Collective ministerial responsibility: a brief history

I am currently engaged in a fairly major research project, which requires that I delve into many older texts looking at the evolution of parliament and its many conventions and procedures. One such book is A.H. Birch’s Representative and Responsible Government: an Essay on the British Constitution, which was published in 1964.

Birch provides a very interesting history of how the convention of collective ministerial responsibility evolved.

The convention of collective ministerial responsibility holds that the Cabinet is collectively responsible to the people, through the Parliament, for determining and implementing policies for national government. Broadly, it is required by convention that all Ministers must be prepared to accept collective responsibility for, and defend publicly, the policies and actions of the Government. Part of this, of course, requires that the loss of a want of confidence motion or on a major issue – such as the Budget -  is expected to lead to the resignation of the whole Government.

According to Birch, the idea or concept of collective responsibility was advocated as early as 1739, when then Prime Minister Robert Walpole told the House of Commons that the ministry should be accountable to Parliament, and when he was defeated in a Parliamentary vote in 1742, he resigned. However, Birch argues that it was only with the passage of the Reform Act of 1832 that the convention was firmly established.Three developments were necessary for this to occur:

  1. the effective unity of the cabinet;
  2. the effective control of the cabinet by the Prime Minister; and
  3. the understanding that if the cabinet were defeated in Parliament on a major issue or a vote of confidence, the Prime Minister would have no choice but to resign or ask for a dissolution.

We take the first two points – that the cabinet is united and that the PM controls the cabinet – for granted today, but as Birch explains, this was not always the case. Birch suggests that cabinet unity was established between 1780 and 1815. The first collective resignation of a ministry occurred in 1782. William Pitt, Prime Minister from 1783 to 1800, did “a great deal to develop the convention that cabinet ministers, whatever their private disagreements, should present a united front.” For example, he secured the resignation of the Lord Chancellor in 1792 after the latter had criticized the PM’s policies in the House. In 1812, “an attempt to form a government drawn from opposed groups was rejected as ‘inconsistent with the prosecution of any uniform and beneficial course of policy’.” Birch argues that since 1815, public disagreements between ministers have been rare, even though political memoirs and other sources make it clear that private disagreements were (and are) quite frequent. Birch also writes that since 1832, “there has been no occasion on which cabinet ministers have disagreed in public.” Of course, Birch wrote this in 1964. There have been a number of fairly public disagreements within the current UK Government, but given that it is a coalition government, this is perhaps not surprising (although in fairness, many of the disagreements have been between ministers from the same party and not conflicts between Liberal Democrat and Conservative ministers). It is an issue of concern for some, however; it is one of the key points being studied by the House of Lords Constitution Committee during its inquiry into the constitutional implications of coalition government.

The powers of the Prime Minister within the British and Canadian political structure have developed in recent decades to such an extent that some political analysts now refer to these countries as having a Prime Ministerial government rather than a Cabinet government. As Birch points out, the situation used to be very different. According to Birch, it was only when William Pitt became Prime Minister that the position of Prime Minister became ascendant over that of the monarch, facilitated in no small part by the declining mental health of George III. Prior to 1783, the position of Prime Minister was overshadowed by the power of the monarch. Cabinet ministers were “the King’s ministers”: they had separate access to the King and more importantly, perhaps, the King could actually dismiss a prime minister and appoint one of his former colleagues in his place. William IV, who succeded George III, did not make any attempt to yield the same sort of power over cabinet that George III had. When the young Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, at age 18, she and Prime Minister Lord Melbourne developed a close relationship, with the prime minister tutoring the new queen in government and politics. From that point forward, the Prime Minister was in control of the cabinet.

The final necessary development was the understanding that the Prime Minister should resign or ask for a dissolution if his or her ministry is defeated in Parliament. This understanding did not exist when Pitt became Prime Minister in 1783, and indeed, he refused to resign during the first few years of his ministry despite many defeats in Parliament. Attitudes gradually changed, however; in 1830, Wellington resigned when his ministry lost a vote and faced another one on a much more important motion. After the passage of the Reform Act of 1832, “it quickly became regarded as axiomatic that the government must respond to a Parliamentary defeat on a major issue.”

Thus, between Pitt’s appointment in 1783 and the passage of the Reform Act of 1832, the three conditions necessary for the establishment of of the convention of collective responsibility fell into place. And it was strengthened in no small way by the nature of party politics at that time. Party discipline in Parliament was very weak – bordering on non-existent. As Birch explains, between the first and second Reform Acts (1832-1867):

the question was not one of discipline, for the means to enforce this did not yet exist: the question was one of the influence that leaders could bring to bear on their Parliamentary supporters. And, as Bagehot noted in 1867, ‘the power of leaders of their followers is strictly and wisely limited: they can take their followers but a little way, and that only in certain directions.

Indeed, during that time period, several party leaders would change sides between one ministry and the next.

It was against that background, during the middle decades of the 19th century, that the collective responsibility of the cabinet to Parliament because a central feature of British politics. Between 1832 and 1867, ten governments were brought down by defeats in the Commons. In eight of these instances, the Prime Minister resigned and in the other two cases, he sought and was granted a dissolution. More interestingly, perhaps, is that not one government lasted the entire life of a Parliament, from one general election to the next. The House of Commons truly was, as Bagehot noted, “a real choosing body; it elects the people it likes. And it dismisses whom it likes too.”

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  • Lila Wagner

    Cabinet responsibility and hang-together-hang-separately are not altogether the current Canadian issues. Far more concerning is the place, power and accountability of the unelected PMO.

    • http://thoughtundermined.com Radical Centrist

      I did not write this post to imply that they are “issues”, major or minor – I am simply explaining how the convention evolved historically. It interested me, and I thought it might interest others.