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Cox: The Efficient Secret

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Cox. 1987. The Efficient Secret. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

In Brief

What makes Britain's government so efficient? The "efficient secret" is "a Cabinet with not only executive but also legislative predominance." Thus, elections to the legislature are, in effect, mere elections to an electoral college which then selects a Cabinet--and this Cabinet runs the country. When Britain moved toward this system, its elections became party-centric, no longer candidate-centered.

Delegation to the Cabinet occurred in response to a "tragedy of the commons" within the House of Commons: All the MPs (Members of Parliament) were trying to use a limited (common) amount of Commons time for private electoral benefit. MPs gained an increased interest in active participation for two reasons. First, redistricting made programmatic (i.e. legislative) work more electorally beneficial than patronage and bribery, which formerly monopolized MPs' attention; second, the increased attention of newspapers to the Commons meant that MPs needed to look busy if they wanted to persuade constituents that they were, in fact, working toward programmatic ends.

Origins of the Efficient Secret: How and Why the Cabinet Became Predominant (chapter 6)

Pre-Reform: 18th Century

In 18th century Britain (before the changes discussed in this chapter occurred), the Cabinet was almost purely an executive body. It administered the royal government. Its main legislative duties were to pass measures (mainly financial) necessary to run the government. Otherwise, public policy was left up to the MPs (Members of Parliament).

At this time, parliamentary rules of procedure strengthened individual members, who

  • Could raise a debate;
  • Could filibuster;
  • Could motion for indefinite adjournment;
  • Could introduce a motion "on the sudden."

These procedures did not "facilitate the passage of a legislative programme by the government [Cabinet]."

What Changed: Early 19th Century

Rules changed in the 19th century. There arose an increasing distinction between the "government's [Cabinet's] business and private members' business." For example, "Order Days" were created: The Cabinet's business was given priority on Mondays and Fridays, but MPs had to put their business into the Order Book and wait for it to come up on the agenda (page 48).

"Erosion of individual parliamentary rights" began "in earnest in the 1830s." MPs would try to turn Order Days (Mondays and Fridays, later Wednesdays as well) towards topics of interest to them, thus raiding the government's time on its priority days. So the government started attaching stipulations that no amendments could be introduced (sort of; bear in mind that this is a condensed version of Cox's argument). As a result, the docket got very large for other days, and private MPs had a hard time getting their issues discussed or, especially, voted on. Soon, MPs found they could pass bills only with the help of Cabinet ministers.

By 1848, the Cabinet both ruled and legislated; few if any measures could pass without the ministry's support. By the 1860s, the Cabinet's dominance was widely recognized. Quoting Bagehot, 1865: the "efficient secret of the English Constitution may be described as the close union, the nearly complete fusion, of the executive and legislative powers."

Over a few decades, the, the British House of Commons had evolved from one run by individual members of parliament to one dominated by the partisan leaders in the Cabinet. And as a result, elections to the Commons became more a matter of party than of individual candidates; voters selected a ruling party, not a delegate.

Cox's Theory: The Causes of Procedural Change

What changed is widely accepted; why it changed is disputed. A common explanation that Cox challenges: England's increasing population and industrialization required more active governmental regulation. Thus, the Parliament's limited time came under heavier demand, necessitating the sort of rationing (e.g. Order Days) that later occurred. But Cox criticizes this explanation: Why did scarcity of time lead to this particular outcome? Why/how did demand for legislative time increase? In particular, if this were really the whole story, why didn't the Parliament's business vary with the GDP (it didn't)?

Thus, Cox presents his own theory, which has already been hinted at above: MPs were becoming more active, for two closely related reasons (pgs 53-54). First, there was an increasing attention paid to the Commons by the press at this time (and an increasing number of newspapers). MPs wanted their constituents to see them in the news. But this matters only if constituents would change their voting behavior in response to news coverage--and this leads to Cox's second (and more important) point:

Second, redistricting made such press visibility important. Previously, many MPs had small constituencies that could be easily managed by patronage and bribery--and patronage and bribery do not require any action on the Commons floor. But redistricting brought representation to large northern cities and created much larger constituencies overall. And large constituencies are difficult to buy off with bribery and patronage; instead, programmatic (i.e. policy) appeals are far more effective. (The logic here is similar to selectorate theory.) But unlike patronage, passing programmatic policies does require activity on the Commons floor. Thus, redistricting created an incentive for MPs to participate more actively in the Commons--especially since there were so many newspapers covering this activity.

A problem emerged: All MPs wanted to be seen doing more, but they couldn't all introduce new laws at the same time. Thus, a "tragedy of the commons" (p 60) emerged in the Commons: All the MPs were trying to use a limited (common) amount of Commons time for private electoral benefit, with each MP trying to use his parliamentary rights (listed above) to involve himself in debates. The House soon resolved this problem by curtailing individual MPs' rights (against resistance from backbenchers), and the Cabinet was the "more or less unwitting beneficiary of this series of procedural crises."

Why the Cabinet Benefited

Why was it the Cabinet that benefited from these changes? Why, for example, wasn't a committee system developed, as in the U.S. and France? Cox proposes three possible explanations. First, the Cabinet was already in place, so it may have seemed logical to build on it rather than create a new institution (such as committees). Second, many of those with expertise who might chair committees were already in the cabinet. Third, many of the changes were incremental and procedural--and may have produced greater results in the end than was foreseen at the time.

Consequences of Procedural Change

  • As the Cabinet became more important, more MPs wanted to be in it; Ministers could use this carrot to enforce party discipline.
  • The threat of resignation (of the Cabinet) or dissolution (of the Commons) had "more authority since ... [it] might affect not just the administration of [the] government but also the whole course of legislation."
  • Voters' attitudes changed: they saw their vote as determining control of the ministry, not the identity of their MP.