The Cabinet System in Uk

The Cabinet System in Uk. The Cabinet is the core of the British constitutional system. It is the supreme directing authority; the magnet of policy, as Barker calls it, which co-ordinates and controls the whole of the executive government, and integrates and guides the work of the Legislature.


According, to Bagchot, the Cabinet is a hyphen that joins, the buckle that binds the executive and legislative departments together. Lowell calls it the keystone of the political arch. Sir John Marriot describe it as the pivot round which the whole political machinery revolves. Ramsay Muir speaks of it as the steering-wheel of the ship of State. Sir Ivor Jennings succinctly says that the Cabinet provides unity to the British system of government. With whatever colorful phrase it may be described and from whatever angle it is approached, the Cabinet is the motive power of all political action in Britain. And yet it is not known to law.

Like various other political i institutions of the country, the Cabinet, too, is the child of chance. Until 1937, it was not even mentioned. in any Act of Parliament, and in the Ministers of the Crown Act there is just an occasional reference to it. As the Cabinet has no legal existence, its actions have not the force of law. The judicial acts of the Cabinet are formally made the actions of the Privy Council which body has existence in law. The machinery of the Cabinet system is, thus, based upon conventions, unwritten but always recognized and stated with almost as much precision as the rules of law. This, indeed, is the most remarkable outcome of the British Constitution.

Development of the Cabinet system in UK:-

The name Cabinet referred originally to a small body of ministers whom the later Stuart Kings commenced consulting in preference to the Privy Council of their predecessors. Then, came the Revolution of 1688, and the consequent increase in the powers of Parliament. William III on ascending the throne formed a Ministry drawn both from the Whigs and the Tories. But he soon realized that the Tories were very critical of bis policy and their opposing views made it impossible for him to carry out smooth administration.

He, therefore, gradually dismissed all the Tories from his Ministry and got, for the first time, a body of Ministers chosen from ‘one political party. The Whig Junto of 1696 is regarded as the real beginning of the Cabinet system. Queen Anne carried the development a stage further by letting the inner circle decide policy while her precedecessors tolerated only advice. But she still continued to dismiss her Ministers when they forfeited her favour. At the same time, both William and Anne presided in person at the meetings of the cabinet

The system of Cabinet Government can be said to have really emerged when the King was excluded from the meetings of the Cabinet. This happened, by chance in 1714, when George ceased to attend the meetings of the Council because he did not understand English. The King designated Sir Robert Walpole to preside in his place. The Cabinet thereupon ceased to meet at the palace with the Sovereign presiding, and met instead at the House of the First Lord of the Treasury.

The First Lord became a kind of Chairman to the Cabinet and Walpole furnished the required leadership in the absence of the King and the colleagues looked to him fer direction. As Chairman of the Cabinet, he presided at its meetings, guided and directed its deliberations, reported the decisions arrived at the Cabinet meetings to the King, and reported to the Cabinet the opinion of the King.

Moreover, as a member of Parliament he served as a link between the Cabinet and Parliament. This new position and duties of Walpole in effect involved the origin of the office of the Prime Minister, although he resented and repudiated the suggestion that his position was of that kind. Necessity, thus, grafted the Premiership as well as the Cabinet constitution.

Another outcome of the absence of the King from meetings of the Cabinet was that Ministers, instead of tendering individual advice, began seeking for unanimity, Walpole could hardly go to the King with a dozen or fifteen different opinions. Differences amongst them selves the Ministers began to resolve inside the Cabinet, and thereby agreed advice was conveyed to the King. Out of this emerged another development. The Cabinet, if it were to tender unanimous advice, had to be a homogeneous body. When distinct political parties had begun to emerge, it became convenient to draw all Cabinet Ministers from a single majority party to be sure of parliamentary approval.

For twenty years Walpole headed the Government and during that period a system that was in its infancy gathered strength and a certain measure of stability. In fact, in Walpole’s administration are found the essential characteristics of present-day Cabinet government.

It was Walpole who first administered the Government in accordance with his own views of our political requirements. It was Walpole who first conducted the business of the country in the House of Commons. It was Walpole who in the conduct of that business first insisted upon the support for his measures of all servants of the Crown who had seats in Parliament. It was under Walpole that the House of Commons became the dominant power in the State, and rose in ability and influence as well as in actual power above the House of Lords.

And it was Walpole who set the example of quitting his office while he still retained the undiminished affection of his King for the avowed reason that he had ceased to possess the confidence of the House of Commons. It was, again, Walpole who used No. 10 Downing Street while he was in office, which subsequently became the official residence of the Prime Minister.

At the same time, there had developed the principle of ministerial responsibility the principle that a Minister was responsible to Parliament for all his public acts, and that he could be brought to book by Parliament if ever it considered his acts prejudicial to the interests of the country. The principle of ministerial responsibility evolved slowly.

For the first time Stafford in the reign of Charles was made to answer to Parliament for what was considered the bad advice he had given to the King. The King did his best to shield him, but, and in spite of the best efforts of Charles himself, Stafford was made to pay the penalty imposed by Parliament.

Exactly the same happened in Danby’s case during the reign of Charles II. Since then the principle of ministerial responsibility has been recognized as the sine quo non of the parliamentary system of government.

It does not, however, mean that the Cabinet system of government had become an accomplished fact in the eighteenth century, and the King was a mere cipher in his relations to the Cabinet. Even Sir Robert Walpole felt himself very much the King’s servant and dismissable by him.

George III demanded the inclusion of some members in the Cabinet, though they belonged to the opposing party. George IV made efforts to create among the Ministers division by getting their individual opinions on Canning’s foreign policy. William IV, once or perhaps, twice, contemplated the dismissal of a Cabinet which enjoyed the confidence of the House of Commons and the electorate.

Thus, the complete theory and practice of the Cabinet system, as it emerged out of the eighteenth century, did not take its present form before the reign of Queen Victoria. Under Peel, Disraeli, and Gladstone the system reached a kind of climax indeed the classic exposition of its working is still a chapter in the Life of Walpole,written by one of Gladstone’s colleagues (Morley) with his master’s assistance.

It is early to analyses the development of the Cabinet during the twentieth century. But two significant observations may be made here. The first is, that the membership of the Cabinet has increased from twelve or less to eighteen or more. Sir Robert Peel was content with thirteen members; Disraeli in 1874 tried as few as twelve. Since then the Cabinet has tended to grow steadily until recent times.

With the expansion of the functions of government, it became a practice to include in the Cabinet the heads of all important Departments as well as number of Ministers without departmental duties, like the Lord President of the Council and the Lord Privy Seal, and sometimes even the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Between the two world Wars the number was seldom less than twenty. In 1935, it was twenty-two. But there were constant complaints against the swelling size of the Cabinet. It was contended that a Cabinet of twenty-one or twenty-two members was too large for an effective deliberative body.A Cabinet, say of twelve persons, like Disraeli’s in 1874, can amicably and conveniently settle questions by intimate discussion around a table.

A Cabinet of more than score, on the other hand, verges upon a public meeting it must have a formal procedure, a considerable committee organization, a substantial secretariat, and so on. A small Cabinet can usually take decisions by a consensus of opinion, a large Cabinet may find it easier to take vote.

Experienced statesmen prefer a small cabinet. Attlee reduced the number of his Cabinet Ministers to seventeen in 1949, Winston Churchill still further reduced it to sixteen in 1951, with a separate provision of ministers not in the Cabinet. In 1962, there were twenty Cabinet Ministers and the number increased to 23 in 1964. In January 1967, it stood at twenty.

In 1974, it again went up to 21 whereas Callaghan came down to 20. Mrs. Margaret Thatcher had 22 whereas John Major, who succeeded her in November 1990, had 21. The nomenclature of Ministers was adhered to in the succeeding Cabinets, except that holders of the most of the newly created posts by Wilson Government had the formal title of Ministers whereas those who held older posts had special titles for instance, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the President of the Board of Trade. The holders of nine offices (some ancient and other of recent creation) were known as Secretaries of State.

The Ministers not in the Cabinet carried the same status as the Cabinet Ministers, received all the Cabinet conclusions, except those of the utmost secrecy, and took their full share in the Cabinet Committees, But they participated in the deliberations of the Cabinet only when summoned, and matters concerning their Departments were under discussion

Closely connected with it are two other phases. First, to cope with the increased work of the Cabinet, the system of standing Cabinet Committees, which discuss and settle all contentious matters, has been introduced on the extended scale. Secondly, the Labor Government began to meet twice a week whereas before the War one meeting a week was generally sufficient. The War Cabinet of 1940-45, also, met twice a week in the ordinary way, but naturally there were many more special meetings than in peace time, some of them late at night. Now it meets for a few hours once or twice a week during Parliamentary sitting, and rather less frequently when Parliament is not sitting. Additional meetings may be called by the Prime Minister at any time.

The second significant development of the twentieth century is that the Cabinet has sacrificed much of its party character at periods of national emergencies in the efforts to achieve national solidarity. Britain, it had always been argued and the same conviction holds good even now, hates a coalition, because it is deemed distortion of the parliamentary system of government. And yet in the inter-War period of about twenty-one years, four years were occupied by Lloyd George’s Coalition Ministry surviving from the previous War, and eight years by the National Government headed by MacDonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain which carried on into succeeding War of 1939.

There were also two periods of minority government again a distortion of the parliamentary system the Labor Governments of 1924 and 1929-31. Taking, thus, the whole period between 1918 and 1945, less than six years were occupied by governments of the normal type when there was one singe-party government with a working majority.

In October 1974 the Labor Party won 319 scats out of a total of 635 membership of the Commons. But this precarious majority was soon eroded for one reason or another and Callaghan’s minority Government remained in office with the support of the Liberal and Scottish Nationalist parties till it was defeated on a vote of no confidence when both these parties withdrew their support.

In the General Election held in May 1979, the Conservative Party was given a clear mandate by the electorate winning 339 seats. Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, the first woman Prime Minister Britain had, formed the Government and she remained in office for 11 years and six months and after her resignation in November 1990 was succeeded by John Major, the Chancellor of Exchequer in her Cabinet. He was really her choice.

Whatever be the demerits of coalition government, this twentieth century development is characteristic of the adaptability of the British people. Jennings, while referring to the War coalition points out that the coalitions which saved civilization between 1940 and 1945 seems to have been at least as united as the ordinary party government. The National Government in 1932 maintained its unity by strange device of an agreement to differ an exception to collective responsibility.

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