On Shadow Cabinets

In the UK and several other countries, a ‘shadow cabinet’ is a group of opposition politicians who ‘shadow’ cabinet members, offering criticism and alternative policies, while simultaneously (presumably) learning the job.

The notion of a shadow cabinet is appealing for several reasons. First, elevating certain members to a position of responsibility must surely be one of the best ways to reduce the cacophony politics typically suffers from, since the opposition has nominated a single person whose job it is to analyse and criticise the government’s performance. Second, it means that the criticisms that government and opposition necessarily fling at each other are, to some extent, informed. This, one imagines, serves both to cut out unnecessary blather and refocus political discourse on the issues. Further, it encourages responsibility since both the government and the opposition can reasonably be held culpable for bad leadership.

One other significant advantage that cannot be understated is the role a shadow cabinet might play in developing new leaders, which has traditionally been a problem in developing countries like Pakistan, dominated as they are by oligarchs. Take Pakistani politics in the 1990s as an example: with the PPP and the PML repeatedly exchanging position, political horse-trading — always par for the course — resulted in some truly dubious characters taking up powerful positions. With no avenue to enhance their own understanding of the issues and of the basic principles of policy-making, it’s hardly surprising that they skirted the difficult issues and that their only legacy is a progression of increasingly muddled and short-sighted decisions. Given that it is questionable whether their interests were ever aligned with those of the nation, another strong argument in favour of a shadow cabinet is incentivising the development of political savvy and experience by offering access and information to ambitious politicians.

The flip side, of course, is the formation of a one-sided political mafia where the government’s cabinet and the opposition’s shadow cabinet collude to even more resolutely refuses to address issues and make hard decisions. Given the obvious failures of the last 60 years, it appears this is worth risking, if only as an interim step to overcome the establishment’s soporific inertia.

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