Last week the government published a draft “Cabinet Manual”. This rather dry document, designed to be a “guide to laws, conventions, and rules on the operation of government”, generated some rather overblown headlines. It was claimed to be a “major step towards written constitution” by the Telegraph and one Guardian columnist described it as “a manual for British dictatorship“. Those of us with a better sense of perspective on these things should see it as a positive, if limited, step forward towards a more open and rational government.
It probably tells us something rather unflattering about our democracy that this document written as guidance, in some places it has the feel of a political studies text book, to answer the question “how does government work?” should generate such a fuss. So we should understand the limits of such a document.
First, it is clearly written from the perspective of the executive. It is the civil service setting out the rules by which government should work. It is not about parliamentary reform, democracy, or party politics. It is about the constitutional framework for government.
It is also about establishing how things work now. Except in a few limited areas which I will come to in a minute, it is not seeking to change things. It is codifying existing arrangements. So it is by definition a deeply conventional document. Things such as the role of the monarch and the concept of parliamentary sovereignty feature significantly. If you dislike the picture it paints then you have a problem with our current constitutional settlement not with the document.
Those limits accepted, I think it is a very welcome initiative. I find it remarkable that this is the first time the government has produced such a document. So the fact that they have gathered all the existing laws and conventions together, written them down in one place, and made that available to the public online has got to be a good thing. I also think it works. Anyone one who wishes to understand how British government works should read it. It will give you a very clear overview of how things are done. Although I already sort of knew much of what it talks about, it did give me a clearer picture of how things fit together. I also found some new things in some of the details.
Having said that the document is an attempt to write down things as they are, there are limited number of areas where I think it does have something of agenda.
First, there is unsurprisingly some emphasis on how the process of government needs to be adapted within the constitutional framework in order to make coalition government work. For example, frequent references to the role of the Deputy Prime Minister would not be there if we had a majority government.
Second, after the years of Blair’s “sofa government” and the chaos of Brown’s premiership I detect an understandable attempt to reassert the role of cabinet government and the adherence to proper process. Significantly, given the controversies of the Blair government, the manual explicitly includes “any decision to take military action” as one of “the kind of issues that would normally be considered by Cabinet”.
Third, there is some learning from the recent experience of the formation of the coalition. In particular, it is made clear that an outgoing prime minister should not offer his or her resignation to the Queen before a new government has been formed. This must be a direct response to Gordon Brown’s, what I consider to be disgraceful, decision to resign before the Tory and Lib Dem negotiating teams had reached an agreement on the nature of the coalition government in May.
You can download the document from the Cabinet Office website at:
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.