There have been a few rumblings today about how decisions are made and power exercised in Government.
The Breaking news is that the Government has decided to set aside Collective Cabinet Responsibility over Boundary reforms, essentially putting the bungled reforms on life support for at least this Parliament, if not fatally wounding Tory aspirations of winning 20 seats by default.
There has been some hyperbole from the media, Not least from Gudio who challenges that it is “hard to argue against the claim that our – albeit un-codified – constitutional commitment to collective responsibility is being severely eroded under the Coalition” Following up with “What would Erskine May say…”
Well I’ve just consulted Erskine May, the book, not the dead guy, and his life’s work doesn’t even mention Cabinet Collective Responsibility – why would it? It’s a work on Parliamentary Protocol, not Government business, but even his earlier assertion, that Collective Responsibility is being eroded – or is even a constitutional commitment – is bogus in the extreme.
For the first part, Collective Cabinet Responsibility is not a part of the Constitution. It’s not even in Statue; it’s a convention which has developed over time to ensure that Government decisions are unified in the face of Parliament and the Monarch to maximise the Governments chances to pass the laws it wants and little more.
And let’s leave aside the Constitutional Convention that no Government or Parliament can be bound by a predecessor law or convention. Even Thatcher, when asked about it said “I certainly think that the doctrine should apply, except in cases where I announce that it does not’
Cabinet Collective Reasonability is mentioned in the Ministerial Code in the abstract and a process to allow disagreements was set out in the Coalition Agreement. Moreover its importance is muted by Geoffrey Marshall, in his 1989 work Ministerial responsibility regarding how Governments try to get through their legislation and maintain the confidence of the House.
Marshall identifies 3 reasons for the convention, “the confidence principle, the unanimity principle and the the confidentiality principle” – within these however he notes that “the government speak and vote together in Parliament, save in situations where the Prime Minister and Cabinet themselves make an exception such as a free vote or an ‘agreement to differ’ and “unanimity, as a universally applicable situation, is a constitutional fiction, but one which must be maintained, and is said to allow frank ministerial discussion within Cabinet and Government”
Thus a suspension, setting aside or agreement to differ is well within the convention. It was set aside in a Government of all parties in 1932 over Tariff policy, over Wilsons’s referendum on membership of the EEC in 1975 and on the issue of direct elections to the European Assembly in 1977 and its happened every time there has been a free vote, on Abortion, on Hunting with Dogs under Blair and matters as important on matters of conscience as allowing TV Cameras to record Parliamentary Proceedings.
Both the Un-Codified Constitution and the convention of Collective Ministerial Responsibility is there not to set down rigid rules, but to allow for flexibility and expedient government. In most cases this convention allows for the Government to allow for a Government to exert its will in Parliament and maintain ministerial discipline but its there to allow for frank discussion.
Is it really that bad a thing that, where there is need and agreement, that the government acts as one and where there is disagreement, as happens in one party governments as much as in a government of Coalition, an open and honest setting aside occurs? Does it make for better government to ride roughshod over dissent? It doesn’t matter. The Coalitions move today is perfectly constitutional, and more so, the right thing to do to ensure that the big issues are addressed and dealt with.
Much more insidious is the news on the clandestine exercise of the Monarchs Veto as revealed by the Guardian today The Monarch Hasn’t vetoed a bill since 1708, Under Queen Anne and the Convention is that the Queen merely waves as laws go past her. The idea that Elizabeth and Charles have been vetoing legislation in secret against their financial interests should shake any democratic to the bone. Agreeing to disagree really should not.