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Being entitled to a 34-word title

Michael Crick | 12:03 UK time, Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Much fun has been had about Peter Mandelson's new title, First Secretary of State, with widespread references to old-style Communist regimes.

To be fair, the title has often been used before in British government.

The two most recent holders were John Prescott (2001-07) and Michael Heseltine (1995-97), though they were also deputy prime minister.

Mr Mandelson is now deputy prime minister in all but name, but could not be given that particular title without Harriet Harman kicking up a big fuss, since she is deputy leader of the Labour Party, and was actually elected to that post.

I point out in my biography of Michael Heseltine (Hamish Hamilton,
1997) that the title First Secretary of State was previously held by several leading ministers in the 1960s: first Rab Butler (1962-63) under Harold Macmillan; and then under Harold Wilson we had George Brown (1964-66), Michael Stewart
(1966-68) and Barbara Castle (1968-70).

Butler also combined it with being deputy prime minister, while Brown was deputy leader of the Labour party

More important, Mr Mandelson has rescued the Gordon Brown government in much the same way Mr Heseltine rescued John Major in 1995, though unlike Mr Heseltine in 1995, Mr Mandelson was not a possible leadership challenger.

You may also have noted that Mr Mandelson was also given a third title last week - Lord President of the Council. And what's the importance of that?

Well ideally, Mandelson would have liked to have become foreign secretary, the post held by his grandfather Herbert Morrison for seven months in 1951.

Lord President is kind of consolation prize, since it's the job Morrison held between 1945 and 1951. Romantic, huh?

This means that the next time Mandelson appears on Newsnight, his caption should read as follows:

Baron Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham, Lord President of the Council, First Secretary of State, and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Strictly speaking we ought to add The Right Honourable - though Newsnight ditched that years ago in a concession to modernity, and brevity.

I will do my utmost to try and ensure that all 34 words appear on screen, and I am sure that many viewers will be extremely annoyed if they don't.

I do wish prime ministers would stop messing around with the structure of government departments, and I'm sure many civil servants agree with me.

When Gordon Brown set up the new Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (which must take the all-time silly title for a government department), I remember doorstepping its then new secretary of state John Hutton in Whitehall, and asking him what the difference was between "business" and "enterprise".

He was stumped for an answer.

And on that same day I rather riskily suggested that splitting education between John Denham's then new department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), and Ed Balls new Department of Children, Schools and Families would not last.

I've been proved half right already, as the DIUS has just been merged with DBERR, to become the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. (It won't be long no doubt, before it's shortened to "Dubious").

So, what I still think of the Department of Trade and Industry - or DTI - has assumed yet one more guise. When I get a spare moment I will try and list the changes since 1970.

Still, it keeps the Whitehall sign-writers and removal men happily employed. And who cares about continuity?


  • Comment number 1.

    That's all very well. However he's still unelected and as such it's a disgrace he is such a crucial part of "our" government.

  • Comment number 2.

    another department for silly walks.

    given the govt have no real definition of 'rural' they still manage to have a department for it.

    when do suburbs become rural? Is a village rural or urban? etc.

    the word rural is a jedi mind trick word used to mask the truth of private equestrian agendas.

    the uk has areas of low population and areas of high population and they both have their problems. to divide that into urban- rural is a fiction brought about by a role gaming hallucination?

  • Comment number 3.

    I tend to nod along with this post.

    Let's just go through it to see a few indicators, but not of how this country is being run, but how its self-appointing 'rulers' see how they can best enjoy Lording, sorry, ruling over (though I tend to think it was more meant to be 'representation') it...

    '...could not be given that particular title without Harriet Harman kicking up a big fuss'

    'More important, Mr Mandelson has rescued the Gordon Brown government..'

    'Mandelson would have liked to have become foreign secretary, the post held by his grandfather..'

    'Lord President is kind of consolation prize..'

    'Still, it keeps the Whitehall sign-writers and removal men happily employed.'

    Yes, well, and this all serves the nation and its interests, exactly, how?

    Might be worth keeping on asking that, should future opportunities present.

    Meanwhile, I have to assume that Mr. M must face a dilemma signing off on his Twitter posts.

  • Comment number 4.

    I'm intrigued...

    This is Talk About Newsnight - a collection of blogs from the team behind Newsnight. During the MEP and council polls, in line with political parties and other UK broadcasters, the BBC will not be reporting the election campaign or offering discussion about the campaign. it possible the MEP and council polls still carrying on somewhere? Or is this getting left up to save editing down and up as more elections will be happening soon for 'some reason' (why do I hazard that might see it removed at last?):)

  • Comment number 5.



  • Comment number 6.

    It always amuses me the way these socialists love their titles.

    Whatever happened to the President of the Board of Trade?

    But then these middle class chappies find any mention of trade as vulgar.

  • Comment number 7.

    Why not call him Pooh Bah, as in The Mikado; Lord High Everything Else.

  • Comment number 8.

    If you're going to prefix the title with 'The Right Honourable' you need to add PC at the end. Mandy is a peer which means he is automatically a 'Right Honourable'. Because he is also a privy councillor he would need the PC to differentiate him.

    Also, the all-time silliest title for a government department was the short lived 'Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry' which briefly made the unfortunate Alan Johnson 'PEnIS' or Productivity, Energy and Industry Secretary. Understandably, he insisted on changing the name back to 'Trade and Industry'.


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