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The Oxford Companion to British History

By John Cannon | Go to book overview

C

cabal. Word meaning secret clique or conspiracy, given to Charles II's administration of 1671-3 which covered the time of the third *Anglo-Dutch War, the alliance with Louis XIV, and the suspension of the religious penal laws. The cabal was not a cabinet or unified ministry. The ministers, whose initials formed the word cabal, each had different principles and objectives. Lord *Clifford, who climbed from being a poor Devonshire squire to become lord treasurer, became a catholic and advocated war to seize Dutch commercial wealth and to make the crown more absolute. *Arlington, a courtier and careerist, always tried to implement what he interpreted as Charles's wishes. *Buckingham wanted to become chief minister: he affected popularity and favoured religious toleration. Lord Ashley, advanced to be earl of *Shaftesbury, also advocated toleration. The cynical *Lauderdale governed Scotland for Charles. The cabal disintegrated under parliamentary pressure in 1673: Clifford died, Buckingham and Shaftesbury went into opposition.

JRJ

cabinet. The executive committee of the government, appointed by and answerable to the *prime minister. It evolved in the later 17th cent. out of the *Privy Council, which had become too large and too miscellaneous to be efficient. During Anne's reign, the inner group of ministers called themselves the cabinet when the queen was present, the lords of the committee when she was not. In 1710/11 there were 62 cabinet meetings and 106 committee meetings, the attendance at cabinet averaging eleven and at the committee five or six. Two developments of crucial importance were the withdrawal of the monarch from attendance during George I's reign, allowing the first minister to take the chair and impose his views on his colleagues, and the slow growth of the principle of cabinet solidarity.

In the 18th cent., the cabinet was overwhelmingly aristocratic. George *Grenville in the 1760s had a cabinet of nine, in which he was the only commoner -- yet he was the nephew of a viscount and younger brother of an earl. Not until the later 19th cent. did commoners predominate: in 1892 *Gladstone's cabinet had five peers and twelve commoners. Like most committees, the cabinet has tended to grow, with periodic attempts to prune it, particularly in wartime. The Fox-North coalition in 1783 had seven cabinet members; *Liverpool in 1812 had thirteen; *Peel in 1841 had fourteen; *Salisbury in 1895 had nineteen; *MacDonald in 1924 had 20, and John *Major in July 1995 had 23.

JAC

In *Bagehot's words, the cabinet links the legislative part of the state to the executive. Its members are normally drawn from the majority party in the House of Commons, together with some peers: at the same time, they head the executive departments and effectively constitute the leadership of the party. The government as a whole consists of about 100 ministers, ministers of state, junior ministers, and whips: as a body, it never meets. The decisions of the cabinet are the decisions of the government. Its internal disagreements are governed by the hallowed doctrine of collective responsibility, which declares that decisions taken by the cabinet are binding on all its members, and indeed on all members of the government. A minister who disagrees with his cabinet colleagues may express those differences within the cabinet room, but unless he resigns, he may not voice them outside. To the world beyond, the cabinet presents a united front, however harsh the disputes may have been.

The 20th cent. saw the transformation of the 19th-cent. cabinet under the twin impact of war and welfare. The First World War led to the introduction of the cabinet secretariat, one of whose tasks was to minute the decisions of the cabinet. What is remarkable is that the cabinet had for so long been run on the basis of human memory. The exigencies of war meant that the cabinet could no longer work in such a casual way, but the growing functions of the state in economic and social matters would, in any case, have required the development.

The extension of the state's functions imposed a further burden on an institution better suited to the minimal state of the 19th cent. Committees had long been a feature of the cabinet but they were ad hoc and temporary. The modern system of permanent standing committees of the cabinet dates effectively from the Second World War. Small committees of ministers, chaired by either the prime minister or a senior member of the government and including ministers not in the cabinet, deal with matters too important, too sensitive, or too broad to be determined within a single department. Over the years the system developed, so that by 1995 there were nineteen cabinet committees or subcommittees. These included the committee on economic and domestic policy, chaired by the prime minister; another on the environment, presided over by the deputy prime minister; and a committee on public expenditure whose chairman was the chancellor of the Exchequer.

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