When the media talk about ‘the government’, they usually mean one of two things. In one meaning, it refers to all the politicians who run government departments (there are several politicians in each department) or have other special responsibilities, such as managing the activities of Parliament. There are normally about a hundred members of ‘the government’ in this sense. Although there are various ranks, each with their own titles, members of the government are usually known as ‘ministers’. Unlike in the USA and some other countries in Europe, it is rare for a person from outside Parliament to become a minister.
The other meaning of the term ‘the government’ is more limited. It refers only to the most powerful of these politicians, namely, the Prime Minister and the other members of the cabinet. There are usually about twenty people in the cabinet. Most of them are the heads of the government departments.
· Ministers and departments: Most heads of government departments have the title ‘Secretary of State’ (as in, for example, ‘Secretary of State for the Environment’). The minister in charge of Britain’s relations with the outside world is known to everybody as the ‘Foreign Secretary’. The one in charge of public safety inside the country is the ‘Home Secretary’. Their departments are called ‘The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’ and ‘The Home Office’ respectively. The words ‘secretary’ and ‘office’ reflect the history of government in Britain, in which government departments were once part of the domestic arrangements of the monarch.
· Whitehall - the seat of government. ‘Her Majesty’s Government’ governs in the name of the Queen, and its hub, Downing Street, lies in Whitehall, a short walk from Parliament. Following a general election, the Queen invites the leader of the majority (or largest, in the absence of an overall majority) party represented in the Commons to form a government on her behalf. Government ministers are almost invariably members of the House of Commons, but infrequently members of the House of Lords are appointed. All government ministers, even the Prime Minister, who are members of the Commons, continue to represent the parliamentary ‘constituencies’ which elected them.
Because of the enormous increase in government business, all senior government ministers – most of whom have the title of Secretary of State – have junior ministers (Ministers of State or Parliamentary undersecretaries) to help with the workload. They are all subject to the rules of collective responsibility and must not disagree publicly with government policy.
Most governments consist of about 100 ministers, but the essential core is the Cabinet, the 20 or so most senior ministers invited by the Prime Minister to belong to it. Cabinet government demands collective responsibility and confidentiality. Within the Cabinet the Prime Minister is meant to be first among equals (primus inter pares – Latin). In theory this encourages balance and prudence in both policy and action. In practice the Cabinet principle can give rise to tension. While a Prime Minister must give strong leadership, he or she must allow for each minister to exercise responsibility within their field and should encourage collective decision-making on controversial issues, particularly ones beyond the responsibility of one ministry. In fact Prime Ministers have much more power than first among equals. They enjoy undisputed political leadership. Ministers must obey their will, or persuade the Prime Minister of their own point of view. If a clash of wills cannot be resolved, the minister must resign.
The position of a Prime Minister (PM) is in direct contrast to that of a monarch. While the Queen appears to have a lot of power but in reality has very little, the PM appears not to have much power but in reality has a very great deal.
The strength of the PM is apparent from the modern phenomenon known as the ‘cabinet reshuffle’. It is the habit of the PM to change his or her cabinet quite frequently (at least once every two years). The second reason for a modern PM’s dominance over other ministers is the power of the public image. And third, it is the PM who makes decisions about government policies as a whole. The convention of collective responsibility then means that the rest of the government has to go along with whatever the PM has decided.
· The history of the Cabinet is a good example of the tendency towards secrecy in British politics. It started in the eighteenth century as in informal grouping of important ministers and officials of the royal household. It had no formal status. Officially, the government was run by the Privy Council, a body of a hundred or more people who reported directly to the monarch (but not to each other). Over the years, the cabinet gradually took over effective power. The Privy Council is now a merely ceremonial body. Among others, it includes all present ministers and the most important past ministers. In the past 100 years, the cabinet itself has become more and more ‘official’ and publicly recognized. It has also grown in size, and so is now often too rigid and formal a body to make the real decisions. In the last 50 years, there have been unofficial ‘inners cabinets’ (comprising the Prime Minister and a few other important ministers). It is here, and in cabinet committees, that much of the real decision-making takes place.
Once a week, the cabinet meets and takes decisions about new policies, the implementation of existing policies and the running of the various government departments. Because all government members must be seen to agree, exactly who says what at these meetings, is a closely guarded secret. The reports of the meetings, which are circulated to government departments, summarize the topics discussed and the decisions taken but they never refer to individuals.
THE CIVIL SERVICE
To help run the complexities of a modern government, there is an organization called the cabinet office. It runs a busy communications network, keeping ministers in touch with each other and drawing up the agenda for cabinet meetings. These committees are appointed by the cabinet to look into various matters in more detail than the cabinet has the time (or knowledge) for. Unlike ‘the government’ itself, the people on these committees are not necessarily politicians.
The heart of the Civil Service is the Cabinet Office, whose Secretary is the most senior civil servant at any given time. The responsibilities are considerable, including the proper and smooth running of the whole Civil Service as well as serving ministers collectively in the conduct of Cabinet business and ensuring the coordination of policy at the highest level. In each ministry or department the senior official, or Permanent Secretary, and his or her immediate subordinates, undersecretaries and assistant secretaries, remain responsible for assisting their minister in the implementation of government policy.
Although government is essentially political, it depends upon a permanent body of officials, the Civil Service, to administer the decisions of ministers. The Civil Service, employing almost 500,000 people, is expected to discharge its responsibilities in a politically impartial way. Civil servants must be as loyal to an incoming government as to the outgoing one, however, much as private individuals they may be pleased or dismayed at the change of government.
Unlike some other countries, not even the most senior administrative jobs change hands when a new government comes to power. Governments come and go, but the civil service remains. It is no accident that the most senior civil servant in a government department has the title of ‘Permanent Secretary’.
These people get a high salary (higher than their ministers) and have absolute job security (unlike their ministers). It is sometimes said that it is they, and not their ministers, who really govern the country. This is a matter of opinion, but there is evidence that top civil servants do indeed expect to have a degree of influence, if not control.
It seems, therefore, that career civil servants may be losing some of their former influence. In the second half of the twentieth century, ministers began to appoint experts from outside the civil service to work on various projects, and their own political advisers to work alongside their civil servants.
However, the British civil service has a largely deserved reputation for absolute political impartiality. Ministers have remarked on the struggle for power between them and their top civil servants, but very few have ever complained of political bias. The main hope for top civil servant to retain some influence on ministers is to continue staying out of ‘politics’.
· No. 10 Downing Street. This is the official residence of the Prime Minister. It is an example of the traditional fiction that Prime Ministers are not especially important people. It does not have a special name. Nor, from the outside, does it look very special. It is not even a detached house. Inside, though, it is much larger than it looks. The cabinet meets here and the cabinet office works here. The PM lives ‘above the shop’ on the top floor. The Chancellor of the Exchequer lives next door at No. 11, and the Government Chief Whip at No.12, so that the whole street is a lot more important than it appears. In the media ‘Downing Street’ is used to refer to the PM, the cabinet office and other close advisers of the PM. When a government loses an election, all three minister have to wait for the removal vans to turn up, just like anybody else moving house.
· Whitehall. This is the name of the street in London which runs from Trafalgar Square to the Houses of Parliament. Many Government departments are located here or in the streets running off it. As a result, the term ‘Whitehall’ is sometimes used as a way of referring to the administrative aspects of government. The phase ‘the opinion in Whitehall …’ refers to the opinions of senior civil servants and other administrators. Thus ‘Whitehall’ and ‘Downing Street’ can sometimes be in disagreement.
· The system of local government is essentially the same as it is nationally. There are elected representatives called councilors (equivalent of MPs), who meet in a council chamber in the Town Hall or County Hall (the equivalent of Parliament), where they make policy which is implemented by local government officers (equivalent of civil servants).
What is usually meant when the media talk about ‘the government’?
What title do most heads of government departments have?
How many people do most governments consist of?
Who has much more power than other members of the government?
What is the role of the Cabinet? What is its responsibility?
Who helps run the complexities of a modern government?
What is the reputation of the Civil Service?
What do mass media usually refer to when they speak about ‘Whitehall’ or ‘Downing Street’?