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Senior Cabinet posts

Senior Cabinet posts comprise:

  • Secretaries of State, posts which developed from the offices of the monarch's Principal Secretary. They hold greater power and personal stature than lesser ministers.
  • Presidents of Boards evolved from the Great Offices of State (such as Lord of the Treasury and the First Lord of the Admiralty). The President of the Board of Trade is considered senior.

The following list is not exhaustive but shows how some of the senior Cabinet posts developed and disappeared.

Home Secretary

Correctly called Secretary of State for the Home Department, the post was initially responsible for all domestic issues. As government expanded, many responsibilities were granted to other ministers and departments. For much of the 20th century the Home Office dealt with policing, crime and justice, immigration, the electoral franchise, the fire services and local government issues. The post of Home Secretary was created in 1782 with the formation of the Home Office (its official title was and still is the Home Department) and it has always been a Cabinet-level position. 

Foreign Secretary

The Foreign Secretary is the political head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and responsible for Britain's relations with foreign governments and states. Properly known as the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Cabinet post is a 1968 amalgamation of the posts of Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs.

The post of Foreign Secretary was created as a Cabinet post in 1782 with responsibilities for all foreign affairs except that of India. With the development of British control of India, creation of an empire and the Commonwealth, these areas became posts in themselves, rather than being the responsibility of the Foreign Secretary. These departments merged with the Foreign Office in 1968.

Secretary of State for Defence

The Secretary of State for Defence makes and executes defence policy and provides the means to execute it - the Armed Forces. This post was created in 1964 when four of the five departments with responsibilities for various parts of the Armed Forces were merged. The four departments were: the Admiralty (responsible for the Royal Navy), the War Office (responsible for the British Army), the Air Ministry (responsible for the Royal Air Force) and Ministry of Defence (a co-ordination body). The fifth department, the Ministry of Supply (responsible for many aspects of equipment supply and procurement) remained independent. Since 2007 this post has effectively been a part-time Cabinet position.

First Lord of the Admiralty

The First Lord of the Admiralty was the political head of the Royal Navy and acted as the government's advisor on naval affairs. Possibly one of the earliest permanent government posts (as opposed to being part of the monarch's household), the holder was the political head of the Royal Navy by virtue of being the President of the Board of Commissioners for Exercising the Office of Lord High Admiral (the Admiralty Board). The post was always part of the Cabinet. From the early 1800s the post was held by a civilian (previously officers of the Royal Navy had also been able to occupy the post). The post of First Lord of the Admiralty was abolished when the Admiralty, War Office, Ministry of Defence and Air Ministry were merged to form the new Ministry of Defence in 1964.

Secretary of State for War

The Secretary of State for War was responsible for the activities of the British army. The position of Secretary of State for War, sometimes called War Secretary, was created as a Cabinet post in 1794 and was the political head of the British army. Originally concerned with only military operations, it became responsible for the War Office and the administration of the Army in 1854. In 1801 the post became that of Secretary of State for War and the Colonies until it was split from the Colonies post in 1854. The Secretary of State for War post should not be confused the Secretary at War.

The Secretary at War

The Secretary at War was a more minor political position, and was only occasionally a member of the Cabinet. The post-holder was responsible for the administration of the army and the running of the War Office. The position was merged with the post of Secretary for War in 1854, with the post of Secretary at War finally being abolished in 1863. The post of Secretary of State for War and the War Office were abolished when the Admiralty, War Office, Ministry of Defence and Air Ministry were merged to form the new Ministry of Defence in 1964. 

Secretary of State for Air

This post managed the Royal Air Force and also the development of civil aviation in Britain. A relatively new position created in 1919, in 1959 civil aviation became the responsibility of the Minister for Aviation, leaving the Secretary of State for Air to deal solely with the air aspects of defence. The post was abolished in 1964 when the Admiralty, War Office, Ministry of Defence and Air Ministry were merged to form the new Ministry of Defence.

Minister for Defence

This post was created to answer criticisms that there was not a single minister responsible for the prosecution of the Second World War. From 1940 to 1946 it was held by the Prime Minister; thereafter it was an independent Cabinet post. From 1946 it replaced the single service representatives in Cabinet. With the end of the war, the post became responsible for the co-ordination of defence issues and a ministry was attached to it. The post was abolished when the Ministry of Defence was merged with the Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry to form the new Ministry of Defence.

Chancellor of the Exchequer

The Chancellor is head of the Treasury department and oversees all government revenue, expenditure and economic and financial policy. It is a position of power second only to that of the Prime Minister. This position, like that of First Lord of the Treasury (Prime Minister) grew from one of the posts of the Great Offices of State, Lord High Treasurer, and is considered to be the third oldest state office in Britain. As the Parliament Act prevents the House of Lords from amending government financial bills, the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer is confined to the House of Commons. 

Secretary of State for India

This post was responsible for British rule of the Indian sub-continent. The post was first created in 1858 when India was taken under direct rule by Britain (it had previously been run as a commercial venture by the British East India Company). In 1935 responsibility for Burma was added and the title of the post modified accordingly. When India was granted independence in 1947, the post was abolished. 

Secretary of State for the Colonies

The Secretary of State for the Colonies was responsible for all the government's colonial possessions. It was not responsible for commercial ventures that were administered by companies (such as the East India Company). Predating the formation of the Home and Foreign secretaries' posts, this position was created in 1768. It was abolished in 1782 following the loss of the American colonies and its role transferred to the Home Office and Home Secretary. In 1791 the Colonies role was attached to Secretary of State for War, which lasted until 1854 when it became an independent Cabinet post again. In 1925 responsibility for the dominions was moved to Secretary of State for Dominions. With the decolonisation of the 1950s and 1960s, the post was merged with Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs in 1966. The combined role was taken over by the Foreign Secretary in 1968.

Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs

This Cabinet position looked after relations with the dominions - Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Irish Free State and the self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia. Initially created in 1925 the post was held by the person acting as Secretary of State for the Colonies, a policy which lasted until mid-1930. In 1947 the name of the post was changed to Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations.

Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations

See Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs

President of the Board of Trade

This position dealt with the regulation and control of economic activity. The Board of Trade was, at various times, concerned with legislation for patents, designs and trade marks, company regulation, labour and factories, merchant shipping, agriculture, transport and power generation. The post was revised in 1970 when the Board of Trade was merged with the Ministry of Technology and given the title Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries

This position was responsible for British agriculture and the fishing industry. It grew from the role of President of the Board of Agriculture (1889 to 1903) and then the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries (1903 to 1919). In 1919 the Board was abolished and a separate Ministry established. In 1954 the post was merged with Minister of Food and renamed Minster for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. After 1954 there were several suggestions that the post should be upgraded to a Secretary of State position but when approached, the various post-holders refused. In 2001 the post was merged with that of Secretary of State for the Environment.

Secretary of State for Scotland

This post is responsible for all issues relating to Scotland. The original post of Secretary for Scotland was formed in 1707 following the Act of Union and lasted until the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. The post was abolished and the responsibilities for Scotland passed to the Lord Advocate before eventually falling to the Home Office in 1827. The post was re-established in 1885 with the creation of the Scottish Office, and from 1892 the Secretary of Scotland was a member of the Cabinet. It was upgraded to a full Secretary of State position in 1926.

Secretary of State for the Environment

This role was responsible for government buildings, property, housing, local government issues and broad environment issues (such as pollution). It combined the positions of Minister of Works and Minister of Housing and Local Government to create a new 'super ministry'. It was originally established as the Minister for the Environment and was soon upgraded to Secretary of State status.