The scope, purpose and achievements of the executive
As we have observed in the previous chapter, Britain’s transformation from a politically unstable second-rank European power in 1688 to a major imperial and commercial power in 1763 was accompanied by the evolution of a system of executive government that contained old and new elements. The key word is ‘evolution’. In other European states, autocratic monarchs such as Peter the Great of Russia or Frederick William I of Prussia implemented extensive bureaucratic reforms in order to fulfil their plans for territorial expansion and world-power status. In Britain, on the other hand, no such overhaul was ever contemplated. Instead, there was a reconfiguration of the roles of the existing office holders and institutions coupled with a considerable expansion of some, but not all, departments. Thus, all the composite departments of state – the royal, naval, military, legal, revenue and ecclesiastical – remained in place, the significant development being the growth of the influence of the revenue and the naval and military departments over the others. The influence of the monarch and their senior Court officials on the day-to-day business of government declined but remained decisive on crucial issues of diplomacy, war and peace, and, ultimately, on who governed and, in broad terms, how. Gradually, the space vacated by this withdrawal was filled by the emergence of a first minister and inner cabinet of 4-6 senior office holders who assumed responsibility for advising the monarch on policy. Their authority, however, was by no means clear-cut. The power of the first minister depended on his relationship with the monarch and the latter’s personal representatives – the two Secretaries of State and to a lesser extent, the Lord Chancellor. Taking the lead in shaping policy therefore oscillated between a first minister and duumvirates or triumvirates. In addition, the continuing existence of the larger cabinet council containing the senior members of the Royal Household as well as the members of the inner cabinet acted as a break on the latter’s assumption of untrammelled authority. As for the critical departments of state – the revenue and the military – the growth of Treasury supervision of the whole and the exponential increase in the size of the Customs and Excise offices should not obscure the fact that change was modest in other parts of
what was disparagingly referred to as a ‘leviathan’, the biblical sea monster that devoured all in its path. The number of officials in the central office of the Treasury and those of the Secretaries of State hardly rose at all during this period and were remarkably small, given the range of their responsibilities. The numbers recruited by the naval and military departments during wartime were impressive but equally noticeable is the fact that they fell back sharply in times of peace. Further, both of these departments shared a characteristic that was common within the bureaucracy as a whole – namely, a diffusion of responsibilities between different departments and, as a consequence, considerable departmental autonomy. Thus, although some developments such as the emergence of the head of the Treasury as a first minister in an inner cabinet encouraged the development of more coherent government, others, such as the persistence of ‘departmentalism’, hindered its progress. The key issue, then, bearing in mind Britain’s extraordinary growth as a world power, is how far this was due to the operations of the executive.