My inbox this morning contained notification of a new book on a subject dear to my heart – the development, nature and power of the office of the British Prime Minister. The authors are Professor George Jones, Emeritus Professor of Government, and Dr Andrew Blick, senior research fellow at the London School of Economics.
Professor Jones is one of Britain’s foremost analysts of Local Government, and a Constitutional expert. What surprised me was that the press release also gave a phone number and an invitation to telephone Professor Jones if you wanted to know more – this was, as we say here in Raccoonland, too good an opportunity to miss – to learn from someone who knew what they were talking about.
I called him. We had a lengthy, thought provoking, and, ahem, stimulating conversation.
It is not for me to ascribe a label to Professor Jones’s political beliefs, but I suspect they are far to the left of mine, but, oh! what a charming man. Quite won me over with a seductive mixture of the extreme patience borne of years lecturing opinionated students, and a sincere optimism towards the future of our British democracy.
I shall have to be careful I don’t slip into an inverse ad hominem argument, I admit I am smitten.
The thesis behind the book is that our current meme, that Britain has slipped into an elective presidency or dictatorship, is historically incorrect.
We have long been zig-zagging between dominant Prime Ministers, Thatcher to give a modern example, inevitably followed by a more collegial government, such as John Major’s.
Professor Jones would tell you that a presidential style of government is too much of a strain for one man; he cited the examples of Robert Peel in the 19th century, who had a nervous breakdown, and William Pitt the Younger, who died prematurely. He went on to say that following Tony Blair’s government, we had followed that path once again with Gordon Brown promising more discussions and a collegial style of cabinet – which I would argue has not occurred.
I wanted to ask him whether the rumours surrounding Gordon Brown’s mental state might be a further example of this ‘too much for one man’ phenomenon, but at the time he was in full ‘lecture mode’ and there just wasn’t a convenient break in the conversation.
I didn’t know that the term ‘Prime Minister’ was originally a pejorative term invented by the opposition, to describe a member of the cabinet who was behaving in a dominant manner. Indeed, the term didn’t have a legal existence until 1917. Little more than the day before yesterday in the evolution of our democracy.
Professor Jones said: ‘The UK constitution could be on the brink of a new era. In the first phase of the history of the premiership, prime ministers were supported by their own department in the form of the Treasury. From the mid-nineteenth century prime ministers ceded control of the Treasury and the premiership entered a second, non-departmental phase. The changes instigated since 1997 have once again established a large-scale prime-ministerial support structure, giving No.10 a substantially expanded role in the business of the other Whitehall departments.
If this new, quasi-departmental model for the office of Prime Minister holds for a significant period of time, then the premiership will have entered a third historic phase. The constitutional implications for the UK – including growing difficulties for Parliament in holding this entity to account – will be great. Whoever occupies No.10 after the General Election needs to think hard about these issues.’
He added: ‘Yet we should not mistake the possession of a full-scale department for greater power. However much No.10 might throw its weight around in Whitehall, there is no guarantee it will get its way, or that if it does the policies that are adopted will prove to be effective.’
In his book, he admits that Cabinet meetings have become less frequent events, but says that this does not tell the whole story –
“It is still possible for Cabinet to provide collective leadership, if the ministers who sit in it alongside the premier are sufficiently assertive in the face of pressure from No.10. Some Prime Ministers in the past have sought to diminish the importance of Cabinet and collective discussion, but they can be stopped by resistance from within Cabinet.”
My argument, that if our only protection from an erosion of cabinet responsibility rests on the calibre of Ministers, who are elected on the Prime Minister’s patronage, it seemed too flimsy to survive – was robustly and expertly dissected. I shan’t admit to demolished. I still have my doubts!
Candidates for election can be parachuted in by central command, I said, the Prime Minister is free to ensure that only compliant individuals end up in the pool of people from whom he draws his cabinet.
“Independent candidates”, he shot back, ‘take the example of Blaenau Gwent!’ The Labour Party imposed a woman candidate that the local party didn’t agree with; Peter Law, their chosen candidate stood as an independent and since his death another independent, Dai Davies, has held the seat.
It seems that the Professor and I are in agreement on one thing – Independent candidates are a successful antidote to the abuse of power by a dominant Prime Minister who can control many things – but not the right of an unattached candidate to appeal to the voters over the heads of the Party micro-managers.
What a thought! The future health of Britain’s democracy resting on shoulders such as Old Holborn’s?
Why not? An unpredictable and ticking bomb in the bowels of parliament is just what we need.
An unashamed plug for the good Professor’s book (no commissions were earned in the extolling of this product!)
Premiership: the development, nature and power of the office of the British Prime Minister HERE.