1.1 Look through these questions before reading the text.
What are the two ways in which the term “government” may be interpreted?
Where do all ministers come from?
What are the titles of the heads of the corresponding government departments?
Why does Great Britain still observe the tradition of having “single-party government”? How is so-called “collective responsibility” connected with the system of “single-party government”?
How does the Cabinet work?
What are the Cabinet office and Cabinet committee responsible for?
What are the actual powers of the Prime Minister as opposed to those of the monarch?
A British Prime Minister has no status in law which puts him or her above other politicians. So why are modern British PMs so powerful?
Who governs Britain? When the media talk about ‘the government’ they usually mean one of two things. The term ‘the government’ can be used to refer to all of the politicians who have been appointed by the monarch (on the advice of the Prime Minister) to help run government departments (there are several politicians in each department) or to take on various other special responsibilities, such as managing members of ‘the government’ in this sense. Although there are various ranks, each with their own titles, members of the government are usually known as ‘ministers’. All ministers come from the ranks of Parliament, most of them from the House of Commons. Unlike in the USA and in some other countries in Europe, it is rare for a person from outside Parliament to become a minister.
The other meaning of the term ‘the government’ is more limited. It refers only to the most powerful of these politicians, namely the Prime Minister and the other members of the cabinet. There are usually about twenty people in the cabinet (thought there are no rules about this). Most of them are the heads of the government departments.
Most heads of government departments have the title ‘Secretary of State’ (as in, for example, ‘Secretary of State for the Environment’). The minister in charge of Britain’s relations with the outside world is known to everybody as the ‘Foreign Secretary’. The one in charge of law and order inside the country is the ‘Home Secretary’. Their departments are called the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office respectively (the words ‘exterior’ and ‘interior’ are not used). The words ‘secretary’ and ‘office’ reflect the history of government in Britain, in which government departments were one time part of the domestic arrangements of the monarch. Another important person is the ‘Chancellor of the Exchequer’, who is the head of the Treasury (in other words, a sort of Minister of Finance).
Normally all members of the government belong to the same political party. Britain has had a total of only twenty-one years of coalition governments (1915-1922 and 1931-1945). Even when, for brief periods in the 1970s, no single party had a majority of seats in the House of Commons, no coalition was formed. There was a ‘minority government’ instead. But in 2010 as the result of the general election on May 6th the first coalition government in 65 years was formed – the first-ever Conservative – Liberal Democrat government.
The habit of single-party government has helped to establish the tradition known as collective responsibility. That is, every member of the government, however junior, shares the responsibility for every policy made by the government. This is true even if, as is often the case, he or she did not play any part in making it. Of course, individual government members may hold different opinions, but they are expected to keep these private. By convention, no member of the government can criticise government policy in public. Any member who does so must resign.
The cabinet. Obviously, no government wants an important member of its party to start criticising it. This would lead to divisions in the party. Therefore, the leading politicians in the governing party usually become members of the cabinet, where they are tied to government policy by the convention of collective responsibility.
The cabinet meets once a week and takes decisions about new policies, the implementation of existing policies and the running of the various government departments. Because all government members must be seen to agree, exactly who says what at these meetings is a closely guarded secret.
The final responsibility of ministers is to Parliament. The knowledge that any departmental action may be reported to and examined in Parliament discourages the taking of arbitrary and ill-considered decisions. On assuming office ministers must resign directorships in private and public companies, and must order their affairs so that there is no conflict between public duties and private interests.
The Prime Minister. The position of a British Prime Minister (PM) is in direct contrast to that of the monarch. Although the Queen appears to have a great deal of power, in reality she has very little. The PM, on the other hand, appears not to have much power but in reality has a very great deal indeed. The Queen is, in practice, obliged to give the job of Prime Minster to the person who can command a majority in the House of Commons. This normally means the leader of the party with the largest number of MPs.
From one point of view, the PM is no more than the foremost of Her Majesty’s political servants. The traditional phrase describes him or her as primus inter pares (Latin for ‘first among equals’). But in fact the other ministers are not nearly as powerful. There are several reasons for this. First, the monarch’s powers of patronage (the power to appoint people to all kinds of jobs and to confer honours on people) are, by convention, actually the PM’s powers of patronage. The fiction is that the Queen appoints people to government jobs ‘on the advice of the Prime Minister’. But what actually happens is that the PM simply decides. Everybody knows this. The media do not even make the pretence that the PM has successfully persuaded the Queen to make a particular appointment, they simply state that he or she has made an appointment.
The strength of the PM’s power of patronage is apparent from the modern phenomenon known as the ‘cabinet reshuffle’. For the past thirty years it has been the habit of the PM to change his or her cabinet quite frequently (at least once every two years). A few cabinet members are dropped, and a few new members are brought in, but mostly the exiting members are shuffled around, like a pack of cards, each getting a new department to look after.
The second reason for a modern PM’s dominance over other ministers is the power of the PM’s public image. The mass media has tended to make politics a matter of personalities. The details of policies are hard to understand. An individual, constantly appearing on the television and in the newspapers, is much easier to identify with. Everybody in the country can recognise the Prime Minister, while many cannot put a name to the faces of the other ministers. As a result the PM can, if the need arises, go ‘over the heads’ of the other ministers and appeal directly to the public.
Third, all ministers except the PM are kept busy looking after their government departments. They don’t have time to think about and discuss government policy as a whole. But the PM does, and cabinet committees usually report directly to him or her, not to the cabinet as a whole. As a result, the PM knows more about what is going on that the other ministers do. Because there is not enough time for the cabinet to discuss most matters, a choice has to be made about what will be discussed. And it is the PM who makes that choice. Matters that are not discussed can, in effect, be decided by the PM.
The new coalition government. There are two broad challenges for the new government led by David Cameron, the Tory leader, and Nick Clegg, his Lib Dem deputy. The first is fiscal. The broad policy outlines are clear – and pretty good. Supply-side education reform, the strongest policy in the Tory manifesto, is to go ahead, with the desirable addition of the Lib Dem commitment to put quite a lot of extra money into teaching poor children. Moving benefit recipients from welfare to work, is sound Tory (and indeed Labour) policy, will also be pursued.
More divisive will be the new government’s second challenge: political reform. Among the novelties is Britain’s first fixed-term Parliament, thanks to the non-aggression pact between the two parties. It will run for five years unless enough MPs vote for dissolution. A more important issue is the first-past-the-post electoral system, which regularly denies the Lib Dems and smaller parties a share of parliamentary seats commensurate with their share of the vote. Mr. Cameron, over the shrieks of most of his party, has promised a referendum on introducing an alternative-vote (AV) system allowing voters to rank candidates by preference. It was the price of coalition.
Many say that the coalition could break down before the five years expire. Though all 57 Lib Dem MPs approved it, many will oppose the government on individual issues or abstain from voting, and a few may walk altogether. On the Tory side, right-wingers will resist each compromise. A cabinet containing disgruntled folk from both parties will be a nightmare to run. Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg may get on well together, but their man-management skills will be sorely tested by their own party members.
Supply-side – (of economic ideas) favouring the producers of goods and services, e.g. by law taxes, so that they will find it easy to increase supplies.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION…
The history of the cabinet is a good example of the tendency to secrecy in British politics. It started in the eighteenth century as an informal grouping of important ministers and officials of the royal household. It had no formal recognition. Officially speaking, the government was run by the Privy Council, a body of a hundred or more people (including those belonging to ‘the cabinet’). directly responsible to the monarch (but not to each other). Over the years, the cabinet gradually took over effective power. The Privy Council is now a merely ceremonial organisation with no power. Among others, it includes all the present ministers and the most important past ministers.
In the last fifty years, there have been unofficial ‘inner cabinets’ (comprising the Prime Minister and a few other important ministers). It is thought that it is here, and in cabinet committees, that much of the real decision-making takes place.
No. 10 Downing Street
The cabinet meets here and the cabinet office work here. The PM lives above the shop on the top floor.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer lives next door, at No. 11, and the Government Chief Whip at No. 12.
The PM also has an official country residence to the west of London, called “Chequers”.
Counties are the oldest divisions of the country in England and Wales. They are still used today for local government purposes, although a few have been ‘invented’ this century (e.g. Humberside) and others have no function in government but are still used for other purposes. Many counties have ‘shire’ in their name (e.g. Hertfordshire, Hampshire, Leicestershire). ‘Shires’ is what the counties were originally called.
Boroughs were originally towns that had grown large and important enough to be given their own government, free of control by the county. These days, the name is used for local government purposes only in London, but many towns still proudly describe themselves as Royal Boroughs.
Parishes were originally villages centred on a local church. They became a unit of local government in the nineteenth century. Today they are the smallest unit of local government in England.
The name ‘parish’ is still used in the organisation of the main Christian churches in England.
1.2 Give the English equivalents to the following Russian word-combinations
в отличие от США и некоторых стран Европы
делить ответственность за всю политику, проводимую правительством
придерживаться различных взглядов
не разглашать свое личное мнение
препятствовать принятию случайных и непродуманных решений
перестановки в правительстве
обращаться прямо к народу, минуя министров
пакт о ненападении
проголосовать за роспуск парламента
Use the above-given text and the glossary (2.1) to speak about the British Government.
to pass a vote of no confidence/an adverse vote in the government
вынести вотум недоверия правительству
to appear (regularly) on Cabinet agenda
(регулярно) вноситься в повестку дня кабинета
поражение на выборах
3.1 Read the article, do the task (3.2) given below the text.
THE CIVIL SERVICE
Considering how complex modern states are, there are not really very many people in a British ‘government’ (as defined above). Unlike some other countries (the USA for example), not even the most senior administrative jobs change hands when a new government comes to power. The day-to-day running of the government and the implementation of its policy continue in the hands of the same people that were there with the previous government – the top rank of the civil service. Governments come and go, but the civil service remains. It is no accident that the most senior civil servant in a government department has the title of ‘Permanent Secretary’.
Unlike politicians, civil servants, even of the highest rank, are unknown to the larger public. There are probably less than 10,000 people in the country who, if you asked them, could give you the names of the present secretary to the cabinet (who runs the cabinet office) or the present head of the home civil service; still fewer know the names of more than one of the present permanent secretaries.
For those who belong to it, the British civil service is a career. Its most senior positions are usually filled by people who have been working in it for twenty years or more. These people get a high salary (higher than that of their ministers), have absolute job security (unlike their ministers) and stand a good chance of being awarded an official honour. By comparison, ministers, even those who have been in the same department for several years, are still new to the job. Moreover, civil servants know the secrets of the previous government which the present minister is unaware of.
For all these reasons, it is often possible for top civil servants to exercise quite a lot of control over their ministers, and it is sometimes said that it is they, and not their ministers, who really govern the country. There is undoubtedly some truth in this opinion. Indeed, an interesting case in early 1994 suggests that civil servants now expect to have a degree of control. At this time, the association which represents the country’s top civil servants made an official complaint that four government ministers ‘verbally abused’ their civil service adviser and generally treated them ‘with contempt’. It was the first time that such complaint had been made. It seemed that the unprecedentedly long period of government by the same party (the Conservative) had shifted the traditional balance of power.
However, the British civil service has a (largely) deserved reputations for absolute political impartiality. Many ministers have remarked on the struggle for power between them and their top civil servants, but very few have ever complained of any political bias. Top civil servants know that their power depends on their staying out of ‘politics’ and on their being absolutely loyal to their present minister.
Modern criticism of the civil service does not question its loyalty but its efficiency. Despite reforms, the top rank of the civil service is still largely made up of people from the same narrow section of society – people who have been to public school and then on to Oxford or Cambridge, where they studied subjects such as history or classical languages. The criticism is therefore that the civil service does not have enough expertise in matters such as economics or technology, and that it lives too much in its own closed world, cut off from the concerns of most people in society. In the late twentieth century, ministers try to overcome these perceived deficiencies by appointing experts from outside the civil service to work on various projects and by having their own political advisers working alongside (or, some would say, in competition with) their civil servants.
What makes the civil service in the structure of the British Government unique?
Why is it said that sometimes it is the top civil servants and not the ministers, who really govern the country?
Why does modern criticism of the civil service question not their loyalty but their efficiency?
What particular sections of society do civil servants come from?