The First Secretary of State
The term ‘Secretary of State’ means different things in different countries. In the US, there is just one (responsible for foreign policy); in the Vatican, there is also one (responsible for coordinating all state departments). The US Secretary of State is effectively a foreign secretary; the Vatican’s Secretary of State is equivalent to a prime minister.
In the United Kingdom, there are a number of them: the title denotes a senior member of the Executive – a cabinet minister in charge of a government department. Wikipedia unhelpfully explains:
There is in theory only one office of Secretary of State, and legislation generally refers only to "the Secretary of State". In practice, there are a number of Secretaries of State, each of whom can exercise the functions of the Secretary of State, and formally titled "Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for ...". These positions can be created without primary legislation.
A secretary of state is also a minister – effectively a principal minister within a government department. Each principal minister is subordinate to the Prime Minister – a descriptive and unofficial (even derogatory) term which evolved over the centuries and was not officially recognised until 1905.
To be first is to be premier: the prefix ‘First’ is synonymous with ‘Prime’, for ‘prime’ means ‘chief’, ‘most important’, ‘first’. To be the First Secretary of State is to preside over all other secretaries of state, and that is the role of the Prime Minister. But the First Secretary of State obviously cannot also be Prime Minister. Yet the title certainly implies seniority over other secretaries of state: at the very least the holder functions as a Deputy Prime Minister.
Which is why Harriet Harman ought to be asking a few questions.
Interestingly, she is not included in Wikipedia’s table of deputy prime ministers, though as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party she is Gordon Brown's ex officio and de facto deputy in the House of Commons (most significantly, if only symbolically, at Prime Minister's Questions). Lord Mandelson has swiftly been added to the list of first secretaries of state.
Surely Harriet Harman is not just a little female ‘window dressing’, is she?
(Blessings to Total Politics for the graphic)