WAYS AND EXTENT TO WHICH THE UK HAS A ‘PRIME MINISTERIAL’ GOVERNMENT
4th, March, 2013
The position of the Prime Minister is vital in any government or political system. This is evident, going by the trend witnessed in the last thirty years, in relation to the Prime Minister, and their level of power. As each year passes by, the position of the Prime Minister becomes more influential in the government, as even more power is attached to it. While in the past, the government of the United Kingdom was strongly founded on its cabinet, which was influential, today, this has changed. Cabinet members in the past shared equal authority and capacity, with no one being considered more powerful than the other. Although cabinet members were regarded equal, the Prime Minister, who is also a cabinet member, ranked higher. This is reflected in the role of the Prime Minister today, which has become more complex and more important. O’Malley (2007) concurs with the fact that the government witnessed in the United Kingdom today is Prime Ministerial in nature, as it ceased to be a cabinet government. In this type of government, the Prime Minister has capitalized on the powers bestowed on them to control a vast part of the political system of the United Kingdom, including the dictation of government policy. Therefore, the reason behind the Prime Ministerial government in the United Kingdom today is the amount of power and authority, which the British Prime Minister holds.
According to Bennister (2012), there are various evidences to the extent that the Prime Minister exercises their power in the government of the United Kingdom, which show that the country has shifted to a Prime Ministerial government. For instance, today, the British government is headed by none other but the Prime Minister. However, the cabinet remains significant in government, since sometimes the Prime Minister might different types of support from it. Their success is still dependent on the support by the cabinet and parliament (Bennister 2012).
There is no doubt that in the recent years, the cabinet in the United Kingdom has experienced increased bypassing and control by the Prime Minister. All this emanates from the fact that the privilege to head the government was availed to the Prime Minister. Different Prime Ministers have conducted bilateral meetings. These are meetings whereby the Prime Minister meets with specific cabinet members, whom the Prime Minister thinks are more trusted. The Prime Minister and the other cabinet members in this meeting discuss the agenda of a meeting scheduled to happen, deciding on the most important policies to be adopted by the government, among other vital issues in governance. This way, it shows that the Prime Minister has more powers in the process of policymaking, compared to other cabinet members, and takes most of the power that was initially meant to be exercised by the cabinet, as a whole. For instance, the ‘kitchen cabinet’ by Blair together with Brown, discussed vital issues relating to policies. An outcome of the kitchen cabinet affected the Bank of England, as its control of interest rates were taken over by a private entity. Therefore, this is an example of how the Prime Minister in the United Kingdom exercises their power to have their personal policies implemented (Buckley 2006).
Smith and Richard (2011) argue that, since the rulership of the government is the the Prime Minister’s responsibility, therefore, the Prime Minister is charged with the responsibilities that initially belonged to the sovereign, who is also the head of state. However, both the cabinet and the Prime Minister are accountable to the parliament for the decisions they make in governance, even though they are also members of the parliament. Nonetheless, if one compares the roles and powers of the Prime Minister since the period of Margaret Thatcher to the period of Tony Blair, and Brown, one realizes that there are a myriad of shifts in power, which have occurred. All these changes reflect the increase in the power of the British Prime Minister, and UK’s shift to a Prime Ministerial government (Smith & Richard 2011).
Buckley (2006) emphasizes that, today, there is evidence that the cabinet in the United Kingdom holds lesser meetings than they did in the past. In addition, these meetings take a shorter time, compared to the meetings in the past, where they took a long time, discussing important issues in an intensive manner. Specifically, Blair is criticized for having a low attendance in parliamentary meetings. Different cabinet members admitted that meetings rarely lasted for more than twenty minutes. This therefore, points to the fact that the cabinet in the United Kingdom today is not as influential as it was in the past, as it has lost a considerable amount of its power. The fact that the cabinet holds shorter meetings occasionally means that the cabinet’s responsibility in collective decision making in important governance issues, is slowly losing importance. Instead, the stretch of power and influence of the British Prime Minister keeps growing each year. This shows how power is transferred in the government. Although, Gordon Brown also has also distanced himself from his Labour party, this is not as extreme as Tony Blair. In addition, Gordon Brown has a good record of meeting attendance in the parliament and cabinet, unlike Blair (Buckley 2006).
In the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister plays the role of organizing and controlling controls various positions in the government. This has an effect of giving patronage power to them, which they utilize in the regulation and control of authority and power different departments of the government. For instance, they can strip off power from some political leaders, or might as well bestow more power to others (Web 2011). When the Prime Minister in the United Kingdom comes up with their own personal policies, these receive support from the cabinet. Therefore, the Prime Minister experiences the lowest levels of rivalry when presenting their decisions in major policymaking process. The Prime Minister in the United Kingdom has a considerable influence on the media. This therefore, draws more attention to the Prime Minister, especially their impact on government. However, it is argued that the Prime gets this kind of attention from the media because; they as well use their powers to manipulate and control the media (Williams 1998).
Independence is a factor that the position of Prime Minister does not lack. For example, the Prime Minister today does not need to consult with their party members on decisions the Prime Minister thinks can be handled on their own. The Prime Minister also forges for cabinet support of hi or her policy ideas. This leadership style is therefore, likened to that in the presidential governments, where the president has power to make independent decisions on important policy and governance issues. Therefore, the Prime Minister’s power has surpassed a kind of governance that is party led, since the party members are rarely involved in decision-making (Buckley 2006). Since the British Prime Minister has considerable authority, they can be compared to the role of the president. However, the remain Prime Ministers, as the supreme sovereignty in the United Kingdom cannot allow for the Prime Minister to exercise power, which does not belong to them. Similarly, the European Union restricts Prime Ministers to their positions. For example, the fall of Margaret Thatcher in the 1990’s signifies that a Prime Minister cannot assume greater power, and be fiercely controlling than their capacity allows (Williams 1998).
Different scholars agree with the fact that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has more powers to influence he government at a higher level. Foley (1993) has addressed the role and power of the British Prime Minister in the UK. He argued that the United Kingdom slowly rose from a cabinet government to a presidential government. In order to prove this, Foley brings the powers of the British Prime Minister and those of the US president under scrutiny and comparison. In this year when Foley was writing his book, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was being criticized by many people for exercising a style of leadership, which was quite authoritarian and personal. This shows that after Thatcher, the level of power of the Prime Minister came to a decrease. When John Mayor took over from, he exercised less power compared to Thatcher. However, during Tony Blairs’ time as a Prime Minister, he exercised more power compared to the previous Prime Ministers (Foley 1993). However, the British government cannot be presidential as Foley notes, but remains Prime Ministerial, since the British Prime Minister is not entitled to similar mandate as that of a president. Nonetheless, with regard to power, there is no doubt that the British Prime Minister is entitled to greater power than other political leaders in the system.
According to Foley (1993), spatial leadership is popular among different Prime Ministers in the UK. This means that they act and lead as outsiders, making their own decisions, and not being actively involved with the government. Therefore, Foley has considered most Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, as acting like ‘outsiders’ in governance. He gives the example of Thatcher, who told people about her being born by a grocer. On the other hand, Mayor also emphasized his low family background, with only few opportunities for a formal education. Mayor acted like an outsider when in 1991, he developed ‘the citizen’s charter.’ This showed that the government cannot be trusted. This therefore, helped citizens to control officialdom. Spatial leadership in Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher is also evident in the fact that these two developed their own stances namely ‘Thatcherism’ and ‘Blairism.’ This emphasizes their personal influence on the government and the people (Buckley 2006).
In addition, Foley notes that most Prime Ministers in the United Kingdom used the media to appeal to people directly on different issues. Foley argues that presidents commonly use direct appeal through the media. Therefore, when used by a Prime Minister in the United Kingdom, they are assuming the powers similar to those of presidents in the presidential regimes. Foley also notes that the 1997 and 2001 elections in the United Kingdom were a proof at how the Prime Minister is adopting power similar to that of presidents. During these elections, one realizes that more importance is attached to the party leaders, including their personality (Foley 1993). Nonetheless, although their power is likened to that of presidents, the UK cannot be a presidential system, since it is parliamentary. Therefore, since the Prime Minister is influential in government, this inclines the government more to the Prime Ministerial government.
King (1985) notes that, the Prime Minister in the United Kingdom possesses additional powers. This is a resource, which even the president of the United States lack, and would probably like to have. The Congress is responsible for most political decisions, while the president only has power over his mandate and other minor decisions. On the other hand, the British Prime Minister influence and power, as the United States’ president. Unlike the president of the US, the British Prime Minister has the power to determine different positions in the government, as well as appoint people to these positions. King also notes that the British Prime Minister controls the government structure. For instance, the Prime Minister creates new government departments, dismisses some existent departments, and sometimes combines two departments to become one. This power, King argues, that is bestowed on the Prime Minister alone, and the cabinet does not share it. To prove this point, King uses an example from the mid-1970. In the United States, it took the Congress a considerable number of months to come up with the Bill for the creation of the Department of Energy, since this required consultations and intensive debating. On the other hand, in the United Kingdom, it took the Prime Minister a single day to create the Department of Energy in the country (King 1985).
Buckley (2006) seeks the reason behind the increasing Prime Ministerial powers. According to him, the constitution of the United Kingdom has not fully taken into account the importance of specifying the role of the Prime Minister in different contexts. Additionally, Buckley thinks that when the Monarch was done away with, the Prime Minister served as the replacement of the monarch, and its role in the cabinet. He also notes that the superiority of the Prime Minister’s office in the United Kingdom was experienced beginning the early 19th Century (Buckley 2006).
As discussed, a variety of factors point out to the fact that the Prime Minister in the United Kingdom has continuously become more powerful over the years. However, there are other factors in the governance and policies of the United Kingdom, which serve to limit the powers of the British Prime Minister. These suggest that this kind of power bestowed upon the Prime Minister cannot make any Prime Minister have the right to abuse office through misuse of power. First, since the Prime Minister has the power to develop different policies, they are accountable for the various policies they come up with, or their different ideas about policies. The parliament has the duty of seeing to it that different policies and ideas by the Prime Minister are in accordance with the law. Different sanctions are present for different types of unlawfulness in policies by the Prime Minister. In addition, the Prime Minister’s party members can gain support from the cabinet to revolt against the Prime Minister, if their leadership is unacceptable. For instance, if the party members feel that the Prime Minister has gone out of control, they can act against him collectively, and might as well be joined by the cabinet in this revolt. While it is of interest to study the powers of Prime Ministers in various countries, O’Malley (2007) argues that the progress of this debate in political science has been hampered by a lack of a theoretical framework, which can be used to study the Prime Ministers.
In conclusion, Prime Ministers are important actors in the politics of different governments. In the United Kingdom, different factors point out that the Prime Minister has become more important in the government, even as their power increases with each year. The role of the British Prime Minister has become a center of interest to various people, including scholars. These have reached a conclusion that the British Prime Minister assumes power similar to that of a president in presidential democracies. Nonetheless, it is evident that the government of the United Kingdom has shifted from being cabinet-based in the past, to being Prime Ministerial in the contemporary times. However, although the Prime Minister in the United Kingdom today has vast powers, their position remains, because of the restrictions by the system. Prime Ministers in the United Kingdom have continuously practised spatial leadership. By distancing themselves from their parties and the government, the Prime Ministers assume greater powers and great influence. By heading the government and cabinet, and making independent decisions, the Prime Minister assumes greater power, and is the dominant force in the government, as he or she influences major decisions in the government. Although some commentators have likened the powers of the British Prime Minister to those of the American president, the British government remains parliamentary, as its Prime Minister does not have the same constitutional independence similar to that of the American president. Therefore, the British government remains Prime Ministerial, considering the fact that it is highly influenced by its Prime Minister.
Bennister, M 2012, Prime Ministers in Power: Political Leadership in Britain and Australia, Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Buckley, S 2006, Prime Minister and Cabinet, Edinburgh University Press, London.
Foley, M 1993, The rise of the British presidency, Manchester University Press, London.
King, A 1985, The British Prime Minister, Duke University Press, New York.
O’Malley, E 2007, ‘The Power of Prime Ministers: Results of an Expert Survey,’ International Political Science Review, 28(1), 7-27, Viewed 4 March 2013 < http://dcu.ie/~omalle/070398_IPS_7-27.pdf >
Smith, M. & Richard, D 2011, The role and powers of the Prime Minister, Viewed 4 March 2013 <http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmpolcon/writev/842/m10.htm>
Web, P 2011, The role and powers of the Prime Minister, Viewed 4 March 2013 < http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmpolcon/writev/842/842.pdf >
Williams, A 1998, UK Government & Politics, Heinemann, London.
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