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If Scotland has its own Secretary of State then so should London

January 14th, 2018

Graphic: The last two general election results in London via the BBC

We were promised a New Year reshuffle.  In the end, it resembled not so much a game of musical chairs as musical statues, with only Justine Greening, Patrick McLoughlin and James Brokenshire falling over.  Theresa May was unable to impose herself more fully on her Cabinet.  The chief points of interest were in the adding of social care to the Secretary of State for Health’s remit and the adding of Housing to the Communities Secretary’s remit.  All the Prime Minister seemed to be able to do is give out some stinking badges.

So let’s have a look at some of the stinking badges.  As with so many aspects of the British constitution, the role of the Secretaries of State has developed haphazardly.  The title of “Secretary of State” came into existence under Queen Elizabeth I, though the role itself dates back to at least the reign of Henry III.

Originally there was just one secretary, but from Henry VIII’s time onwards, two held the office.   The number of Secretaries of State fluctuated between two and three between 1708 and 1854.  From 1858, this increased to five.  After the First World War, grade inflation resulted in there being eight Secretaries of State.

After the Second World War, numbers were briefly reduced to five, but when Harold Wilson became Prime Minister he began the present practice of making most Cabinet ministers Secretaries of State.  The current Cabinet includes 18 Secretaries of State (the other full members of the Cabinet are the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Leader of the House of Lords and the Chairman of the Conservative Party).

It is a curiosity that while Secretaries of State are allotted different responsibilities, their powers under legislation are not usually confined by government department.  If legislation gives power to a Secretary of State it can normally be exercised, at least in theory, by any Secretary of State.  No Act of Parliament is required to create one.  This explains in part why the Prime Minister can chop and change responsibilities of Secretaries of State so freely.

The remits are not particularly obviously thought-through.  Three are geographical (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).  The rest are thematic.  Two are directly Brexit-related.  Two others (Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) are also international in theme.  The other 11 cover those areas that Prime Ministers past and present have deemed most important.  Few of the roles are of any great antiquity.

Theresa May indulged in a bit of tinkering, as noted above, but the whole layout looks ripe for a proper rethink, as and when Britain gets a Prime Minister who is strong enough to bruise egos.  Let me give a bit of help.

Devoting four different Secretaries of State to different aspects of international affairs seems extravagant, even at the time of Brexit.  But a still greater anomaly is the fact that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are each allocated their own Secretary of State.  After the early decades of the 18th century, Scotland made do without a Secretary of State until 1926.  Wales didn’t get one until 1964 and Northern Ireland had to wait until 1972.  So none of them have any particularly antique constitutional claim to a dedicated Secretary of State.

All three have had extensive devolution in the last 20 years, so they now have plenty of politicians looking after them locally – or should do, in the case of Northern Ireland.  Wales and Scotland were allocated only part of Secretaries of State under Labour between 2003 and 2008.  Civilisation did not obviously crumble.  A Martian might wonder why there isn’t a single Secretary of State for Devolution.

The contrast with the governmental status of London is stark.  London is more populous than Scotland and Wales put together.  Its GDP is bigger than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together.  Its Mayor has far more limited devolved powers than Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.  It is disproportionately important to the economy of Britain as a whole and the tax revenues it produces keep the rest of the country in the style to which it has become accustomed. 

At the same time, some of the worst examples of deprivation are found in London and it faces very pressing social problems largely absent elsewhere.  London is more different from the rest of the country than any parts of the rest of the country are from each other.

You might have thought that London would merit a Secretary of State, given its obvious great importance, unique nature and unique problems.  But in fact it has only a part-time junior minister, who is separately expected to act as a minister of state for transport.  (Lest this be thought to be a party political point, it should be noted that Labour does not have a shadow minister for London.)  It seems that London barely registers in the government’s thinking.

As things are currently set up, the government is unthinkingly treating London as a cash cow and sending out the signal that London’s needs are of third order importance to it.  With London profoundly alienated from the present government in the wake of the Brexit vote, that looks a dangerous line to take in the long term.  There’s only so long that Londoners will put up with being taken for mugs.

Alastair Meeks