1902 Encyclopedia > Cabinet


CABINET, a conventional, but not a legal, term employed to describe those members of the Privy Council who fill the highest executive offices in the State, and who, by their concerted policy, direct the Government, and are responsible for all the acts of the Crown. The Cabinet now always includes the persons filling the following offices, who are therefore called Cabinet Ministers, viz :—The First Lord of the Treasury, the Lord Chancellor, the Lord President of the Council, the Lord Privy Seal, the five Secretaries of State, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the First Lord of the Admiralty. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Postmaster General, the First Commissioner of Works, the President of the Board of Trade, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, the President of the Poor Law Board, and the Vice-I'resident of the Education Committee are sometimes members of the Cabinet, but not necessarily so. Hence the Cabinet must consist of at least eleven members, and it has sometimes included as many as seventeen. But the better opinion appears to be that a large Cabinet is an evil. Mr Disraeli in 1874 acted wisely in restricting the numbers of his colleagues to eleven besides the Prime Minister. When Lord Grenville in 1806 brought Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough into the Cabinet by combining his judicial office with that of Lord President, the appointment was strongly reprobated, and the experi-ment has never been repeated. The Master-General of the Ordnance used to have a seat in the Cabinet, and the duke of Wellington sat there for a short time as Commander-in-Chief. Of late years there has been no military officer in the Cabinet, a thing much to be regretted. In a few in-stances privy councillors of very high standing, as the duke of Wellington, Lord Sidmouth the marquis of Lans-downe, and Lord Russell, have been summoned to the Cabinet without office. There is no constitutional objec-tion to summoning any privy councillor to the Cabinet by command of the sovereign.

The word " Cabinet," or " Cabinet Council," was originally employed as a term of reproach. Thus Lord Bacon says, in his essay Of Counsel (xx.), " The doctrine of Italy and practice of France, in some kings' times, hath introduced Cabinet Councils—a remedy worse than the disease; " and, again, " As for Cabinet Councils, it may be their motto Plenus rimarum sum." Lord Clarendon—after stating that, in 1640, when the great Council of Peers was convened by the king at York, the burden of affairs rested principally on Laud, Strafford, and Cottington, with five or six others added to them on account of their official position and ability—adds, " These persons made up the Committee of State, which was reproachfully after called the Juncto, and enviously then in Court the Cabinet Council." And in the Second B.emonstrance in January 1642, Parliament complained "of the managing of the great affairs of the realm in Cabinet Councils, by men unknown and not publicly trusted." But this use of the term, though historically curious, has in truth nothing in common with the modern application of it. It meant, at that time, the employment of a select body of favourites by the king, who were supposed to possess a larger share of his confidence than the Privy Council at large. Under the Tudors, at least from the later years of Henry VIII., and under the Stuarts, the Privy Council was the Council of State or Government. During the Common-wealth it assumed that name.

The Cabinet Council, properly so called, dates from the reign of William III. and from the year 1693, for it was not until some years after the Bevolution that the king discovered and adopted the two fundamental principles of a constitutional Executive Government, namely, that a ministry should consist of statesmen holding the same politi-cal principles and identified with each other; and, secondly, that the ministry should stand upon a parliamentary basis, that is, that it must command and retain the majority of votes in the Legislature. It was long before these principles were thoroughly worked out and understood, and the perfection to which they have been brought in modern times is the result of time, experience, and, in part, of accident. But the result is that the Cabinet Council for the time being is the Government of Great Britain ; that all the powers vested in the sovereign (with one or two exceptions) are practically exercised by the members of this body; that all the members of the Cabinet are jointly and severally responsible for all its measures, for if differences of opinion arise their existence is unknown as long as the Cabinet lasts,—when publicly manifested the Cabinet is at an end; and lastly, that the Cabinet, being responsible to the sovereign for the conduct of executive business, is also collectively responsible to Parliament both for its executive conduct and for its legislative measures, the same men being as members of the Cabinet the servants of the Crown, and as Members of Parliament and leaders of the majority responsible to those who support them by their votes and may challenge in debate every one of their actions. In this latter sense the Cabinet has sometimes been described as a Standing Committee of both Houses of Parliament.

This in reality is the form to which the active governing machinery of the British Constitution has now been brought. It has been ingeniously argued by Mr Bagehot, in his Essays on the Constitution, that " the Cabinet is a board of control, chosen by the Legislature, out of the persons whom it trusts and knows, to rule the nation," and that the choice of the Crown and of the Prime Minister, who frames the list of Cabinet Ministers to be laid before the sovereign, is in fact circumscribed and predetermined by the position which a small number of men in each party have acquired in Parliament. No man can long remain a Cabinet Minister who is not in Parlia-ment ; and of those who sit in either House of Parliament, but a small proportion have attained to the rank or influ-ence that fits a man to be a Cabinet Minister. This is especially the case in the House of Commons, largely composed of men engaged in various professions; for it is easier to find men of high senatorial rank and experience in the House of Peers than in the other House, because in England members of the Peerage are frequently trained and educated from early life for high office and the public service. The Cabinet, therefore, really originates in the Legislature, though its functions are the functions of executive government, and although it disposes on behalf of the Crown of a vast amount of power, patronage, honours, &c, to which the authority oLthe Legislature does not extend. The Cabinet has, moreover, one most important power, which it derives entirely from the Crown, namely, that of dissolving the Legislature to which it owes its own existence—though this is in fact no more than an appeal to the nation at large, whose representative the Legisla-ture is. The power of dissolving Parliament is one usually, though not always unreservedly, entrusted by the sovereign to the Prime Minister; but if withheld when solicited, the minister would resign.

Instances are not wanting in our history in which the direct action of the sovereign has overthrown a Cabin st, or prevented a Cabinet from being formed. In 1784 George III. dismissed the Coalition Ministry. In 1807 the king also dismissed Lord Grenville's Cabinet, in the teeth of Lord Erskine's declaration of the high Whig doctrine, that the king had handed over every power of government, and even his own conscience, to his responsible advisers. In these instances the Crown succeeded, and the new Parliament ratified the change. Not so in 1834 when William IV. dismissed Lord Melbourne's Cabinet, placed the duke of Wellington for some weeks in sole possession of all the Cabinet offices, and called Sir Bobert Peel to power. In 1812 Lord Moira was defeated in the attempt to form a Cabinet by the refusal of the regent to consent to a change in the household; and in 1839 a similar reason was alleged by Queen Victoria to prevent the acces-sion to office of Sir Bobert Peel. But though this step was defended and sanctioned by a minute of the Whig Cabinet of the day, it is now generally regarded as uncon-stitutional, and the objection was never repeated
One of the consequences of the close connection of the Cabinet with the Legislature is that it is desirable to divide the strength of the ministry between the two Houses of Parliament. Mr Pitt's Cabinet of 1783 consisted of him-self in the House of Commons and seven peers. But so aristocratic a Government would now be impracticable. In Mr Gladstone's large Cabinet of 1868, eight, and afterwards 'nine, ministers were in the House of Commons and six in the House of Peers. Great efforts were made to strengthen the ministerial bench in the Commons, and a new principle was introduced, that the representatives of what are called the spending departments—that is, the Secretary of State for War and the First Lord of the Admiralty— should, if possible, be members of the House which votes the supplies, Mr Disraeli followed this precedent.

Although the Government of this country is one of extreme publicity, it is to the credit of the good sense and good faith of Englishmen that the deliberations and pro-ceedings of the Executive Government are veiled in impene-trable secrecy, until the moment when the result of them is made known. Beyond the meagre announcement in the Court Circular of the bare fact that a Cabinet has been held, and that certain ministers were present, nothing .is communicated to the public. Cabinets are usually convoked by a summons addressed to " Her Majesty's Confi-dential Servants," by direction of the Prime Minister; and the ordinary place of meeting is the Foreign Office, but they may be held anywhere. No secretary or other officer is present at the deliberations of this council. No official record is kept of its proceedings, and it is even considered a breach of ministerial confidence to keep a private record of what passed in the Cabinet, inasmuch as such memoranda may fall into other hands. But on some important occasions, as is known from the Memoirs of Lord Sidmouth, the Correspondence of Earl Grey with King William IV., and from Sir Bobert Peel's Memoirs, published by per-mission of the Queen, Cabinet minutes are drawn up and submitted to the sovereign, as the most formal manner in which the advice of the ministry can be tendered to the Crown and placed upon record. More commonly, it is the duty of the Prime Minister to lay the collective opinion of his colleagues before the sovereign, and take his or her pleasure on public measures and appointments. The sovereign never presides at a Cabinet, and at the meetings of the Privy Council, where the sovereign does preside, the business is purely formal. It has been laid down by some writers as a principle of the British Constitution that the sovereign is never present at a discussion between the advisers of the Crown ; and this is, no doubt, an established fact and practice. But like many other political usages of this country it originated in a happy accident. King William and Queen Anne always presided at weekly Cabinet Councils. But when the Hanoverian princes ascended the throne, they knew no English, and were barely able to converse at all with their ministers ; for George I. or George II. to take part in, or even to listen to, a debate in council was impossible. When George III. mounted the throne the practice of the independent deliberations of the Cabinet was well established, and it has never been departed from. In no other country has this practice been introduced, and perhaps this is one reason why in many instances constitutional government has failed to take root.

Differences of opinion, of course, occur in all bodies of men, and arguments are frequently presented with greater ability and temper in private than in public debate. These differences are decided in the Cabinet, as in all committees of council, by the majority of votes, and the rule holds good in all of them that " no man shall make publication of how the minority voted " The vote once taken and the question decided, every member of the Cabinet becomes equally responsible for the decision, and is equally bound to support and defend it. A decided difference of opinion cannot be persisted in or publicly expressed without withdrawing from the Cabinet, as when Mr Gladstone quitted Sir Bobert Peel's administration upon the proposal to endow Maynooth. Hence it arises that resignations, or threats of resignation, are much more common than the public imagine ; and a good deal of tact and management is continually exercised in reconciling these differences. A serious "division in the Cabinet" is, as is well known, an infallible sign of its approaching dissolution. There are cases in which a minister has been dismissed for a departure from the concerted action of his colleagues. Thus, in 1851, Lord Palmerston having expressed to ,the French ambassador in London his unqualified approbation of the coup d'etat of Louis Napoleon against the Assembly, when the Cabinet had resolved on observing a strict neutrality on the subject, Lord Bussed advised Her Majesty to withdraw from Lord Palmerston the seals of the Foreign Department, and his lordship never again filled that office.

A clause was introduced into the Act of Settlement of 1705 requiring all Acts of State to be transacted in the Privy Council and signed by all the members present. This provision was found to be inconvenient, and was repealed two years afterwards. According to modern usage only one kind of public document is signed by all the mem-bers of the Cabinet, as privy councillors, and that is the order for general reprisals which constitutes a declara-tion of war. Such an order was issued against Russia in 1854, and was signed by all the members of Lord Aber-deen's Cabinet.

Upon the resignation or dissolution of a ministry, the sovereign exercises the undoubted prerogative of selecting the person who may be thought by the Court most fit to-form a new Cabinet. In several instances the statesmen selected by the Crown have found themselves unable to accomplish the task confided to them. But in more favour-able cases the minister chosen for this supreme office "by the Crown has the power of distributing all the political offices of the Government as may seem best to himself, subject only to the ultimate approval of the sovereign. The First Minister is therefore in reality the author and constructor of the Cabinet; he holds it together; and in the event of his retirement, from whatever cause, the Cabinet is really dissolved, even though its members are again united under another head, as was the case when Lord Melbourne succeeded Lord Grey in 1834, and when Mr Disraeli succeeded Lord Derby in February 1868. Each member of the Cabinet, in fact, holds office under the First Lord of the Treasury, and in the event of resignation it is to him that the announcement of such an intention should be made.

The best account of the Cabinet council and of the other execu-tive machinery of the constitution is to be found in Mr Alpheus Todd's Essay on Parliamentary Government in England (2 vols. 8vo, 1867-69), where all the authorities are collected—Hallam, May, John Austin, Lord Macaulay—and a vast quantity of political infor-mation, compiled from debates and bearing on this subject. Mr Bagehot's Essay on the English Constitution contains an ingenious comparison, or rather contrast, between the British Cabinet and the administrative mechanism of the United States of America. (H. K.)


Thus, under Charles II., in 1671, the king's confidential advisers were Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale. The initial letters of their names spell the word " Cabal ; " and Lord Macaulay affirms that the word cabal was popularly used as synony-mous with cabinet. But the word cabal certainly never was applied to any other cabinet: and the cabal itself was not in truth a cabinet at all,

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