The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Privy Council and the Cabinet

Category: 18th century

The House of Commons represented the great land­owners, the great trading interests, the universities, and the professions. The monarchy was limited be­cause the influence of the landowners was far greater than that of the king.

The Crown was the centre of what central govern­ment there was. Its antique mechanisms had to be geared to the new forces which were beginning to shape the new commercial and industrial order. Central administra­tion had to be carried out through the Royal Household. The Household, like the constitution, was the child of time. The King’s Household was related to the life of the country. Offices of the great honour and small duties went to loyal noblemen of great wealth and territorial power. Offices with arduous administrative duties were given to active politicians. The master of the Great Wardrobe had only a few traditional duties to perform for the king personally. The Chancellor of the Exche­quer and First Lord of Treasury had heavy day to day business and, unlike a modern minister of finance, had to do a lot of their own computations. By tradition both types of official were the king’s advisers.

Those who held Household offices and all who were responsible for the great departments of state met in the Privy Council. In William Ill’s time it exercised a minute control over local administration by communi­cations with the Lord Lieutenants. It gave effect to recommendations made by departments. It exercised a constant review over Irish and colonial legislation.

The Privy Council was an administrative body made up of about sixty members. It was too large for the discussion of policy. It would lack the relevant prac­tical knowledge and it would develop fractions. So there was a small inner cabinet which met frequently and consisted almost entirely of the political officers of the Household — the Lord President, the Lord Privy Seal, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the two Secretaries of State, and the Lord Chancellor.

The Cabinet could meet informally and when con­venient. They could meet in their own homes where they could drink deep and talk to the point. This was known as the “efficient” Cabinet. In the time of Queen Anne it had not replaced the formal cabinet, but it eclipsed the latter under the Georges.

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