In politics, the group of ministers holding a country's highest executive positions who decide government policy. In Britain the cabinet system originated under the Stuarts in the 17th century. Under William III it became customary for the king to select his ministers from the party with a parliamentary majority (having the most members of Parliament). The US cabinet, unlike the British, does not initiate legislation, and its members, appointed by the president, must not be members of Congress. The term was used in the USA from 1793.
The first British cabinet councils or subcommittees of the Privy Council undertook special tasks. When George I ceased to attend cabinet meetings in the early 18th century, the office of prime minister, not officially recognized until 1905, came into existence to provide a chair (Robert Walpole was the first). Cabinet members are chosen by the prime minister; policy is collective and the meetings are secret, minutes being taken by the secretary of the cabinet, a high civil servant. However, with the growth in importance of cabinet committees and policy advisors to assist the prime minister and key ministers, there has been criticism that the cabinet has now become largely a rubber-stamping body for decisions made elsewhere.
History of the British cabinet
The cabinet has its origins in the practice of monarchs seeking the advice of a group of confidential advisers.
By the end of the 14th century the monarch's advisers constituted a formal body known as the Privy Council and during the minority of Henry VI the Privy Council ruled the country. Historically the Privy Council is characterized by a tendency to increase in size, making it an unwieldy body for executive purposes. This led to a second tendency for the powers of the Privy Council to be exercised by a small inner group, and it is in this second tendency that the cabinet has its particular origins.
The term ‘cabinet’ became common during the reign of Charles II, when the Privy Council had again become a large and unwieldy body, and Charles resorted to the practice of consulting a ‘cabal’ or clique of confidants. This group of confidential advisers was eventually recognized as a committee of the Privy Council known as the cabinet council, and the modern cabinet remains an informal committee of the Privy Council.
Because it was an informal body its subsequent development in composition and in powers is extremely complex. The cabinet's immediate origins coincided with the development of the Whig and Tory parties in Parliament, but many early cabinets, in the reigns of William III and Anne, included representatives of both groups. However, the dependence of George I on the Whigs, his inability to understand English and English affairs, but mainly his greater interest in Hanover, led to the formation of ministries normally drawn from one party and, more significantly, ministries which represented the will of, and needed to retain the confidence of, a majority in the House of Commons. Furthermore, the withdrawal of the King from attendance at cabinet meetings after 1717 combined with these factors to bring about the development of the office of prime minister.
These developments received further importance during the reign of George II, since that monarch also had a greater interest in Hanoverian affairs and was content to let his chief minister, Sir Robert Walpole, govern. During the 18th and early 19th centuries the cabinet gradually emerged as the chief executive organ, a process which was facilitated by the mental illness of George III in 1788 and after 1810. The position of the first lord of the Treasury or prime minister was enhanced and by 1800 it had been clearly established that the resignation of the prime minister meant the resignation of the whole ministry, whereas previously individual ministers had frequently retained office on the resignation of the prime minister.
The influence of the monarch remained of some importance, however, and, as late as the reign of William IV, Sir Robert Peel expressed the view that a ministry needed the confidence of the monarch as well as of Parliament. Queen Victoria expressed strong views on cabinet appointments on a number of occasions and sometimes had some influence in such matters, but by the end of her reign the constitutional position of the monarch ‘to advise, encourage and to warn’ (Walter Bagehot), and of the cabinet as ultimately dependent upon and responsible to Parliament, were both firmly established.
The chief development in the 20th century was the increased power of the prime minister. From 1918, when Lloyd George decided to call the Coupon Election without consulting his cabinet, the power to dissolve Parliament lay effectively with the prime minister. It is the prime minister who chooses all other ministers, who decides when the cabinet shall meet and what its agenda shall be. These developments have led some commentators to argue that cabinet government has been superseded by prime ministerial government.
The modern cabinet
The cabinet of today is a group of ministers of the Crown who are also leading members of the two Houses of Parliament, though now drawn principally from the House of Commons, and whose opinions on the most important questions of the time agree in the main with the opinions of the majority of the House of Commons. The cabinet is collectively responsible to Parliament for the policy it pursues, and, in theory, the members of the cabinet are obliged to stand or fall together, and to act as one on all questions relating to the executive government. If one of them dissents from the rest on a question too important to admit of compromise, it is his or her duty to resign. When the cabinet no longer commands the support of the majority of the House of Commons, the ministers are duty-bound to resign en bloc.
All members of the cabinet are created privy councillors and are addressed by the prefix ‘Right Honourable’.
In most cases governments have fallen because of dissension in the cabinet or among its supporters. This occurred, for instance, in 1905, 1916, 1922, and 1931. There have also been cases where the prime minister has been replaced by one of his or her colleagues, primarily on the grounds of ill health, but where the outgoing prime minister has been strongly criticized. This occurred in 1957 and 1963 with Sir Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan respectively. Apart from periodic ministerial changes or ‘reshuffles’, a major change of government, and therefore of the cabinet, normally occurs as a result of a general election at which the government of the day loses its majority in the House of Commons. However, in March 1979 the Labour prime minister James Callaghan lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, and, in consequence, he and his government resigned, leading to a general election.
The doctrine of collective responsibility applies not only to members of the cabinet but to all ministers outside the cabinet as well. Most ministerial resignations occur because the minister concerned is unwilling to accept the policy decided by the cabinet. In 1975, however, Harold Wilson suspended the doctrine of collective responsibility in respect of Britain's membership of the European Economic Community and ministers of all ranks were permitted to oppose publicly the government's declared policy, decided by the cabinet, of recommending that Britain remain in the Community. This dispensation, however, did not apply to answering questions in Parliament nor to making speeches in debates, although ministers were permitted to vote against government policy.
The size and composition of the cabinet has tended to vary over time and its membership is a matter for the prime minister to decide. In practice the prime minister normally includes his or her 20 or so most senior colleagues, most of whom are appointed by the prime minister to head the major departments of state. Until recently the heads of some departments were left outside the cabinet and were invited to attend when business relating to their departments was being discussed, but this has been largely obviated by the creation of larger departments. Nonetheless, the cabinet tended to increase in size in the 20th century as the range of government activities and the consequent number of departments increased.
Quite apart from the demands of departmental representation the prime minister must consider the claims of his or her senior colleagues for places in the cabinet. Prime ministers will normally want their cabinet to represent the various views and factions in their party, bearing in mind that some of their colleagues may have a significant following in the party. Furthermore, it is also usual to include in the cabinet the holders of a number of sinecure offices which have no departmental responsibilities, such as the Lord President of the Privy Council, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and the Lord Privy Seal. The Lord President is now normally the manager of the government's business in Parliament and is designated leader of the House of Commons, a post which was usually held by the prime minister until 1915, unless he was a member of the House of Lords. The holders of these sinecure posts are often given particular non-departmental responsibilities, such as coordinating various policies, dealing with problems that are giving the government particular concern, conducting special negotiations, and chairing cabinet committees. In some cases they are colleagues whose experience and advice the prime minister values, but whom he or she does not wish to burden with departmental responsibilities. Finally, the cabinet will also include at least two members of the House of Lords: these are the Lord Chancellor, who is head of the judiciary and Speaker of the House of Lords, and the leader of the House of Lords, who is usually given a sinecure post, such as Lord Privy Seal.
No peer has held the office of prime minister since the resignation of Lord Salisbury in 1902. Moreover, it has become increasingly rare for heads of departments to be peers on the grounds that they should be directly answerable to the House of Commons. The appointment of Sir Alec Douglas-Home as foreign secretary in 1961 and of Lord Carrington as secretary of state for defence in 1970 are exceptions to this rule, and the number of peers in the cabinet tended to decrease in the 20th century, usually being no more than four.
The prime minister is also responsible for appointing ministers outside the cabinet, which, including the cabinet, may amount to more than 100 posts. Of these, up to 91 may be members of the House of Commons, the rest normally being drawn from the House of Lords. Thus all ministers are normally expected to be a member of one of the two Houses of Parliament. The only exception to this rule, apart from temporary ones pending the granting of a peerage to the minister concerned or where the minister is shortly to seek election to the Commons through a by-election, are the posts of the two Scottish law officers, the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General for Scotland, for which offices it is not always possible to find suitably qualified persons in Parliament since they must be members of the Scottish Bar.
The 100 or so ministers appointed by the prime minister constitute the ‘government’, ‘administration’, or ‘ministry’ and, in addition to the cabinet, consist of senior non-cabinet ministers, the law officers (the Attorney General and the Solicitor General and the two Scottish law officers mentioned above), ministers of state, parliamentary secretaries (or under secretaries where the head of department has the title of secretary of state), and whips. Parliamentary private secretaries (PPSs) are not ministers, but MPs who act as personal aides to ministers and who are not paid any salary other than that they receive as MPs. PPSs are generally expected, however, to adhere to government policy and may be dismissed for not doing so.
The prime minister may dismiss or ask for the resignation of any minister and from time to time reconstructs or reshuffles his or her ministry in order to allow some ministers to retire, to remove unsatisfactory ministers, to bring in new talent, and to redistribute ministerial posts. In 1962, for instance, Harold Macmillan dismissed one third of his cabinet and made 24 ministerial changes altogether. Such drastic changes, however, may damage the reputation of the prime minister.
According to the Haldane Committee on the Machinery of Government (1918) the functions of the cabinet are (1) the final determination of the policy to be submitted to Parliament; (2) the supreme control of the national executive in accordance with the policy prescribed by Parliament; and (3) the continuous coordination and delimitation of the authorities of the several departments of state. This statement draws no distinction between legislation and administration.
The cabinet's proceedings are secret and cabinet minutes and papers are not made publicly available at the Public Record Office until 30 years has elapsed. Cabinet decisions are made public at the discretion of the prime minister and members of the cabinet are not supposed to reveal the details of cabinet discussions. The object of this secrecy is to enable ministers to speak freely and frankly in cabinet, but it is difficult in practice to prevent rumours of division in the cabinet and judicious leaks of information are by no means unusual.
A minister who resigns usually explains his or her action to Parliament and, with permission, may make some reference to cabinet discussions relevant to his or her resignation. It is common for former ministers to publish accounts and memoirs of their periods in public office and for this purpose ministers may have access to the relevant cabinet minutes. In such cases, however, the Cabinet Office must normally approve the manuscript prior to publication.
The cabinet meets under the chairmanship of the prime minister, who not only has the initiative in calling meetings and determining the agenda, but in the conduct of the meeting itself. A significant part of the cabinet's work, however, is carried out through its committee system.
Ad hoc committees were used by the cabinet in the 19th century, but the first standing committee of the cabinet was the Imperial Defence Committee formed in 1903, and committees were used in both world wars.
Since 1945 there has been extensive use of cabinet committees. They are usually chaired by a cabinet minister. These committees relieve the cabinet of a considerable burden of work and in many cases the real decision may be taken at cabinet committee rather than cabinet level, with the cabinet merely formally endorsing the committee's decision.
The cabinet office
The work of the cabinet is facilitated by the cabinet secretariat or cabinet office, which was established by Lloyd George in 1916. The secretariat prepares the cabinet's agenda under the instructions of the prime minister and circulates cabinet minutes and papers prior to each cabinet or cabinet committee meeting. The cabinet office is headed by the secretary of the cabinet, a civil servant holding the rank of permanent secretary. He or she is now also head of the civil service. In May 2006 Hilary Armstrong was appointed minister for the cabinet office.
Constitutionally the cabinet is bound to offer, through the prime minister, unanimous advice to the sovereign, who is constitutionally bound to accept that advice. Ministers are collectively responsible to Parliament for the conduct of the government and for its policies. In addition, however, each minister is also individually responsible for the running of his or her department and for its policies.
Individual and collective ministerial responsibility is constitutionally important in enabling Parliament to secure information and to question and criticize the government and its policies, but the doctrine of ministerial responsibility tends to be overshadowed by party solidarity: an attack on an individual minister normally means an attack on the government, and an attack on the government usually brings its parliamentary supporters rallying to its defence and the government's majority will normally safeguard it from defeat.
The prime minister and the cabinet
Undoubtedly, the role of the prime minister in relation to the rest of the cabinet has changed in recent years, acquiring more presidential aspects. However, clearly much depends on the personality of the holder of the office. Lord Asquith, a former Liberal prime minister, was probably right when he said that the office of prime minister is ‘what the man makes of it’.
The US cabinet
The cabinet in the United States consists of the heads of the 11 executive departments which have been established by acts of Congress at various times since 1789. The heads of the executive departments are appointed by the president, subject to the confirmation of a majority vote of the Senate, which is usually a matter of course. Under Article I, Section 6 of the US Constitution, cabinet members are constitutionally responsible to the president, not to Congress, although they may testify before congressional committees. Only the president may dismiss a member of the cabinet or ask for his or her resignation and, although Congress retains the ultimate weapon of impeachment, it has only been used once, in 1876, when the secretary of war was indicted but not convicted. Cabinet members may not participate in the proceedings of Congress, other than testifying before committees.
As in Britain the size of the cabinet has tended to increase as the scope of governmental responsibilities has increased. The members of the cabinet are ranked according to seniority of office. In some cases the office was created before the department and this is noted where appropriate in the following list: secretary of state (1789), secretary of the Treasury (1789), secretary of Defense (1949 an amalgamation of the offices of secretary of war (1789), secretary of the Navy (1789), and secretary of the Air Force (1947)), attorney-general (office created in 1789, became a member of the cabinet in 1814, although the Department of Justice was not created until 1870), secretary of the Interior (1849), secretary of Agriculture (commissioner of Agriculture from 1862, when the Department of Agriculture was created, became secretary in 1889 and a member of the cabinet), secretary of Labour and Commerce (created as separate offices and departments in 1903 and amalgamated in 1913 and became a member of the cabinet), secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (1953), secretary of Housing and Urban Development (1965), and secretary of Transportation (1966). From 1829 to 1970 the postmaster-general, whose office dates from 1789, was also a member of the cabinet, but his membership ceased when the Post Office became a federal agency in 1970. In recent years the ambassador to the United Nations has also been given cabinet rank, although it is not clear that he or she is actually a member of the cabinet as of right. In 2002 the Department of Homeland Security was created, with its secretary a member of the cabinet.
After various provisions for the succession to the presidency in the event of the death, resignation, or removal of the president and the vice-president, the Presidential Succession Act 1947 laid down that the succession should run through the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and through the cabinet in order of seniority of the offices. In the event of the illness or other incapacity of the president, the cabinet and vice-president have, following the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution (1967), the responsibility for deciding whether the president is able to discharge his or her powers and duties. If the vice-president and a majority of the cabinet inform Congress that the president is incapacitated then the vice-president assumes the powers of the president.
The secretary of state, who is responsible for the conduct of US foreign policy, holds the most highly prized position in the cabinet and is often a close adviser of the president.
The role of the US cabinet
The role of the US cabinet depends very largely on the attitude of the president. Unlike in Britain, the cabinet does not function as a collective legislative influence. Some presidents, such as Eisenhower, held frequent and regular cabinet meetings; others, such as Kennedy, seldom called the cabinet together, preferring to deal with individual members and to work through other institutions, such as the National Security Council or the Council of Economic Advisers. Furthermore, because of the separate and staggered elections for president and for the two Houses of Congress, it is possible for the president and most of his or her cabinet to belong to one party, while Congress is controlled by another. In addition the president does not feel obliged to appoint only people who belong to his or her own party as members of the cabinet, and it is quite common for a Democratic president to have one or more Republicans in their cabinet and vice versa. In practice, therefore, the US cabinet bears little resemblance to its British counterpart, except in name.
We're sorry this article wasn't helpful. Tell us how we can improve.