Political Power and Democratic Control in Britain: The Democratic Audit of the United Kingdom

By Stuart Weir; David Beetham | Go to book overview

Introduction

The idea of 'cabinet government' is central to the democratic arrangements for governing Britain. The received view goes broadly as follows. After an election, the leader of the majority party forms a cabinet to govern the country, to carry out the policies which the party has placed before the electorate, and generally to administer the country and take charge of events. By convention, the Prime Minister and the great majority of his or her cabinet colleagues are elected members of the House of Commons and thus sit in the 'democratic' House alongside the elected MPs to whom they are ultimately responsible. Generally, senior ministers must be MPs, apart from the Lord Chancellor who sits in the House of Lords and presides over its debates and the Leader of the House of Lords. Thus, ministers are physically present in the Commons, to be lobbied and pressured by MPs, as they enter or leave the chamber, or queue up to vote, or sit in the tea-room.

Cabinet ministers are then supposed, according to the received view, to take charge of their departments of state and the machinery of government with the assistance of junior ministers. They receive impartial advice and information from senior civil servants on their policies and actions; major issues and new or changed policies are discussed with their colleagues in cabinet. The Prime Minister, who is primus inter pares ('first among equals'), and the cabinet as a whole are responsible for the overall direction of government policy. Thus, within government itself, there are internal checks and balances: first, through the advice, knowledge and experience of the senior civil service, which ministers are bound by their own rules to respect; and second, through collective discussion in cabinet. Ministers and civil servants alike are obliged to observe constitutional rules of convention and procedure (see Chapter 11).

The major democratic checks, however, are exercised by Parliament. The Prime Minister and ministers render account for their actions and policies and their departments' actions to Parliament—in practice, the elected House of Commons—both collectively as a government and individually as ministers under the principle of ministerial responsibility. The cabinet, consisting of leading members of the majority party, assumes overall responsibility for government policies and actions, and individual ministers for their own policies and actions and what happens within their separate departments. In the final event, if a majority of MPs, the people's elected representatives, lose confidence in an individual minister, or government, they can dismiss them by majority vote in the House of Commons.

If this received view were an accurate description of what happens, then the basic principle of popular control would be broadly satisfied in modern Britain, after

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