The word ‘executive’ means ‘doing’. The executive of a country is usually its cabinet of ministers. These ministers are responsible for the day-to-day business of government. Although we refer to a prime minister or a president who has executive power as the head of government, he or she is almost always part of a group of ministers known as the cabinet, which exercises executive power collectively. When executive decisions are made, they are presented as cabinet decisions, rather than the decisions of the president or the prime minister.
The cabinet consists of ministers (known as secretaries in a few countries like the United States) who run various government departments and decide what needs to be done in the various areas or ministries for which they are responsible. Major decisions however, or decisions concerning policy, are brought before the cabinet so that they can be taken collectively.
Prime minister means ‘first minister’. When the cabinet system of government developed, the prime minister was simply the chief among the advisers of the executive monarch. It was the monarch who appointed the cabinet, the term used to refer to the whole body of his advisers. As countries developed politically, the advisers, who were supposed to be representatives of the people, acquired greater decision-making power. In time, in democracies, their leader became more important than the monarch. So now, in many countries, the prime minister has greater decision-making powers than his colleagues in the cabinet.
In some countries such as the United States, an executive president is the head of government, and therefore the head of the cabinet. Since such a president has been elected direct by the people, he or she has greater powers in relation to the rest of the cabinet than a prime minister, who has been elected along with several others.
Prime ministers are not usually elected directly. They are selected by virtue of their commanding the support of a majority of the members of parliament (MPs). Once selected, they are free to appoint other members of the cabinet as they think suitable. But for such appointments, as for other purposes, they must continue to have the support of a majority in parliament.
Legislative and Judicial Power
Parliament is the common term for the legislature. The legislature is the branch of government that makes laws. In theory, it is superior to the executive since the executive must act according to the laws passed by the legislature. In practice, however, since it is the doers who affect our day-to-day lives, when we talk of the government we usually mean the executive branch.
But there are also other branches of government, which are meant to uphold the interests of the people, even against the executive branch.
Thus, a country has laws that the citizens should follow. But the law is above the government, and the government should perform its executive functions according to the law. The judiciary, which is the third branch of the government, is responsible for upholding the law. As citizens, we are not required to follow the government if it asks us to act against the law. The courts, which are part of the judiciary, can rule that the government has violated the law, and pass a judgement demanding a reversal of policy or some amends for its actions.
Therefore, the main instrument limiting the power of the executive is the law. The making of law is the business of the legislature and upholding the law is the duty of the courts.
Above the three branches of government lies the constitution of the country. It is the basic law according to which the three branches function. So the parliament too can make laws only according to the constitution. This means that there are some rights enshrined in the constitution, which the parliament cannot change or take away.
Controlling the Executive
Modern political systems which emphasise the right of people to govern themselves have only emerged since the seventeenth century. Before that, in most parts of the world, the government of a country was in the hands of a monarch.
The monarch owned the country and its people, and ruled as he wished. He had advisers for the day- to-day business of government, like modern-day ministers. There were also courts which delivered judgements according to the laws. As political systems developed, it was established that the advisers were not to be appointed by the monarch as he wished, but were to be selected from representatives chosen by the people. Even the monarch was required to act according to the law of the courts.
Yet, in most societies such bodies, that is cabinets, courts and parliaments, functioned according to the wishes of the monarch. In the seventeenth century, however, theories developed in Europe about the rights of those who were governed. The principle that a monarch had absolute power was challenged. Gradually, after revolutions in England, America and France, it was established that the people had certain rights with regard to how they should be governed.
Initially, there were no questions raised regarding the executive power of the monarch. Until just over two hundred years ago, the monarchs chose their own ministers and ruled as they wished. The main problem was to ensure that the monarchs observed the law and did not abuse the basic rights of the people they governed. Thus, the idea developed that the parliament, which represented the people, should act as a check on absolute executive power.
Emergence of parliamentary power
The rise of parliamentary power came with the idea that laws of government had to be passed by the parliament, that is, the laws according to which a king governed a country could be changed only with the consent of the people’s representatives in parliament. During the initial stages, this did not diminish the power of the monarch. However, the idea that there was an authority above the monarch was an important step in establishing that a state did not simply belong to its head. This power, that is, the legislative power of parliament, is the root from which parliaments have now become so important all over the world .
In England too, it was on the basis of legislative power that the parliament grew in strength. The English Civil War of the seventeenth century led to the establishment of the other principle by which the legislature controls the executive, that is, the authority to regulate financial expenditure. This power of the parliament is now almost universally acknowledged. Any executive body needs funds to fulfill its functions. To raise funds a government must impose taxes on the public. The authority to do so must come from laws passed by the legislature. The finances required by the executive each year are given in a budget, which has to be passed by the parliament. In theory, a parliament can refuse to pass a budget, whereupon the executive will have no funds to do its work.
Thus, the two main functions of the parliament are to pass (or amend) laws, and to approve the taxes and the budget, put forward by the executive to govern the country. Following this, the power to authorise the government expenditure also provided parliament with a third mechanism to control the executive. Since the parliament authorises the funds for the executive, it also has an obligation and a right to check on the expenditure it has authorised. Most parliaments have, therefore, a Public Accounts Committee, which can examine government (that is, executive) expenditure. In addition, MPs have the right to question all members of the executive on what they do, since whatever they do depends on funds approved by parliament. In many countries this power is rarely exercised actively and effectively. But an efficient and independent parliament can make sure that the executive acts in a responsible manner.