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How well does Parliament fulfil its functions? British Parliament has four primary functions. These are representation, legitimization, scrutinizing and informing and legislative. Each of these are performed, by our parliament with a varying degree of success, and this essay is targeted at examining how well each of these functions are carried out. Firstly, there is the issue of representation. How well does Parliament represent the people of Great Britain?
To begin with, Britain is a pluralist society. We have complete freedom of speech and MPs are open to lobbying and are accessible to pressure groups, which therefore enables the views of different people to be heard and ensures that matters of public concern can reach the political agenda. However, the UK is subject to party politics, and it is impossible for a party to represent every person on every issue, and in order to win the support of the majority of the population it is important that they focus on wider issues. Because of this, minority opinions are not properly represented. Furthermore, Britain has a First Past the Post electoral system.
In such a system up to seventy per cent of the votes are ignored, as they are used on losing candidates, and the winning party very rarely gains a majority of the votes. In fact, at the last election, Labour won a landslide victory having only received 13. 5 million votes, and although not the entire population have the right to vote, this figure is equal to just a quarter of the population. Although such a system does lead to a stronger government, the government is not as representative of the people as it could be. A further drawback with the First Past the Post system is that an MP can and often is elected with a minority of the votes in his constituency. Therefore a significant proportion of the people in the constituency are not represented.
Although they are free to make their opinions known to the MP at surgery, the MP can only act on their behalf if it is in keeping with their party principle, as they are forced, by the whips, to tow the party line. Furthermore, the primary role of an MP is to serve the constituency that elected him, and MPs who are made cabinet ministers do not really have time to serve their constituencies as well as they should. For example, Tony Blair has very little time in which to serve the people of Sedgefield. For true and full representation, all viewpoints, majority or minority should be represented in some way in Parliament. Indeed, Parliament should be a microcosm of the country, yet to take a brief glance at the House of Commons it is made up, in the main, of middle-aged, middle-class men. There are relatively few women MPs, and very few MPs from ethnic minorities.
In practise, this makes the issues that are specifically concerned with these two groups face lower representation in parliament. Moreover, the House of Lords is made up mainly of people who are there by the queen s appointment, and others who are present simply via hereditary right. This entire chamber, although it has limited powers, represents a tiny minority of the population, massively disproportionate to the parliamentary significance it has. In conclusion, whilst our electoral infrastructure leads, in theory, to a high level of political representation, the First Past the Post system does, in almost every example, lead to an under-representation of a majority of the population. Furthermore, minority opinions can only be presented if they are in keeping with an MP s party s view, due to the prominence of party politics. Perhaps most importantly of all though, an MP, although there is an accountability and the presence of party whips, has the power to ignore the people whom he represents, and many of them, the so-called party rebels, do so on a regular basis.
It is fair to say that the British government is more or less completely legitimate. Legitimisation is the term used to describe the confirmation of authority. At a general election by electing a government people transfer their sovereign power to the government. However, it can be said that the government is not legitimate because there is no alternative than to elect one. In spite of this though, anybody can be stand for election, anyone can form a party and, if the people choose, anyone can hold office. There is also a sense of legitimacy in the sense that if the government lose a vote of confidence they are expected to hold an election.
However, most governments do not hold a majority of the votes and a large number of people do not vote. Also, the government is only legitimate if they hold a majority in the commons. When looking at legitimacy the basic question that needs to be asked is do we recognise the authority of the government to govern? In Britain at the moment the answer to this is yes. On the whole the population respects the law and pays taxes and there is not a tyranny of the minority.
There is no large-scale rebellion and no significant instigators of revolution. There have been places in the US where people refused to pay taxes and openly broke the law as they did not respect the right of the government to govern. There has been one example of this in Britain? the poll tax riots. The British people did not believe Mrs. Thatcher had a right to introduce such a measure as almost nobody?
even in her own cabinet, supported such a measure. As a result of the wide-scale riots the tax was abolished. To summarise, the British government is indeed legitimate. Whilst the population may object to some of its measures, there is no objection to the fact that they are allowed to be in office, in spite of the fact that they do not have a majority of the votes. As I have already said Britain is a pluralist society, parliament houses more than one party, and so therefore all the government s measures are subject to scrutiny from other parties and also from backbench MPs in their own party. Scrutinizing and informing is a further function of parliament.
It an MPs job to ensure that laws made by parliament are laws that are beneficial to the country, and this is via the intense scrutiny of every bill that is introduced. Scrutiny occurs at question time, where MPs have the right to stand up and ask questions to the relevant MP (usually a cabinet minister or the Prime Minister) about a proposed bill, and to criticise it, both positively and negatively. Whilst this is a function parliament performs well, particularly because of the presence of other parties, there are often planted questions. This is where MPs from the government are given fixed questions to ask by the person being questioned in an effort to promote the measure, particularly as question time is live on television.
However this is opposed by the fact that other parties often use this opportunity to not just criticise the proposed bill, but to put down the government as a whole. It is extremely unlikely for the opposition to fully support a government measure and usually they simply pick out the downfalls of the bill and use this for their own political gain. Scrutiny also occurs at parliamentary select committees. These are committees set up in attempt to improve the accountability between the government and parliament as a whole. These improve scrutiny because they are smaller and so therefore more successful, in terms of efficiently and effectively scrutinizing a bill, be it positively or negatively, and help the opposition to have a clearer understanding of the government s plans. Also, they force ministers to form clearer policies.
However, it can be said that the idea of having MPs and constituencies is that in theory as many as possible have a say in the issue, and these committees reduce the role of the House of Commons. Furthermore, these committees do not have the power to force a Minister into changing policy. To bring the above points together, scrutiny in parliament is structured well. The government does not have the power to bring in an act without it being criticised by the opposition.
However, this platform the opposition has is easy to abuse, merely by using it to publicly put down the government at question time. This can be, and usually is countered by using planted questions, which therefore has a detrimental effect on the effectiveness of scrutiny. As an answer to this, parliamentary select committees are advantageous in that they increase the knowledge other parties have on government policy, allowing for more constructive debate. They are also more effective than the House of Commons, though sadly this comes at the expense of fundamental democratic principle. The main function of parliament is to make the laws that run the country. The government does this by introducing legislation using political bills.
There are four ways to introduce a bill. These are private members bills, private bills, bills introduced in the House of Lords and bills introduced by the cabinet or the Prime Minister. It is important to realise that introducing a bill changes the law that runs the country. It is therefore essential that all bills passed are discussed thoroughly, and necessary amendments are made in the light of this discussion. Because of this all bills introduced must go through a very rigid and thorough infrastructure.
The bill must go through a discussion and a debate in the House of Commons, then to a committee stage where it can be amended. The bill is then read out again and there is a further debate. If by this stage it has not been rejected it is passed on to the Lords. The Lords repeat this entire process and send it back to the commons to be accepted in its new form or re-debated.
This then continues for as long as necessary, although the Lords only have the power to delay a bill for a year and a day at the very most. The basic advantage of this system is that it is very thorough. By the time a bill is passed there should, in theory, be no stone left unturned, and the introduced law should be un improvable. However, this is not always so as there have been several knee-jerk reaction bills passed. An example of this is the Criminal Justice Bill, which was rushed through the legislative process in a very poorly drafted state while parliament was not supposed to be in session, as an instant reaction to the Omagh bombing. This complicated and intricate system, does however contain a number of significant flaws.
Firstly, the Lords power to delay a bill for up to a year means that it has the power to reject a bill stemming from a government in its final year in office. Also, it is obvious that laws are brought in with a view to improving the nation, and so therefore it would be beneficial for them to be brought in as quickly as possible. The slow process and particularly the power of the Lords to delay affects this greatly. To add to this, there is the case of Private Members. Bills. These are bills introduced by MPs whose names are drawn at random, often on behalf of members of the public, twelve times a year.
Because of the lack of time Parliament has, these bills are subject to a time limit and so any one MP has the power to reject such a bill simply by standing up and talking out the time limit. This means that only non-controversial bills tend to get through, and is also highly undemocratic. Perhaps most important of all though is the fact that all prospective laws are subject to a great deal of party politics. After all the debating is finished, it simply comes down to voting for or against, and usually the party whips ensure that MPs vote in accordance with their party. Whilst this is justifiable by the fact that the vast majority of the electorate vote with parties in mind not individual candidates, it does however lessen the significance of scrutiny. Basically, parliament on the whole is very thorough and very meticulous with the introduction of new legislation and it is a function it fulfils well, portrayed by the lengthy complicated process necessary for this to occur.
However there are numerous cracks in the system, such as the power of the Lords and the lack of time to discuss private members bills, which are very hard to overcome. In conclusion, Parliament is a well-structured and well-planned establishment which fulfils its functions to a more than adequate level. Whilst its First Past the Post system does not lead to the best possible representation, it does give rise to strong and efficient government, and because Britain enjoys complete freedom of speech, leading to a pluralist society, the government can never truly hide from any major issue. The government can also be said to be completely legitimate. The people respect the right of the government to lead them. Scrutiny, in the main leads to the improvement of laws, although sadly it is often used as a device to gain public support as it is the parliamentary session which is available to the widest television audience.
The legislative process is thorough and should, in theory prevent the introduction of rash measures. However, the above paragraph is only true in theory. The fundamental problem with today s parliament is the absolute prominence of party politics. Britain is a democratic society, but parliament, at the end of the day can be said to be a game of numbers. If one party has a majority and either the full support or respect of its members they are a force very difficult to stop. In 1774 Edward Burke said to his constituents, Your representative owes you not his industry only but his judgements; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices to your opinion.
In spite of parliament s well structured democracy and ability to fulfil its functions, its major problem lies in the fact that many MPs are beginning to stop being free-thinking individuals keen to fight for the interests of their constituents and the country and becoming sheep pushed in whichever direction the ministers deem appropriate. Whilst this is extremely prominent in the government itself, it is perhaps more worrying in what appears to be the opposition s policy to reject out of sight any idea a government may have. What point does a meticulous and complex parliamentary system serve if it watches blinkered following of party principle and scripted debates at question time? Discuss the likely consequences of electoral reform. At the moment Britain elects its governments via a First Past the Post system. Britain is divided into 659 constituencies, and one candidate is elected per constituency on the grounds that he gets the most votes.
The most prominent advantage of this system is that it leads to strong government. However, this comes at the expense of representation, and is it acceptable that a government can have a majority in the Commons of almost 200 seats having gained under half the votes? only 13. 5 million? It is this question that gives rise to the issue of electoral reform. If there is to be a reformation of the electoral system its soul purpose is to remedy the shortcomings of First Past the Post. The most important of these is its low level of representation, which has, effectively, made Britain a two party state.
In fact, 312 of 659 current MPs won their seats with fewer than 50 % of the vote? 155 of these received under 40 %. Furthermore, smaller parties with support that is evenly geographically distributed are greatly under-represented as it is almost impossible for them to gain enough votes in a single constituency to win a seat. Because of this, a reasonably significant proportion of the electorate? those that support extreme parties are effectively disenfranchised, as it is highly unlikely that their votes, under the current system, will have an impact on an election outcome. Therefore it is essential that a new system leads to less wasted votes?
currently at a level of about 70 %, and also reduces the disproportionate power and representation of the two main parties. To add to this, under First Past the Post, party splits lead, effectively, to electoral death. The Liberal democrats are still recovering from theirs, which happened during the First World War. In recent years a divided opposition has allowed the Tory party to thrive, but furthermore their internal division over the issue of Europe proved to be a significant factor in Labour s landslide victory in 1997. The proposed change, outlined in The Jenkins Report, is the introduction of Alternative Vote Plus. This system would mean that an election the voter can list the candidates in order of preference, although only as far as he feels?
he can still only vote for one candidate if he wishes not to support any others. If the candidate who gains the highest number of votes does not gain a majority, candidates whose total number of votes do not meet a specific quota will be eliminated, and their voters second choice will be counted instead, and so on, perhaps going down to voters fifth or sixth choice. Furthermore, for every four constituencies there will be a top-up member of parliament? so five MPs represent four constituencies.
The top-up member is selected by dividing each party s votes within the four constituencies by one plus the number of MPs they have had elected. This means that parties who have not had an MP elected stand a greater chance of winning the top-up seat. Such a system does lead to better representation, as small parties can club together their votes over four constituencies. Moreover, the proposed system leads to less wasted votes, and thus better representation.
To add to this, if a voter has more to do than simply to put a cross in a box, each vote becomes more important, and so could serve to increase electoral turnout and participation, and most importantly, an interest in politics. Also many modern electoral systems disown the idea of constituencies. This is one of First Past the Post s strongest advantages as it provides an accessible window for the people to try and influence politics? it is good that the new proposed system incorporates this as a key advantage of the First Past the Post system. A further, and perhaps the most needed consequence of Alternative Vote Plus is that it would lead to less adversarial politics.
This is because parties need to appeal to supporters of other parties in order to gain second choice votes, and in particular, potential MPs cannot afford to simply focus on a hard core of large minority support within his constituency. He must appeal to a pluralist majority, and, upon electoral success, can enjoy a vast increase in governmental legitimacy, and greater public confidence. Also, higher parliamentary representation is likely to lead to less landslide election victories and will therefore cause a higher level of accountability between the legislature and the executive, as opposition votes in parliament will be more important to a less dominant government. Alternative vote plus and better representation would almost certainly bring about an end to Britain s two party system? the Liberal democrats, who at the last election won a substantial 17. 1 % of the vote, yet only 7 % of the seats, would, under better representation rise to a much more just level of political prominence. To oppose this though, the standard answer to the question of more proportional representation is that it leads to weak coalition governments.
Whilst alternative vote plus would employ a threshold, whereby parties must receive a certain proportion of the vote before they can claim any seats at all, it can be said that that the proposed system could bring about more small parties. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with small parties, small parties are small because they have relatively little support, and in a system such as alternative vote plus, small parties could and probably would be used by the government to gain a majority. Whilst this increases governmental strength, it gives small parties disproportionate amounts of power? perhaps more than the sizeable opposition it faces, and more importantly, gives it disproportionate influence on governmental policy.
A further criticism of such a system is that a top-up member representing four constituencies, in reality could be said to hold more political power than an elected one which represents just one. This is perhaps even more unjust if the top-up member is elected from a closed list, as he has been elected purely by the name of his party, without any consideration of his strengths as an individual, unlike an elected local MP, who perhaps risks more for a smaller prize. Unlike what has been argued above, AV plus could lead to lower turnout. There are two reasons for this. Firstly that is perhaps too complicated? it is not just a cross in a box.
Secondly, electoral reform is a controversial issue, and it is possible that opposition to it may not vote as a protest against the new system, particularly as it perhaps unjust that somebody s first choice should carry as much political weight as somebody else s fourth or fifth. This then leads to an result completely the opposite of the intention. However, in conclusion, alternative vote plus is a far better system than First Past the Post. Whilst First Past the Post leads to strong government, a strong government is wrong in a state that does not strongly support it. Furthermore, the key problem with contemporary British politics is the prominence of adversarial politics.
Under Alternative Vote Plus, a government must appeal to both its public and parliamentary opposition thus leading to much more sensible politics. Britain never really is at any given moment, all Labour, all Conservative, or all anybody else, so it is ridiculous that its parliament should be. Similarly, government and opposition never do, in earnest, clash on every aspect of every issue, so it seems somewhat laughable that in parliament they should do. Furthermore, the word democracy basically means power to the people, and any step away from a cross in a box every five years can only be an improvement in this. The key to effectiveness of a pressure group is a large membership base.
Discuss. A pressure group can be described as any organised group that does not put up candidates for election, but seeks to influence government policy. Whilst an organisation such as Friends of the Earth (FoE), with an income of almost two million pounds a year can be described as a pressure group, so too, for example, can the Upminster and Cranham Residents Association (UCRA), which relies solely on volunteers and whose only source of income is via advertisements in its monthly bulletin. Both however have a certain impact on government policy. Although FoE tackle much more serious and international issues than the UCRA, the UCRA are more influential on government policy as they are in direct and regular consultation with the government via the MP for Upminster. Whilst in comparison with the job of the British government the UCRA fight for reasonably trivial issues, yet are in their aims, much more successful than FoE.
From the above example it can be said that the key to the effectiveness of a pressure group lies not in a large membership base, but in having the platform by which to communicate with the government. However, the above two groups are both insider groups. For an outsider group, achieving one s aims is far more difficult, but it is important to realise that under democracy, the majority rule, and so therefore it can be said that a large membership base is important in gaining public, and more significantly, government attention. Having said that though, this does not necessarily mean that the larger a group, the more likely they are of gaining government attention, portrayed by the fact that petitions with thousands of signatures are often ignored by the government. It is important though, to realise that the major advantage of a large membership base is that it commands more attention, but having a lot of members is not the only way to do this. Take for example, perhaps Britain s most famous ever pressure group, the Women s Social and Political Union the Suffragettes.
This was a group founded by a small family from Manchester and had very few members, but because of their militant tactics and violent protest (smashing windows, chaining themselves to railings, etc. ), and moreover because they were women, they instantly commanded a lot of public and government attention, and brought the issue of female suffrage to the top of the political agenda. However, whilst a large pressure group can attract a lot of publicity, not all publicity works in favour of the group. To look again at the Suffragettes, and to compare them to another famous group, the IRA, we can see that in spite of the fact that they receive wide media and government attention, they are portrayed to the people as thugs and terrorists, and the government cannot possibly be seen to give in to this kind of violence. In this example, whilst the group has managed to get the government to acknowledge them, this has had a detrimental effect on achieving their aims, and so therefore it can be said that the large scale of the two groups has been a disadvantage rather than an advantage.
The failure of the IRA, and the relative success of the UCRA shows us that the likelihood of a pressure groups success lies in its links with the government. This can also be seen in the civil rights movement in America. Whilst black Americans made up a highly significant percentage of the population, Martin Luther King realised that this paled in significance to the power of the government that opposed them. He realised that the key to effectiveness lay not in attempting to fight the government but simply trying to make them see sense, without having an open confrontation. After all, it is ultimately the government that has the final say, and a group that sets out from the start to threaten them is presumably less likely to achieve its aims than a group who seeks government support rather than government fear.
However, it can be said that in a democracy the power lies with the people and so therefore the larger the membership base the higher the likelihood of success. Indeed due to political accountability a government cannot afford to ignore a pressure group that constitutes a significant proportion of the population. It is though, unlikely that a pressure group would have enough power to play a major part in the results of an election. Therefore it is more important to gain government links and whilst having a large number of members goes a long way towards achieving this, it is not the only way and perhaps not the best way. Evidence would suggest that the most effective way to achieve one s aims is quite simply to appeal to the government. In fact, the most influential groups are those which represent strong producer interests, the rich and the well resourced.
By contrast, groups which represent the poor, the socially disadvantaged or unfashionable minorities come off worst of all. Thus social inequalities have continued to increase despite the efforts of groups such as Shelter, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Low Pay Unit. In conclusion, the key to effectiveness of a pressure group lies not in a large membership base, but in securing government attention. Whilst a large membership base helps to achieve this it is not the most important factor. It is also important to realise that although a large pressure group does have a certain amount of power, the government holds the ultimate power. Therefore the key to effectiveness is in becoming an insider group, and therefore part of the political infrastructure, not in trying to intimidate the government into submitting to one s demands, as, in the interest of sustaining governmental legitimacy they cannot afford to do so.
To what extent has membership of Europe affected our political sovereignty? Inside Europe we are part of what will be a world power. The national sovereignty we lose is more than made good by a share of the much larger sovereignty which we get from participation in Europe. (Michael Heseltine) The 1986 Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty can be seen as further reducing Britain s sovereignty. (Nugent) Britain has been a full member of the EEC, and later the EU, since 1972. By joining such an organisation it enjoys the benefits of a Common Market across Europe, but surrenders some of its political sovereignty to the precedence of European Law over Domestic Law. Indeed Britain s political sovereignty has unquestionably suffered a great deal due to its membership of Europe. In 1975 Tony Benn wrote a letter to his constituents underlying the major worries of EEC membership.
Firstly he said that the Community subjects us to laws and taxes which British government is powerless to amend or repeal, and they are passed by people not elected by the British electorate. Furthermore he described how the EEC requires British courts to enforce laws that have not necessarily been supported by the British Parliament, and that Parliament does not have the power to change these laws, even if they conflict with existing common or statute law. To add to this, British membership imposes duties and constraints upon British governments. This means that ministers have to discharge many of their duties, and those that take them over are not accountable to British Parliament or public.
Basically, the EEC can use the British parliament as a layer of insulation separating them from the British people. They therefore have no duty to remedy the grievances of the British people, as they are not accountable to them. Whilst Tony Benn presents an extreme example of Euro-scepticism, it is indisputable that membership of Europe detracts from our parliamentary sovereignty. EU law is binding on all member states and, therefore, takes precedence over British domestic law.
However, the British Parliament does have the power to at least try to prevent the enforcement of EU law in the case of amendments to the Treaty of Rome, but otherwise EU legislation automatically becomes law within the UK, irrespective of the British Parliament s opinion on it. Unlike the other member states of the EU, the United Kingdom has a distinctive constitution based not on a codified document but on the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. The issue of national sovereignty is an intensively sensitive one in British politics because of the country s history, which has been very different from that of continental states, and because of the different role which the British Parliament plays from that of European Parliaments. Membership of the European Union inevitably entails a loss? or transfer? of national sovereignty in return for a share in a greater and more powerful European sovereignty.
The main institutions of the EU operate partly on a supranational level and partly on an intergovernmental level, and it is this idea of supranational control which seems to threaten the sovereignty of the British Parliament, and make its policy less important and meaningful. Sovereignty is an idea decked with tradition and prestige. Indeed, in 1885 A. V. Dicey defined parliamentary sovereignty as the right of Parliament to make any law whatever; and, further, no person or body is recognised by the law as having a right to override the legislation of Parliament. The supremacy of Parliament, established by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, effectively ended when Parliament surrendered it in passing the European Communities Act in 1972.
When Britain became a member of the EEC in 1973 certain areas of policy making were transferred to the EEC Commission and to the Council of Ministers. This meant that if the Council approved the commission has the right to enforce its recommendations irrespective of domestic legislation that might contradict it, and the only way to reclaim this loss of sovereignty would be to repeal the act of 1972 and withdraw from EC membership. Entry into the EEC caused enormous controversy, leading to the first ever national referendum in 1975 and the formation of the Social Democratic Party by pro-European ex-Labour MPs in 1981. Under Maggie Thatcher, the EC was supported as a free trade economic union but not as a federalist concept moving towards a United States of Europe. The difficulty of having greater economic integration without greater political integration was highlighted by the Single European Act of 1986.
This act was the first comprehensive revision of the original Treaty of Rome (1958) and while this speeded up economic integration it also strengthened the supranational organisations such as the Council of Ministers so as to include decision making, and it also made qualified majority voting replace unanimous voting in the accepting or rejecting of proposals. This signifies a further mark in the removal of British sovereignty? no longer did it have the power to block bills it personally didn t agree with and became subject to legislation irrespective of whether it agreed with it or not. Therefore it is possible for laws to be made without the support of the British Parliament, and this therefore, can be seen as a major intrusion on parliamentary sovereignty. More recently, loss of British sovereignty can be seen in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. To add to the increased momentum for economic and monetary union in the Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty laid down a timetable for this.
The prime goal for EMU was to achieve a single European currency and Central Bank, in 1999, and this was successful. However, it also extended the role of the Community to include health, education and the environment, and the infamous Social Chapter laid down a range of employment conditions and gave increased powers to the European Parliament. Surprisingly, Maastricht has had less impact on our national sovereignty than the Single European Act, as the Conservative government at the time, opted out of the single currency and the social chapter. National sovereignty was preserved here by only opting in in areas such as Justice and Home Affairs which are based on intergovernmental co-operation and unanimous voting. In spite of the opt-outs at Maastricht, the fact remains that so long as Britain is a member of the EU its legal and political sovereignty is over. This can be seen in the Factortame case of 1990.
This ruling by the European Court of Justice on a case brought against the government s Merchant Shipping Act by a Spanish fishing company, confirmed the supremacy of Community law over domestic law. The government was forced to suspend the offending parts of the 1988 Merchant Chipping Act, and thus it is proved that membership of the European Union gives the British courts the power to suspend an Act of Parliament, a dramatic constitutional milestone, and a complete and total contradiction to the words of A. V. Dicey, and the principles of British parliamentary sovereignty.
In conclusion, Factortame demonstrates just how much membership of the EU distracts from national sovereignty. Indeed some commentators have speculated on the end of the nation state, with the Europe of the future developing into a possible superstate. Historically Parliament has symbolized Britain s national sovereignty, and as the European project advances, encompassing more people and centralising more power it is perhaps fair to say that British parliamentary sovereignty becomes less about contemporary politics and more about history. The Prime Ministerial Government Thesis underestimates the constraints on the power of the Prime Minister. Discuss.
The Prime Ministerial government thesis has discredited the view of the Prime Minister as primus inter pares ever since it was voiced by R. A. Crossman in his introduction to Bagehot s The English Constitution and Mackintosh in his The British Cabinet. A number of academics and politicians adhere to the view of Prime Ministerial dominance in modern British government.
Tony Benn has written that the present centralisation of power into the hands of one person amounts to a system of personal rule in the very heart of our parliamentary democracy. But how far does the theory of Prime Ministerial government correspond to the realities of British Government? It can be argued that the Prime Ministerial government thesis seriously underestimates the many constraints under which Prime Ministers operate in practice. There is no doubt about the abundant powers at the disposal of the PM to which Crossman drew attention, saying the PM is now the apex not only of a highly centralised political machine but also of a highly centralised and vastly more powerful administrative machine. His position as Leader of the majority party in the House of Commons together with his position as head of the government, thus combining legislative and executive powers, amounts to an immense accretion of power. Benn has emphasised the vast powers of patronage in the hands of the PM: the appointment (and dismissal) of ministers, senior judges, bishops of the Church of England and the heads of a range of public services such as the chairman of the BBC.
He also decides who should receive honours, notably peerages, and has the major influence in the appointment of senior civil servants like the Permanent Secretaries. Many of the PM s powers derive from the powers of the royal prerogative. These extensive powers are wielded independently of Parliament and effectively give every PM the powers of Head of State. They include the right to appoint all ministers, to dissolve Parliament and so set the timing for a general election, to be in charge of the armed forces and the security services, to negotiate treaties and other diplomatic agreements and to summon and chair Cabinet meetings. The proponents of Prime Ministerial government believe that the cabinet is the tool of the PM and that, in practice, government policy has long ceased to be decided at Cabinet meetings. PMs use Cabinet Committees (several of which they chair themselves), bilateral meetings with individual ministers, the No. 10 Policy Unit, the Cabinet Office and the Private Office, Think Tanks and kitchen cabinets of personal aides nad advisers (Alistair Campbell, etc. ), to shape policy and present it to the cabinet as a fait accompli.
The cabinet as a collective body has been reduced to a clearing house and ratifier of decisions already taken. There are numerous examples of Cabinets being sidelined, fom Attlee s decision to develop nuclear weapons to Mrs Thatcher s personal decision to remove trade union rights from workers at GCHQ. Unlike his or her ministerial colleagues, the PM is not tied up with a particular department and is ultimately responsible for co-ordinating government policy across the board. His or her potential impact on policy-making is therefore enormous and a pro-active PM like Mrs Thatcher intervened extensively in departments and left her personal imprimatur on an array of policies from education to local government and privatisation. All of this suggests that the PM can act as a virtual autocrat, but the reality is different.
Constitutionally Britain has Cabinet government. This means that only the Cabinet can authorise government decisions. True, most PMs try to manipulate the Cabinet to go the way they want, but no PM can defy the Cabinet or hold out against its unified opposition. There are as many examples of Prime Ministerial defeats in Cabinets as victories. Neville Chamberlain was crucially overruled by his cabinet on sending an ultimatum to Germany in 1939. Maggie Thatcher in fact endured many bruising battles in Cabinet over economic and fiscal policy in her first administration, and over Europe and entry into the exchange rate mechanism in her third administration.
Her aggressive and unyielding style of leadership led to the successive resignations of powerful ministers like Heseltine, Lawson and Howe. They became formidable political enemies and were instrumental in bringing about her own resignation in 1990. The relationship between a PM and his or her Cabinet colleagues may be anything but one of easy domination. John Major faced damaging criticism from several ministers (one of whom, Redwood, challenged his leadership in 1995) and these divisions sapped his authority. Equally damaging can be party divisions.
The PM s party in the Commons is a further limitation on his power. For example, with a small parliamentary majority during Major s ministry a handful of rebels were able to delay and even defeat various measures on the European policy. None of the weapons in the PM s armoury, such as the withdrawal of the whip of calling a confidence debate, could enforce the necessary unity on the party; the rebels knew that they enjoyed the covert support of members of the cabinet. Even with her majority of 144, Maggie Thatcher lost control over her backbenches when they brought about the defeat of the Shops Bill in 1986. Both Wilson and Heath suffered demoralizing defeats at the hands of their own supporters. Every PM enjoys fixed, formal powers, but the extent of his or her power overall depends on a number of variables.
These include the PM s personal abilities, political circumstances and events. No two PMs are alike and no one can know how a particular PM will manage a crisis. Eden s strategy over Suez was a miserable failure while Mrs Thatcher s courageous (or foolhardy) strategy over the Falklands was an astonishing success. Strong and weak PMs tend to come in cycles: the dynamic Lloyd George gave way to the pacifying Baldwin; the confrontation Thatcher to the conciliatory Major. Of course the latter was not blessed with the former s solid parliamentary majorities and string of election triumphs. How would Mrs Thatcher have fared in less favourable circumstances?
Was she in fact a lucky PM thanks to North Sea Oil, General Galtieri and Arthur S cargill? Heath would no doubt call himself unlucky over the outbreak of war between Israel and Egypt in 1974. This led to the economic crisis which resulted in his electoral defeat. No model, least of all a catch phrase, can be anything more than a gross oversimplification of the dynamics of political power in British government. Prime Ministerial hegemony has existed but only for limited periods. Thatcher is testimony to both the potentialities of, and the limits to, the office of Prime Minister. 344
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