The Westminster system under the Cameron coalition: ‘Promiscuous partisanship’ or institutional resilience?

AuthorPatrick Diamond
Published date01 July 2019
Date01 July 2019
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Public Policy and Administration
2019, Vol. 34(3) 241–261
The Westminster system
! The Author(s) 2017
Article reuse guidelines:
under the Cameron
DOI: 10.1177/0952076717737595
coalition: ‘Promiscuous
partisanship’ or
institutional resilience?
Patrick Diamond
Queen Mary University of London, UK
This article applies Aucoin’s paradigm of New Political Governance derived from the com-
parative literature on Westminster systems to review changes in the UK machinery of
government during the Coalition era from 2010 to 2015. The paper examines whether
coalition government imposed ‘checks and balances’ that prevented Conservative minis-
ters from enacting a further wave of New Public Management-style reforms of the per-
manent bureaucracy comparable to New Political Governance. The central argument of
the article is that the institutional resilience of Westminster systems, particularly their
capacity to safeguard norms of public service impartiality and non-partisanship in the face
of the politicisation and externalisation of the policy-making process, has been under-
estimated. Nevertheless, Aucoin’s concerns about the erosion of non-partisan affiliation in
the civil service of the Anglophone countries remain apposite.
The Canadian public administration scholar, Peter C. Aucoin (2012), argued that
Westminster systems have been destabilised in the last three decades by the rise of
‘New Political Governance’ (hereafter NPG) that is undermining the non-partisan
af‌f‌iliation of the public service in ‘Anglophone’ countries.1 Aucoin (2012: 177–78)
applied his analysis of a paradigmatic shift in governance and public management
Corresponding author:
Patrick Diamond, Queen Mary University of London, Mile End Road, London E1 4NS, UK.

Public Policy and Administration 34(3)
to four key Anglo-liberal states: the United Kingdom (UK), Canada, Australia and
New Zealand. He concluded that only New Zealand was able to resist the inf‌luence
of NPG reforms since it had a proportional electoral system and had experienced
multi-party government, imposing ‘checks and balances’ on the growth of exter-
nalisation and politicisation in the permanent bureaucracy (Aucoin, 2012).2
Drawing on the comparative literature on Westminster systems, this article poses
two research questions in light of Aucoin’s work. How far did NPG impact
on Whitehall during the Cameron coalition government from 2010 to 2015; and
crucially, did the ‘coalition ef‌fect’ impose limits on the spread of NPG reforms?
The UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition provides an intriguing case-
study. On the one hand, the dominant Conservative partner came to power with a
comprehensive reform programme intended to impose a ‘next wave’ of New Public
Management-style (NPM) reforms on the British state. The reform agenda had
thematic similarities to Aucoin’s NPG: it sought to re-impose political control over
the machinery of government while conceding operational autonomy to imple-
menting actors at ‘street-level’. On the other hand, Cameron’s Administration
was comprised of two parties, the outcome of a coalition agreement following an
election where no party was able to attain an overall majority. The majoritarian
nature of the Westminster system, in which power is concentrated at the heart of a
unif‌ied executive, was temporarily superseded by the formation of the coalition
(Lipjhart, 2012).
As Matthews and Flinders (2017: 2) attest, ‘the normative assumptions of
Westminster majoritarianism had been qualif‌ied’, by the outcome of the 2010 elec-
tion; the coalition meant the Liberal Democrats sought to exercise a ‘restraining
ef‌fect’ on Conservative ministers (Goes, 2016: 93). In coalitions, it is usually the
case that, ‘power is more dispersed and government policies arise from negoti-
ations’ (Gay et al., 2016: 119). The Westminster model’s ‘rules of the game’
emphasising territorial centralisation, executive dominance, majoritarian democ-
racy and indivisible parliamentary sovereignty (Flinders, 2010; Lipjhart, 2012) had
been qualif‌ied. In practice, the structural power of the PM and his advisers was
undermined by the fact that another party had Cabinet ministers in f‌ive Whitehall
departments, with a political base in the strategic centre of the Cabinet Of‌f‌ice.
Hazell (2012: 68) has concluded that as a consequence, ‘The Coalition required a
revival of Cabinet Government’.
The contention of this article is that the institutional resilience of Westminster
systems, their capacity to protect prevailing norms of impartiality and non-
partisanship, has been under-estimated in much of the comparative literature.
That said Aucoin’s initial concerns about the impact of structural changes intended
to politicise and externalise the policy process are still relevant. For several decades,
analysts have warned that the traditional ‘Whitehall model’ was breaking down
(Campbell and Wilson, 1995; Page, 2010). New Labour apparently continued the
assault on the permanent non-partisan civil service (Aucoin, 2012; Fleischer, 2009).
In the government machine the Coalition inherited, Cabinet government had seem-
ingly been undermined; power was amassed at the centre in Number Ten; there

were perceived to be too many ill-conceived initiatives; presentation took prece-
dence over the substance of policy; lines of accountability were increasingly con-
fused by the creation of new public bodies and delivery agencies; the culture of
target-setting clashed with the emphasis on quasi-markets in public sector delivery.
As a consequence, Labour’s reforms raised a fundamental question about the
impact of politicisation, namely how to, ‘protect public service professionalism
and to set limits to the partisanship of public servants’ (Mulgan, 2007: 508).
According to Aucoin’s (2012) hypothesis, ‘checks and balances’ should be observ-
able in Whitehall from 2010 to 2015, as witnessed in the New Zealand system from
the late 1990s. The key issue is whether the Coalition after 2010 stemmed the
decline of the traditional Westminster–Whitehall system by halting the adoption
of further changes associated with NPG.
According to Aucoin (2012: 185–188), NPG has four elements. Firstly, the ‘inte-
gration of governance and campaigning’: its hallmark is the centralisation and
concentration of power in the PM’s Of‌f‌ice. The desire for ‘message control’ creates
an imperative to govern from the centre (Bakvis and Jarvis, 2012: 16). This under-
mines both cabinet government and the impartial, non-partisan civil service.
Governance is ‘politicised’ by ‘continuous partisan campaigning’ (Aucoin, 2012;
Bakvis and Jarvis, 2012: 16).
The second element is the growth of political advisory staf‌f relative to the per-
manent civil service. Political advisers become more inf‌luential than either senior
civil servants, or even ministers (Grube, 2015). Political staf‌f comprise a ‘critical
mass’ within the government bureaucracy, regarding the tradition of impartial,
non-partisan public service sceptically as, ‘an obstacle to be overcome’ (Bakvis
and Jarvis, 2012: 16; Grube, 2015). Meanwhile, of‌f‌icials’ monopoly over policy
advice is openly challenged. Political advisers marginalise civil servants and enforce
a ‘funnelling ef‌fect’ where options are kept of‌f the policy agenda if viewed as
electorally disadvantageous; advisers help ministers to prevent departments being
‘captured’ by bureaucratic vested interests (Eichbaum and Shaw, 2007: 456).
Thirdly, senior civil service appointments are personalised. To be rewarded with
promotion, of‌f‌icials have to be ‘enthusiastic’ about the government’s agenda
(Bakvis and Jarvis, 2012: 16). This process ensures that senior civil servants are
more likely to perceive themselves as ‘personal agents’ of the PM; the desire for
advancement ensures they are ‘eager to please’ their political masters. The perman-
ent bureaucracy has to comply with the elected government’s political goals and
This leads inevitably to a fourth criteria: a government machine that is ‘promis-
cuously partisan’ (Aucoin, 2012): openly and explicitly supportive of the govern-
ment’s political policy agenda. The norms of ‘impartial loyalty’ are displaced in
favour of ‘partisan loyalty’ (Bakvis and Jarvis, 2012: 17). Civil servants are
expected to advocate government policies, persuading external stakeholders and

Public Policy and Administration 34(3)
the media that the government’s approach is legitimate and deserving of support
(Aucoin, 2012: 189).
We can summarise Aucoin’s NPG framework by suggesting it necessitates both
greater politicisation and externalisation of the policy process and machinery of
government (Craft and Halligan, 2015: 2–3). As a consequence, ‘In Anglo-
American democracies in particular, career public servants were subject to an
assault by politicians that was unprecedented in this century’ (Aucoin, 1995: 113,
cited in Peters and Savoie, 2012: 31).
Aucoin argues that NPG arises as governments across the western world are
wrestling with a host of new problems from the pressures of managing the mass
media to demands for greater transparency and openness. NPG builds on earlier
concepts of ‘governance’ which emphasised the dispersal of authority and the frag-
mentation of state capacity: an increasingly complex ‘polycentric’ administrative
landscape marked by the...

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