Secretary of State (UK)

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.


The kings of the medieval Kingdom of England always had in attendance a learned ecclesiastic, known at first as their "clerk", and afterwards as "secretary", who conducted the royal correspondence. Until the time of Henry VIII, who reigned from 1509 to 1547, English kings generally had only one secretary, but at the end of his reign a second appeared. It was not until the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) that these functionaries gained the title "Secretary of State". Upon the direction of public affairs passing from the Privy Council to the Cabinet after 1688 the Secretaries of State began to assume those high duties which now render their office one of the most influential of an administration.

After the English Restoration, the two 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 Catholic states of southern Europe. In 1782, responsibilities were reallocated between the new posts of Secretary of State for the Home Department, dealing with the Secretary's domestic responsibilities, and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, dealing with foreign relations.

Owing to the increase of business consequent upon the Union with Scotland, a third Secretary of State gained appointment in 1708, but, with a vacancy occurring in this office in 1746, the third secretaryship disappeared until 1768, when a newly re-instituted third Secretary began to take charge of the increasing colonial administrative work. In 1782, the office was again abolished, and the charge of the colonies 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 World War II. 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 has been in continuous use since 2009.

Obsolete positions


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