Among English political institutions, the "Cabinet" is a conventional but not a legal term employed to describe those members of the privy council who fill the highest executive offices in the state, and by their concerted policy direct the government, and are responsible for all the acts of the crown. The cabinet now always includes the persons filling the following offices, who are therefore called "cabinet ministers," viz.: - the first lord of the treasury, the lord chancellor of England, the lord president of the council, the lord privy seal, the five secretaries of state, the chancellor of the exchequer and the first lord of the admiralty. The chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, the postmaster-general, the first commissioner of works, the president of the board of trade, the chief secretary for Ireland, the lord chancellor of Ireland, the president of the local government board, the president of the board of agriculture, and the president of the board of education, are usually members of the cabinet, but not necessarily so. A modern cabinet contains from sixteen to twenty members. It used to be said that a large cabinet is an evil; and the increase in its numbers in recent years has often been criticized.
But the modern widening of the franchise has tended to give the cabinet the character of an executive committee for the party in power, no less than that of the prime-minister's consultative committee, and to make such a committee representative it is necessary to include the holders of all the more important offices in the administration, who are generally selected as the influential politicians of the party rather than for special aptitude in the work of the departments.
The word "cabinet," or "cabinet council," was originally employed as a term of reproach. Thus Lord Bacon says, in his essay Of Counsel (xx.), "The doctrine of Italy and practice of France, in some kings' times, hath introduced cabinet councils - a remedy worse than the disease"; and, again, "As for cabinet councils, it may be their motto Plenus rimarum sum." Lord Clarendon - after stating that, in 1640, when the great Council of Peers was convened by the king at York, the burden of affairs rested principally on Laud, Strafford and Cottington, with five or six others added to them on account of their official position and ability - adds, "These persons made up the committee of state, which was reproachfully after called the Juncto, and enviously then in court the Cabinet Council." And in the Second Remonstrance in January 1642, parliament complained "of the managing of the great affairs of the realm in Cabinet Councils by men unknown and not publicly trusted." But this use of the term, though historically curious, has in truth nothing in common with the modern application of it. It meant, at that time, the employment of a select body of favourites by the king, who were supposed to possess a larger share of his confidence than the privy council at large.
Under the Tudors, at least from the later years of Henry VIII. and under the Stuarts, the privy council was the council of state or government. During the Commonwealth it assumed that name.
The Cabinet Council, properly so called, dates from the reign of William III. and from the year 1693, for it was not until some years after the Revolution that the king discovered and adopted the two fundamental principles of a constitutional executive government, namely, that a ministry should consist of statesmen holding the same political principles and identified with each other; and, secondly, that the ministry should stand upon a parliamentary basis, that is, that it must command and retain the majority of votes in the legislature. It was long before these principles were thoroughly worked out and understood, and the perfection to which they have been brought in modern times is the result of time, experience and in part of accident. But the result is that the cabinet council for the time being is the government of Great Britain; that all the powers vested in the sovereign (with one or two exceptions) are practically exercised by the members of this body; that all the members of the cabinet are jointly and severally responsible for all its measures, for if differences of opinion arise their existence is unknown as long as the cabinet lasts - when publicly manifested the cabinet is at an end; and lastly, that the cabinet, being responsible to the sovereign for the conduct of executive business, is also collectively responsible to parliament both for its executive conduct and for its legislative measures, the same men being as members of the cabinet the servants of the crown, and as members of parliament and leaders of the majority responsible to those who support them by their votes and may challenge in debate every one of their actions.
In this latter sense the cabinet has sometimes been described as a standing committee of both Houses of Parliament.
One of the consequences of the close connexion of the cabinet with the legislature is that it is desirable to divide the strength of the ministry between the two Houses of Parliament. Pitt's cabinet of 1783 consisted of himself in the House of Commons and seven peers. But so aristocratic a government would now be impracticable. In Gladstone's cabinet of 1868, eight, and afterwards nine, ministers were in the House of Commons and six in the House of Lords. Great efforts were made to strengthen the ministerial bench in the Commons, and a new principle was introduced, that the representatives of what are called the spending departments - that is, the secretary of state for war and the first lord of the admiralty - should, if possible, be members of the House which votes the supplies. Disraeli followed this precedent but it has since been disregarded. In Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman's cabinet formed in 1905, six ministers were in the House of Lords and thirteen in the House of Commons.
Cabinets are usually convoked by a summons addressed to "His Majesty's confidential servants" by the prime minister; and the ordinary place of meeting is either at the official residence of the first lord of the treasury in Downing Street or at the foreign office, but they may be held anywhere. No secretary or other officer is present at the deliberations of this council. No official record is kept of its proceedings, and it is even considered a breach of ministerial confidence to keep a private record of what passed in the cabinet, inasmuch as such memoranda may fall into other hands. But on some important occasions, as is known from the Memoirs of Lord Sidmouth, the Correspondence of Earl Grey with King William IV., and from Sir Robert Peel's Memoirs, published by permission of Queen Victoria, cabinet minutes are drawn up and submitted to the sovereign, as the most formal manner in which the advice of the ministry can be tendered to the crown and placed upon record. (See also Sir Algernon West's Recollections, 1899.) More commonly, it is the duty of the prime minister to lay the collective opinion of his colleagues before the sovereign, and take his pleasure on public measures and appointments.
The sovereign never presides at a cabinet; and at the meetings of the privy council, where the sovereign does preside, the business is purely formal. It has been laid down by some writers as a principle of the British constitution that the sovereign is never present at a discussion between the advisers of the crown; and this is, no doubt, an established fact and practice. But like many other political usages of Great Britain it originated in a happy accident.
King William and Queen Anne always presided at weekly cabinet councils. But when the Hanoverian princes ascended the throne, they knew no English, and were barely able to converse at all with their ministers; for George I. or George II. to take part in, or even to listen to, a debate in council was impossible. When George III. mounted the throne the practice of the independent deliberations of the cabinet was well established, and it has never been departed from.
Upon the resignation or dissolution of a ministry, the sovereign exercises the undoubted prerogative of selecting the person who may be thought by him most fit to form a new cabinet. In several instances the statesmen selected by the crown have found themselves unable to accomplish the task confided to them. But in more favourable cases the minister chosen for this supreme office by the crown has the power of distributing all the political offices of the government as may seem best to himself, subject only to the ultimate approval of the sovereign. The prime minister is therefore in reality the author and constructor of the cabinet; he holds it together; and in the event of his retirement, from whatever cause, the cabinet is really dissolved, even though its members are again united under another head.
Sir W. Anson, Law and Custom of the Constitution (1896); W. Bagehot, The English Constitution; M.T. Blauvelt, The Development of Cabinet Government in England (New York, 1902); E. Boutmy, The English Constitution (trans. I.M. Eaden, 1891); A. Lawrence Lowell, The Government of England (1908), part I.; A.V. Dicey, Law of the Constitution (1902); Sir T. Erskine May, Constitutional History of England (1863-1865); H. Hallam, Constitutional History of England; W.E. Hearn, The Government of England (1867); S. Low, The Governance of England (1904); W. Stubbs, Constitutional History of England; Hannis Taylor, Origin and Growth of the English Constitution (Boston, 1889-1900); A. Todd, Parliamentary Government in England (1867-1869); much valuable information will also be found in such works as W.E. Gladstone's Gleanings; the third earl of Malmesbury's Memoirs of an ex-Minister (1884-1885); Greville's Memoirs; Sir A. West's Recollections, 1832-1886 (1889), etc.