1902 Encyclopedia > Ministry


MINISTRY. Ever since the introduction of monarchical institutions into England the sovereign has always been surrounded by a select body of confidential advisers to assist the crown in the government of the country. At no period could a king of England act, according to law, without advice in the public concerns of the kingdom; the institution of the crown of England and the insti-tution of the privy council are coeval. At the era of the Norman Conquest the king's council, or as it is now called the privy council, was composed of certain select members of the aristocracy and great officers of state, specially summoned by the crown, with whom the sove-reign usually advised in matters of state and government. In the earlier stages of English constitutional history the king's councillors, as confidential servants of the monarch, were present at every meeting of parliament in order to advise upon matters judicial in the House of Lords; but in the reign of Richard II. the privy coun-cil dissolved its judicial connexion with the peers and assumed an independent jurisdiction of its own. It was in the reign of Henry VI. that the king's council first assumed the name of privy council, and it was also during the minority of this sovereign that a select council was gradually emerging from out of the larger body of the privy council, which ultimately resulted in the institution of the modern cabinet. Since the Revolution of 1688, and the development of the system of parliamentary govern-ment, the privy council has dwindled into comparative insignificance when contrasted with its original authorita-tive position. The power once swayed by the privy council is now exercised by that unrecognized select committee of the council which we call the cabinet. The practice of consulting a few confidential advisers instead of the whole privy council had been resorted to by English monarchs from a very early period; but the first mention of the term cabinet council in contradistinction to privy council occurs in the reign of Charles I., when the burden of state affairs was intrusted to the committee of state which Clarendon says was enviously called the " cabinet council." At first government by cabinet was as unpopular as it was irregular. Until the formation of the first parliamentary ministry by William III. the ministers of the king occupied no recognized position in the House of Commons; it was indeed a moot point whether they were entitled to sit at all in the lower chamber, and they were seldom of one mind in the administration of matters of importance. Before the Revolution of 1688 there were ministers, but no ministry in the modern sense of the word; colleague schemed against colleague in the council chamber, and it was no uncommon thing to see ministers opposing one another in parliament upon measures that ought to have been supported by a united cabinet. As the exchange from government by prerogative to government by parlia-ment, consequent upon the Revolution of 1688, developed, and the House of Commons became more and more the centre and force of the state, the advantage of having ministers in the legislature to explain and defend the measures and policy of the executive Government began gradually to be appreciated. The public authority of the crown being only exercised in acts of administration, or, in other words, through the medium of ministers, it became absolutely necessary that the advisers of the sovereign, who were responsible for every public act of the crown as well as for the general policy they had been called upon to administer, should have seats in both Houses of Parliament. The presence of ministers in the legislature was the natural consequence of the substitution of government by parlia-ment for the order of things that had existed before 1688. Still nearly a century had to elapse before political unanimity in the cabinet was recognized as a political maxim. From the first parliamentary ministry of William III. until the rise of the second Pitt divisions in the cabinet were constantly occurring, and a prime minister had more to fear from the intrigues of his own colleagues than from-the tactics of the opposition. In 1812 an attempt was made to form a ministry consisting of men of opposite political principles, who were invited to accept office, not avowedly as a coalition Government, but with an offer to the Whig leaders that their friends should be allowed a majority of one in the cabinet. This offer was declined on the plea that to construct a cabinet on " a system of counteraction was inconsistent with the prosecution of any uniform and beneficial course of policy." From that date it has been an established principle that all cabinets are to be formed on some basis of political union agreed upon hy the members composing the same when they accept office together. It is now also distinctly understood that the members of a cabinet are jointly and severally responsible for each other's acts, and that any attempt to separate between a particular minister and his colleagues in such matters is unfair and unconstitutional.

The leading members of an administration constitute the CABINET (q.v.). The members of an administration who are sworn of the council, but who are not cabinet minis-ters, are the lord-lieutenant of Ireland, the vice-president of the council for education, the judge advocate general, and the chief officers of the royal household. The sub-ordinate members of an administration who are never in the cabinet, and who are seldom raised to the distinction of privy councillors, are the junior lords of the treasury, the joint-secretaries to the treasury, the paymaster-general, the junior lords of the admiralty, the parliamentary under-secretaries of state, and the law officers of the crown.

During the present century the power of ministers has been greatly extended, and their duties more distinctly marked out. Owing to the development of the system of parliamentary government, much of the authority which formerly belonged to English sovereigns has been delegated to the hands of responsible ministers. As now interpreted, the leading principles of the British constitution are the personal irresponsibility of the sovereign, the responsibility of ministers, and the inquisitorial power of parliament. At the head of affairs is the prime minister, and the difference between theory and practice is curiously exemplified by the post he fills. The office is full of anomalies. Like the cabinet council the prime minister is unknown to the law and the constitution, for legally and according to the fictions of the constitution no one privy councillor has as such any superiority over another, yet practically the premier is the pivot on which the whole administration turns. He is the medium of intercourse between the cabinet and the sovereign; he has to be cognizant of all matters of real importance that take place in the different departments so as to exercise a controlling influence in the cabinet; he is virtually responsible for the disposal of the entire patronage of the crown; he selects his colleagues, and by his resignation of office dissolves the ministry. Yet, though entrusted with this power, and wielding an almost absolute authority, he is in theory but the equal of the colleagues he appoints and whose opposition he can silence by the threat of dissolu-tion. The prime minister is nominated by the sovereign. " I offered," said Sir Robert Peel on his resignation of office, "no opinion as to the choice of a successor. That is almost the only act which is the personal act of the sovereign; it is for the sovereign to determine in whom her confidence shall be placed." Yet this selection by the crown is practically limited. No prime minister could carry on the government of the country for any length of time who did not possess the confidence of the House of Commons; and royal favour, if it were ever invidiously exercised, would ultimately have to yield to a regard for the public interests. As a general rule the prime minister holds the office of first lord of the treasury, either alone or in connexion with that of chancellor of the exchequer. Before 1806 the premiership was occasionally held in connexion with different other offices,—a secretaryship of state, the privy seal, and the like,—but it is now almost invariably associated with the post of first lord of the treasury. With the exception of the premier, whose duties are more general than departmental, the work of the other members of the administration is exemplified by the title of the offices to which they are called. The lord chancellor, in addition to the jurisdiction which he exercises in his judicial capacity, is prolocutor of the House of Lords by prescription, the keeper of the sovereign's conscience, the general guardian of all infants, idiots, and lunatics, and to him belongs the appointment of all the justices of the peace throughout the kingdom. In former times the lord chancellor was frequently prime minister; the earl of Clarendon in the reign of Charles II., however, was the last who occupied that position. The lord president of the council, who is always a member of the Upper House, presides over the department of the privy council, exercises a general superintendence over the education department, and has to frame minutes of council upon subjects which do not belong to any other department of state. Sub-ordinate to his department are separate establishments in relation to public health, the cattle plague, and quarantine. The post of lord privy seal is one of great trust, though its duties are not very onerous, since they simply consist in applying the privy seal once or twice a week to a number of patents. Ever since the days of Henry VIII. the privy seal has been the warrant of the legality of grants from the crown and the authority of the lord chancellor for affixing the great seal. The lord privy seal is always a member of the cabinet. As his official duties .are light he is at liberty to afford assistance to the administration in other ways, and he has often to attend to matters which require the investigation of a member of the Government.
The secretaries of state are among the most important members of the ministry, and within the present century their number has been increased and their duties more specially consolidated. The ancient English monarchs were always attended by a learned ecclesi-astic, known at first as their clerk, and afterwards as secretary, who conducted the royal correspondence; but it was not until the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth that these functionaries were called secretaries of state. Upon the direction of public affairs passing from the privy council to the cabinet after 1688, the secre-taries of state began to assume those high duties which now render their office one of the most influential of an administration. Until the reign of Henry VIII. there was generally only one secretary of state, but at the end of his reign a second principal secretary was appointed. Owing to the increase of business consequent upon the union of Scotland, a third secretary, in 1708, was created, but a vacancy occurring in this office in 1746 the third secretaryship was dispensed with until 1768, when it was again instituted to take charge of the increasing colonial business. However, in 1782 the office was again abolished, and the charge of the colonies trans-ferred to the home secretary; but owing to the war with France in 1791 a third secretary was once more appointed to superintend the business of the war department, and seven years later the colonial business was attached to his department. In 1854 a fourth secre-tary of state for the exclusive charge of the war department and in 1858 a fifth secretaryship for fndia were created. There are there-fore now five principal secretaries of state, four of whom, with their political under-secretaries, occupy seats in the House of Commons. One of these secretaries of state is always a member of the House of Lords. The secretaries of state are the only authorized channels through which the royal pleasure is signified to any part of the body politic, and the counter-signature of one of them is necessary to give validity to the sign manual; thus, while the personal immunity of the sovereign is secured, a responsible adviser for every act is provided who has to answer for whatever course the crown has pursued. The secretaries of state constitute but one office, and are coordinate in rank and equal in authority. Each is competent in general to execute any part of the duties of the secretary of state, the division of duties being a mere matter of arrangement. These duties are of the deepest importance to the welfare of the nation. The home secretary controls all matters relating to the internal affairs of the country : he is responsible for the preservation of the public peace and for the security of life and property throughout the kingdom ; he exercises extensive powers over the civil and military authorities of the country, and has a direct controlling power over the administration of justice and police in the municipal boroughs, over the police in and around London, and over the county constabulary ; and he is especially responsible for the exer-cise of the royal prerogative in the reprieve or pardon of convicted offenders or the commutation of their sentences. The foreign secre-tary, as his name implies, is the official organ of the crown in all communications between Great Britain and foreign powers: he negotiates all treaties or alliances with foreign states, protects British subjects residing abroad, and demands satisfaction for any injuries they may sustain at the hands of foreigners. The secretary of state for the colonies has to superintend the government of the various colonial possessions of the British crown : he appoints the governors over the different dependencies of the crown, and sanc-tions or disallows the enactments of the colonial legislatures. This latter power has of late years been much curtailed owing to the establishment of responsible government in most of the colonies ; still it is the duty of the secretary of the colonies to correspond with the colonial governors and to offer such suggestions as may be expedient to assist the deliberations of the colonial councils and to promote the welfare of colonial subjects. Until the year 1854 the direction of military affairs was practically divided between the commander-in-chief at the horse guards, the board of ordnance, the secretary at war, and the secretary of state for war and the colonies. Upon the declaration of hostilities, however, against Russia in 1854, the duties of war minister wrere separated from those of colonial secretary, and a secretary of state for war appointed, in whose hands the supreme and responsible authority over the whole military business of the country formerly transacted by the various depart-ments was placed. The actions of the commander-in-chief are sub-ject to the approval of the secretary of state for war. The duties of the commander-in-chief embrace the discipline and patronage of the army and the direct superintendence of the personnel of the army; with the exception of those duties, everything connected with the management of the army in peace or war (its materiel and civil administration, &c.) remains in the hands of the war minister. The subordinate position of the commander-in-chief is the result of the British system of parliamentary government. The secretary of state for war is the minister of the crown and not of parliament; although he is responsible to parliament for the advice he may give to the sovereign, yet it is in the execution of the royal authority and prerogative that he is superior to the officer commanding in chief. The principle of the constitutional army is that command, prefer-ment, and honour come to it from the crown; but the general prin-ciple is equally undisputed that for all pecuniary remuneration it is made to depend on parliament. By the constitution the crown exercises its authority only through responsible advisers, and hence it follows that the secretary of state for war is supreme over any authority in the army, including the officer commanding in chief. From 1784 to 1858 the territories belonging to the British crown in the East Indies were governed by a department of state called the board of control in conjunction with the court of directors of the East India Company. In 1858 this double government was abolished, and the entire administration of the British empire in India was assumed by the crown, and all the powers formerly exer-cised by the East India Company and the board of control were transferred to a fifth principal secretary of state. The secretary for India is responsible for everything connected with the Indian Government at home and abroad ; the whole of the Indian revenues are at his disposal, and the governor-general of India is subject to his control. To assist him in his labours, and to act as a check upon the exercise of his otherwise arbitrary administrative powers, this secretary has the aid of a council of state for India, consisting of fifteen persons, of which, however, he is the president. The members of the council for India cannot sit in the House of Commons.

The duties of the other rmmbers of the ministry can be briefly dismissed. The chancellor of the exchequer at present exercises all the powers which formerly devolved upon the treasury board ; he has the entire control of atl matters relating to the receipt and expenditure of public money; he frames the annual estimates of the sums required to defray the expenditure of government in every branch of the public service; and it is his duty to lay before the country the annual statement of the estimated expenses of govern-ment and of the ways and means by which it is proposed to defray those charges, including the imposition or remission of taxes. The first lord of the admiralty (since the abolition of the office of lord high admiral), with the aid of the junior lords who are called the lords of the admiralty, conducts the administration of the entire naval force of the empire both at home and abroad, and is respon-sible to parliament for all his political proceedings ; as the admiralty is but an executive board, it is, however, subject on certain matters —the number of men required for the naval service, the distribution of the fleet, the strength of foreign squadrons, &c.—to the control of the cabinet. The president of the board of trade takes cognizance of all matters relating to trade and commerce, and has to protect the mercantile interests of the United Kingdom ; until 1864 it w-as not necessary for the president to have a seat in the cabinet, but since that date he has always been a cabinet minister in order to insure for his advice on commercial matters a due consideration; in 1867 the office of vice-president of the board was abolished. The chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster exercises jurisdiction over all matters of equity relating to lands held of the crown in right of the duchy of Lancaster ; the office is, however, practically a sinecure, and is usually filled by a leading statesman whose time is at the service of the Government for the consideration of such important questions as do not come within the province of other departments. In 1832 the public works and buildings of Great Britain were for the first time placed under the control of a responsible minister of the crown, and were assigned to the charge of the commissioners of woods and forests ; but in 1851 the department of public works was separated from the woods and forests and erected into a board under the name of the office of her majesty's works and public buildings. The first commissioner of works is the head of the board, and in his hands is placed the custody of the royal palaces and parks and of all public buildings not specially assigned to the care of other depart-ments. Since the establishment of his office the first commissioner has frequently had a seat in the cabinet. The duties of the post-master-general, of the president of the local government board, and of the minor members of the administration are so obvious from the titles of the offices they hold as not to call for any special mention.

The prime minister is responsible for the distribution of the chief offices of government between the two Houses of Parliament. Owing to the development of the House of Commons within the present century it is now considered advisable that a larger propor-tion of cabinet ministers should have seats in that chamber than was formerly the case. In the first cabinet of George III. only one of its members was in the House of Commons and thirteen in the House of Lords. In 1783 Mr Pitt was the sole cabinet minister in the Commons. In 1801 four cabinet ministers were in the Commons and five in the Lords. In 1804 Mr Pitt and Lord Castlereagh were, out of a cabinet of twelve, the only ministers in the Commons. In the Grenville ministry ("All the Talents"), of a cabinet of eleven, seven were in the Lords and four in the Commons. In 1809, of Mr Perceval's cabinet, six were peers and four commoners. In 1812, of Lord Liverpool's cabinet, ten were peers and only two commoners. In 1818, out of a cabinet of fourteen, six were commoners ; and in 1822, out of a cabinet of fifteen, nine were peers. Since the Reform Act of 1832, however, the leading members of Government have been more equally apportioned between the two Houses.

See May, Constitutional History of England ; Cox, Institutions of the English Government; Alphetts Todd, On Parliamentary Government; Cooke, History of Party. (A. C. E.)

The above article was written by: Alex C. Ewald. Record Office, London.

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