Why Gordon is really the prime minister

Share
Related Topics
Like an examination question that turns up every so often - say, about once every 10 years - the theory of presidential government is with us once again. It has a long history.

In the 1940s and 1950s there were several works saying that Parliament had lost power to what was called the executive. By this the learned authors did not mean principally the Cabinet but individual ministers operating through civil servants, who made rules which were unscrutinised by Parliament but nevertheless had the force of law. The war years and the immediate post-war years were, we should remember, the golden age of the civil service in this country.

The charge was not that the prime minister had become a president but, rather, that Parliament, by which was meant the House of Commons, had surrendered its powers to civil servants - and that at the same time the ordinary courts of law had been compelled to relinquish their powers to administrative tribunals controlled by Whitehall.

We had to wait until the early 1960s for the theory of parliamentary impotence to mesh with and reinforce the theory of presidential government. In 1962 the late John Mackintosh published his book on cabinet government. In it he revealed, with a wealth of contemporary and historical illustration, the existence of cabinet committees. They had, so Mackintosh informed us, assumed most of the functions formerly fulfilled by the Cabinet itself, and were effectively controlled by the prime minister of the day.

At this time Richard Crossman (who has also gone to a better place) was commissioned by Fontana books to compose a new introduction to their forthcoming edition of Walter Bagehot's English Constitution, first published in 1867. Bagehot had drawn a famous distinction between the dignified and the efficient parts of the constitution. Thus, according to him, the monarchy was dignified, the Cabinet efficient.

Crossman believed that any article - even quite a long article, such as his introduction was intended to be - should preferably contain one idea only. The more paradoxical, outrageous even, that idea was, the more arresting the article would be. (It is a journalistic policy that is followed today by Sir Peregrine Worsthorne.) Mackintosh gave Crossman his big idea. As the Cabinet had replaced the Crown, so the prime minister had now replaced the Cabinet, which joined the Crown as one of the dignified parts of the constitution. He developed these ideas in his Godkin lectures delivered in 1970 at Harvard University: or, rather, Mackintosh developed them, for though the words were spoken by Crossman, they had been written largely by Mackintosh.

Harold Wilson found the theory of presidential government entirely congenial. What could be more agreeable than to be described as a president? He had already implied a comparison between himself and J F Kennedy. Now, after 1966, he had a majority of nearly 100. It was at this time, not in 1964, that he began to talk about Labour as "the natural party of government". In 1970 he fought a presidential election against Edward Heath, who was widely believed to have no hope.

"Well, there's me," he said, "Wilson's the name, Harold Wilson, but everybody calls me Harold. Who do you want, me, or that other chap, forget his name now?"

"Thanks very much," the voters replied, "but if it's all the same to you we'll have the other chap."

Sir Edward briefly tried to cut a presidential dash with his televised press conferences from Lancaster House. These were said to have been modelled on the president's press conferences in the United States, but Sir Edward was thinking more of the example of Charles de Gaulle in France. At his side was Sir William Armstrong, the then head of the home civil service, who was referred to (much as Alastair Campbell is today) as "the deputy prime minister". He finally lost his reason, poor fellow, and had to be taken away.

Sir Edward, however, was not much of a presidential figure. Nor was Wilson in his third administration. Most of his passion was spent. He made a virtue of being merely chairman of the Cabinet. He would describe himself - for footballspeak is not an invention of the 1990s - as "a deep-lying central defender".

James Callaghan was perhaps the most dignified holder of the office of prime minister since 1945, someone with standards which he upheld. He never aspired to be presidential, though what we know suggests that he was both bossier and more bad- tempered than the impression which he liked to convey at the time. He would, however, make an excellent president of the new republic, if he managed to live long enough.

The 1970s was, significantly, a decade of small or non-existent parliamentary majorities. The theory of presidential government reached its peak (until today) in the late 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher had won three general elections. It was in 1988 that the magazine Samizdat was published, Charter 88 was founded, a human rights Bill became a progressive cause, and electoral reform was talked of once again. To Tony Blair's credit, he has already passed the Human Rights Act 1998, incorporating the European Convention into UK law and doing much else besides. For some reason it does not come into force until 2 October 2000, when it will, I predict, cause him and his colleagues a good deal of trouble.

But all this constitutional excitement of the late 1980s, which 10 years later has produced some though not a whole harvest of fruit, was brought about by fear and loathing of Lady Thatcher. She was, people thought, going to be there for ever, growing progressively madder by the month. And then she was gone, poof! in a puff of smoke, just like that, as the great Tommy Cooper used to say: except that on this occasion the trick worked. The theory of presidential government lay in several small pieces on the floor.

There was no attempt to revive it during John Major's lengthy period of office. How could there have been? But now, with Mr Blair at No 10, the pieces are being stuck together again. For such an attempt to succeed, at any rate in the eyes of easily impressed persons, three conditions must be fulfilled.

First, the prime minister must enjoy a large majority, as Mr Blair now does, and as previous exemplars of the theory - Macmillan, Wilson, Thatcher - did before him. Second, he must have a kitchen Cabinet, so that the broadsheet press can come out with over-excited articles about who enjoys "real power" or "has the prime minister's ear". Mr Blair can deliver on this front all right, with his Alastairs and Peters, his Anjis, Sallys and Sues. And third, above all, he must possess a "presidential" personality, of the kind Macmillan, Wilson and Thatcher all had at their peak, and as Mr Blair has today. The first two of these declined into shambling, slightly seedy figures.

There is a simple political point as well. Gordon Brown has enjoyed an excellent week, plaudits by the bucketful. Indeed, he has enjoyed an excellent two years. Not one Labour chancellor - not Snowden, Dalton, Callaghan or Healey - has survived this period at the beginning of a government without suffering a financial crisis. Mr Blair, by contrast, has not had such a good week. If Mr Blair is president, Mr Brown is chairman of the board or, if you prefer it, if Mr Blair is president, Mr Brown is the prime minister.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Service and Support (Financial Services, ITIL, ORC, TT)

£75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of Service and Support (Financial Ser...

Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, JAXB, ...

Service Delivery Manager - ITIL / ServiceNow / Derivatives

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading Financial Services orga...

Senior Quantitative Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel
 

Once I would have agreed with Dawkins. Then my daughter was born with Down's Syndrome

Jamie McCullum
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home