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Status of the Prime Minister.


Oxford, that the formation of a recognised headship in the Ministry was prevented or retarded. Departmentally, says Mr. Gladstone, he is no more than the firstnamed of five persons, by whom jointly the powers of the Lord Treasurer are to be exercised; he is not their master, or, otherwise than by mere priority, their head ; and he has no special function or prerogative under the formal constitution of the office. He has no official rank, except that of Privy Councillor. Eight members of the Cabinet, including five Secretaries of State, and several other members of the Government, take official precedence of him. His rights and duties as head of the Administration are nowhere recorded. He is almost, if not altogether, unknown to the Statute Law. Contrasting the Cabinet with the Privy Council, Mr. Gladstone says that the former lives and acts simply by understanding, without a single line of written law or constitution to determine its relations to the Monarch, or to Parliament, or to the nation; or the relation of its members to one another, or to their head. It sits in the closest secresy. There is no record of its proceedings, nor is there anyone to hear them, except upon the very rare occasions when some important functionary, for the most part military or legal, is introduced, pro hac vice, for the purpose of giving to it necessary information.

For a theoretical view of the relations of the several members of a Cabinet to their chief, nothing could be more clear or constitutionally exact than the extract from the same paper of Mr. Gladstone's which is subjoined. The practical working of the theory is illustrated by notorious occurrences in 1851 and 1876.

The nicest of all the adjustments involved in the

* working of the British Government is that which • determines, without formally defining, the internal • relations of the Cabinet. On the one hand, while each Minister is an adviser of the Crown, the Cabinet is an unity, and none of its members can advise as an individual without,—or in opposition, actual or presumed, • to,-his colleagues. On the other hand, the business of the State is a hundredfold too great in volume to allow

of the actual passing of the whole under the view of • the collected Ministry. It is therefore a prime office

of discretion for each minister' to settle what are the • departmental acts in which he can presume the con6currence of his colleagues, and in what more delicate,

or weighty, or peculiar cases, he must positively 6 ascertain it. So much for the relation of each Minister

to the Cabinet; but here we touch the point which « involves another relation, perbaps the least known of 6 all, his relation to its head. The head of the British « Government is not a Grand Vizier. He has no powers, * properly so-called, over his colleagues : on the rare

occasions, when a Cabinet determines its course by the 6 votes of its members, his vote counts only as one of “theirs. But they are appointed and dismissed by the • Sovereign on his advice. In a perfectly organised

administration, such for example as was that of Sir * Robert Peel in 1841-6, nothing of great importance • is matured, or would even be projected, in any depart'ment without his personal cognisance; and any • weighty business would commonly go to him before • being submitted to the Cabinet. He reports to the - Sovereign its proceedings, and he also has many • audiences of the august occupant of the throne. He is bound, in these reports and audiences, not to counter

Relation of Ministers to the Premier. 281

· work the Cabinet; not to divide it; not to undermine

the position of any of his colleagues in the Royal · favour. If he departs in any degree from strict 6 adherence to these rules, and uses his great oppor• tunities to increase his own influence, or pursue aims • not shared by his colleagues, then, unless he is prepared 'to advise their dismissal, he not only departs from • rule, but commits an act of treachery and baseness. • As the Cabinet stands between the Sovereign and the • Parliament, and is bound to be loyal to both, so he • stands between his colleagues and the Sovereign, and • is bound to be loyal to both.''

In a similar spirit Earl Grey, another modern constitutional authority who combines practical experience with that sort of intuitive sagacity which is essentially necessary for tracing the fine lines of division between the requirements of law, of morality, of expediency, and of courtesy, enforces the duties of unity in a Cabinet, and marks the limits of those duties, as follows: “It • is right, or rather it is absolutely necessary, that all • the members of a Ministry should be guided by this • feeling, (that, in considering any question brought • before them, much deference is due to the opinion of

the head of the Government, and to that of the chief • of the department to which it relates,] because, unless • the measures adopted in any of the principal branches

of the public service are allowed to take their main • direction and colour from a single mind, they must 'necessarily become marked with that character of ' feebleness and uncertainty always attaching to any • important course of action, the successive steps of

Gladstone's Gleanings, vol. i. p. 242.

· which are decided upon by several persons entertaining 6 views not perfectly identical. So long therefore as • there is no such difference upon great questions of • policy, as to make it necessary that the members of a • Cabinet should cease to act together, they best dis

charge their public duty by generally acquiescing in • what may be recommended by each Minister in his

own department, after he has fully heard the opinions • of his colleagues. Every Minister presiding over a

great department ought to derive much 'assistance • from the advice of his colleagues, and his own views must often be modified by theirs; and yet it ought

seldom to happen, that the difficulty of obtaining their • assent should prevent him from following the final • dictates of his own judgment, when he has a decided

opinion on any important question he may bring before • the Cabinet. Injury to the public service is most apt

to arise from the common responsibility of the mem“bers of the Cabinet, when its chief, or the Minister • entrusted with any department, throws himself too • much on the assistance of others, and does not recom. mend with sufficient decision what measures should be

taken in pursuance of the policy he is charged with • directing. The deliberations of a Cabinet seldom lead

to a satisfactory result, when any question of difficulty • is brought under its consideration by a Minister who • is not prepared to lay before his colleagues some dis• tinct opinion of his own. The true cause of questions • being submitted to the Cabinet in this unsatisfactory • manner, is sometimes to be found in the fact, that a . difference of opinion on some great principle, or on • some vital point of policy, really exists among the • members of an Administration, though it is concealed

Lord Palmerston's Theory.


for a time by a reluctance on both sides to come to a clear understanding on the subject. In such cases • both parties are generally wrong in seeking to avoid,

or to defer, a separation which ought, for the public • good, to take place at once. Of two lines of policy, it

often happens that either might succeed if steadily

pursued, while failure is certain if neither is consistently • pursued ; and the conduct of the Government is sure • to be marked by a want of consistency when the mem*bers of an Administration, knowing that they could í not agree, shrink from coming to a clear decision as • to the course they are to adopt, and are content to • determine separately each step that has to be taken, s so long as it is possible to stave off a rupture by • abstaining from any decided measure on the one side or on the other.''

The position of Lord Palmerston in Lord John Russell's Cabinet in 1851 was one peculiarly likely to strain to the uttermost the theory of administrative independence on the one hand, and that of Cabinet unity on the other. In the words of his biographer, Mr. Ashley, ‘ Lord Palmerston, who had acquired a complete • mastery over the business of his department, who • always acted on a thorough conviction that his views • were undeniably right, and who refrained from any • interference in the internal policy of the country, was

disposed to think that very great latitude within the sphere of his own attributes should be allowed to him. • His notion was that a Foreign Minister ought to be • strictly bound to pursue the policy of the Cabinet he belonged to, but that he ought to be left free to follow

Parliamentary Government and Reform. By Earl Grey, 1864. P. 55.

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