The Whole World in His Hands: The Death of Cabinet Government Has Been a near Constant Theme of British Politics in the 20th Century. but It Came Closer to Reality under the Premiership of Tony Blair, Argues Archie Brown

By Brown, Archie | History Today, January 2011 | Go to article overview

The Whole World in His Hands: The Death of Cabinet Government Has Been a near Constant Theme of British Politics in the 20th Century. but It Came Closer to Reality under the Premiership of Tony Blair, Argues Archie Brown


Brown, Archie, History Today


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Tony Blair dismisses any idea of his 'wanting to be a president' as 'complete tosh'. Yet throughout his recently-published memoirs, Tony Blair: A Journey (Hutchinson, 2010), he writes as if he embodied the executive power in the United Kingdom, with the right to have the last word on every major policy decision; as if he were, indeed, a British equivalent of the US president.

There have been other prime ministers like this, Neville Chamberlain for one. Even when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the government headed by Stanley Baldwin from 1931 to 1937, Chamberlain told his sister that 'I have become a sort of Acting PM--only without the actual power of the PM. I have to say "Have you thought" or "What would you say" when it would be quicker to say "That is what you must do".'

The greatest of all Labour prime ministers, Clement Attlee, is still esteemed highly not because he dominated the government elected in 1945 but because he held together a team of powerful ministers who, collectively, introduced far more radical change in Britain than did the government headed by Tony Blair. The most momentous domestic change of the Blair government was the devolution of legislative power to Scotland and Wales. This was a Labour policy Blair inherited from his predecessor as Labour leader John Smith and which was impossible for him to ditch. Blair's personal contribution to political devolution was in Northern Ireland. This was not, of course, the first devolved government in that province but it was the first to command the support of the overwhelming majority of the population from both sides of the religious divide. Blair's role in the Northern Ireland settlement was perhaps his single most noteworthy achievement. His account of it is also the best chapter in a book which, even by the standards of memoirists who fancy themselves to be remarkable leaders, is strikingly egocentric.

When the Labour minister Richard Crossman wrote in the 1960s about 'the final transformation of Cabinet Government into Prime Ministerial Government', it was nonsense. The statement would be far closer to the truth for the Blair premiership, although with the important qualification that substantial countervailing power was exercised by Gordon Brown from the Treasury. We should also delete the word 'final'. The merits of a more collective leadership may already be apparent to the current prime minister, David Cameron, and the newly elected leader of the Labour party Ed Miliband. As for the 1960s, Harold Wilson was more obsessed with personal power than was Attlee in the earlier postwar years, but he could be defeated in Cabinet on a major issue. This happened most spectacularly with the policy document, In Place of Strife, the plan of his close ally Barbara Castle to reform the trade unions. On that occasion, Wilson and Castle were right on the substance of the reform and the Cabinet majority unwise in rejecting it. That does not mean that the locus of decision-making was wrong. A majority of the Cabinet were influenced by the views of the trade union group of Labour MPs and by the significance of the union block vote within the Labour Party. That latter power was rightly removed not by Blair but by John Smith, who successfully embraced 'One Member, One Vote'.

When prime ministers concentrate excessive power in their hands, the authority of ministers, normally senior figures in the governing party, is correspondingly diminished. Strong political parties are indispensable for democracy--much more important than leaders. Blair admits in his memoirs to a 'cavalier attitude' toward the party which was the vehicle for his journey from obscurity to the celebrity he evidently enjoys. He got away with it largely because many of his followers and much of the mass media accepted at face value his opinion that a combination of him and of what was called 'New Labour' was responsible for the general election victories of 1997, 2001 and 2005. …

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The Whole World in His Hands: The Death of Cabinet Government Has Been a near Constant Theme of British Politics in the 20th Century. but It Came Closer to Reality under the Premiership of Tony Blair, Argues Archie Brown
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