Following the revelations in the press and broadcast media about the Abu Ghraib Prison abuse scandal and related violations of international law, there have been calls for the resignation of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, UK Defence Minister Geoff Hoon, and their respective heads of government, George W Bush and Tony Blair. The justification for these calls is that those in charge of coalition operations in Iraq must take responsibility for the actions of those under their command. However, the positions in the US and the UK are not equivalent, and each case requires careful scrutiny. The rhetoric obscures the true flow of responsibility. The fact that each country is notionally a democracy, led by leader elected by the people, leads to a false expectation that vocal popular opposition to a minister should lead to his or her removal.

In the American case, Donald Rumsfeld is not directly responsible to the people of the United States, or to anyone else except his president. George W Bush, when he became President, selected Mr Rumsfeld solely because of his own beliefs about Mr Rumsfeld's fitness for the job, and the direct and indirect advantages which might accrue from such an appointment. This method of choosing ministers is very much what was practised by European monarchs at the time the United States came into being. Although the United States constitution was designed to be democratic, and to avoid many of the perceived political ills of its era, it nevertheless produces leaders of the sort then in existence. The doctrine of the separation of powers, designed to limit presidential authority, in fact distances the President from all other elected representatives of the people, and ensures that in name, if not always in effect, he is an autocrat. The fact that he is head of state as well as head of government reinforces the impression of sovereignty. His ministers are selected in a manner fitting this style of leader - by fiat. Donald Rumsfeld, in the final analysis, stays or goes at his President's word. If Mr Rumsfeld considers resigning, he should consult his own conscience, assuming he has one. Beyond that, the only standard against which he need measure himself is the approval of the man who appointed him. President Bush, as the (theoretically) elected leader of the United States, must then answer to his electorate for such a decision. The President may be brought to account at the end of 2004, when his first term in office expires.

Geoff Hoon's case is utterly different. Mr Hoon holds his office in part because he is Member of Parliament for Ashfield. If the people of Ashfield decide that Mr Hoon has been an ineffective representative, they can remove him as an individual from office at the next General Election. Indeed, if his constituency Labour party decide to withdraw their support from him, he could be removed before that. Most ministers, apart from the handful drawn from the House of Lords, are MPs and vulnerable to such things. In 1997, several outgoing Conservative ministers lost their seats as well as their cabinet positions due to their individual unpopularity with the voters. Tony Blair's choice of Mr Hoon was therefore dependent on Mr Hoon's election in Ashfield. What may be less apparent, but is no less important, is that Mr Blair's rule depends on Mr Hoon's election. The leader of a party can only continue to govern if that party controls a clear majority of seats in the House of Commons. Those MPs not supporting the Prime Minister form the Opposition, a source of criticism and obstruction for the government's policies - something noticeably lacking in the American system. Without separation of powers, laws and executive policies stem from the same place, and to hold up one can easily hold up the other. Mr Blair is not head of state, and his continued rule is dependent on his continued support from the individual representatives of the people. Geoff Hoon, therefore, in considering his position, must also consider what action will best represent his constituents, and thus be most likely to keep him in a job as MP. Unflinching loyalty to a leader who is becoming unpopular may not necessarily be the best policy. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook resigned his cabinet position on a point of principle relating to the war in Iraq, but retains his job as MP, and may well be re-elected in the next parliament. Each British minister is directly accountable to his or her own local electorate, and there are many ways a general election can dismantle a ministry. Tony Blair, to hold his cabinet together, must retain both his own seat and his parliamentary majority, and his ministers must retain their own seats.

Foreign and military policies, no less than social and economic ones, are determined by our democratically elected leaders. Few politicians make statements of their projected foreign policy in their manifestos, though. This is partly for diplomatic security reasons, of course. An election victory for a party leader who has pledged to invade Rumbabwe (formerly British Rumbabaland) would constitute an immediate diplomatic affront from the entire electorate to Rumbabwe and all her allies, and would be an immediate trigger for the existing Rumbabwean government to revise its military policy, while the newly elected party is still figuring out the office e-mail system. Nevertheless, if such a policy is not announced, but is implemented, the electorate, who would rather Rumbabwe had been left in peace, will be entirely justified in removing their leaders from office. It is a popular political strategy to pretend that foreign policy, especially hostile foreign policy, is not a party issue. This is clearly untrue, and voters should feel entirely justified if they cast their votes based on the expected foreign policies of the respective parties. If you feel one of our leaders should resign, get out there and help sack him.

Ministers in the UK are accountable to the Prime Minister, who appoints them, and may remove them at any time (Exceptionally, the Queen might be able to block such a move - whether she would be successful is anyone's guess), to Parliament, and to their constituency, if a member of the Commons. MPs must also have an eye to the mood of their party, as they normally intend to return to government once their PM has bid high office farewell.

The constituency

The voters of the MP's constituency may fail to return them at their next election. Losing the support of their constituency party will most certainly not remove an MP from any position whatsoever, although it may make re-election more difficult, as they will be standing as an independant from the next election.


Although Parliament cannot remove a minister from their position, except by the passage of an Act, which would be unprecedented, it can still subject a minister to censure. The most common step would be to require a full explanation before either a select committee, or their House, of the reasons for any given decision. Either house may also pass motions indicating a lack of confidence in the minister, even asking the Queen and her Prime Minister to consider the minister's position. In the ultimate case, and this has never been done to anyone in generations, the Commons may summon anyone to the bar of the house (or to the house, if an MP), and try and imprison them.

All change!

Once the election has come and a new party installed, they have the advantage of a civil service, so the transition of power is almost entirely seamless. Any manifesto commitment to invade Gondwanaland can be actioned immediately (to the extent that an army can ever be immobilised immediately), as the new ministers have little need to figure out the email system.

The disadvantage of a civil service is that it is perceived as a large body of very great inertia, acting to curb the propensity of ministers to do anything that might upset their world, or do anything that the civil service does not approve of.

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