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How and why has the role of the prime minister changed over the post-1945 period?

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Introduction

PIED 3160 Prime Ministers and British politics Section B 2) How and why has the role of the prime minister changed over the post-1945 period? Amongst the literature devoted to the various prime ministers that have held office since 1945, there is by no means a consensus that the job of the prime minister has changed in the last half century. Jones suggests that "the conventional wisdom expressed by some academics and journalists [is] that the position of the prime minister in the British system of government has altered significantly in recent years"(King, 1985, p195). However in an academic textbook, it is alleged that "the job of the prime minister has remained essentially unchanged for the past century"(Rose, 2001, p55) The world has changed so much since 1945 that inevitably the roles performed by prime ministers over the last 59 years have altered. Whilst prime minister's roles may have changed in order to adapt to different circumstances at different times, the job of prime minister has not necessarily developed new roles. As Hodder-Williams points out "all alterations are changes; development, on the other hand, implies a number of changes which move in one perceptible direction" (1995, p225). This serves to explain the confusion surrounding whether or not the job of the prime minister has changed since 1945. One reason why difficulties arise in demonstrating how the job of prime minister has changed is because the office of prime minister has no formal powers dictated by a constitution. The prime ministership "is not an office with powers stipulated in a written constitution, as in America or France" (Rhodes, 2000, p48). The prime ministership is instead "best conceived of as a combination of roles or relationships" (Hodder-Williams, 1995, p226). These relationships are with the cabinet, the public, parliament, and other nations. Due to a lack of definition concerning these relationships, prime ministers have varied in almost every dimension of the job. ...read more.

Middle

Prime minister's today also have far more international commitments than they did in 1945. Since the early 1970's the prime minister has been obliged to attend regular international summits. He/she is "enmeshed, as a central part of his or her working life, in a network of relationships extending far beyond Britain's shores and includes ... NATO as well as the commonwealth and the European community" (King, 1991, p33). Britain's control over international affairs has been reduced so inevitably the prime minister's has too. However because of an increase in summits etc, the prime minister has more on his agenda than he used to and as such he can be said to have an increased international role "foreign policy issues have necessarily become more central to a prime minister's agenda" (Hodder-Williams, 1995, p227). King has argued that this has in effect granted the prime minister more power, because when decisions have to be taken at summits then it is the prime minister alone who makes them. "Collective bodies like cabinets have little alternative but to grant some powers of agency to their national representatives" (King, 1991, p37), as such the prime minister has more freedom to act independently of parliament. The increasing amount of time spent on foreign policy by the prime minister has meant that his role in government has had to diminish. Dunleavy and Jones have demonstrated this through the decline in prime minister's participation in the house of commons. This is best shown through the reduction of prime minister's question time. Prior to the 1950's the prime minister was expected to answer questions four days a week. However "in deference to Churchill's frailty his questions were reduced from four to two days only in 1953" (Dunleavy, 1995, p280). This change prompted a reform in 1961 which allocated two 15 minute slots for prime minister's questions on Tuesday and Thursday. Under Blair these two slots have been amalgamated to one half hour session on Wednesdays, further reducing the number of days the prime minister spends in parliament. ...read more.

Conclusion

Any minister who's work is rejected by the prime minister can have it discussed at cabinet level, and the cabinet can reject any policy proposed by the prime minister. As such "the doctrine of collective responsibility is still meaningful" (King, 1985, p212). So whilst the prime minister may be more informed about policy he is not more able to implement it independent of his cabinet. Another way in which the larger office of the prime minister has changed the role of the prime minister is through patronage. With more ministerial posts available the prime minister has to appoint more politicians to them. "The importance of the power of patronage has increased as the number of government offices has grown" (King, 1985, p198). The prime minister's power through patronage is said to have increased even further, when in the 1950s and 60s a new generation of MPs arrived in parliament. These MPs have been described as "career politicians" (King, 1991), desperate to work their way up the government ladder. As such the only way that they can achieve this is to give loyal service to the prime minister, as he determines who occupies every ministerial post. This appears to enhance the power of the prime minister, as such increasing his role over policy, for it seems likely that only those who support his initiatives will be rewarded with government office. However Jones has suggested that in fact the reverse might be true. "The way to achieve top office is not to give loyal and silent service, but to build up a following, to gain a reputation of having expertise in a certain sphere and to make a nuisance of oneself" (King, 1985, p208). The prime minister will then be forced to bring the troublemaker on board in order to hush up the man's attacks and prevent a division within the party. If this is the case, then whilst the prime minister's patronage role has increased in terms of having more positions to fill, then this has not coincided with an increase in prime minister's power. ...read more.

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