Dictatorship of the Cabinet in UK. A body which wields such powers, observes Ramsay Muir, as these may fairly be described as omnipotent in theory, however, incapable it may be of using its omnipotence. Its position, whenever it commands a majority, ts a dictatorship only qualified by publicity. This dictatorship is far more absolute than it was two generations ago.
A Government which has a real majority can be reasonably certain of maintaining itself in power as long as Parliament lasts. This almost mechanical source of power makes Cabinet a powerful institution. It determines how most of the time available in the House of Commons shall be used. It decides which proposals to change the law it will submit to Parliament, Then, it possesses the means to see that all measures so submitted become the Acts of Parliament.
The rigidity of the party discipline enjoins upon all members to attend Parliament at the crucial moment of voting and the energy of whip’s organization assures blind support to the party, Woe betide a member who has no satisfactory explanation for ignoring a three line whip. But the most effective weapon to keep the House under control is the Prime Minister’s power of dissolution.
The dissolution, as Jennings says
Can hold the member’s head like a big stick.
No individual member likes to take the risk of an election contest. It demands both time and money and at the end of it he may not be returned. There is, therefore, unflinching obedience to the Whip and so long as the rank and file of the Government supporters obey the Whip, the Cabinet will remain supreme.
Amery had maintained that Parliamentary Government was already dead and had been replaced by Cabinet government. Summing up the whole process of development Brogan and Verney maintain. The struggle of the seventeenth century was between the House of Commons and the King.
More recently the Commons have fought the Lords, and in both battles the Commons was triumphant. Or at least it appeared to be. It is apparent today, as it was not to Bagehot a hundred years ago, that much of the power has in fact been transferred not to the Commons but to the Cabinet.
Flushed with the majority and intoxicated with power, a Government, can press unpalatable measures on the House of Commons. It might even violate the solemn pledges which it made at the time of the General Election, as it happened in 1938. The Conservative Party, in 1935, won a heavy majority in the House of Commons on its professions of fidelity to the League of Nations and its unequivocal condemnation of the rape of Abyssinia by Italy.
The Party’s election manifesto, inter alia stated, The League of Nations will remain, as heretofore, the keystone of British foreign policy. We shall, therefore, continue to do all in our power to uphold the Covenant and to maintain and increase the efficiency of the League. In the present unhappy dispute between Italy and Abyssinia, there will be no wavering in the policy we have hitherto pursued,
In later years he government followed a policy which was a grave departure from the principles of the League and a complete violation of the promises given by the Conservatives at the time of the General Election. Britain was negotiating under an ultimatum with Italy, although the latter had violated the League Covenant in Abyssinia and was making frantic efforts to make Spain its protectorate in pursuance of its policy of establishing Italian hegemony in the Mediterranean, and replacing Britain in control of Egypt and the Suez Canal. If this is to be taken as a precedent, observed Keith, then, any Government can feel fully entitled boldly to ignore, if in power, any limitation imposed upon it by the terms of its election promises.
Then, once in power the Government is subject to no Parliamentary limitation, except the Standing Orders under which the House of Commons functions. These Standing Orders are not Statutes. They are passed by the House of Commons alone by means of majority resolutions. A Government can, so long as it continues to command its majority, alter these Orders when it wishes in order to facilitate the passage of its measures. This danger was much in evidence during the tenure of office of the Labour Government of 1945-50.
The Government wedded to a programme of nationalization pushed it too fast in Parliament. It applied guillotine to the proceedings on the Transport Bill and the Town and County Planning Bill both in the Standing Committee and in the subsequent stages in the House of Commons. It was for the first time the history of the House of Commons that such a drastic procedure had been applied to proceedings on a Bill in the Sanding Committee.
As a result, 37 Clauses an 17 Schedules of the Transport Bill were not discussed at all in the Standing Committee, and the discussion on several more was cut short by the guillotine. In the case of the Town and County Planning Bill, about 50 Clauses and 6 Schedules were not discussed at all in the Committee. On the Report stage the guillotine was applied again.
While summing up these episodes Professor Keith remarked. What is clear, however, is that a Government, with a large majority is limited in its legislative programme only by its own good sense and its respect for those rules of debate which generations of men in all parties have agreed upon. It is further argued that debates are mere formalities, tolerated by the Government only because they do not affect the result in the lobby division.
There are bitter criticisms of the growth of delegated legislation and of the consequential growth of Administrative Law and it is maintained that the Rule of Law and freedom of the citizens are gravely menaced by these developments. When the legislature confers, says Barker, a measure of legislative powers on the executive it takes something away from itself, but when it confers upon the executive a measure of judicial power, it is diminishing not itself, but an organ other than itself. Delegated legislation and administrative justice have, therefore, immensely added to the powers and supremacy of the Cabinet.
It does not, however, follow, and it is not true, as Jennings observes, that a government in possession of majority forms a temporary dictatorship. The House of Commons is not a place in which a victorious party exhibits its unchecked authority and dictates to the defeated and politically important minority. Nor can it remain oblivious of outside influences.
The process of Parliamentary government involves parliamentary forbearance. The minority agrees that the majority should govern, and the majority agrees that the minority must criticize. The Standing Orders are, no doubt, constructed to ensure that the will of the majority shall prevail. But the Orders do not present the complete picture of the Government’s position. They are supplemented by the customs of the House.
The customs of the House demand a scrupulous observance and respect by the majority for those rules of debate. Which generations of mien in all parties have agreed upon. Originally, these customs arose for the protection of the individual member of the House and today they continue for the Private Member, as he is still called, and, as such, for His Majesty’s Opposition.
The Speaker is the impartial custodian of the rights of the members of the House. His conduct really reflects the spirit which, according to Brier, 3s ultimately more important than the forms of governments.
The customs of the House very consider ably modify the rigors of the majority rule. Take, for example, the Standing Order relating Private Member is right to put Goon any Government in order to elicit information on any matter of public importance or with that the Select Committee on Parliamentary proceeding maintained in its Report that the exercise of the right of asking question is perhaps the reediest and most effective method of parliamentary control over the action of the executive.
But custom goes much further. Parliamentary time is allowed to the Opposition so that it may criticism the Government’s work. The various stages through which a Bill passes in its Career In the House-the First and Second Readings, Committee Report, and Third Readings-are arranged with this end in view. In the Committee of Supply the choice of subjects for discussion rests with the Opposition.
The actual time to be spent on various stages of business is, as far as possible, arranged behind the Speaker’s Chair or through the usual channels; that is to say, the Government and Opposition Whips, in consultation with their respective leaders, settle the time to be allowed by informal discussion. They even settle the subjects to be debated, the information to be provided and the line of attack.
His Majesty’s Opposition is second in importance to His Majesty’s Government. The public duty of the Opposition is to oppose. It must attack upon the Government and upon individual Ministers. Diligent performance of this duty by the Opposition is the major check which the Parliamentary system provides upon corruption and defective administration. It is also the means by which individual injustice can be prevented.
The Government, too, recognizes its duty that it must govern openly and honestly, and that it should meet criticism not by suppressing Opposition, but by rational arguments. Which should have the approbation of the electorate. A Government which does not respect the traditions of the House and neglects the Opposition does so at its own peril.
His Majesty’s Opposition is the prospective Government. The lapses of the Government are its opportunities and it uses them to appeal to the public opinion. The House is its platform, the newspapers are its microphones, and the people is its audience. The Government which loses the popular support will ultimately lose its majority and when majority disappears, the government, too, will disappear. The Cabinet, no doubt, is normally the master of the House of Commons, but, as Laski, says there are always limits to its mastery of which it must take account.
Nor is the Government insensitive to the reaction of its own followers. It is true that a member of Parliament is returned on the party support and his political career depends upon the support he gives to his party. But it docs not mean that he is entirely docile and immune to influences other than of his party leaders.
He is in constant touch with his constituency and keeps himself abreast with the flow of public opinion therein. If he feels that the popularity of the Government is receding, he becomes clamorous because it means a fall in his electoral support, Then, there are interest-groups within the party, These groups maintain a constant watch on the activities of Government and they are vocal on issues that concern them. Thus, the government works against a background of constant outside appraisal which also finds its echo is the lobbies of the House and it is a function of the Whips to keep informed on trends of opinion both in the country and in the House.
Signs of unrest in the constituencies, amongst interested groups, or on the part of sufficient number of backbenches, may lead to changes in a Government’s plans and proposals. A Government which is not susceptible to those influences and does not alter its direction is not a government of the people and by the people. It ignores the maxim of parliamentary democracy that tomorrow is the day of election.
The Cabinet is, therefore, the supreme interpreter of majority opinion and it rules both majority and minority. It dare not ride roughshod over public opinion. The ultimate appeal rests with the people, and it must remember those to whom it will have to account in the future as well as those who entrusted it with power. In 1934, there Was a great outcry against the provisions of the Incitement of Disaffection Bill.
The National Government had an unprecedented majority and, no doubt, the Bill was passed, but the Bill as passed was very different from the Bill as presented; and public opinion had amended it. So, Spontaneous was the outburst against the Anglo French proposal for a settlement of the Italo-Ethiopian dispute in December 1935, that the Cabinet was forced to reverse its decision.
It felt that there could not be that volume of public Opinion which it is necessary to have in a democracy behind the Government in a matter important as this. Sir Samuel Hoare, the Foreign Secretary, resigned because, as he put it, he had not got the confidence of the great body of opinion in the country, and I feel that it is essential for the Foreign Secretary, more than any other Minister in the country to have behind him the general approval of his fellow countrymen.
I have not got that general approval behind me today, and as soon as I realized that fact, without any prompting without any suggestion from anyone, asked the Prime Minister to accept my resignation. In 1940, public opinion compelled the Government under Neville Chamberlain to resign.
Again, in 1946 the Government had to concede considerable alterations over the powers and functions of the Steel Board. In the Suez crisis of 1956, the Government had ultimately to bow before the public opinion. Members of Parliament, too, have not completely surrendered themselves to the Party and they protest, though it is quite rare, against the policy of the Government.
In February 1962, for instance, three conservative M.Ps voted against the scheme for reorganization of Greater London. In May 1963, fifteen Conservative M.Ps either abstained or voted against the Government decision to deport Chief Enaharo to Nigeria.
In 1988, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher suffered her most embarrassing rebuff when 38 members of her own Conservative Party joined Opposition members in voting against the controversial tax legislation that sought to impose a flat rate local tax on ail adults. Another 12 abstained in-spite of heavy pressure from Government Whips.
The Bill could pass with a majority of 25 votes only 320-295. Defections of this kind, says Brasher, are not followed by the immediate distribution of the withdrawal of the whip. For the Conservative Party particularly, if any penalty at all is incurred it is more likely to-be the Penalty of not being readopted for the next election than expulsion from the Parliamentary Party.
Even when the Chief Whip interviews M.Ps hostile to some aspect of Government policy his primary purpose is persuasion rather than coercion. Laski, has, therefore, said that the Public feeling is always a fact in determining the breaking-point of members loyalty to the Cabinet they normally support.
The fate of the Government today, as before, is normally determined by a General Election and not by a vote in Parliament. The real function of Parliament is not to govern but to see that it governs according to the wishes of the people. The Cabinet leads Parliament and the country on the clear understanding that the Government is not the master but the servant of the people. It was cogently said by Bagehot that the real function of Parliament was to express the mind of the people, to teach the nation what it does not know and to make the people hear what we otherwise should not. This Parliament does admirably well.
Yet, it cannot be denied that changing political, social and economic circumstances in modern Britain demand a strong Executive. It requires additional powers to meet additional demands, but such powers are used, in general, with discretion, and with the full realization that the Cabinet is answerable to Parliament, and ultimately, to the electorate itself.
Moreover, as Brasher says, there are restraints on the Cabinet less tangible than so far described, but more effective. These are the restraints which spring from the habitual attitudes of governors and governed, from conventions, from tacit assumptions on what constitutes a reasonable degree of Government control over the activities of the people it rules. These are the real limitations on Cabinet authority. Their effectiveness will last as long as public opinion is sufficiently educated to recognize them.
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