To sum up: since 1945 the British Cabinet system has moved from being a highly unified machine, in which business was marshalled through the Cabinet and its committees according to strict procedures, to a more diffuse system. Today the Cabinet is essentially a discursive body; decisions are taken variously in committee, in ad hoc groups and bilaterally, and the modes of decision-taking vary according to the area of policy, the Prime Minister’s preferred business methods and the circumstances of the moment. But the core of the decision-making system remains its battery of ministerial committees.
This system is fissiparous. The predominant forces within it encourage its divisions and seem likely to continue doing so. Workload and ambition press ministers to entrench themselves in their departments, putting pressure on the wider concept of collective responsibility. The Cabinet fractures into different policy spheres, devolving functions to committees and ad hoc groups, and diluting its own role. Momentary convenience encourages the use of ad hoc groups. The sense of joint responsibility and collegiality often comes under heavy pressure, although it is far from dead. In this more disparate system, emphasis falls increasingly on the Prime Minister to hold things together. Although his relationship with ministers remains essentially one of mutual dependence, his policy role is considerable: continuous and vital in economics and foreign affairs, more selective but still important in other spheres. In contrast, the Cabinet has always had limited influence in foreign and economic spheres and, while domestic issues have traditionally taken up the bulk of its time and energies, the onus for decision in this sphere has passed to committees and other smaller gatherings.
The existing system is still workable, but is developing faults catalogued in Chapter 6. The traditional machinery described in Chapter 7 fills the gaps only to a certain extent. The Policy Unit and Cabinet Office between them now provide stronger support to the Prime Minister. To a lesser
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Publication information: Book title: British Cabinet Government. Edition: 2nd. Contributors: Simon James - Author. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 1999. Page number: 238.
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