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collective responsibility

A Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics and International Relations
Jonathan BradburyJonathan Bradbury

collective responsibility 

A convention applied in the operations of the UK cabinet that decisions on important issues of policy should not be taken by individual ministers in advance of cabinet meetings, and that decisions, once taken in cabinet, should be actively supported by all members of the government. The importance of the convention in the United Kingdom is reflected in the fact that failure to observe it in both speeches and parliamentary voting normally obliges ministers to resign. Rigorous observation of the convention is believed to be necessary to maintain stable government, and has been followed by the shadow cabinet, wishing to offer a stable alternative government for the next election. Critics suggest that its observation stifles political debate and provides a cloak of legitimacy for policies pursued by a prime minister which may in reality be opposed by the majority of his or her government. The resignations of Michael Heseltine in 1986 over the Westland affair and Robin Cook and Claire Short in 2003 over the decision to go to war in Iraq are celebrated but rare examples of cabinet ministers resigning because of disagreement with government policy and a refusal to be bound by collective responsibility. However, the relaxation of the convention is routine in the case of private members’ bills, and has occurred exceptionally in cases of a government being completely split on a major policy, which may bring about its demise. For example, the cabinet of 1974–5 allowed members of the government to follow their conscience in the referendum on membership of the EEC.

Jonathan Bradbury