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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2012

9 - Parliament and the responsibility of government

from Part III - Accountability



Our constitutional system is one of ‘responsible government’. The idea of political (or constitutional) responsibility is wide enough to include a number of values (no fewer than twelve are identified by Gilbert, ‘The framework of administrative responsibility’ (1959) 21 Journal of Politics 373), but in the present context two are of particular importance. The first is indicated by AH Birch, Representative and Responsible Government (1964), pp 17–18, in saying that ‘the term “responsible” is commonly used to describe a system of government in which the administration is responsive to public demands and movements of public opinion’. The responsibility of government in this sense implies that it is responsive to (takes heed of, defers to) demands, pressure or influence exerted by the public, or on its behalf by institutions or organisations that have an acknowledged place in the constitutional system. We may take the correlative of ‘responsiveness’ to be ‘control’, so that a responsive government is one that submits to control by the public or by representative bodies. ‘Control’ is a central concept of constitutional thought and practice, and it needs some elucidation.

A dictionary definition of control gives as synonyms ‘command’, ‘restraint’ and ‘a check’, and it is evident that the word may be used in strong or weak senses. Even mere influence can be thought of as a relative power, or control in a weak sense, so that control extends in a series from a power of direction at one extreme to inducement or influence at the other. It is helpful for our purposes to retain the full range of meaning. If control were to be restricted to the power of directing the actions of subordinates, the usefulness of this term in describing the working of the constitution would be very limited, and in practice it is not so restricted. The weaker forms of control are of great importance in our system of government. Carl Friedrich has written that, apart from power, ‘influence is probably the most important basic concept of political science’ (Constitutional Government and Politics (1937), pp 16–17). Control in whatever degree is exercised a priori before the relevant action or decision is taken. (For a useful analysis of the nature and forms of control, see Dunsire, ‘Control over government’ (1984) 26 Malaya Law Review 79.)

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