Today’s Friday Thought is part of a series titled Next Gen Democracy, focusing on the state of UK democracy and ideas for its evolution. You can read last week’s post on the House of Lords here.
Cabinet Ministers are responsible for specific areas of policy and running Government departments. They’re appointed by the Prime Minister from the Houses of Parliament, usually the Commons but occasionally the Lords.
This arrangement is important. It provides a democratically elected figurehead at the top of each department who can be held accountable for its policy and performance. There are, however, numerous issues with the current cabinet system.
Reshuffles occur frequently and most Cabinet Ministers are barely in the door before being asked to leave again. Sajid Javid was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport from 2014–15, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills from 2015–16, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government from 2016–18, Home Secretary from 2018–19, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 2019–20 and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care from 2021–22.
One must ask themselves; how can any individual know enough to be able to carry out all of these roles effectively, especially when they only have a year before they are out to another department again.
The tale of Nadine Dorries is a prime example of how the Cabinet can be picked with loyalty the driving force rather than competence and expertise. Her tenure as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was frequently punctuated with, almost comedic, mistakes highlighting how little she knew about any of the areas she was supposed to be developing legislation for.
Government departments need stability, and society needs people with expertise taking the helm in creating effective legislation.
Last week I proposed an indirectly elected House of Representatives to replace the House of Lords. A chamber of experts elected by their peers in professional and trade associations. This extends the benefits of Lords appointed due to success in their fields and introduces democratic accountability and legitimacy.
If this proposal was the case, the gene pool for appointing Secretaries of State and Ministers would be significantly more diverse and knowledgeable. There would be greater opportunities to appoint people who worked their way up their trade or profession, and have real life experience, to create legislation in their area of expertise. If this proposal wasn’t the case, I’d argue that the Prime Minister should be entitled to appoint Secretaries of State from outside the Houses of Parliament.
On the issue of loyalty over competence, I’d argue that Secretaries of State and other Cabinet Ministers should be subject to confirmation by the Houses of Parliament — with Acting positions used for limited periods where necessary until a vote can be held.
This should apply regardless of where the Ministers or Secretaries of State are being appointed from. If they are appointed from outside the Houses of Parliament, they would require democratic legitimacy and it should be ensured that outside appointments aren’t used in a corrupt fashion. If they are appointed from inside the Houses of Parliament, it would provide scrutiny around the competence of the person involved.
Our government departments should be run by the best people we can find for the job, and our Cabinet should be an experienced and intelligent team who know what they are talking about. These positions are too important to be handed out like plastic medals at a primary school sports day.
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