Secretary of State (United Kingdom)

For Secretaries of State of the Kingdom of England before 1707, see Secretary of State (England).
UK government titles

Secretary of State
Minister of State
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State
Parliamentary Private Secretary

In the United Kingdom, a Secretary of State (SofS) is a Cabinet Minister in charge of a Government Department (though not all departments are headed by a Secretary of State, e.g. HM Treasury is headed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer).

There are a number of Secretaries of State, each formally titled "Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for ...". Legislation generally only refers to "The Secretary of State" without specifying which one; by virtue of the Interpretation Act 1978 this phrase means "one of Her Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State".[1] These positions can be created without primary legislation, nowadays at the behest of the Prime Minister.


Kingdom of England

In the Middle Ages the kings of England were attended by a cleric called the "king's clerk" and later "secretary", who dealt with their correspondence. Until the reign of Henry VIII, there was usually only one secretary, but under him a second appeared. In the time of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) these men gained the title "Secretary of State". With Cabinet government after 1688, the Secretaries of State took on higher duties. Their posts came to be known as the Secretary of State for the Northern Department and the Secretary of State for the Southern Department. Both dealt with Home Affairs, but they divided Foreign Affairs, so that one dealt with the Protestant states of northern Europe and the other with the Roman Catholic states of southern Europe. The Secretary of State for the Southern Department ranked above the one for the Northern Department.

After the Union

In 1708, after Union with Scotland, a Secretary of State for Scotland was appointed, but the third secretaryship disappeared from 1742 until 1768, when a newly re-instituted third Secretary began to take charge of the increasing administrative work of the British Empire. In 1782 came the new posts of Home Secretary, dealing with home affairs, and Foreign Secretary, dealing with foreign relations. The third Secretary again disappeared, and the charge of the colonies was transferred to the Home Secretary. However, owing to the war of the First Coalition with France in 1794, a third secretary re-appeared to superintend the activities of the War Department. Seven years later, the colonial business became attached to his Department. In 1854, a fourth Secretary of State gained the exclusive charge of the War Department, and in 1858 a fifth Secretary (for India) began duties.

These five secretaries of state remained constant thereafter until after the first world war. In the post-war decade, three new secretaries of state were instituted - one for the Royal Air Force was split out of the War Office; one for relations with Britain's self-governing Dominions was carved out of the Colonial Office, and the minister responsible for Scottish affairs was raised to the level of a Secretary of State.

This situation remained constant until after the Second World War. At the independence of India in 1947, the India Office and the Dominions Office were merged under a single Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations. A year before, the Secretaries for War and Air had lost their status as cabinet-level ministers, due to a reorganisation of British military command, being subordinated to a new Minister of Defence, and were finally abolished in 1964 and replaced with a new Secretary of State for Defence. A few years later, with the increasing contraction of the British Empire, the Colonial and Commonwealth Relations offices were merged, and in 1968 their responsibilities were subsumed within those of the Foreign Secretary.

By this time, however, the entire concept of a Secretary of State had been largely transformed, as Prime Minister Harold Wilson began in 1964 the process of transforming nearly all of the various Ministers and Board Presidents which made up the British cabinet into secretaries of state. By the end of the twentieth century, virtually all departmental cabinet ministers were secretaries of state, with the notable exception of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In contrast to the general stability of the Secretaryships before the 1960s, the exact number and duties of the various secretaries of state has been very fluid, with only the Foreign and Home Secretaries, the two original secretaries of state, maintaining a consistent portfolio.

Current positions

The honorific title First Secretary of State is awarded occasionally. It has been in existence since 1962 and was last in use from 2009 to 2016.

Obsolete positions


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