, what position the Prime Minister stands for in the business of coordinating the affairs of the well-meaning British citizens. Moreover, on the other hand, this essay seeks to address the roles Prime Ministers have played in the Civil Service and the changes they have effected in the past decades. The next point will describe, compare and contrast the leadership styles of some dignitaries who have served in the capacity of a Prime Minister to the British government in the twentieth century to the present Leader Gordon Brown. The next important area this essay will address includes historical decisions former Prime Ministers have made in shaping the British polity and policy formulation. We will resume our discussion with a brief consideration of the structure of the British system of government and gladly guide our discussion into the roles and powers of the Prime Minister in the affairs of the government.
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THE BRITISH SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT
The British system of government is known to be Europe’s oldest parliamentary democracy. The British parliament was established in the eleventh century and, after King John signed the Magna Charta in the year 1215, it came into power and became the main figure in the British system of government. By this singular act, England piloted the idea of democracy in the whole of Europe. The British constitution, unlike that of most of other countries in Europe and the world at large, is not written as a single document. It is partly formed by statute, and partly by common law and conventions respectively. The constitution can be altered by an Act of Parliament, and/or by general agreement to change convention(s) (Coxall et al, 2003:179-181; 2006: 182-189; Kavanagh 2006: 247-250).
Britain is a constitutional monarchy and currently has her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state. Practically, she reigns but does not rule. The country is administered, in the queen’s name, by the Government comprising of a body of ministers, which is referred to as the Cabinet and consists of 22 leading ministers, who are responsible to carrying out Parliamentary functions. The origin, traditions, customs and beliefs of the Great Britain are derived from its four countries (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland). Each of these countries is well represented in the British Parliament, which sits at Westminster (at the heart of London) – this is the ultimate legislative authority in the kingdom. The Parliament is composed of three arms: the Sovereign, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons (Coxall et al, 2003:182-186; 2006: 185-190; Kavanagh 2006: 247-250).
In practice, the Sovereign arm officially summons and dissolves the Parliament and generally begins every new yearly assembly with a speech from the throne. The House of Lords consists of traditionally inherited peers and peeresses, which also includes the law Lords. They are so appointed to undertake the judicial duties of the House, and the Lords Spiritual (made up of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and other 24 bishops). On the other hand, the House of Commons is elected by universal adult suffrage and made up of Members of Parliament (MPs) – there are approximately 650 seats for the MPs. The chief responsible officer of the House is the Speaker, who is elected by the MPs to take charge of the affairs of the house and presides over the house meetings. The ultimate authority for lawmaking resides in the House of Commons (Coxall et al. 2006: 185-188; Kavanagh 2006: 250-251).
Every five years, a general election must be conducted – only citizens who are eighteen (18) years of age and above are allowed to participate in the voting exercise; and candidates for various elective positions must be over 21. There are four major political parties, namely: Social Democratic, Labour, Liberal, and Conservative parties – The winning party forms the Government. Ministers are chosen by the Prime Minister (leader of winning party). The second party becomes official Opposition to the ruling party and forms the Shadow-Cabinet. MPs who are members of the Opposition blocs are called back-benchers.
THE PRIME MINISTER
In modern era, the United Kingdom’s Prime Ministers lead a major political party, and command a majority in the House of Commons (the Legislative arm), who is also the leader of the Cabinet (the Executive arm). However, it should be noted that under the British system of government, there is a unity of powers rather than separation.
The Premiership was not deliberately created as an official position, but has however, evolved into a much structured official power. The office gradually evolved over three hundred years, and defined by customs in the form of conventions that later became generally accepted by everyone. The Prime Minister’s relationship with the Sovereign, Parliament and Cabinet was completely defined by these conventions until the twentieth century. Despite its growing supremacy in the constitutional chain of command, the Premiership was accorded with little formal recognition – the legal imaginary tale upheld was that the Sovereign still governed directly. For example, many of the Prime Minister’s legislative and powers are largely derived from Royal sanctions and are still formally vested in the Head of State – the Sovereign (Coxall et al, 2003:180-182; 2006: 185-190; Kavanagh 2006: 247-250).
Under this arrangement, UK appears to possess two independent executives: the Prime Minister and the Sovereign. However, the notion of the crown settles this paradox. The Royal Crown stands as a symbol of the state’s authority to govern – making laws and executing them, imposing taxes and collecting them, declaring war and making peace. Until the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Sovereign had worn the Crown and exercised the powers it stands for. Thereafter, Parliament gradually took Sovereigns out of the corridor of political powers to a more neutral position. Parliament placed the Crown in commission, thereby entrusting its authority to responsible Ministers including the Prime Minister and the Cabinet crew, who are made accountable for their policies and actions to the Parliament and the people Great Britain. Nevertheless, the Sovereign still wears the Crown and her sanction powers are still legally intact – in practice, Parliament has taken everyday governance from her, leaving her with three constitutional rights: to be kept informed, to advise, and to warn (Coxall et al. 2006: 185-188; Kavanagh 2006: 247-250).
The Prime Minister is responsible for recommendations of dignitaries for honour in the various annual special honours lists. The Prime Minister has a distinctive role in the area of national security; being the national leader, the PM represents the country at global events, such as, playing host to heads of government of other countries and international conferences, (Coxall et al, 2003:187-189; 2006: 182-202). The PM also appoints top civil servants.
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Dating back to the late seventies, it is gathered that quite a lot of key reforms of the civil service has evolved. Margaret Thatcher (the then Prime Minister) highly scrutinised the civil service commission; her civil servant reforms meant making the civil servants more efficient. This effectively reduced the numbers of civil servants in office. The Blair government also continued with this reform. This reform was, however, formally initiated by the previous Conservative government, (Martin 2003:69-70). Notwithstanding, the leadership styles of Prime Ministers have varied historically. Thatcher is famous with having a dominant leadership style in which she had a direct approach, however, the political writer Martin J Smith has described her leadership style as being autocratic.
Generally, the Prime Minister seeks advice from the Chancellor of the Exchequer and treasury before economic, foreign policy proposal are made, nevertheless, the final decisions are made by the PM who is central in shaping policies. Over the past forty-five years in the UK government, Prime Ministers had to take an important role in various schemes bothering the different quarters of the economy such as challenges facing the industrial trade unions and issues in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, PM’s might delve into areas they fervently believe in, which might sometimes risk being displeasing to other ministers. For example while Margaret Thatcher bought in the poll tax, James Callaghan the PM during the late seventies intervened in educational and health matters, however, Tony Blair, on his opinion, put into operation the millennium dome, had an enthusiastic interest in law and order and supported President Bush in the Iraq war. Gordon Brown has made several decisions (such as closing the gaps that exits in the tax haven) that he believes will lead his people out of the current financial crisis.
The PM has the power to advise the monarch the arrangement of disbandment of parliament within a five-year period. This strengthens the PM’s authority against the oppositional parties; however this political weapon can sometimes flop, for instances James Callaghan in failing to call for a general election in 1978, while his predecessor Edward Heath called an election in 1974, can mean defeat. Final decisions on election dates are generally made after proper consultations with chief whips and cabinet have been initiated. Historically, British Prime Ministers possess distinctive responsibilities to discharge healthy governance to the people of Great Britain, notably in world wars and recent crisis like foot and mouth and fuel crisis. Prime Ministers importantly must govern in a democratic way, by getting a consensus if they are to do well in office.
The support of the party gives the prime minister the right and influence to carry out their duties, relationships within the party are paramount and are two way. The relationships the PM has between cabinet ministers and close associates do not necessary have to do with personally as generally they are part of a structural relationship which is linked by the rules of the Whitehall circle, which are made up of institutions of governments, past policy decisions and by outside political and economic matters. Cabinet ministers and the prime minister have resources available to them; however, to achieve this they have to go through a process of exchange. This clearly has to do with the particular framework, which the prime minister would have achieved on the election result, if the PM were unpopular in the polls, and then they become more reliant on others for advice (Coxall et al 2003: 187-193; 2006: 182-202). A prime minister has the most authority after an election victory.
The PM achieves little or nothing in office if they do not have the support of their cabinet ministers. Furthermore, the Prime Minister being in office is based on legitimacy; hence, the PM is reliant on the cabinet. Tony Blair, being aware of how support is vital, owed his position, in many ways, to Brown’s loyalty. In return, Blair has given Gordon Brown the authority and autonomy to administer the government’s socio-economic policies/affairs. Although, Blair’s leadership style – making of executive decisions which he (Blair) feels is best for the country irrespective of what the bulk of the cabinet members think – is more superior to Brown’s. In conclusion, British Prime Ministers are clearly in a powerful position of authority in the British system of government, which has evolved over time.
- Coxall B., Robins L., and Leach R. (2006): British Politics. Palgrave Macmillan.
- Coxall B., Robins L., and Leach R. (2003): Contemporary British Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, 4th ed.
- Kavanagh D. (1996): British Politics: Continuities and Change. Oxford University Press, 3rd ed.
- Kavanagh D. (2006): British Politics: Continuities and Change. Oxford University Press, 6th ed.
- Martin J. S. (2003): Governing as New Labour. Palgrave Macmillan
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