In Blunderland

A news item that you might have seen recently was the resignation of the Prime Minister of Latvia, on 27 November. Valdis Dombrovskis was the longest-serving Prime Minister since the Baltic state regained independence in 1991. He had led the country out of recession with some success: over the past two years Latvia has had the fastest-growing economy in the EU. He resigned over a domestic tragedy: the collapse of a supermarket roof in a Riga suburb caused the deaths of 54 people. The causes of the tragedy are being investigated by the police and others. According to the correspondent of The Times, possible explanations include corruption, a lack of oversight because of government budget cuts, and faults in design and /or construction.

It must be counted as an honourable resignation when the government is not clearly implicated, but only possibly and indirectly, yet a spokesman for the Prime Minister said that “the government takes political responsibility”.

One would struggle to find parallels in Britain. Certainly, foreign policy failures were involved in the resignations as Prime Minister of Neville Chamberlain in 1940, whose preference for appeasement had proved misplaced, and Sir Anthony Eden in 1957, when the embarrassment of the Suez affair destabilised his health. However, an administration has not resigned over domestic failings in modern times.

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You might more profitably wonder about individual government ministers, and students of public law tend to approach the issue by way of the doctrines of ministerial responsibility. Ministerial responsibility comprises a cluster of constitutional conventions that ensure the responsibility of government ministers to Parliament, collectively and individually.

Under these conventions, ministers may be dismissed or obliged to resign when their personal conduct points to unfitness for office, as with the Profumo scandal (1963) or the criminal charge against Chris Huhne (2012). Other times, a minister’s own political conduct leads to the proffered or required resignation, as with Hugh Dalton (1947), who disclosed some of the budget proposals to a journalist before announcing them in the Commons, or Liam Fox (2010), whose errors of judgement allowed a personal friend to be too closely involved in government business.

A few ministerial resignations have involved recognition of failure or performing badly in the office. Jim Callaghan felt honour-bound to resign as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1967, after the pound had to be devalued, in spite of the resolve of the Prime Minister (Wilson) and himself that it should not be. In 2002, in an unusual instance of modesty for a politician, Estelle Morris resigned as Secretary of State for Education, admitting that she had not been effective in the role, as several problems surfaced.

Much more often, however, the blunders in British government have not caused the resignation of politicians. Under the supposed classical doctrine, ministers are responsible for whatever goes on in their department, are accountable to Parliament for their actions and those of their officials and, if either they or their officials have been seriously at fault, should resign. The classical doctrine may be said to have borne out in the Crichel Down affair, when Sir Thomas Dugdale resigned over a sequence of events showing maladministration (1954). Another honourable resignation was Lord Carrington’s as Foreign Secretary (1982), over the department’s failure to forestall the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands.

These examples are exceptional, as is shown in a recent book by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, long associated with the teaching of British politics at the University of Essex. In The Blunders of our Government, they describe the biggest blunders in domestic policy and administration between 1979 and 2010, from the misconceived poll tax to the fiasco of ID cards. They conclude that “the doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility is even more mythical than most people realise…most minister-blunderers, even if they can be clearly identified, survive politically and prosper” (p.348).

Generally speaking, the instincts of ministerial and party solidarity kick in to protect individual ministers, at least until the next reshuffle. As for the administration as a whole, they receive their verdict later, through the ballot box.

This blog post was written by Colin Munro, Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Edinburgh, who regularly teaches on the Laws Study Support sessions.

3 comments

  1. I always feel that Chamberlain has always had a bad press, he was successful as a Chancellor and after the referendum on re-armament in the 30s went against re-arming he kept certain key projects such as the Spitfire going. He was undoubtedly the wrong man as a war time leader but his abilities as Chancellor and the fact that he got some key weapons into the field such as the Spitfire and Matilda II should be given more credit.

    I did enjoy the blog.

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  2. The issue of individual ministerial responsibility is one which exist to ensure, among other things, that ministers know they are under a duty to account and under an extended duty to relieve themselves of their office and title, should their behavior or lack of oversight cause the government to ‘look bad or inefficient’. Generally, citizens do not crave blood and rolling heads for every single mis-step of a minister and so only in severe circumstances citizens really expect a minister to resign for a blunder or other act warranting such responsible action on the part of the minister. People take for granted that ministers, though under a statutory duty, are humans too and allow a certain latitude with regard to the amount and degree of mistake-making or inappropriate action on the part of a minister. This is compounded by the fact that ministers are mostly elected by the people and so any resignation from office ought not to be for minor issues or issues for which an apology or confession will suffice simply because he/she is carrying out a mandate which was given to him/her by the people. Even in the corporate world, mis-judgments are made each day, sometimes causing loss or inconvenience, but the person responsible to answer may have several pluses to answer to as well and so not all circumstances require that a minister should resign as his/her way of accounting. The degree of the charge is the determinant of which course of action is necessary.

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