Blair must abandon government by secretariat in foreign policy.by David Owen / December 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
On Monday 5th April 1982, the foreign secretary, Peter Carrington, resigned, following the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands. As he wrote in his memoirs, “The anger of the British people and parliament at the Argentine invasion of the Falklands was a righteous anger, and it was my duty and fate to do something to assuage it.”
This resignation had far-reaching consequences. It marked a significant weakening in the power of the foreign secretary and a build up in the role of No 10 in the conduct of foreign and security policy. This trend has been reinforced by two periods in which cabinet government was devalued – 1985-90 and 1997-2003. During these periods cabinet meetings still took place, but decisions were taken by the respective prime ministers, sometimes with a few cabinet ministers too.
Cabinet government is bound to differ under different prime ministers. It is marked by their personality, the extent of their dominance in their party and other factors. Jim Callaghan believed that the prime minister, the chancellor, the foreign and the home secretaries should never go to cabinet differing on an issue without trying first to resolve any disagreement among themselves. To take a specific example, in 1977 I wanted a Commonwealth peacekeeping force, rather than a UN force, to implement the Anglo-American plan for Rhodesia. Callaghan, aware that Denis Healey was going to argue for the UN, warned me and gave me the opportunity to change my recommendation in the cabinet paper, saying he would not push a Commonwealth force through if Denis had significant support. I chose to go ahead and was defeated, but had no cause to complain.
Nor is cabinet just about consulting colleagues. It is about involving government departments at every appropriate level. In a functioning cabinet, ministers come briefed to a decision-making meeting having spoken to a number of experts within the department and some from outside. Cabinet government has many forms – sometimes there is a formalisation of an inner cabinet of a few senior ministers – but the prime minister is primus inter pares, not a president.
Cabinet government, as developed during the 20th century in Britain, represents the best way yet found of handling a fusion of the executive and the legislature. (Although called a cabinet in the US, it does not govern collectively but rather serves the president, who is the executive.)
Margaret Thatcher initially practiced…