secretaries of state

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secretaries of state. Like many other great offices, the secretaryships of state grew from comparatively modest beginnings. The development from a mere clerk to a policy-maker was largely a 16th-cent. phenomenon. In medieval usage, ‘secretary’ retained a slightly sinister meaning as one who was privy to secrets, and was used to describe Gaveston and Despenser, the favourites of Edward II. As first the great seal and then the privy seal were regarded by monarchs as too public, the keeper of the signet rose in importance. In the reign of Edward IV, a principal secretary holding the signet was appointed, but the jump in status was not until Thomas Cromwell became principal secretary in 1534. Two years later he added the privy seal and became the engine of government. Cecil ( Lord Burghley) held the post of secretary under Edward VI and Elizabeth (1550–3 and 1558–72) and his son Sir Robert Cecil 1596–1600. From 1573 until 1590 the post was filled by Walsingham. In the reign of James I the convention was established of appointing two secretaries. After the Restoration, the posts were divided into a secretary of state for the north and for the south—the former conducting diplomacy with the protestant powers of northern Europe, the latter with the catholic powers of southern Europe. This strange system, bound to cause problems, survived for more than 100 years, partly because one secretary usually took the lead: few people doubted that William Pitt, secretary for the south 1757–61, carried more weight than his colleague the earl of Holdernesse. In 1768 a third secretary was appointed to administer the American colonies, but it was an ill-fated experiment since they declared themselves independent in 1776.

A major reorganization took place in 1782 when the southern secretaryship was converted into the Home Office and the northern secretaryship into the Foreign Office. After that there were periodic increases in the number of secretaryships. Henry Dundas was made secretary for war in 1794 and also took on colonial responsibilities; a separate secretaryship for the Colonies was created in 1854; a secretaryship for India after the mutiny, in 1858; a secretaryship for air in 1918. In the 20th cent., though the foreign and home secretaries retained their identities and importance, the others suffered from repackaging according to the vicissitudes of time. The colonial secretary found his department shrinking when, in 1925, a separate secretaryship for dominion affairs was set up. Since his main task after the Second World War was to wind up the British empire as rapidly as possible, his reward in 1966 was abolition. The secretary for dominion affairs did not long outlast him and, having changed his name to the secretary for Commonwealth relations in 1947, was swallowed up by the Foreign Office in 1968. The secretary of state for India vanished in 1947 when India became independent, and the secretary for air disappeared when an integrated Ministry of Defence was established in 1964. Meanwhile the proliferation of secretaryships illustrated the law that grand titles increase as power diminishes—for industry (1963), education and science (1964), employment (1968), social services (1968), environment (1970), and transport (1976).

The early evolution of the secretaryship in Scotland from the reign of David II followed a similar course to that in England, with the office emerging from the keepership of the signet. In 1558–71 it was held by William Maitland, in 1661–80 by Lauderdale, and after 1680 usually by two persons. At the Union of 1701 Mar and Loudoun were reappointed as secretaries of state, but in 1709 Queensberry became a single third secretary. This arrangement lasted until the Jacobite rising of 1745, after which no secretary of state for Scotland was appointed until 1885. A secretaryship for Wales was set up in 1964. In Ireland, the lord-lieutenant had the main responsibility, but was assisted by a powerful chief secretary who, from 1859 onwards, was usually a member of the cabinet. This post lapsed when the Irish Free State was set up in 1922, but a secretary of state for Northern Ireland was appointed in 1972 after direct rule had been imposed on the province.

J. A. Cannon