As government and Politics

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Characteristics of the British Cabinet

Political Homogeneity (political sameness)

post war cabinets drawn from only one party with an overall majority leaving the Queen no doubt who to call, Prime ministers able to get ministers from their party alone, peacetime norm broken only by the coalitions that have occurred in War or Economic Crisis. (All of this is proven untrue by the new coalition; however, is this just an anomaly?)

Political Secrecy

The workings of government are veiled from the public’s view, in contrast to the US which has Freedom of Information legislation and press briefings by the President and White House staff – we now also have the FOI but not as strong although it will steadily become stronger. Secrecy may be broken by the Lobby system, the diaries of former ministers and leaks.

Dependency on the House of Commons

The cabinet owes its existence to its ability to command a majority in the HOC; usually elections are decisive leading to policy development by a Cabinet that is confident of HOC support; however governments can be brought down by defeats in the HOC.

Cabinet Committees

The cabinet is divided into numerous sub-committees which look in greater detail at specific policy areas (e.g. economic strategy committee), composed of ministers and civil servants. It is often at committee level that much of the formulation of government policy takes place. Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher have been criticised for downgrading the role of the Cabinet. John Major was credited with restoring the authority of the cabinet. Gordon Brown declared he wanted to restore the collective government of the cabinet and we can assume David Cameron would want to keep the old style of Cabinet government.

Tony Blair reduced the time the cabinet meets and seemed to prefer the bilateral approach when dealing with ministers ensuring focused discussions take place and that there can be a proper and ongoing review of the work of individual government departments. Some critical decisions weren’t even reported to his cabinet, e.g. independence of the Bank of Scotland. Richard Crossman argues that the transformation from Cabinet government to Prime Ministerial government has occurred since 1945.

In More Detail : The Doctrine of Collective Responsibility

Unwritten code of behaviour which influences the behaviour of cabinet ministers - all members of the government are all responsible for the decisions of the government and in public they must support and defend them. This must be done even if they have private doubts, dissented and voted against them during Cabinet meetings. Once a decision has been made, the whole cabinet must uphold the decision as if they agreed with it. If a minister is unable to do this they must resign.

This allows the government to present a united front to Parliament and to the electorate, e.g. third runway at Heathrow, several cabinet ministers against it. It ensures the Parliamentary party is loyal to one policy, rather than splits occurring. It ensures the responsibility of the government to Parliament, in that a government defeated in a motion of no confidence must ultimately resign – all responsible, all stand for one policy. It ensures responsibility of the government to the electorate and since the cabinet also runs the civil service, it ensures the civil service follows one co-ordinated policy.


This doctrine should apply to all members of the government including more junior ministers but this is impossible to achieve as it would include around a third of the governments MPs

Some claim this prevents dissent and challenge to a PM once decisions have been made; only other option is for a minister to resign which will only be done as a last resort – used by the PM to increase their power?

Some claim it helps to create constructive collective decisions, all ministers know that cabinet proceedings are to be kept secret so they may dissent and push their case knowing it will later not be revealed by any other minister. Can state own opinions in meetings just have to stand as one on a decision to the public.

1975: Harold Wilson’s cabinet was so split over Britain’s participation in the EEC; he was unable to force the issue without many resignations which would have destroyed the government. Therefore the Cabinet adopted an agreement to differ, so that they could fight on either side in the referendum over the issue (DOCTRINE SUSPENDED).

Some ministers have broken the doctrine after leaving office by releasing their memoirs of their dissent and revealing which ministers took which sides, e.g. Tony Benn, Richard Crossman, etc.

Thatcher’s cabinet had a tendency to leak views to the media on policy; ministers used obliquely worded speeches to put across their own views. Thatcher herself leaked details of Cabinet battles over public spending cuts in 1980-81.

When a minister does resign apparently over Collective Responsibility, it may actually be a cover for other reasons.

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