Individual and collective ministerial responsibility – some reflections upon the said head.


2. To what extent is it possible or desirable to define clearly the conventions of individual and collective ministerial responsibility?


This essay will first of all attempt to define individual and collective ministerial responsibility within reasonable clear yet not excessively rigid parameters. Second of all this essay will try to assess to what extent it is desirable to have strictly defined conventions of individual and ministerial responsibility.

Individual ministerial responsibility is a doctrine that emerged gradually over the centuries but came into sharp focus in the late nineteenth century when British high politics came to be understood as involving disinterested public service. A minister ( from the Latin word for ‘servant’) was an official appointed by the king to administer certain affairs of state. From the English Civil War 1642-49 onwards there was a growing sense that ministers were responsible to parliament and not to the king. Indeed one of the causes of the English Civil War was the appointment of unpopular ministers – William Laud (Archbishop of Canterbury) and the Earl of Strafford (Lord Deputy of Ireland). The king at first refused to dismiss them but eventually bowed to parliamentary pressure. Certainly from the Glorious Revolution (1688) onwards it was recognised that ministers were answerable to Parliament.

It became common for MPs and peers to demand that certain ministers resign or be sacked if they are seen to have failed in their duty. This sense that ministers must go if they failed was at is height just after the Second World War. SOme ministers resigned even when they were not personally at fault. They resigned because they took responsibility for what their departments did or did not do. Such a doctrine is defended on the grounds that it forces ministers to keep an eye on their civil servants. A minister knows that if the bureaucrats make a serious mistake that he or she (the minister) may be compelled to tender his or her resignation.

From the Fox-North Coalition onwards the Prime Minister has selected his own ministers. They are all appointed by the Crown on the official advice of the Prime Minister. In practice everyone knows that they are effectively appointed by the Prime Minister since she or her exercises the royal prerogative power’s on behalf of the monarch.

Any financial impropriety was held to be grounds for resignation as were sexual misdemeanours such as the Sir Charles Dilke divorce case.

Ministers have resigned when things have gone wrong or they have been seen to have behaved in a dishonourable fashion. John Profumo – the Minister for War – resigned in 1963 because he lied to Parliament. He denied having a sexual liaison with Christine Keiler when in fact he was committing adultery with her. This was held to be politically relevant since the Soviet Naval Attache Colonel Eugene Ivanov also enjoyed her favours. The idea was that her pillow talk may have been a security risk. This scandal played no small part in the Conservative Party being defeated in the 1964 election by the Labour Party. The Profumo resignation was partly arising from the chance of state secrets being imperilled but also that he mislead the House of Commons.

In 1982 the Falklands Islands were invaded by the Argentine military. The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary at the time was Lord Carrington. Lord Carrington resigned. The British intelligence services ought to have foreseen the event and warned the government to send more troops to the Falklands. Lord Carrington said he had nothing to feel bitter about – he only lost his job over the affair, many lost their lives.

Lord Carrington was thought to be one of the last principled resignations over a dereliction of duty. Cecil Parkinson resigned over an extra marital affair.

By the 1990s times had changed. The Prime Minister, John Major, said that the days were adultery and homosexuality were grounds for resignation were over. There were a number of ministerial mismanagement scandals that did not result in ministers resigning. This was held to have debased politics. This persisted into the Blair years.

Collective ministerial responsibility is to publicly defend the government’s programme. Even if one does not personally agree with certain policies one must not air this view publicly. If one cannot keep to that pact then one must resign as a minister. This code is especially strictly interpreted for the Cabinet since they form the inner sanctum of the government.

There have been exceptions to this. Lord Liverpool found the issue of Catholic Emancipation to be so divisive that he suspended collective cabinet responsibility on this one issue. Ministers were free to speak their minds pro and contra this proposed reform. Likewise, Harold Wilson went in for a similar forumula around the time of the 1975 referendum on continued membership of the then European Economic Community. Ministers were allowed to campaign for either side in the referendum since it was a cross party questions. Again, it was only on this single question that collective cabinet responsibility was allowed to lapse and only for a limited period of time.

Ministerial responsibility is reasonably clearly defined but not very clearly. How bad does a department have to mess up before a minister resigns? In 1984 38 terrorist escaped from prison in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Secretary refused to resign. Many said that he ought to have done so. No department is perfect – there will be mistakes every day. It would make no sense to change ministers every day. Therefore we need to know how personally responsible a minister should be before he falls on his sword.

Collective ministerial responsibility is more clearly defined. In the early Blair years this was very tightly enforced by a control freak government. There is a distinction between government policy – which ministers must speak up for – and the internal politics of a political party. David Milliband was thought to have been disrespectful to Gordon Brown by not mentioning Brown in a newspaper article when Brown was Prime Minister and Milliband was serving in the cabinet. Brown did not sack him. Some say that Milliband was within his rights to do what he did. Others say that Brown’s position as Prime Minister was so weak that he dared not provoke a further revolt by sacking Milliband.

In conclusion, there is a case for the reform of individual ministerial responsibility but not for collective responsibility. Personal ministerial responsibility ought to be more lucidly defined so we know what is a resigning matter and what is not. This is in relation to departmental debacles. The ministerial code of conduct is clear enough about that in relation to financial matters.

Collective cabinet responsibility is less important. In a sense this is more a matter of party discipline. Cabinets tend to be formed of one party. Now there is a Liberal Democrat- Conservative coalition. There are cross party executives in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Collective responsibility is a doctrine which may be defined more tightly or laxly according to the political realities of the time. It is not desirable to be too tight on that by law. We do not want to force ministers to be automatons and the government to be incapable of changing course when it has made a mistake.


About Calers

Born Belfast 1971. I read history at Edinburgh. I did a Master's at UCL. I have semi-libertarian right wing opinions. I am married with a daughter and a son. I am allergic to cats. I am the falling hope of the not so stern and somewhat bending Tories. I am a legal beagle rather than and eagle. Big up the Commonwealth of Nations.

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