Presidents and Prime Ministers

By Richard Rose; Ezra N. Suleiman | Go to book overview

1
British Government:
The Job at the Top

Richard Rose

The imperative must always have priority.

--Old Treasury maxim

Viewed from the top, British government looks more like a mountain range than a single pyramid of power. The Prime Minister is preeminent among these peaks, but the political significance of this preeminence is ambiguous. The person on top can be remote from what is happening on the ground.1 Those who observe government from the dizzy heights of Downing Street are subject to what Lord Rosebery described as "hallucinations" about the allegedly "universal power" of the person at the top. The claim that contemporary eminence makes a British Prime Minister similar to an American President is to ignore the many studies of the American President that emphasize the weakness of that office.2 Perhaps the person on top is better described as the "least weak" member of government instead of the most powerful.

____________________
NOTE: I am particularly indebted to Richard Parry for intelligently compiling the tabular material required, to George W. Jones of the London School of Economics, and to a variety of necessarily anonymous politicians and civil servants for comments and insight over the years.
1
Major studies that endorse the apex theory include John P. Mackintosh, The British Cabinet ( London: Stevens and Sons, 1963), and R. H. S. Crossman, "Introduction" to Walter Bagehot, The British Constitution ( London: Fontana, 1963), pp. 1-56. For a critique of these views, see especially George W. Jones, "The Prime Minister's Power," Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 18, no. 2 ( Spring 1965), pp. 167-85; and A. H. Brown, "Prime Ministerial Power," Public Law ( Spring and Summer 1968), pp. 28-51 and 96-118.
2
Lord Rosebery (Prime Minister, 1892-1895), in his Life of Sir Robert Peel, quoted by Harold Wilson in the epigraph of Wilson The Governance of Britain ( London: Sphere Books, 1977), p. 5. For my view on the Presidency, see Richard Rose , Managing Presidential Objectives ( New York: Free Press, 1976), especially chap. 10, and see also chap. 9 of this book.

-1-

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