Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Presidential?

More on 'Who Runs Britain?':

Oliver Kamm says:

"Complaints of the accretion of prime ministerial power are nothing new. Forty years ago Richard Crossman maintained that “the post-war epoch has seen the final transformation of Cabinet government into Prime Ministerial government”. This was nonsense then and is nonsense now.

Discussions of the power of the executive relative to other branches of government and other institutions make little sense apart from the character of the office holders. It so happens that two of the last three prime ministers have been singularly successful, for better or worse, at dominating their respective parties. This had little to do with the power of office or the size of government majority, but was related to the sway that each personality had within the party system and the Commons.

Consider a wider historical perspective. Britain has had ten prime ministers since 1945, not counting Tony Blair. Only three held office for longer than five years, while the outstanding counterexample, Mrs Thatcher, was removed from office by her colleagues with such ruthlessness that it has caused ructions within the Conservative Party ever since.

The Prime Minister has a contingent and sometimes precarious constitutional position in which he is unable to direct policy on his own and may face vitriolic public criticism. Tony Blair has dominated the political scene for so long first because of the political weakness of the Old Labour cause that he supplanted, and secondly because the Conservative Party has for well over a decade declined to behave like either a party of government or a serious Opposition."


I think Oliver is ignoring something here. The massive change wrought by the emerging power - and omnipresence - of the media. Of course, this brings a sharper focus on the Prime Minster, resulting in a Presidential outcome. But, more importantly, it has provided the PM with the means and ability to control policy across departments.

Joe Haines, Bernard Ingham and Alistair Campbell must surely provide a highly visible peice of evidence for this? And this modern tendancy towards presidentialism is very distinct from way that the PM was a player in previous governments. I remember John Cole's story of how he got an interview with Atlee by ...

a) finding out that the PM would be driving (alone!) along a road (in Ulster!!!)
b) waiting and flagging him down, getting in the car and conducting the interview*

I doubt if Prime Minsters can be effective today unless the character (that Oliver alludes to) is one that will take advantage of the change brought about by the increased power of the media.

That John Major or Ted Heath hadn't the strength and confident backing of their party makes the point all the more strongly - and that they were both ultimately undone by a faction (Mrs T's faction in both cases!) that understood the importance of an agressive approach to media relations.

Moreover, if there is one minor criticism I'd make of Oliver's wider perspective (particularly the 'muscular liberalism' adopted by a wide section of the thinking left), it is that I'm not as confident as he is that politicians are ever allowed the luxury of doing the right thing for the right reasons.

I like the outcomes - don't get me wrong. Elections in Iraq, an increasingly settled Afghanistan, a positive intervention in Sierra Leonne and so on.

But an individual Prime Ministers' character has little to do with it. The British constitutional settlement (that shadowy set of wires and levers) tends to often provide situtations in which Prime Ministers are able to assert themselves with confidence. It will also find people that will do this, and appoint them as Prime Minister.

And that is proof of a structural tendancy towards Presidentialism in this country. On balance, I'd say it is regrettable.

*this is a half-remembered anecdote from John Coles' biog - I read it years ago, but don't have access to it now to fact check. But you get the point, don't you?

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