Responsibility in the Constitution

III The Origins of Collective Responsibility


The supply procedure evolved in concert with the gradual supersession of monarchical by ministerial government in the efficient constitution. Although control of supply by the Commons is fundamental to the responsible exercise of power by ministers, and forms the conventional basis for individual ministerial responsibility, its evolution was greatly influenced by the convention of collective responsibility and the means for sustaining the cohesion of the ministry.

Treasury Control

The principle that only the Crown could ask the Commons to impose taxation and authorize expenditure for the civil, naval, and military services not only protected the taxpayer from the generosity of the House of Commons, it also had the effect of reinforcing the position of the Treasury Lords within the ranks of the king's ministers. As public expenditure grew, it became more and more important to ensure that it could be defended in the Commons. Early in the 18th century this need was recognized and the office of Lord Treasurer was placed in commission partly in order to ensure the presence in the Commons of several ministers competent to defend the Estimates.1 The new Treasury Lords defended government expenditure, and sitting as a Treasury Board required their colleagues in the ministry to justify proposed expenditures for which the Commons would be asked to vote supply. The function of the Treasury in reconciling the demands of ministers for funds into a single request for supply was fundamental to safeguarding the Crown's constitutional prerogative that only it could ask the House to grant supply. The " painful pre-eminence" of the Treasury was a matter of concern to other ministers, but the Treasury Lords took seriously their responsibility to control public expenditure, as was expected of them by the Commons.2

The function of reconciling estimates was and remains a crucial element in establishing and maintaining the solidarity of the ministry and of ensuring that it retains the confidence of the House of Commons. The function is fundamental to the responsibility of the ministry to Parliament. In addition, because finance impinges so directly upon administration, the reconciliation of estimates provides the basis for the management of the public service in accordance with particular standards and procedures, whose observance is in turn central to the cohesion of the ministry and for which ministers and their officials must be held accountable if the system is to be responsible.

Prime Minister and Cabinet

In 1721, ten years after the Treasury was placed in commission and the First Lord assumed the Crown's prerogative of appointment over his Treasury colleagues,3 Robert Walpole received the Exchequer seals and gradually took on the role of the king's first minister. The growth of the party system, and the gradual elimination of the Crown as the central political influence, made possible the evolution of Walpole as the first prime minister known to the convention of the constitution. As First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Walpole had extensive financial sway over his colleagues and a " large patronage", which he put to use to build support for his position and to ensure loyalty in the swelling ranks of office holders.4 At the end of the 18th century looking back on his time in government and more especially opposition, even Fox remarked that " It was impossible for the government of a great kingdom to go on, unless it had certain lucrative and honourable situations to bestow on its officers."5 And in 1850 Peel, the first prime minister to function in constitutional circumstances more or less similar to our own, remarked simply that " the Prime Minister has the patronage of the Crown to exercised".6 In short, given the political circumstances of the day, Treasury control and Treasury patronage made possible the development of the position of prime minister (and of political parties).

In the same period the institution known as the cabinet replaced the king's council as the principal deliberative forum of governments.7 The concept took root of a ministry consisting only of the heads of the great departments of state and other holders of ministerial office. Gradually, as the prime minister's powers of appointment over his colleagues increased, it became the practice for the ministry to meet in the cabinet at 10 Downing Street under the chairmanship of the prime ministers.8

In effect, the motive power of the constitution was passing from the Crown to its advisers. The Crown was becoming associated more with the dignified than with the efficient parts of the constitution. The prime minister sought to concert the policies of his colleagues and ensure their solidarity before Parliament. The latter was often breached in the 18th century. Indeed, it was not until after the Reform Act of 1832 that extended the franchise and crystallized the party system, and the complete withdrawal of the Crown from politics following the Prince Consort's death in 1861, that collective responsibility was firmly established in the convention of the constitution. 9 Nonetheless, its origins in the 18th century are unmistakable, and its lengthy gestation paralleled the maturing of the role of prime minister as the principal architect of unity within the ministry. By the close of the 18th century, the cabinet was composed solely of those charged with the administration of the departments of the government (besides of few senior colleagues holding sinecure offices), and since the passage of the Reform Act in 1832 the ministry has regarded the loss of a major initiative by any of its members in the House as vote of want of confidence and cause for the ministry as a whole to resign.10


Collective responsibility is the cement of our system of government. Its three key elements are Treasury control and the allied convention that the government alone and as a single entity may ask the Commons to approve ways and means and vote supply, and the de facto powers of appointment over ministers and other holders of high office that are exercised by a prime minister that emanate from his historic role as the arbiter of Treasury control and patronage. These are the elements that make possible the cabinet, which exists to bring together the individual responsibilities of ministers so that they may be exercised by each minister in a manner that is acceptable to all ministers. It is evident that although collective responsibility unlike individual responsibility is conventional rather than legal, it is fashioned through means that may serve to make more effective the exercise of individual responsibility and which must influence accountability within the system.

  1. During the constitutional seesaw between Crown and Commons in the 17th and 18th centuries, it became the practice to place " in commission" important offices, whose holders might become too powerful or too susceptible to the influence of the Crown or the Commons. Thus the office of Lord High Treasurer was placed in commission from time to time during the 17th century and permanently after 1714. The commission consisted of a group of individuals known as the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, who collectively fulfilled the functions of Lord High Treasurer. Similarly, in 1708 the office of Lord High Admiral was placed in commission, its functions being discharged by the Admiralty Board.
  2. Roseveare, The Treasury page 129. Operating under the close direction of the First Lord, who if a commoner strengthened his control by holding office also as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Treasury Board continued to work in this manner until the middle of the 19th century when its functions were taken over by its staff under the direction of the Chancellor of the Exchequer separate from the prime minister. The demise of the Treasury Board was the direct consequence of two developments: first, the development of a modern civil service; and, second, although the position of First Lord had been built into the post of prime minister on the basis of Treasury control and Treasury patronage, by the 1850's the prime minister was well enough established that it was no longer necessary for him personally to supervise the exercise of these powers.
  3. This was a significant development for in later years it opened the way for the prime minister to recommend the appointment of all of his colleagues in the ministry. See Anson, Law and Custom of the Constitution vol. ii, pt. i, page 190.
  4. Anson, Law and Custom of the Constitution volume ii, part i, page 191. Indeed, Walpole's use of royal patronage to influence elections led to renewed efforts to exclude office holders (other than ministers) from membership in the House of Commons. For discussion of the efforts to forbid office holders or " placemen" from membership of the Commons, see Alpheus Todd, Parliamentary Government in England (London, 1892) vol. i, pp. 242-248.
  5. See Parris, Constitutional Bureaucracy page 29. Charles James Fox was the parliamentary opponent of the younger Pitt.
  6. See Jennings, Cabinet Government page 140.
  7. The king's council was composed of a privileged group of members of the Privy Council known as cabinet councillors. The group usually included former holders of ministerial office, whom in theory the king wished to continue to consult, as well as the members of cabinet. Its complete supersession by the cabinet towards the end of the 18th century coincided with the decline of the king's participation in political activity.
  8. Modern usage, which traces its origins to the 18th century, distinguished between the ministry and the cabinet. The ministry is a term applied to ministers holding office at the pleasure of the Crown, and individually responsible in law to the Crown and by convention to the House of Commons for their activities. The cabinet is a >place provided by the prime minister to enable his colleagues informally to develop the collective responsibility of the ministry required by the convention of the constitution. In a word, the cabinet is the prime minister's cabinet and is the physical expression of collective responsibility. The ministry, on the other hand, summarizes the individual authority of its members.
  9. See A.J.P. Taylor, "Queen Victoria and the Constitution" Essays in English History (London, 1976) pp. 65-66.
  10. The first instance of a "clean sweep" of the ministry occurred in 1782 when Lord North resigned and all but one of his colleagues (the Lord Chancellor) went with him. Blake, The Office of Prime Minister page 5.