In the wake of Theresa May’s reshuffle this week it has been noted that no-one was moved from the ‘Great Offices of State’. So what is meant by this term?
The Great Offices of State refer to the Government Departments that are considered to be the most senior and the Secretaries of State who head them. These are:
The Prime Minister (Currently Theresa May)
The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Currently Philip Hammond)
The Foreign Secretary (Currently Boris Johnson)
The Home Secretary (Currently Amber Rudd)
Each office has its own History and has changed and developed through time.
The Office of Prime Minister
The official title of the Prime Minister is actually ‘First Lord of the Treasury’. This is the title on the door of Number 10 Downing Street.
The position of Prime Minister was not deliberately created. It evolved organically after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. A key part of the Glorious Revolution was the acceptance of the ‘Declaration of Right’. This was a document that clearly laid out the limits of the monarch’s power. In essence, this was the starting point of Britain’s ‘constitutional monarchy’. As the power of the monarch reduced, Government Department’s grew in prominence. Of these departments, the Treasury was the most powerful, as it controlled the income and expenditure of the Government. Among the Government, one member was usually seen as the senior. This how the term ‘Prime Minister’ came into being, it was the unofficial title for the Government Minister who was the most influential. Despite this unofficial title, Prime Minister’s at this time still had no formal precedence over other ministers – they were ‘primus inter pares’ (first among equals). With Britain’s Cabinet System of Government, the Prime Minister technically remains ‘primus inter pares’, although, in truth, Britain has moved to a more presidential system whereby the Prime Minister is indisputably the most powerful individual in the Government.
It is not clear who can be considered the first Prime Minister. However, the leading contender is undoubtedly Sir Robert Walpole who became First Lord of the Treasury in 1721. One significant element of Walpole’s premiership was his recognition of the constitutional need to retain the confidence of Parliament. This was shown in 1742 when Walpole resigned after winning a vote of no confidence by a very slim margin. Although Walpole still had the confidence of the King, George I, he believed that he was not in a position to hold the complete confidence of the House of Commons.
The position of Prime Minister continued to develop and evolve through time. In the 18th and 19th century it was usual for the Prime Minister to govern from the House of Lords. However, the Great Reform Act of 1832 dramatically increased the size of the electorate in Britain. After this, it became increasingly difficult to justify having a Prime Minister who could not be scrutinised by the elected representatives of the nation. The last Prime Minister to govern from the Lords was Lord Salisbury in 1902. Since then, it has become the accepted convention that Prime Minister’s come from the House of Commons.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer
The Chancellor of the Exchequer runs the Treasury on a day-to-day basis. They are responsible for preparing the budget – the outline of how money will be raised and spent. One the most iconic political images each year is of the Chancellor posing outside Number 11 Downing Street with his Red Box.
The Chancellor delivers the budget speech in the House of Commons. It usually lasts around an hour, however, the longest ever delivered was 4 hours and 45 minutes by William Gladstone. Also, there is a tradition that the Chancellor is allowed an alcoholic drink during their budget speech, Kenneth Clarke was the last Chancellor to utilise this privilege, enjoying a Whisky while delivering the speech.
The Foreign Secretary
Officially the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Foreign Secretary has traditionally been an extremely prestigious position, however, it has perhaps become less so since the demise of the Empire.
One of the major changes to the remit of the Foreign Office in recent years has been the creation of a separate Department for International Development.
The Home Office
The Home Office was created in 1782. Its remit has changed considerably through time. One of its most important roles is policing. Traditionally, it was also responsible for the justice system. However, a major reform of the Home Office took place in 2007 that saw the creation of the Ministry of Justice. This new Ministry took charge of the Prison, Probation and Criminal Justice System. This reorganisation took place after a number of oversights in the Home Office that suggested its original remit was becoming unmanageable.