1920s >> 1923 >> no-226-june-1923

The constitution of the future

Among a variety of matters reviewed at the I.L.P. Conference in early April was a resolution which, as reported by the “Daily Herald” (4/4/23), “aimed at the abolition of the Cabinet system, and the substitution of Government by committees with Ministers as chairmen.” An indeterminate discussion took place, ending in the questions being referred to a Committee of the National Administrative Council for consideration. The question was raised at the Conference, of course, because the Labour Party, to which the I.L.P. is affiliated, hopes to become the Government Party within the next few years : and the fact that it was raised throws an interesting light upon what it will do when that time comes.

What is the Cabinet? It is the Committee of Ministers who preside over all the important state departments. How it is chosen? By the Prime Minister, whose selections require only the King’s approval. Who chooses the Premier? The King, usually on the advice of the retiring Prime Minister, and having regard to the predominating party in Parliament. The business of the Cabinet is to regulate foreign and colonial affairs, issue temporary decrees, re-appoint to vacant offices, introduce legislation into Parliament, and so on. Practically the whole initiative of Government is vested here : in fact, with the acquiescence of the majority in Parliament, the Cabinet is the Government.

The Cabinet system in its modern character was developed by the representatives of the merchants, bankers and landowners, after their political victory of 1688. They had robbed the monarchy of much of its power, but by no means wished to abolish it. Its presence at the head of their system sanctified their rule, by reason of the sentimental veneration with which wage-workers, shopkeepers, small manufacturers, etc., regarded, and still regard it. They took care, however, to keep it well in hand. The King no longer acted independently, but either “in Council” (in which case the counter-signature of the Privy Council was necessary), or “in Parliament” (in which case consent of the Commons and Lords was necessary). In practice, of course, sittings of the full Privy Council proved totally impracticable. There was never enough agreement amongst its members upon the policy to be pursued, or the legislation to be framed. Besides, in the matter of shaping bills, no matter what views might carry the day in Council, they were of no effect unless the legislation embodying them recommended itself to Parliament. Therefore, this clumsiness was overcome by that party undertaking the task which for the time being could command a majority in Parliament.

A body would be formed of five, seven, or more members of the Privy Council (nowadays the number has increased to round about twenty), all belonging to one party, to fill the ministerial posts. The holders ot all the more important offices in the Government, says the “Encyclopedia Britannica,” are “generally selected as the influential politicians of the party, rather than for special aptitude in the work of the departments.” (Coalitions are rare, and formed for joint action in times of emergency, when opposing parties deem it expedient to sink their differences temporarily, as did the Liberal, Unionist and Labour Parties during the late War). This body, the Cabinet, discharged all the important functions nominally performed by the “King in Council.”

Meanwhile, what powers remained to the Sovereign were taken over by this or that State office, until the monarchy to-day remains nothing but a figure—”the mascot,” as it has been called, of the ruling class.

Now this was a good system for the Capitalist class. It provided, and still provides, the various sections of Capitalist interests with a convenient means of mobilising their votes in Parliament; and they have a check upon what is done “in Council” by the yearly financial votes. (The House of Commons exercised that power as recently as April 11th last by refusing to go into Committee of Supply on the Civil Service Department.) The Cabinet system, and indeed Parliament itself, which is of much earlier growth, are products of times when the State was very little concerned with the organisation of industry ; and whenever the requirements of modern Capitalism make it necessary for the State to take control of some branch of industry, it simply becomes the responsiblity of one of the ministries, and is developed with the direct assistance and advice of Capitalists, through the committees, commissions, boards, etc., that all converge on the Cabinet. Yes, the Cabinet system serves the Capitalists very well.

But how different will be the requirements of the working-class when it comes to power ! The business of production will then be the supreme concern of the Commonwealth : the co-ordination of the activities of workers in mines, fields and schools, on the roads, on the sea, in the laboratory, studio and theatre—with the purpose of furnishing the healthiest and most joyous life for all. Those who are to enjoy the fruits of labour will also be those who do the work; and from both points of view, public business will be the intimate concern of each one.

It follows that the problems with which it will be called upon to deal will be different also. For example, instead of devising ways to pacify the unemployed, it will have to decide how an over-plentiful supply of labour-power in one branch of production can be used to lighten work in another. Instead of protecting home Capitalists against foreign competition, it will determine, in consultation with workers of other lands, in what part of the world a given kind of goods can be most economically produced. And so on.

It is too early yet to pronounce in detail what form the administration of this business will take. That will be for the victorious workers to decide when the time comes. But its outlines are clear. It will not be, as heretofore, a Government, ordering affairs from the top, with merely the acquiescence of the mass of the people. It must have the character of an Executive, giving effect to the decisions of the workers themselves. Every public office must be elective, responsible, and revocable.

We do not share the fear of Mr. Charles Trevelyan, M.P., who at the I.L.P. Conference took part in the debate referred to. He said :

“We do not want a pledge-bound or an oath-ridden party. When you comrades join us in the House of Commons, after the General Election, we want vital representatives and not merely delegates—men who are going to think and act for themselves.”

Why, the Socialist organisation of industry implies control by the workers. Anything else would be a bureaucratic State, a travesty of Socialism. We are convinced that when the workers are ready to take possession of the means of life they will be ready to begin to control them democratically. Moreover, a delegate can and should be a vital representative. On some matters it is possible to give detailed instructions, on others, general orders only, the particular execution of them being left to the intelligence of the delegate. But in all matters the will of those whose work he is doing, and not his own, should determine his actions. The contrast between Capitalist and Socialist democracy is sharply indicated—by a paragraph in the Manifesto of the International Working-men’s Association, issued in May, 1871, immediately after the crushing of the Commune of Paris. It refers to the Communards’ design for the new constitution :

“Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to represent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for the workmen and managers in his business. And it is well known that companies, like individuals, in matters of real business generally knows how to put the right man in the right place, and, if for once they make a mistake, to redress it promptly.”

The Cabinet system, therefore, in the Socialist Commonwealth, is as unthinkable as the private ownership of the means of life. If the I.L.P. questions for a moment whether a Labour Government would discard that system, it is because it knows a Labour Government could not and would not inaugurate Socialism, notwithstanding that it has placed it upon its programme. Only a party of revolutionary workers, organised for that purpose, and that alone, is equal to the task.


(Socialist Standard, June 1923)

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