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Leaders, Politics and Institutional Change: The Decline of Prime Ministerial Accountability to the House of Commons, 1868–1990

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2009


In the Westminster system the prime minister's active participation in parliamentary proceedings is a key mechanism for ensuring the accountability of the executive. We survey the evolution of the four main prime ministerial activities across the period 1868–1990. There has been a long-term decline in prime ministers' speeches in the Commons, a stepped decline in debating interventions and a significant decrease in question-answering from the late nineteenth century to the 1950s. But prime ministerial statement-making increased after 1940, ebbing away again in the 1980s. And the downward drift in question-answering was halted by procedural innovations since the 1960s, which standardized the frequency of prime ministers' appearances and lead to the dominance of ‘open’ questions. We trace the varied impacts of institutional changes and shorter-term political or personal influences. The direct accountability of the prime minister to Parliament has undoubtedly declined, a trend probably paralleled by decreasing indirect accountability. These findings raise fundamental questions about executive-legislature relations in the United Kingdom

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1993

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Because of the frequent replacement of one prime minister by another, all the smoothed data included here need to be treated carefully, for example, they cannot be used for recalculating information. Smoothing also tends to ‘displace’ some kinds of changes from one session to another in a very few instances, despite the use of three iterations recommended by Tukey, J., Exploratory Data Analysis (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1977)Google Scholar. The smoothed graphs have a jagged edge appearance because they have not been ‘hanned’: with the frequent succession of premiers hanning would be severely misleading. For simpler treatments of median smoothing, see also Marsh, C., Data Analysis for Social Scientists (Cambridge: Polity, 1988)Google ScholarPubMed and Erickson, B. H. and Nozanchuk, T. A., Understanding Data (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1977).Google Scholar

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25 The prime minister is also directly responsible for the security and intelligence services, where scandals have involved a few statements since the 1960s, and for the civil service, where major reforms can entail occasional statements.

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36 In Korea the prime minister speaks in the legislature but is not an elected member of it. In France, the prime minister accounts to, but cannot sit in, parliament.

37 Many cell entries in Table 1 are necessarily judgemental since systematic data is unavailable, but we have used explicit criteria for our estimates. Formalization is defined as ‘high’ when the activities involved are subject to written rules formulated in public documents; as ‘medium’ if practices are governed by strong conventions; and otherwise as ‘low’. Publicness is defined as ‘high’ if an activity takes place in a public arena directly monitored by the mass media; as ‘medium’ if the context can be indirectly monitored by the media with considerable reliability; as ‘low’ if the context is a private one; and as ‘very low’ if private activity is also protected by strong secrecy norms. Parliamentary focus is defined as ‘high’ when an activity occurs in the Commons or concerns the reactions of MPs generally; as ‘medium’ when the activity involves or concerns many MPs but is limited to those of one party; and as ‘low’ when the activity involves few MPs or concerns other reactions. Frequency is defined as ‘high’ when the activity occurs many times in a parliamentary session; as ‘medium’ when it occurs several times; as ‘low’ when it occurs once or twice per session or less; and as ‘very low’ if it occurs only once in several sessions.

38 As cabinet secretary Sir Robin Butler agreed with Margaret Thatcher that he would not accompany her on overseas visits, so that he could use the time involved to carry out his other role as head of the home civil service. While his predecessor, Sir Robert Armstrong, split his time between these duties in a 75/25 per cent ratio, Butler's time allocation is more like 50/50, the increase graphically demonstrating the contemporary importance of overseas visits in the prime minister's timetable.

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