The Prime Minister is the keystone of the Cabinet arch. Although in Cabinet all its members stand on equal footing, speak with an equal voice, and, on the rare occasions when a division is taken, are counted on the fraternal principle of one man, one vote, yet the head of the Cabinet is primus inter pares, and occupies a position which, so long as it lasts, is one of exceptional and peculiar authority” Lord Morley, 1889.
A mere nine months after becoming Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines for the first time, Ralph Gonsalves completely stunned regional academics and constitutional experts, by making a bold declaration that prime ministerial powers in Commonwealth Caribbean Constitutions were excessive.
Delivered with his usual insight and charisma, his attack on prime ministerial power was phrased in the following words:
“[T]he powers of the Prime Minister are awesome in the political system of a small nation-state. Whether these powers are exercised capriciously or not, through authoritative conduct or authoritarian means, sensitively or not, depend not only on the extent, in practical terms, of the democratic ethos in the political culture but also on the character, disposition, conduct and vision of the Prime Minister himself.”
The statements were made in Barbados in 2002, at a regional conference on Caribbean Constitutional Reform.
While shocking at the time because they were coming from a serving politician as opposed to one languishing in opposition, this attack on prime ministerial power was not new. On that occasion, Gonsalves made direct reference to commentaries on the very same issue by two former Barbadian PMs, Tom Adams and Sir Erskine Sandiford. In many ways, their attacks on the position were more damning than his own.
While in opposition, Sandiford had argued that the notion of the “primus inter pares” (“first among equals”) had long given way to what he called “prime ministerial” as opposed to “cabinet government.” He also suggested that there was a real danger that, if left unchecked, such power could “run amok.”
While still PM of Barbados, Tom Adams made the salient observation that our Constitutions were too generous to PMs by allowing them to dissolve Parliament if they lost a vote of confidence. He suggested that such a power might not have been in the best interests of a small country. Though speaking about Barbados, it is obvious that Adams’ observation remains extremely relevant to nearly all of the constitutions of the English speaking Caribbean.
It is interesting that, years after they demitted office, Gonsalves would echo the sentiments of both men by warning that excessive prime ministerial authority was dangerous to our emerging democracies. It is almost as if he was suggesting the office of PM had become a “primus tyrannus” (first tyrant).
That prime ministers in our system enjoy considerable powers, is absolutely true, but not always obvious to some. Among the many awesome responsibilities reposed in the office, some of the most important include the power to:
(i) appoint the Governor General (GG);
(ii) advise the GG on the dissolution of Parliament, except in one or two cases;
(iii) decide on the shape and make-up of all government ministries;
(iv) chair the Cabinet and appoint ministers and relieve them of their posts;
(v) appoint a majority of Senators, Ambassadors, High Commissioners, and a majority of senior public posts, and nominate persons for various honors;
(vi) advise the GG on the appointment of a majority of the public service commission;
(vii) advise upon and veto potential candidates for the position of Commissioner of Police;
(viii) negotiate treaties, conventions, and contracts; and
(ix) effectively serve as the de facto head of state by leading foreign engagements and diplomatic initiatives overseas.
While these are only a few of the many responsibilities entrusted to the office, they confirm that a Prime Minister’s discretion is amazingly wide. It is also noteworthy that in the majority of cases where the constitution calls on the GG to seek the advice of the PM, he or she is obliged to follow such advice.
Yet it is not self-evident that wide discretion results in unlimited authority. The question of whether or not a serving prime minister is truly powerful, is more subtle. The great Achilles Heel of all sitting PMs is that their very existence depends on the tolerance and support, however grudging, of others in their Cabinet and party. It is also dependent on a range of other things, which are in large part, completely out of the control of the individual in question.
Consider that the loss of the support from a party can have devastating consequences for PMs. In Britain, Winston Churchill became PM overnight in 1940 when it became obvious that Neville Chamberlain’s efforts to appease the Nazis had failed. In 1990, John Major became Britain’s PM when Margaret Thatcher suffered a revolt by a majority of conservative MPs who thought she had lost touch. Major himself was an essentially weak PM who, despite surviving a Parliamentary vote of no confidence early on in his tenure, was never able to exercise real authority over his party due to an internal rebellion over Britain’s involvement with Europe. More recently, Tony Blair’s support for the war in Iraq led him, inexorably, to hand power over to Gordon Brown early.
Of course, it is more difficult to overthrow PMs in our system because they can dissolve Parliament if Cabinet revolts. As Tom Adams noted, that power hangs like the proverbial Sword of Damocles, over the heads of mutinous ministers. But overthrow is not impossible. Alan Louisy was forced to resign in 1980 when members of his government revolted in Parliament.
PMs are also not immune to public opinion. The late Sir John Compton’s (SJC) own departure from politics in 1996 was partly the culmination of a number of bruising battles with large sections of the public service and the farming community. Those encounters considerably diminished SJC’s political capital, at least at that time.
PMs are also subject to the whims of the civil service. If minded to, the civil service can so frustrate government policy, that they can make political mandates undeliverable or a country ungovernable. Two or three uncooperative permanent secretaries can embarrass an entire administration.
Many also forget that PMs are creatures of law, created by our constitutions and circumscribed by them. For instance, PMs can not give instructions to the Director of Public Prosecutions about the conduct of criminal cases. They cannot ask the DPP to prosecute someone or ask her to stop a prosecution. Although, in countries like the US and the UK, the power to grant pardons or discontinue certain criminal prosecutions is expressly preserved, as they are prerogative powers inherent in executive authority.
PMs can also be the victims of an ethically irresponsible or intellectually bankrupt media. Despite leading nine years of stable government responsible for record economic growth, investment in education, health, infrastructure and low unemployment, Kenny D. Anthony (KDA) became a whipping-boy for news-spinning on an unprecedented scale, which clearly made some mad at him.
Unquestionably, the unrelenting flood of attacks— often driven by merely personal vendettas—poisoned some of the public’s perception of Dr. Anthony. By 11 December 2006, the concern was not policy, but personality. (How ironic also that his administration became a casualty of the media openness it helped to usher in, in 1997.)
So despite all the responsibilities of the office, the issue of prime ministerial power is a more subtle, nuanced problem than Gonsalves’ attack suggests. Since a PM can not guarantee his tenure once elected by the masses (however indirectly), his position is not unassailable.
What is perhaps true, and what Gonsalves has inadvertently pointed to, is that prime ministerial authority is directly related to the personal idiosyncrasies and charisma of the particular individual in charge at any point in time. Where a PM is far ahead of his Cabinet colleagues; perhaps because of his intellectual dexterity or personal charisma, or whether because of his oratorical skills, or because of his popularity with the electorate, or perhaps because he has served so long that he is considered an institution, he can exert considerable influence over government.
By contrast, a PM who compares poorly with members of Cabinet that are more charismatic, persuasive, or intelligent, enjoys little political leverage. Similarly, a PM whose political capital is low because his public support is shaky will be a weak political figure.
Surely, Ralph Gonsalves, KDA and the late SJC, are or were, towering prime ministerial figures, wielding considerable influence and leverage in the political apparatuses in which they operate or operated. But that is less because of constitutional design than a function of the characters, temperaments, and considerable personal authority of the individuals concerned.
This is why any attempts to reform prime ministerial powers in the context of constitutional reform should proceed cautiously. It is of course right that some of the excessive responsibilities of the office, such as the power to call elections or to serve without term-limits, should be removed.
As our democracy matures, certain changes to our constitution become necessary so that it better accords with our changing political sensibilities. It is also necessary for filling gaps which have been exposed by political practice.
But a hallmark of our particular democratic system has always been the strong central government which the awesome powers of the PM were designed to facilitate, in appropriate circumstances.
Accordingly, while some of the powers of the office should be trimmed, my view is that what is required to improve the accountability of government, and prevent prime ministerial authority from “running amok,” is to increase opportunities for scrutiny of his decision-making by Parliament. Also, if his power to appoint or fire the Cabinet is to be curbed, then their power to remove him at will, should be equally restrained.
If our system of government is to be effective, then any reforms of prime ministerial authority should not unduly dilute the ability of the head of government to actually take decisions. Such a situation would lead to ineffective government and weak executive authority.
In this way, we avoid the dangers of the primus tyrannus Gonsalves forewarned, but still ensure that the office remains the “keystone of the Cabinet arch” it was always intended to be.