The Dawn of Parliamentarism: How ministerial responsibility emerged in England by 1702 and why the separation of powers myth persisted

Why did the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, which wrote the US Constitution, not consider creating a parliamentary system? It is often assumed that the answer, or a big part of it, is that parliamentarism did not yet exist anywhere (for some recent examples, see Bulmer (2020) and Salinger (2019)). In other words, there was no existing precedent in other countries’ systems of government. In Britain, where parliamentarism would first emerge, ministerial responsibility is often thought of as having only existed in embryonic form in 1787; what is considered by some today to have been the first successful no-confidence vote had only been held as recently as 1782. Now, parliament had previously used the power of impeachment to remove ministers of the Crown from office. However, impeachment had been a cumbersome and legalistic tool that died out as the vote of no confidence gradually emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in a process that established the right of the House of Commons to dismiss a cabinet for purely political reasons.

This account, however, is misleading. As Clayton Roberts shows in his 1956 article in the Journal of Modern History, the institution of ministerial responsibility is, in fact, of much earlier vintage than usually suggested. While some of the principles behind ministerial accountability originated in the terms of the Restoration (1666) and Glorious Revolution (1688)1, some of the tools involved were even older than that. Impeachment, specifically, played a far bigger role than usually suggested, more akin to what we know as a no-confidence vote than the name suggests. While the King’s continuing role in appointing the cabinet meant that full parliamentarism did not emerge until later, the House of Commons ability to dismiss ministers was fairly well-established by the early 18th century.

Roberts’ analysis provides a fascinating view of the process of institutional change. Most interestingly, it sheds new light on the choice of separation of powers by framers of the US constitution, suggesting it was less the result of outright ignorance than that of a biased perception of the British constitution – one which seems to have been common on both sides of the Atlantic.

Roberts (1956) posits that the process by which ministerial responsibility emerged began with a legal principle – that the king “can do no wrong”. At least before mortal courts, such as parliament, the person of the king was inviolable. If something unlawful had been done in the name of the Crown, only the king’s ministers could be held accountable for it. This principle is still reflected in some parliamentary countries’ constitutions today; for example, the Dutch Constitution states: ‘The King is inviolable. The ministers are responsible’.

To the modern ear, such a formulation may sound like it belongs with absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings. During the Restoration period (1660-1688)1, however, the House of Commons started using it to serve its own political ends, undermining the authority of the newly-restored Stuarts. Impeachment was an important weapon in this effort: if at first only unlawful acts of the Crown were prosecuted, soon ministers were charged for what were plainly political reasons. Ultimately ministers were being prosecuted despite having acted on the king’s commands. The king’s person could not be prosecuted for the wisdom of his policies, but his orders were gradually stripped of their force. Similarly, the wisdom of the king’s policies could be questioned by attacking ministers held to have advised them. When ministers pleaded that a policy had been ordered by the king himself, the Commons came up with a new principle – that no royal order was issued without some minister having advised it. Parliament’s willingness to enforce these principles would slowly make it impossible for the king to come between his ministers and parliament.

Though impeachment ultimately depended on the House of Lords’ concurrence with the Commons’ prosecution (which could lead to imprisonment or other punishments, not just loss of office), it was seen as a serious threat, and sometimes just the threat of bringing charges would lead to a minister’s resignation. But the House of Commons also had other tools to get its way, most prominently the power of the purse. Displeasure with the king’s policies could lead the House to deny supply and instead spend time investigating ministers who were held responsible for those policies – effectively shutting down the government (or threatening to do so) in order to pressure the king to dismiss his ministers. Increasingly, this meant the king would choose ministers based on their ability to secure supply, slowly restricting the king’s choice of ministers to those favoured by the House the Commons. In 1673, in a move that would presage modern no-confidence votes, the House of Commons introduced a new, more direct way of announcing its displeasure with a minister: an individual address requesting a dismissal (previous addresses had always been joint with the upper house).

But which ministers were to be held responsible for which policies? The chief complication was that important decisions were ultimately made by the concurrent advice of multiple ministers, and individual secretaries of state would try to take shelter behind the defence that the entire cabinet had concurred in a certain policy. The emergent solution to this problem was party politics. As ministers increasingly affiliated with one party (which helped secure supply from parliament), and the king’s ministers increasingly came mainly from one party, it became politically convenient to blame all bad policies on the advice of ministers from one party. Sometimes this meant, for instance, that a Tory minister could escape the attack of a Tory majority in the Commons despite having equally concurred in a policy. Such situations may have been flagrantly unjust, but they promoted the increasing monopolisation of cabinets by one party. Throughout the 18th century monarchs would find it increasingly difficult to form governments from members of multiple parties, and so were further restricted in their choice of ministry – ultimately having to choose a cabinet that, as it came to be termed, ‘enjoyed the confidence of the House’.

Roberts identifies 1698-1702, the last years of the reign of William III, as a turning point. Firstly, the Tories won the 1698 general election – and soon set to work to return the favour and drive the incumbent Whig ministry from office. Merely introducing addresses requesting dismissal in the House of Commons led most Whig ministers to resign. Despite the repeated failure of such motions to actually pass against Lord Somers, the last major Whig leader in the cabinet, King William opted to dismiss him rather than have to continue to face the Tories’ continued obstructions. From that point onwards, the House of Commons would no longer even pass any addresses requesting dismissal; this became unnecessary, as no monarch would try to keep ministers in their posts against the ‘sustained, declared hostility of parliament’ (p230). The final stage followed naturally: ‘Before the accession of Queen Anne [in 1702] the constant study of the [C]ommons was to wrest unpopular ministers from the king’s service; after her accession their constant study was to force on her service those whom they favoured’ (ibid).

I should be clear that this was not yet parliamentarism. Kings continued to hold considerable power until the early 19th century. Particularly their power over ministerial appointment (which would still produce more cabinets of more than one party, especially in the 1760’s-1780’s), meant that ministers may have been meaningfully responsible to parliament by 1702, cabinets were also still in a meaningful sense chosen by the monarch. Rather than full parliamentarism, then, it was some kind of semi-monarchism2.

Roberts’ account of the evolution of ministerial responsibility shows, most importantly, that ministerial responsibility emerged significantly before the 19th century. Instead of being embodied by the gradual emergence of no-confidence votes, this development presaged them, and relied far more on tools such as impeachment and denying supply. That these tools were costly and somewhat cumbersome may be the reason they ultimately became obsolete, but it did not prevent them from playing a crucial role in establishing Parliament’s hold over ministers in the first place.

It’s worth noting that the use of such costly tools suggests that to establish control, the House of Commons had to absolutely prioritise the institutional goal of exercising influence over the cabinet over other policy goals. As Roberts writes, ‘increasingly the house of commons [sic] came to see evil counselors as their greatest grievance, the root of all other grievances’ (229). Indeed, it is likely that the failure of ministerial responsibility to emerge in other contexts owed much to the lack of this determination. This is especially true with regard to supply. If replacing the ministry is the most important objective, shutting down the government to do so (potentially to the cost of all kinds of government projects) might be price worth paying; when other goals get in the way, or the interests of the monarch and those in parliament are strongly aligned it is relatively easy for monarchs to divide and conquer parliaments3,4. This dynamic surely plays a role in the fact that assemblies rarely (if ever) wrest control over cabinets in pure presidential systems – too many of their legislators have party links to the president, and they rarely prioritise institutional power over petty policy goals, such as distributing pork to their district.

Returning to my initial question, one of the most interesting implications of Roberts’ article is that ministerial responsibility did, in fact, exist in Britain in some sense well before the US Constitution was composed – if not as a formal institution, then at least as a fairly well-established informal one. If that is the case, why was it not seriously considered at the Philadelphia Convention? Though he does not address this question explicitly, Roberts hints at what is probably a big part of the answer: that ministerial responsibility, though a political reality by 1715, was very much a de facto institution, one which was not in line with either the political philosophy or rhetoric prevalent in 18th century Britain (among both politicians and intellectuals). Even if they often made their displeasure with a ministry very clear, the House of Commons did not claim the power to name ministers – Roberts gives several examples of when the House explicitly or implicitly rejected this possibility.

Why was parliamentarism rejected in theory even as it was fervently developed in practice? According to Roberts, ‘Ever since Cromwell, Englishmen had looked to the ancient, Gothic balance of government, with its rough separation of executive and legislative power, as the surest guarantee of their liberties’ (231). Cromwell’s Commonwealth had discredited both republicanism as well as the institution of an executive branch controlled by the legislature (even if that aspect of the republic had quickly come to be eclipsed by Cromwell’s dictatorship). When the English Parliament restored the monarchy in 1660, it therefore sought to establish (in its view, restore) a separation of powers system.

This mixed or balanced government myth5 was an enduring legacy of the Restoration and Glorious Revolution. Many prominent 18th century thinkers apparently thought this characterisation was not merely a legal fiction but an accurate description of how the English (from 1707, British) government worked. Blackstone (1765), for instance, hews close to this script, and this is a point on which Bentham (1776) does not challenge him. Indeed, Montesquieu’s 1748 Description of separation of powers – considered the classic text on the subject – even uses Britain as its chief model. Montesquieu’s writings were very influential in the Thirteen Colonies, and it is clear the authors of the Federalist Papers also saw Britain in this way. Even Bagehot, writing in 1867, states that his aim is to dispel these ‘erroneous’ constitutional theories, suggesting they still held currency in his time. It is very likely that this longstanding myth (at best, half truth) has also contributed to modern misconceptions about parliamentarism’s historic origins. In other words, even if the authors of the American constitution were aware of the practice of ministerial responsibility, they would not have seen it as an important (much less an enlightened or positive) aspect of the British constitution.

To sum up, then, ministerial responsibility emerged in Britain/England de facto even as politicians widely clung to older notions that disavowed it and affirmed classic notions of the separation of powers. Combined with the perceived failures (according to Federalists such as Madison and Hamilton) of the relatively assembly-centric first state constitutions, this dynamic meant that ministerial responsibility (and parliamentarism) had few serious advocates at the Convention.

Beyond its significance for the development of political institutions, this historical episode illustrates several important lessons about institutions generally. Firstly, the fact that parliament used different tools at different times to enforce its power over ministers demonstrates that there are often multiple ways to reach a similar institutional equilibrium. Secondly, it shows how informal institutions can develop using (and later replacing) formal institutions, all the while creating new institutional equilibria which may not be widely or formally recognised. Thirdly, the crucial role of preferences. Without prioritising the constitutional position of the House over its preferred policies, the parliamentary majority might not have been successful in securing that position. 

A theme linking these points is that we should not be deceived by formal style and naming conventions. A no confidence vote may go by other names and may not even be widely recognised as being an important determinant of ministerial choice and tenure – but if it brings ministers to resign and influences which ministers are chosen in the first place, that is exactly what it is. What this episode also shows is the central role pre-existing legal theories and mental models (i.e. beliefs) often play in the institutional design process. If they hadn’t, perhaps America would have had ministerial responsibility today.

Footnotes

  1. The 1660 Declaration of Breda, 1689 Bill of Rights and Act of Settlement 1701 being the main ones, but much of the terms were agreed informally and not codified.
  2. in the same way that the hybrid between parliamentarism and presidentialism is commonly known as ‘semi-presidentialism’.
  3. A good example of the influence of preferences on the formation of institutional equilibria.
  4. It is telling that ministerial responsibility emerged in the House of Commons, containing tax-payers from many economic backgrounds, rather than the House of Lords, containing rent-extractors with a similar ‘business model’ as the monarch.
  5. Myth is perhaps too strong a word. The king still maintained a great deal of power in the 18th century, and influenced politics through favours, patronage, and the dismissal power. All the same, none of the 18th century authors I list here clearly states that the House of Commons can dismiss ministers for political reasons, let alone force a minister’s appointment on the King.

Works cited

Bulmer, W. Elliot. 2021. Westminster and the World: Commonwealth and Comparative Insights for Constitutional Reform. Bristol: Bristol University Press.

Roberts, Clayton. 1956. “The Growth of Ministerial Responsibility to Parliament in Later Stuart England.” The Journal of Modern History 28, no. 3 (September): 215–33.

Selinger, William. 2019. Parliamentarism from Burke to Weber. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

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