UK Prime Minister’s Position. The prime minister of the United Kingdom is the head of government in the United Kingdom. The prime minister chairs the Cabinet and selects its ministers, and advises the sovereign on the exercise of much of the Royal Prerogative. As modern prime ministers hold office by virtue of their ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons, they typically sit as a Member of Parliament and lead the largest party or a coalition in the House of Commons.
Such is the magnitude of the powers of the Prime Minister. But what ts his position as compared with his colleagues. Lord Morley described him
As primus inter pares. He said, Although in Cabinet all its members stand on an equal footing, speak with equal voice, and, on the rare occasions when a division is taken, are counted on the fraternal principle of one man and one vote, yet the head of the Cabinet is primus inter pares, and occupies a position which so long as it lasts, is one of exceptional and peculiar authority.
Herbert Morrison also held the same estimation of the position of the Prime Minister, He says,
As the head of the Government he (Prime Minister) is primus inter pares . But it is today far too modest an appreciation of the Prime Minister’s position.
Ramsay Muir considers such a description as non-sense when applied to a potentate who appoints and can dismiss his colleagues. He is, in fact, though not in law, the working head of the State, endowed with such a plenitude of power as no other constitutional ruler in the world possesses, not even the President of the United States.
Another writer says,
If one must have a Latin phrase, a better one, no doubt, is Sir William Vernor Harcourt’s luna inter stella minores—a moon among lesser stars although even this may not really be strong enough.
That the Prime Minister is not merely primus inter pares. He is not even luna inter stellus minores. He is rather a sun around which planets revolve.
The earlier conception of the Prime Minister as first among equals, primus inter pares, does not reflect real difference in status and responsibility between the person who holds the first position, and is the Prime Minister, and even his senior colleagues.
Sir Winston Churchill clearly expressed this distinction and it bespeaks of the Prime Minister vis-a-vis his Cabinet colleagues. He says if any Sphere of action there can be no comparison between the positions of number one and number two, three, or four. The duties and problems of all persons other than the number one are quite different and in many ways fore difficult, It is always misfortune when number two or three has to initiate a dominant plan or policy.
He has to consider not only the merits, of the policy, but the mind of his chief not only What to advise, but what it is proper for him it his station to advise not only what to do, but how to get it agreed, and how to get it done. Moreover, number two or three will have to reckon with numbers four, five, and six, or may be some bright outsider, number twenty.
At the top there are great simplifications. An accepted leader; has only, to be sure of what it is best to do, or at least,to have made up his mind about it. The loyalties which center upon number one are enormous. If he trips, he must be sustained, if he makes mistakes they must be cowered. If he-sleeps, he must not-be wantonly disturbed.
Among his colleagues the Prime Minister has never been the first among equals at any time since Gladstone became, Prime Minister in 1868. If he is described first among equals event now, it, is simply to stress the democratic nature of his position. The Prime Ministers really a sun around which planets revolve and in the blaze of the sun the planets even lose their identity.
The actual power of the Prime Minister, however,varies according to his personality and the, extents to which he is supported by his party. But within the limits of prudence and commonsense sash as Byram Carter observes he may, exercise a directing authority which is the envy of political leaders of other states.
At the root of he primacy of the Prime Minister is the fact that since the, Reform Act of 1867, the election have become, the issues, of personality, Many members of, the, electorate equate the party with, its loader. The party leader has become the hub of the party’s appeal and the center of the party loyally,
A General Election is now a plebiscite between alliterative Prime Ministers, Gladstone, while referring to the election of 1857, rightly said,
It is not an election like that of 1784, when Pitt appealed on the question whether the c crown should be slave at an oligarchic faction, nor Like, that of 1831, when Grey sought a judgment on reform nor like that of 1852, when the issue was the expiring controversy of protection. The country, wag to decide not upon the Canton river, but whether it would or would not have Palmerston for Prime Minister. Again, in the election of 1880, Gladstone, ta a his famous Midlothian campaign,carried a relentless criticism of Beaconsfield Government.
The only question which electors asked themselves was whether they wished to be governed by Lord Beaconsfield or Gladstone, though the latter was no longer the leader of his party. It was the personal triumph of, Gladstone and he be came Prime Minister by the choice of the people.
The General election, of 1945 was a personal appeal to the electors by Churchill to re-elect him. The Conservative Party hoped to cash in on his personal popularity. Every hoarding had a picture of the Prime, Minister headed by slogan, Help him finis the job and underneath in comparatively small letters was the almost irrelevant injunction to vote for the Bloggs.
The Conservative, Party did not even issue its manifesto. But Churchill issued one of his own and it begin appropriately with the word. Candidates, too, ignored, their party labels and called themselves Churchill candidates. The newspapers played their own part by emphasizing that the issue lay between Churchill or Chads or Churchill and Laski, Harold Laski being the current, bogyman. The electorate was in other words asked to choose for or against Churchill and Hey chose against.
The object of this sort of electioneering necessarily, is to give the Prime Minister a national standing which no colleague can rival so long as he remains the Prime Minister. It strengthens his hands against his colleagues in the, Government, and Parliament. And, then, he appoints and dismisses his colleagues. He can shuffle his pack as and when he pleases. He alone determines whether and when Parliament shall be dissolved. In the inter departmental disputes he is the arbitrator, and if these disputes become a Cabinet question, his voice carries weight. To dely authority of the Prime Minister and to challenge, his, position is suicidal to, the political ambitions of a, Minister, unless the Prime Minister has handled his job so badly that there is a widespread feeling of his, unfitness for it.
But the Prime Minister’s position is bound up with the party system, His prestige, no doubt is one of the elements that make for the success of the party. He is also responsible for party cohesion. But, without his party, he is nothing. He goes to the electorate not as an individual, but as a loader of the party.
Whatever he is and Whatever he can claim to be is due to what the party has made him. So long as he retains the hold of his party, the is able, within limits, to dictate his policy. Once the party disowns him, he meets the fate of Ramsay MacDonald.
Sir Robert Peel lost his party in 1845 and it ended his career. Gladstone returned to power in 1892, because he had never left his opposition in the party. The Prime Minister’s power in office, thus, depends in part on his personality, In part on his own prestige, and in part upon his party support. Defined powers legally conferred do not, determine the position of the incumbent.
The office is as Jennings says, necessarily. what the holder chooses to make it and what other ministers allow him to make of it. His authority is great, but his authority is a matter of influence in the context of the party structure. If he is a popular and dynamic figure, it is difficult for his colleagues to Oppose him. Even the resignation of a leading Minister as that-of Lord Salisbury in 1957 and of Thorneyeraft, Powell arid Birch in 1958, may not unhinge the Prime Minister from his position.
But he can be forced from office when faced with substantial discontent in his Cabinet or his party. The resignations of Asquith in 1916, Lloyd George in 1922, MacDonald in 1935, and Chamberlain in 1940 came primarily are a result of discontent within the Government.
In 1957 and Harold Macmillan in 1963 were widely criticized within the party before illness brought their resignations. Within the first two years of her tenure as Prime Minister there Was a silent But sizable revolt against Mrs. Margaret Thatcher in the Conservative Party. The Party Chairman Thornycraft and the leader of the House of Commons, Francis Pym, publicly criticized her economic policy.
There was again difference of opinion between Mrs. Thatcher and her Foreign Secretary Francis Pym on the Falkland Islands issue and it became evident in the House of Commons on May 13, 1982 when certain supporters of the Prime Minister seemed to back up Enoch Powell’s call for Pym to resign. Sir Harold Wilson, the former Labour Prime Minister, had earlier predicted that she would be ditched by her own colleagues. It came out true.
Mrs. Thatcher’s position within the party and the Ministry had always been frail and ultimately she was complied by her Party colleagues to resign on November 23, 1990, after she failed to get the requisite votes in the first round of balloting to the post of the Party leader. Ideally, the Prime Minister should have a personality which earns him or her her not only the loyalty of her own Party, but also a measure of ungrudging respect from the Opposition. Mrs. Thatcher lacked both.
Comparison with American President:-
The office of the British Prime Minister is often compared with that of the American President. The comparison is significant for both resemble in many respects. But it would be too much, as Laski says,
To say that the position of a modem Prime Minister has approximated to that of an American President.
Even Churchill who attained new heights of power and authority had not the personal powers of the President of the United States. Harry Hopkins, in a report to President Roosevelt, wrote, Your former naval person (Winston Churchill) is not only the Prime Minister, he is the directing force behind the strategy and the conduct of war in all its essentials.
He has an amazing hold on the British people of all classes and groups, He has particular strengths both with the military establishments and the working people, Churchill, too, admitted that never did a British Prime Minister receive from Cabinet colleagues the loyal and true aid-which I enjoyed during the five years from these men of all parties in the State. Parliament, while maintaining free and active criticism, gave continuous, overwhelming support to all measures proposed by the Government, and the nation was united and ardent as never before.
But Churchill accomplished all this because he had a united Cabinet, a united Parliament, and a united people behind him. Both the Cabinet and Parliament supported his policy. He could not act without his Cabinet as President Roosevelt could do. To illustrate the difference in the position and powers of the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister, Jennings says that the President pigged the United States in the realization of the objectives of the Atlantic Charter while the War Cabinet, not the Prime Minister, pledged the United Kingdom.
This is the essence of the difference between the authority of a Prime Minister and a President of the United States. Churchill had to observe the constitutional norms by seeking the approval of the Cabinet and the Cabinet was dependent upon the unswerving support of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister is not the master in his Cabinet as the American President is in his. The Cabinet of the President is essentially a group of advisers appointed by and responsible to him. They are bound to give advice the President should he ask for it, but have no authority to it.
They do meet regularly and consider what the President likes to put before them, but they have no corporate rights which are recognized by custom. The difference between the British Cabinet and the American becomes clear by these two anecdotes. Melbourne ending the discussion on Corn Laws said, it does not matter what we say, but we must all say the same story. Lincoln, on the other hand, could say on putting the question in his Cabinet. Noes seven, ayes one, the ayes have it.
The Prime Minister can less easily brush aside the opinions of his colleagues. His powers are large, but he has to secure the collaboration of his colleagues. His Cabinet consists of the party’s most important leaders. They all share publicity with him to a greater extent. Sometimes one of them may even attract greater public interest and popular enthusiasm. Then, the Prime Minister is still officially the first among equals in his Cabinet. His status must not, therefore, be thought of involving his superiority to and independence of his cabinet though in time or crisis or when he happens to be a man of Outstanding personality, he may become the complete master of the situation.
All the same, the Prime Minster is solid with his colleagues; the party has cemented them together as a multiple but a corporate executive. Churchill had such effective power that no British Prime Minister had had before. But the War Cabinet or Parliament could have ejected him if he would have lost the confidence of either of the two. The thought, there fore, that the Prime Minister stands high above and aloof from his colleagues and that he orders and decides top policy, like the President of the United States is, according to Herman Finer, ridiculous it is wishful thinking; it is misleading for Britain and for the United States.
Even Harry Hopkins, who had reported in 1941, to President Roosevelt that Churchill is the government in the every sense of the word, could find the differences between the authority of the Prime Minister and the President of the United States when he observed during three days of the Conference in the Atlantic that Churchill was constantly reporting and consulting the War Cabinet.
Whereas Roosevelt took all the decisions by himself, subject only to the advice of his immediate and self-selected entourage, which advice he could accept or reject, Churchill could do so only by inspiring those whom he had chosen as Ministers, and carrying them with him.
In his book, The Office of Prime Minister, Byrum E. Carter observes, Comparisons between unlike systems are always inherently misleading, but it does seem safe to say that the power of the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues is substantially greater than that of the American President.
Carter assigns two reasons for his conclusion. First, the American President has no power to dissolve Congress and it sits for specified period of time in the Constitution. The Congress may and it very often does drastically amend proposals which emanate from the administration. The President has, no doubt, certain means by which he can attempt legislation, bu they are not comparable in effectiveness to wielded by the Prime Minister.
Secondly, the President is the head of the party, but it is party in which the central organization has little control. The real basis of a party organization in the United States has historically rested in the States and it is difficult for the central party to exercise discipline.
The Prime Minister, on the other hand, heads a disciplined party and since a General Election is now fought on personalities this inevitably enables the party leader to extend his power against that of the rank and file members of the Party, and even as against those individuals who exercise substantial intro-party influences themselves.
Summing up the differences in the powers and position of the British Prime Minister and the American President, Punnet says, Certainly, the Prime Minister’s power is greater than the authority of the President within the United States system, where the federal nature of the Constitution and the separation of powers raise barriers to the President’s authority which do not exist for Prime Minister in Britain.
In Britain, the unitary nature of the Constitution, and the unification rather than separation of powers make the authority of the Prime Minister, no matter how much he may be limited by the Cabinet, necessarily greater than that of the American President. But the President, wrote Woodrow Wilson, just before his first inauguration, is expected by the Nation to be leader of his party as well as the Chief Executive officer of the Government, and the country will take no excuses from him. He must play he part and play it successfully or lose the country’s confidence.
He must be Prime Minister as much concerned with the guidance of legislation as with the just and orderly execution of law, and he is the spokesman of the Nation in everything, even in the most momentous and most delicate dealings of the Government with foreign nations. Laski puts it in a matter of fact way when he says that The President of the United States is both more ind less than a King; he is also both more and less than a Prime Minister. The more carefully his office is studied, the more does its unique character appear.
Prime Ministerial Government :-
The confusion in not clearly demarcating the powers and position of the Prime Minister and the American President is closely linked with the popular belief that Britons no longer have Cabinet Government, but instead live under Prime Ministerial Government. Crossman argues that The post-war epoch has been the final transformation of Cabinet Government into Prime Ministerial government Mackintosh also said:
Now the country is governed by a Prime Minister, his colleagues, Junior Ministers and civil servants with the Cabinet acting as a clearing house and court of appeal.
Is it true, then, that the Prime Minister, for all practical purposes, is the Executive in Britain. Are the members of the Cabinet little more than his dependents, selected at his will and hold office so long the Prime Minister wishes them to? What real influence other Ministers exercise in the formulation of Cabinet policy in the context of the individual responsibility for the Departments under their charge as well as collective responsibility for Cabinet decisions.
It is now generally agreed that the Prime Minister’s powers are today great, and in many respects are growing. The post-war period has many instances to provide the primacy of Prime Minister’s power. For example, the decision to make the atom bomb by the first Labour Government was not taken in the Cabinet but in the Defense Committee of the Cabinet.
The Suez adventure of 1956 was largely the personal policy of the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden. The decision to try to take Britain into the Common Market in 1961 was essentially that of the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. The decision of the Labour Government in 1965 to attempt a new approach to Europe also rested ultimately on the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.
The first seventeen months of Labour Government’s regime after 1964 General Election disclose how greatly the Prime Minister was personally responsible for the tone and decisions of the Government as a whole, The decision to dispatch the Royal Navy Armada on April 5, 1982 to recapture the Falkland Islands seized by Argentina, was Mrs. Thatcher’s alone.
Similarly, the British Government’s policy against the racist regime of South Africa was essentially the determination of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, though compelling reasons obliged her to soften and to bring in a streak of flexibility. Tony Blair joined Bill Clinton on his own in synchronizing British bombing attacks on Iraq in 1999.
Even then it does not mean that the Prime Minister is assuming the role of Presidential authority and that the increase in the authority of the Prime Minister has produced a basic change in the system of the Cabinet Government in Britain. Herbert Morrison rejected the thesis of Prime Ministerial Government and said that the Prune Minister, is not the master of the Cabinet and he ought not to, and usually does not, presume to give directions or decisions which are proper to the Cabinet or one of its Committees.
Morrison is supported by many other writers and statesmen. They all accept that the Prime Minister is powerful, yet assert that he is not overwhelmingly supreme as the Cabinet remains a collective executive body. A Prime Minister cannot ride roughshod over the will of the Cabinet. And as stated earlier, he ts both a captain and a man at the helm, But he can remain at he helm only if he plays the game of politics like a captain. A captain must carry the team with him. Without a team there can be no captain just as without a captain there can be no team.
The reality of collective responsibility, therefore, is not disproved by the great power of the Prime Minister in modern political conditions. Prime Ministerial power must be understood as varying with political circumstances and with the personal fortunes of the man who wields it. The fundamental fact about the position of the Prime Minister is that he must operate flexibly within parliamentary and cabinet system in which power is distributed and which gives the Prime Minister as much command of the political situation as he can earn.
If his influence is as great as that of the American President, even then he is very far from having the powers of the President who is accountable to nobody except the electorate and that too after a specified period of four years. The Prime Minister, in varying degrees, is, on the other hand, accountable to his Cabinet colleagues, his party and even, in some degree, to the Opposition, as he considers it his duty to consult with the Leader of the Opposition at moments of national crisis, as for example, in the case of Falkland Islands.
Prime Minister and Monarchy :-
When no since party emerges as the majority party in Parliament, the monarch has to exercise his discretion in appointing the Prime Minister. In 1924 and 1929, the king appointed Ramsay Mac Donald as Prime Minister who formed minority Labour Governments with the outside support of the Liberal Party. In both cases George V exercised his discretion correctly
However, in 1931 the political developments that followed-the resignation of Mac Donald have aroused considerable controversy. The king, according to Laski and Greaves, played an activist role in the formation of the Coalition Government with MacDonald, traitor to his own Labour Party, presiding over a predominantly Conservative Cabinet in which few defectors from the Labour and Liberal parties were also included. The new government passed the National Economy. Act, dissolved Parliament, fought a general election with the king’s blessings under conditions of mass hysteria and received a massive electoral victory.
Both Laski and Greaves severely criticize the monarch’s activist role in influencing his Labour Prime Minister so that he conspired secretly to bring the downfall of his own party’s cabinet without its knowledge and without consulting his own Parliamentary Labour Party, In the name of Nationalism, the nominal rulers of Italy and Germany put dictators like Mussolini and Hitler in power so that they could safeguard capitalism.
The British monarch used his political influence to overthrow the Labour Government and assemble the so-called National Coalition under MacDonald, the defecting Labour Prime Minister, so that he could resolve the economic crisis in England on the terms acceptable to the British capitalist class. The new Prime Minister, in fact, implemented the actual Tory policies in a national disguise.
It is an established historical fact that monarchy, despite its cloak of neutrality, is emotionally and practically an essential part of the Conservative establishment. Some Liberal and Labour Prime Ministers have often felt that there is a certain degree of apathy and aloofness, even antipathy and aversion occasionally, in their relations with the monarch. Asquith in 1910 an Attlee in 1951 faced pressure from George V George VI respectively to dissolve the House of Commons, as demanded by the Conservatives at those occasions.
Despite this, no Prime Minister has ever felt the need for abolishing monarchy as an institution. Even Lord Attlee believed that it is right to have a certain amount of pageantry, because it pleases people and it also counteracts a tendency to other forms of excitement. (The Times, July 9, 1952).
The Prime Minister of the Labour Government, Tony Blair, is trying to abolish the institution of hereditary peers in the House of Lords and may succeed in doing so but he has no quarrel with hereditary monarchy. The reason is that no Prime Minister ever feels threatened or thwarted by the existence of a ceremonial monarchy. The monarch cannot influence him in changing any of his policies unless he is himself willing to be influenced in that direction.
The present initiative of the Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is playing an activist and supportive role to the American President, George Bush, in the Afghan War against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al Quaeda, with out obtaining the concurrence of his cabinet, shows that the British Prime Minister is supreme in determining the foreign policy of his country, The cabinet lacks real control over his authority.
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