The Cabinet System

Many students are accustomed to using the terms Prime Minister and The Cabinet and even The Cabinet Rooms in their studies and essays, but do not know much more about what these words represent. The term prime minister was first used when it was invented for the first of them, Sir Robert Walpole. He became PM in 1762.

The phrase did not start as much more than a term of abuse. Cartoonists in the eighteenth century loved it, and got a lot of cynical humour out of it. The position was officially called First Lord of the Treasury, and the British had to wait until 1905 for the term ‘prime minister’ to be used on a Royal Warrant. Funnily enough, it was first employed in the Chequers Estate Act, by which a rich man donated his mansion and its park to the nation, with the nice idea that prime ministers could relax in the country during weekends, not at all a bad idea when you realise that Number 10, Downing Street is little more than a small town house with just enough room to swing a cat. It is quite likely that Chequers has seen more important politicking than Downing Street, as many PMs have preferred to do their world-shaking manoevering in the comfortable and more private atmosphere of an English country house.

Prime Ministers are the ultimate bosses of what is called The Cabinet., which is the supreme executive committee of Parliament. All committees anywhere tend to design a horse that ends up looking like a camel. The Cabinet is a committee, but it is nowhere near as cumbersome and awkward as what it replaced, which was the Privy Council. In fact the privy council still exists, as do ‘privy councillors’. They advise the monarch, and generally make a nuisance of themselves, annoying George V so much he almost had to be dragged to meetings. The name ‘privy’ means what it says: it was James I (of England and VI of Scotland who started things by inviting councillors to meet with him while he sat at stool. This cannot have been popular with the privy councillors, and meetings are said to have been kept as brief as possible.

Monarchs like Elizabeth I and Victoria used the Privy Council as a sounding box for their own unquestionable views. Richard III the last Plantagenet used his violently, according to historians like the late A.E. Rouse of Oxford. At one meeting the King sent a Bishop out to fetch strawberries while he had another member arrested and immediately beheaded. Members of Henry VIII’s Privy council would tremble with fright throughout; one member admitted in retirement that he would wet his sixteenth century knickers when the monster king lost his temper.

Nevertheless, the Cabinet replaced the privy council but stayed unorganised and unwieldy until it was modernized by Sir Robert Peel, PM as plain Robert in 1834 and as Sir Robert in 1841. Discussions in cabinet were not even noted by a quick-writing clerk until 1916, when someone thought it about time a Secretariat was installed. Before this date everything said in cabinet was not only secret but unrecorded.

As with so many things, it was the World War (1914 – 18) that caused the change. The Imperial War Cabinet, just as grand as it sounds, was constituted as an inner executive group dealing at first hand with the international emergency represented by a world war. The IWC contained statesmen from the Commonwealth as well as ministers, and its members were excused from departmental duties.

The Cabinet Rooms used by Winston Churchill as his War Rooms (1939 – 45 War) were sunk deep into the cellars of government buildings, guarded by heavily armed soldiers, and bomb-proof.

In the United States the Cabinet was first summoned by George Washington at the end of 1791, but regular meetings of the cabinet as such were not started until the presidency of John  Adams (1797 – 1801). Do not confuse that Adams with John Q. Adams (president 1825 – 29).

Modern Cabinets in the UK can employ as many as twenty ministers or secretaries of state, whereas the American President’s Cabinet is said to have never exceeded twelve members. They are not members of Congress. They are chosen by the President with the consent of the Senate.

In Britain the second most powerful person in the Cabinet and Parliament is called ‘Chancellor of the Exchequer’ (in almost all other countries he or she is the ‘Finance Minister’ or however that is translated in other languages). In Spain, for instance, the ministry of finance is split into two separate departments, one called Hacienda and the other Economía. They should, in theory, work together.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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