Tony Blair Prime Minister or President The Guardian 2005
Ever since he swept to power in 1997, Tony Blair’s unique dominance over his party and indeed, the UK’s political scene, has attracted comparisons with a ‘presidential’ figure. Inevitably, the president most often cited is the American one. This note seeks to analyse: the origin of this debate about the increased importance of the British Prime Minister; the impact of Thatcher and Blair on the debate; and why the arguments in favour of there being a British Presidency might possibly be persuasive.
The Origin of the Debate
The famous work on the British Constitution by Walter Bagehot embodied a classic conception of the office which has informed many traditional textbook versions of British politics. This involved the idea of the PM as essentially a chairman of the nation’s most important committee, engaged in a constant search for consensus. The term ‘primus inter pares’- first amongst equals - used to describe a reality but could not now be said to do so.
Emergence of the Prime Minister
Britain originally was an absolute monarchy which increasingly found it had to exchange power with an advisory parliament in order to gain the resources to govern. Soon parliament, which developed into an aristocratic House of Lords and gentleman-filled House of Commons, clashed with the monarch in the Civil War 1639-1660. The decapitation of Charles I in 1649 symbolised the loss of decisive power to parliament, confirmed by the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 whereby the monarch agreed to be bound by the wishes of parliament.
During the 18th century, parliament had to deal with the Hanoverian kings, who chose their ministers from parliament to facilitate easy passage of their requests. Inevitably, the person who liaised between king and ministers came to occupy a unique role and one which grew in power as the century progressed, especially as the early kings were not always fully engaged with the issues or indeed the English language. The initial conduit was the chief finance minister, the First Lord of the Treasury, but as this office increasingly became associated with that of the ‘Prime Minister’, the Chancellor of the Exchequer came to exercise the main control over economic policy.
The Classic View of the British Prime Minister
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Prime Minister had become the most important politician
in the land, with the monarch relegated to a position of constitutional decoration and occasional influence. But the PM lacked the authority of former monarchs. This is the period when he was first among usually aristocratic equals and sought to create the consensus in Cabinet, which would propel measures through parliament without difficulty. This era of restricted PM power came to an end as: the scope of government extended rapidly in the twentieth century; when the war imposed the need for a more muscular control of the levers of government; when the reinforcement of party dominance required a more dominant leader;
and when the growth of the media placed the leader of the government in a spotlight which demanded a more proactive kind of leadership. By the middle of the century, the strength of Cabinet in relation to the PM had further weakened as a result of the former being ‘hollowed out’ by cabinet committees which dealt with matters before they reached full cabinet. Consequently, the PM became more of a chairman of a ‘supervising’ committee, receiving and monitoring reports from subordinate cabinet committees. At the same time, two other factors strengthened the PM further:
a) the expansion of the assistance on which he could call, like the Cabinet Office, founded in 1916 and indispensable thereafter.
b) major improvements in media coverage, especially the introduction of television into politics in the late fifties.
The PM versus Cabinet Government Debate
As long ago as the 1960s, commentators were claiming the increasing power of the PM had reached the point where ‘Prime Ministerial’ government had taken over from traditional ‘Cabinet Government’. Academic, John Mackintosh, and Labour politician, Richard Crossman, adduced a number of arguments: the PM’s control over appointments and job jurisdictions; chairing of the Cabinet and consequent control over its agenda and proceedings; controlling patronage, the distribution of public appointments and honours; and the growth of the PM’s personal staff. Moreover, the evolution of Cabinet committees enabled the PM to exercise control over their membership and chairs. The tendency of PMs to form ‘inner cabinets’ to provide close advice was also cited as a means of bypassing full cabinet on such key issues as deciding to build a nuclear capacity just after the war. Mackintosh coined the term ‘Prime Ministerial’ government but Crossman was the first to use the presidential analogy: ‘we in England have a president as truly as the Americans’. Tony Benn, in 1979, sought to argue for a diminution of PM power. He criticised the use by the PM of the ‘royal prerogative’ to extend personal power and, at the same time, avoid accountability to parliament. George Jones of the LSE, however, ridiculed this line of argument, claiming that for each ‘increase’ in power there was a corresponding ‘decrease’ which could be perceived. This was called the 'elastic model'. However, this debate was conducted before a transforming effect on British politics occurred: the arrival of Mrs M. Thatcher.
The Thatcher Effect
Thatcher was unusual in British politics in being a ‘conviction politician’. Consequently, she was concerned to maximise her power to achieve what she thought was necessary. She was not especially fecund in creating new structures, however, she was perhaps better at demolishing rather than building e.g. her dissolving of the Think Tank (CPRS) in 1983. Her impact was consequently limited [though, it must be said, she established a template that Blair was keen to follow, albeit in his own less confrontational way]. Her style was to challenge and overcome by sheer force of argument and personality. She did not bring in legions of her followers like an American president, though her personal staff were influential. But she did:
a) chair cabinets in a way which made resistance difficult; she began by stating her view thus making it hard for her colleagues to dissent even if they disagreed. She also used to treat some colleagues with scant respect, the worst victim being Geoffrey Howe. However, such behaviour has its downside as resentment builds up and then is expressed damagingly as when Howe resigned and made the devastating resignation speech in November 1990, and began the process leading to Thatcher’s fall.
b) reduce the number of cabinet meetings held and limit the subjects for discussion [e.g. economic policy] during her first two years in power.
c) bypass full cabinet by holding small ad hoc meetings with the ministers and officials concerned with an issue.
d) weed out those in her cabinet who disagreed with her so that her agenda could have precedence, e.g. her early cabinet contained a number of leftish ‘wet’ ministers, like Ian Gilmour and St. John Stevas, but she was able to dispense with them after a couple of years.
e) have a regal ‘Head of State’ Manner. In addition, Margaret Thatcher, while ostensibly deferring to the Queen as head of state, in practice behaved rather like one herself and even usurped the royal ‘we’ as in ‘we are a grandmother’ when Mark and his wife had a baby. But, on balance, it cannot be said that her period in power proved cabinet government was dead as it was her own cabinet which when consulted, advised her to resign; advice which she tearfully and bitterly took on 21st November 1990.
Major: a Reaction to Thatcher?
John Major was believed to be a ‘true believer’ Thatcherite by Thatcherites, but he was essentially a right-leaning One Nation Conservative. He was also a conciliator rather than a warrior, and wanted to ‘heal the wounds’ of ten years of abrasive government. Consequently, his style was initially emollient and collegiate, encouraging debate and allowing some dissent. However, this changed after the emergence of the Eurosceptic rebels, whipped on behind the scenes by the deposed Thatcher. Then, his consensualism was perceived as dithering and weak, so he attempted to change but by then his authority was fatally weakened and his party became almost ungovernable. The result was a slow death for the Conservatives long period in power, and the election in 1997, with a majority of 179, of another political phenomenon: Anthony Charles Lynton Blair.
Impact of Tony Blair: Counter-Arguments
It’s a widely canvassed idea that Blair, with his huge majority, repeated in 2001, is effectively a new kind of British president but critics argue this comparison is misleading because the US presidency is:
a) fixed term - he has to step down after four years and cannot recontest after eight.
b) elected separately - he has a national constituency, while the British PM’s democratic authority is based on being an ordinary MP and leader of the biggest party in the Commons.
c) restricted by the constitution - he cannot exceed the historic limits of his office, while the PM can work within the elastic limits of no written constitution.
d) not able to dominate the legislature which is also separately elected - the president has to negotiate with Congress to coax his measures through.
e) limited by different party practices - party loyalty and discipline is much less strict in the US, and the president is forced to use persuasion to get his own way. He can dominate the executive but not the legislature in the way the PM can through his leadership of the majority party which can be relied upon to support him/her.
Other critics of the ‘presidential’ thesis claim that the analogy is simplistic and that the underlying reality of British politics is provided by the pull of the major departments of state and the collective authority of cabinet. Look, they point out, how the elastic - which Mrs Thatcher had stretched - snapped back once she had gone in the form of Major’s more traditional style. So, Blair cannot be compared with the constitutionally very different president, and maybe he is just a one-off, yet another dynamic figure who has stretched the elastic. Michael Foley in his The British Presidency, argues that Blair should be seen as a qualitatively more powerful kind of leader compared with his predecessors, but also as the product of forces which are likely to be permanent rather than temporary. This is because of a number of developments which he perceives:
Foley argues that modern politics places much greater emphasis on leadership roles, and he draws on US experience to show how this tendency has crossed the Atlantic. Blair came to power in the Labour Party in 1994, and at once proceeded to stamp his imprint. Major, at this time was suffering badly from an impression of being indecisive and weak. Blair made much of this, saying woundingly (according to Major) on one occasion: ‘I lead my party, he follows his’. The 1992 election, which many thought Labour could and should have won, had a traumatic and continuing effect on Blair and the party, making them fear that poll leads reflected ‘soft’ vulnerable support which the Conservatives could destroy with their campaigning abilities. Having established such a theme of superior leadership, it was natural that Blair should seek to fulfil his opposition rhetoric when in office and to establish credentials for the second term. Maybe also he has been concerned to negate the constant challenge of Gordon Brown through assiduous cultivation of his leadership position.
Media Campaign Requirements
Foley argues that the ‘permanent campaign’ style of modern politics requires a new approach. New Labour based its approach on polling and focus groups to find out more about voters’ wishes and sensitivities. Such political marketing requires a strong brand and, inevitably, party leaders or presidential candidates are expected to provide this. Families are important too, witness Bush’s assembly of his at the 2004 Republican Convention. Blair and Howard have already done this in British politics. Clinton had already provided pointers about how wider popular appeal could be won through appearances on chat shows and selected publicity winning visits. The concern of such tactics was to break through the phalanx of media personnel, many of whom are negatively biased, and make contact with voters direct. Blair has also done regular countrywide Q and A sessions with voters and introduced a series of events where he meets the press where he appears unmediated by media people. Interestingly, he has adopted a tactic over Iraq, as the election approaches, of opening himself to often scathing criticism from members of the public, often Labour voters too. The idea here seems to be that such ‘prostration’ before the lash of criticism will exorcise the issue and draw its sting.
Foley makes much of the American ploy of being ‘above’ or ‘outside’ the political establishment; as if the candidate is the voters’ ally against ‘them’ in Washington. Nixon, Reagan and Clinton were past masters at it and Bush junior too. In Britain, Thatcher was an outside ‘radical’ battling against the system. Blair also has cultivated a certain ‘otherness’, a frustration with ‘conservatism’ for example in the public services or Old Labour. Indeed, his record is one of taking on his own party and defeating enemies within, over Clause Four, the Public Finance Initiative or university top-up fees. Blair offers himself as the sensible ordinary person’s advocate against the intractabilities of political life. Foley’s argument is that this defence of the ordinary person - ‘Mondeo’ or ‘Sierra Man’ or ‘Worcester Woman’ - is now an established element in our politics and will impel future leaders to behave likewise. Blair also took opportunities to ‘speak for the nation’ on occasions like the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, when he canonised her with Alastair Campbell’s words: the People’s Princess’.
Labour ‘modernisers’ emphasised how important it was to focus on the leader - Blair’s pollster, Philip Gould, advising in 1995 that to win, ‘New Labour’ needed to be more flexible and innovative to react to political situations as Mrs Thatcher had. The answer was a ‘single chain of command leading directly to the leader of the party’. Once in power, Blair maintained the discipline of the opposition years with Labour HQ, in Millbank Tower, issuing pagers to all MPs to keep them ‘on message’ and applying pressure to the constituency parties of those who threatened to rebel. This approach was described as ‘Orwellian’ by one critic. His opposition to Ken Livingstone as the candidate for Mayor of London, and Rhodri Morgan as leader of the Welsh Labour Party, was one expression of this ‘control freakery’; both were perceived to be too left-wing and not of the leader’s way of thinking. But, ‘Red Ken’ stood as an independent and won, while Morgan was eventually selected as leader. Labour has traditionally been a party riven by factions,
all of which became expert at manipulating party machinery to get their views across. This appearance of noisy disunity was not good for the party’s electability, and Blair’s modernisers did much to smooth the party machinery away so that policy forums ventilated controversies before the annual conference, in private if needs be. This is what critics meant by the adjective ‘Stalinist’ when applied to Blair’s party management approach.
Within a year of 1997, commentators were reporting that cabinet meetings were short and more a record of decisions made elsewhere than major policy discussions. Peter Hennessy focused on the annual agreements that Blair reached with each Cabinet minister and each permanent secretary of each department regarding aims and objectives for the coming year. ‘We’ve never seen’ he writes ‘such a tangible instrument and extension of prime ministerial power, as this before’. Reports on the decision to build the ill-fated Millennium Dome in 1997 revealed that there was probably a majority against it but it was agreed because ‘Tony wants it’. Similarly, and even more serious, there was considerable dissent over the decision to join the USA in invading Iraq but, again, the force of Blair’s wishes won the day, despite two resignations from the Cabinet by Robin Cook and Clare Short. The Butler Report into the intelligence gathering surrounding the war criticised the way in which Blair’s modus operandi - often unminuted meetings held informally involving officials as a few ministers or ‘sofa decision-making’ - short circuited the Cabinet and subverted accountable government.
Control of the Government Machine
As soon as he was in power, Blair’s aide, Jonathon Powell, declared the new regime would be a Napoleonic one or centralised leadership. To assist him, he:
a) increased his political staff to nearly 80 - many of them concerned with managing the media - but also a host of new units like the Social Exclusion Unit, the Policy and Innovation Unit and the Centre of Management and Policy Studies. Most of these have been located in the Cabinet Office but many of them reporting direct to the PM.
b) Blair has also developed the ability to intervene in a variety of areas as necessary, be it Northern Ireland, welfare reform, health, education or Europe. His detachment enables him to intervene using the skills of a ‘quasi-presidential figure above the fray’ (Foley, p.321).
c) By the same token, Blair has shown little interest in Parliament, seldom appearing in the tea-room as Thatcher or even Callaghan did, but restricting his time in the chamber to Prime Minister’s Questions and occasional votes: in 2003-4 he voted in only 5% of divisions.
Inevitably, foreign policy projects a Prime Minister onto a wider canvass on which he tends to look more presidential. Blair has taken to this side of his job with élan and great enthusiasm, conferring with EU heads, standing shoulder to shoulder with George Bush, and seeking to push his special interests like peace in the Middle East or debt relief for Africa. It might be said that Blair’s powerful sense of moral purpose is best shown in this sphere and, again, the result is to make him look more like a world statesman rather than the leader of a middle ranking European power.
The arguments on this theme are still contested, and time alone-in the form of how future PMs behave,
will prove whether Foley’s analysis is correct. He argues that developments in democratic politics introduced in the USA have a potent effect on Europe, especially the UK. He sees the evolution of parties as marketing exercises for candidates, the desire of the media for a powerful brand image and the tendency of presidents to offer themselves as ‘above the fray’ on the side of the common man, has increased the possibility of British Prime Ministers seeking to enhance traditional roles by being more assertive and powerful. Evidence is adduced of Blair’s drive to win popular support through overcoming internal party support, his bypassing of Cabinet and ignoring of parliament, his concern to seize the levers of power in Whitehall and his grandstanding on the world stage. Of course, no British PM can exercise the powers of an American president, but, within the flexible limits of the British parliamentary system, a British Presidency seems to have emerged.
Michael Foley, The British Presidency, MUP, 2000.
Michael Foley, John Major, Tony Blair and a Conflict of Leadership, MUP, 2002.
Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon, The Powers Behind the Prime Minister, Harper Collins, 1999.
Peter Hennessy, The Hidden Wiring, Golllancz, 1995.
Bill Jones, March 2005