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Where does decision-making power lie in the British executive

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As we move into the twenty-first century, the political climate in Britain is changing, and with this change, comes a shift in the decision-making power within the British government. The British executive, is usually thought of in broad terms, as consisting of the Prime Minister, the political members of the government and the civil servants who staff the offices of State. It serves two main purposes – officially, proposing changes in law to the legislature, and to represent the country in its actions in the international arena, and unofficially, to unite the country and to provide leadership within the political system.

To understand where the decision-making power now lies within the British executive, it is vital to examine where it was held previously, as well as the shift of influence over the years, resulting in its current area of residence. The cabinet, in the nineteenth century, was seen by Bagehot as the pinnacle of government, the forum for discussion and formation of policies, but in more recent times, although there is not doubt that the cabinet still has a role in decision-making, there is a growing feeling that it simply acts as the formal confirmation of decisions that have perhaps been made elsewhere.

If this is the case, the question must be posed, where are these decisions now being made? It is possible to argue that this power has been dispersed above cabinet, to the Prime Minister, and below cabinet to Ministers and civil servants within individual departments. The true source of power in the executive is under dispute, taking into account the balance of influence between both the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and between ministers and their civil servants.

Bearing this in mind, it is still important to note that power can never reside solely in a single body, but fluctuates, depending upon the structures and guidelines that are set in place, as well as the shifting political climate which changes with events within the nation and the rest of the world. Since the creation of the welfare state, in the post-WW II era, the enormous scope of governmental policy has caused it to be impossible for just Cabinet to deliberate on all the policy decisions facing the government, within the short time available to them in their meetings.

It is also valuable to take into account the limitations on the usefulness of contributions from Cabinet ministers, as their knowledge of departments other than their own is extremely narrow. This would result in inadequate scrutiny of policies. The concept that, as Richard Crossman would put it, policies are ‘pre-cooked’ by the time they arrive in Cabinet, holds some ground, as it is a practical and political necessity, because cabinet lacks the time to consider various policy decisions from scratch.

So where then, does this pre-cooking take place? The exact details of policy and deliberations on their advantages and disadvantages, are determined by relevant departments and forums, such as cabinet committees, task forces, and increasingly, under the Blair government, informal meetings, where those involved have the appropriate time knowledge and time to deal with such decisions. As a result, by the time policies reach cabinet, they have been carefully considered, and the concerns of those immediately concerned have been voiced.

So, the policy is no longer particularly flexible, and those present at cabinet meetings cannot expect to hold very much real decision-making power. This is expressed by Gillian Peele, in her Governing the UK, when she states, ‘It is in committee that the major arguments over policy will occur, arguments which will sometimes involve the Prime Minister directly… It will be assumed that they {disagreements} will be settles without recourse to full cabinet. ‘

It would be assumed that the Prime Minister then, also emerges as the dominant individual in the executive, but due to the nature of his position, he must maintain party loyalty, cabinet unity, and electoral support, resulting in the fact that he can never command absolute authority over the executive, although during the Thatcher-era, this was less evident. The Prime Minister is essentially only a single person, and as well as only having the ability to exert as much authority as his Ministers will allow, the business of governing a nation is simply too large and time-consuming to be dealt with by one person.

However, despite this, some would assert that the Prime Minister’s power is becoming increasingly far-reaching, where the shift in the balance of power has been in favour of the Prime Minister. He now has more potential to dominate the executive, with an increase in resources and changes in the internal and external structures of the government. The Prime Minister is the only individual with an overview of the entire functioning of various departments, and can therefore claim authority when deciding on policy issues, as only he can properly evaluate all the arguments form various sides.

As policies are increasingly being discussed in cabinet committees and smaller groups that generally only consist of a small number of ministers, and which include the Prime Minister, this enhances the claim that he, and only he, can have an overview of policy situations. Having said this however, the extent to which the Prime Minister makes decisions by himself can be questioned, as a Prime Minister is unlikely to formulate and pursue a policy entirely independently.

Here then, it is important to look at where policies originate. Policies are often derived from manifesto commitments, where the decisions involved are made by those who had any influence at all in drawing up the manifesto and, to some extent, those who voted for it, committing the government to it. They can also be drawn up during the term of a particular government, in which case, they generally originate in meetings between the Prime Minister, departmental ministers and various other advisors.

These decisions must be viewed as being collectively produced, even though the opinions of the Prime Minister may carry more weight. The relevant minister and the Prime Minister both have their roles to play when formulating policies, as the wide overview that the Prime Minister has provides him with the ability to judge the effects that policies may have on each other, and the in-depth knowledge and insight of the minister is also extremely influential when relating to policies for a specific department.

Close co-operation between these two individuals is essential, as the minister will be the one responsible for the implementation of the policy, and collaboration is needed for practical success. A useful way of conceptualising the Prime Minister’s role in government, is to look at Harold Wilson’s analogy of the Prime Minister not being ‘a one man band, but the conductor of an orchestra. ‘ This highlights his role as being consultative rather than directional.

The role and influence of the Prime Minister however, are also highly dependent on the leadership style of each individual. Thatcher, being, as Martin Smith described her, ‘a hyperactive Prime Minister’, stamped her authority very firmly over the government, and some of her decisions were not even discussed in cabinet at all, for example, the sale of the Westland helicopter company. Blair, while also maintaining a very clear policy agenda, and quite obviously favouring himself in the seat of overall policy maker, goes about in a much more consensual way within his own cabinet.

On the other hand, Major’s leadership style contrasted quite greatly with those of Thatcher and Blair, as he was much more consultative with his ministers and cabinet, hence focussing less decision-making power on the Prime Minister alone. With decision-making power now becoming more dispersed over departments, the executive, and more specifically, ministers are being forced to rely increasingly on the support of the Civil Service. After all, those who are closest to the practicalities and implementation of policies are best suites to formulating policies.

As ministers are moved to new posts after a few years, they have relatively little time to gain substantive knowledge of the workings of a department. Civil servants often hold considerable power over ministers, in that they usually have far superior knowledge of the workings of the specific department, having spent far more time there, than a minister is likely to. The reforms to the Civil Service, following the recommendations of the Next Steps repost in 1987 can be thought of as having perhaps given the Civil Service greater opportunity to influence policy, and to some extent, bypass their ministers.

The advice of civil servants to ministers is often accepted, simply because the minister may not have the knowledge to criticise or analyse it. This influence however, obviously varies according to the minister in charge, based on whether he may be weak and accepting of advice, or whether he arrives with clear policy directives which he may be determined to pursue. In this case, a civil servant will hold much less sway, as to a large extent, most of the decision-making will have already have been carried out.

Although this may be relevant for the larger issues facing a department, the scope of governments has now grown to the extent that Peele states, ‘Ministers, who are nominally responsible for all the decisions of their department, regularly see only a fraction of their work. ‘ This results in a fairly large proportion of decision-making power falling to civil servants, but generally only on smaller issues with less significance.

With the changes in the political climate, and the shift of decision-making power in the executive, now, more than ever, the balance of power depends on the willingness of individuals to exploit the opportunities that may arise. The interaction between all the members of the executive is extremely important for establishing authority and influence, and the key players in the executive generally share power and trade resources.

As a result, there is no single authority to whom decision-making power can be attributed in the British executive. Cabinet, although it ratifies policy decisions, in increasingly less and less the forum in which policy decisions are actually made. This power falls to the departments that implement these policies, and here, civil servants have considerable influence, while decisions are under the control of the relevant minister.

It is also important to remember that decisions on policies are not simply made by those that have the power to do so, but are also influenced by the opinions of the party, think-tanks, and increasingly, the public and the media. Despite the fact that power may have dispersed throughout the executive in recent times, the political climate is forever changing, and decision-making power is also forever shifting. However, the executive can still be thought of as an integrated core, operating as the centre of key policy decisions within the British state.

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