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G.C.E. ‘A’ level
Students working at this level are expected to show that they have a firm grasp of the basic concepts and principles of the subject. They should also demonstrate that they are capable of extending their understanding into more advanced aspects of the discipline. They are required to show that they have studied selected aspects of the subject in considerable detail. Essays set at this level require the student to produce clear and thoughtful answers with some sense of organised construction and evidence of close analysis and coherent argument.
What has the premiership of Mrs. Thatcher told us about the need for reform of the powers of the British prime minister?
The government and politics of Great Britain is concerned with the use of political power. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that many of the debates concerning British politics tend to concentrate on the institutions which supposedly wield power. One such debate is concerned with the proposition that the Prime Minister has replaced the Cabinet as the centre of political power in British government.
Most people would agree that Mrs. Thatcher has displayed many of the classical characteristics associated with Prime Ministerial government. She has used her powers of patronage to gradually replace the Heathite ‘wets’ in the cabinet with people who share her radical beliefs. Furthermore Mrs. Thatcher has convened various ad hoc and ‘standing’ Cabinet committees (the choice of membership is up to her) to by-pass full Cabinet meetings.
A case in point was the ad hoc committee set up to consider Michael Heseltine’s proposals for helping the inner cities. Heseltine’s report (based on his visits to Merseyside after the 1981 riots in Toxteth) advocated vastly increased spending on inner city regeneration but the amount was drastically slashed because all the other members of that committee were Thatcher loyalists who were committed (as she was) to reducing public spending. Thus Heseltine was isolated when faced with a committee loaded against him.
To add to this Mrs Thatcher has often attempted to stifle Cabinet discussion by firmly controlling the Cabinet agenda and minutes. This was why Michael Heseltine eventually resigned over the Westland affair and it provides a good example of how the use of the powers of a Prime Minister can seriously damage his or her de facto power. Mrs. Thatcher’s undoubted dominance has been aided by strict party discipline of Conservative MPs in the House of Commons and the prerogative to call a general election at a time most beneficial to the Conservative Party.
However all these characteristics have been displayed by Prime Ministers in the pre-Thatcher era. For instance Harold Wilson came under considerable criticism for his Ministerial appointments after the 1964 General election because they were based on loyalty rather than any reasons of merit. Richard Crossman also cited many cases of the operation of Wilson’s ‘kitchen Cabinets’ which were composed of the Prime Minister’s personal cronies. Crossman claimed that it was these bodies which took all the major decisions and that the full Cabinet was by-passed. Wilson also attempted to control the Cabinet agenda in a way which would stifle discussion. This was shown by his failed attempt to restrict Cabinet discussion over the devaluation of the pound in 1967.
Strict party discipline in the House of Commons has been with us since the Reform Act of 1867 and so it is not a phenomenon peculiar to the Thatcher years. Similarly the power of dissolution has been used by successive Prime Ministers to try and enable their party to win the general election. In 1935 for instance, the National Government gained a majority of 247 thanks to the decision of Stanley Baldwin to hold a general election after Great Britain had applied sanctions against fascist Italy.
Therefore as far as these classic characteristics of Prime Ministerial power are concerned, Mrs Thatcher has only continued to pursue the same lines of action as other Prime Ministers before her. From this evidence it can only be concluded that as far as these classic characteristics are concerned, the Premiership of Mrs Thatcher has not told us anything new about the need for reform of the powers of the Prime Minister.
It is certainly true that Mrs. Thatcher has used these powers more effectively than most. However this does not mean that we are provided with any further justifications for reform of the powers of the Prime Minister. However this is not to say that Mrs. Thatcher’s Premiership has not demonstrated the need for reform. In certain areas Mrs. Thatcher has greatly enhanced her own powers in a way that none of her predecessors did.
The Prime Minister’s control over Cabinet appointments is nothing new. But Mrs. Thatcher has extended such blatant patronage to the higher ranks of the higher Civil Service. Before 1979 the convention was that the Prime Minister merely ratified candidates put in front of them by the Civil Service itself. But Mrs. Thatcher has deliberately interfered in the appointment of top Civil Servants because she wants to avoid any possibility of Civil Service obstruction towards her monetarist policies. This has entailed appointing so-called ‘can-do’ men who will advise on policy as well as carry it out in a manner which shows them to be totally committed to government ideas.
This politicization of the Civil Service has been matched by a decision making structure which has brought Civil Servants far more into policy making than ever before. All this has been Mrs. Thatcher’s creation.
There are very serious dangers concerning these events. For instance what will be the reaction of a future Labour or SLD government who face a supposedly neutral higher career Civil Service staffed with Thatcher appointees committed to Thatcherite policies? Since 1979, Mrs. Thatcher has appointed 43 Permanent Secretaries and 138 Deputy Secretaries. Will the Civil Service become a political football with all parties trying to shape it in their own image? Moreover one of the great virtues of a totally neutral Civil Service is the fact that it will provide an idea of the possible dangers of a policy.
A Civil Service which is as committed to policy objectives as the politicians may well become so shortsighted as to laugh off serious dangers in the same way as the politicians do, with the end result being a policy disaster which could affect the whole country. To add to this there is always the danger that civil servants may conspire with the politicians to falsify public information (such as unemployment statistics) in order to win votes for the party in power. In fact with the abolition of the Central Review Policy Staff and the subsequent creation of the ‘Number Ten Policy Unit’ an intricate system of objective advice and information has virtually disappeared.
The very fact that all this has been the work of one woman and her team of advisers shows that there has been a serious erosion of the ‘separation of powers’ principle within the executive structure. Any reform of Prime Ministerial power should concentrate on trying to stop politicians blatantly shaping a very powerful higher Civil Service according to their own needs. Mrs. Thatcher has created this trend and consequently it is her Premiership which has shown the true need for the reform of Prime Ministerial powers in terms of the power of the Prime Minister over the higher Civil Service.
This is a very competent essay with a number of very positive features, the most important of which is that it answers the question in a serious and intelligent manner. You also offer evidence to support your arguments and make a successful attempt to be ‘even-handed’ in your consideration of the issues involved. There are weaknesses too, but they are of a minor stylistic nature and can easily be corrected with more practice. You became slightly repetitious at some points (‘powers of the Prime Minister … Prime Ministerial power’) and some of your paragraphs are rather long. [I have indicated where a change of topic calls for a new paragraph.] At this level such thorough work fully deserves a good ‘A’ grade.
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