Originally posted on Facebook
Earlier this month, on 3 October, Peter Mandelson was re-appointed to the British cabinet, having left twice before during Tony Blair’s premiership. In December 199 he resigned as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry after alleged impropriety surrounding a loan he received to buy a house in Notting Hill was revealed. After a suitable time away from cabinet, he was appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in October 1999, resigning again in 2001 because of representations he had made on behalf of an Indian property developer for British citizenship. He was then appointed in 2004 to the European Commission, assuming the portfolio for Trade.
The appointment of Mandelson as Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform this month is certainly of interest from a political point of view, as an attempt by Gordon Brown to unite the party by asking back an old Blairite enemy, and to show his commitment to tackling to current crisis as best he can. It is also interesting, tho, because of the constitutional side note. Having resigned his seat in the Commons when he became Commissioner, he had to be appointed to the House of Lords to take the position, becoming Baron Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham. As late as the time of Mrs Thatcher’s government, it was not unusual for peers to serve in the cabinet, with Viscount Whitelaw as Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Carrington as Foreign Secretary. In recent times, however, it has been there has been somewhat of a move away from appointing peers, especially as a Secretary of State, and when Mr Brown became prime minister, he appointed Jack Straw Lord Chancellor, the first time a commoner had held the position.
Mandelson’s appointment was also unusual as most peers who enter cabinet do so having already served for some time in the Lords. In his case, his peerage merely served the constitutional obligation that a cabinet member be a member of one of the houses of parliament. The closest comparison was David Young, who was created Lord Young by Mrs Thatcher on the day after the 1984 election, and was then appointed to cabinet as a Minister without Portfolio to advise on matters of employment, becoming Secretary of State for Employment the following year and later Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
Young was the last Secretary of State before Mandelson to reside in the House of Lords, but it is something which governments should not really be so reluctant to do. Irish ministers may also come from the Upper House. The Constitution allows the Taoiseach to appoint up to two ministers, apart from the Minister for Finance and the Tánaiste from the Seanad, but it has only been exercised twice since 1937. The first occasion was in 1957, when Éamon de Valera nominated Seán Moylan, who had lost his seat at the election, as one of his eleven senators and appointed him as Minister for Agriculture. He died later that year. The second occasion was in 1981, when Garret FitzGerald nominated his cousin James Dooge to the Seanad and appointed him as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Prof. Dooge had previously served in the Seanad from 1961 to 1977, and had never contested an election for Dáil Éireann.
It might be because the public expects those who serve in the cabinet to have a received a mandate from the people, or that prime ministers or Taoisigh find it useful able to use the gift of a position in cabinet for their parliamentary colleagues, but there are benefits to appointing someone who was not elected. The question of their mandate should not arise, ministers are appointed to serve all the people of the state, not just those in their constituencies. Appointing someone who was not seeking re-election could ensure greater impartiality in decision-making. It would widen the range of candidates, as there could be many who would be excellent in a ministerial post who would not be adept at playing the political game necessary for election to the Dáil or the Commons. In the American system, there is a complete separation of personalities between the legislature and the executive, as senators or congressmen have to resign their seats to take cabinet office, and many, such as Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, have no elected experience. It is of course a very different constitional arrangement in the United State, as a presidential rather than the parliamentary democracy of the Westminster model, but in terms of the general principle, in as much as the government here can use that power, I would like to see those two available spots given to senators more often.