2 SEPTEMBER 1972, Page 9


The weakness of the Prime Minister

Patrick Cosgrave

Issues in British politics nowadays have a way of appearing and disappearing. And this is disturbing, because it suggests a certain frivolity in the approach to politics of our most learned and informed critics. One of the most notable examples of this frivolity has been discussed in one way or another for some years now; and was, indeed, picked up again by the newspapers a week or so ago. It is the question of what kind of organisation the Prime Minister — any Prime Minister — ought to have backing him up at No 10 Downing Street. Should it be a super-charged personal secretariat? Should it be a special Department of State, responsible only to the Prime Minister himself? The frivolity lies in the endless discussion of means of providing the PM with machinery for overcoming the immense amount of inertia, most of it Civil Service generated — if generated is not too forceful a word to use in conjunction with intertia — without any suggested resolution to that discussion Thus we see that our critics are both disturbed by the forces of inertia in British society; and perturbed by the danger of giving any Prime Minister too much capacity to overcome those forces. In the eager search for reformist compromise we lose radical direction.

So, too, in recent years we have heard a great deal about presidential government, as embodied in the office of Prime Minister; and we have debated whether or not it is true that the Prime Minister is becoming so powerful as to undermine our system of cabinet and parliamentary government. All this conveys our national awareness of something wrong at the very heart and centre of our politics; and it also suggests that we feel it too dangerous to do anything about that wrong. We feel that the centre does not function; and we fear that the steps we can take to make it function will imperil the fabric which the centre exists to serve. In this state of mingled fear and analysis we brood. The only refuge is in truth.

The truth is this. In the last decade we have seen an exaltation of the style of the Prime Ministership which does not correspond to any increase in prime ministerial power. The fact of the matter is that of all members of the Cabinet the Prime Minister is the weakest, not the strongest. He is weakest because of that peculiarly British Characteristic of government, the power of the negative. The strength of the Civil Service, of individual Departments of State, of the establishment itself, are all mobilised behind the desire to do nothing; or to do something only in frivolous and unimportant areas like the reform of censorship; or of laws about homosexuals; or of laws relating to what may be performed on the stage. On anything of real and fundamental importance, power is mobilised to do nothing.

And Prime Ministers diplike this. They do so because of their character. All prime Ministers of this century have been initially men of radical bent. They have all seen that something must be done — usually something in the field of financial or economic re-organisation — to re-structure and re-direct the national effort. But, though it is possible for a given Prime Minister to have his way on a given subject, even one of very great importance — as Mr Heath has had his way on the European Communities Bill — it has rarely been possible for any Prime Minister to exercise that broad, continuous and effective power over the government machine which alone can lead to the efficient and successful implementation of desired reforms. The only genuine exception to this was the wartime government of Churchill; here the combination of an exceptional secretariat, and an exceptional personal metabolism — and, of course, an exceptional situation — led to detailed and effective supervision over and stimulation of the national effort and the machinery of government alike. What other exceptions there have been are more apparent than real. Reforming governments like those of Asquith and Atlee had, initially, such wide support as to overcome inertia: they did so not so much through Prime Ministerial effort as through consensus for action. In the case of the Heath government, while much has been done that the Civil Service would have preferred left undone, in large areas — and notably the economic and industrial areas — policies have been reversed without trial, and the very consideration of a Prime Ministerial Department, however tentative that suggestion may be, demonstrates widespread unease in the ranks of the Prime Minister's closest associates about his effectiveness in gaining control over the gigantic apparatus which runs the modern state.

We must grasp, too, that a Cabinet cannot control or exercise its collective power over the bureaucracy. Eustace Percy once wrote of the first world war, that, in 1916, the co-ordination of the war effort had been left to the Cabinet, which was the least effective body imaginable for that task. It is the function of the Cabinet, acting collectively, to support or oppose policies put before it; and, again collectively, to be responsible to Parliament for those policies. It is not the Cabinet's function actually to run the country: that is the job of individual ministers and departments, presided over in the executive field by the Prime Minister himself. We know that, as time passes, ministers tend to intensify more with their departments, tend to come to represent more readily the departmental point of view. It is the Prime Minister's task, in part, to prevent this happening. Sometimes he discharges this task by means of reshuffles, for, though it is commonly supposed to be a good idea for ministers to stay in their departments for a long time, thus becoming experts on the department's work, in truth it might be said that a short tenure, -during which a minister loses neither his edge nor his enthusiasm, is better for government, for party, and for country.

More often, in his day to day work, the Prime Minister chivvies and stimulates departments and ministers alike to get on with the task of implementing a party manifesto. One junior minister in the present government told me recenty that nothing seemed to happen in his own section of a great Department of State unless the Prime Minister himself was known to be interested, and willing to put his shoulder to the wheel. And, while I was considering the toll this must take of any man, even one as physically fit and sensible about expenditure of energy as Edward Heath, a senior Minister told me he thought the Prime Minister's job impossible. It could not, he said, be done by any one man, however loyal and devoted his ministerial colleagues. The Prime Minister needed, this man believed, at least a very high-powered executive chief of staff, a political rather than a civil service figure, to assist him. We know, of course, that Mr Terry Pitt, of the Labour Party's research department, has long been convinced that the programme of a radical party can be implemented only if each minister is assisted by such a chief of staff: otherwise, Mr Pitt thinks, little or nothing will ever be done.

Labour Party commentators speak with particular authority on this subject because of the high hopes and daring schemes With which their party entered office in 1964; and the low spirits and chastened imaginations with which they left it in 1970. To be sure, some of the Labour failure was to be attributed to loss of nerve, incompetence, and lack of realism in the schemes of their manifesto. But something was also due to the resistance of the government machine to the plans of the democratically elected government. And while few of us would like to see the British Civil Service in any way poloticised, the fact of the matter remains that, for the health of our democracy, it is far more important that governments should, be able to get through those fundamental points of policy on which they are elected than that the Civil Service should be able to continue to run the country in the manner it things fit.

Nonetheless, it is clear that there are many gaps in this government's control over the administration of the country; and the continued existence of these gaps is largely to be put down to the weakness of the Prime Ministerial office. Whether in recent years the Prime Minister's ascendancy in Cabinet has or has not grown is very nearly an irrelevant question: his power certainly has not grown in relation to the machine of government. If anything it has declined, through the punishing routine of his office, which drains even the strongest men of energy and purpose. A method must therefore be found for making the Prime Minister's office more powerful in relation to the rest of the Civil Service, and the great departments in particular.