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Secretary of State for Defence

Flag of the British Secretary of State for Defence.svg
Bob Ainsworth
Style: The Right Honourable
Appointed by: Elizabeth II
as Queen of the United Kingdom
First: Peter Thorneycroft
Formation: 1 April 1964

United Kingdom
Coat of Arms of the UK Government

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The Secretary of State for Defence, popularly known as the Defence Secretary, is the senior United Kingdom government minister in charge of the Ministry of Defence, chairing the Defence Council. It is a Cabinet position. The position was created in 1964 as successor to the posts of Minister for Coordination of Defence (1936–1940) and Minister of Defence (1940–1964).


Minister for Coordination of Defence (1936–1940)

Lord Chatfield served as the second and final Minister for Coordination of Defence.

The position of Minister for Coordination of Defence was a British Cabinet-level position established in 1936 to oversee and co-ordinate the rearmament of Britain's defences.

The position was established by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in response to criticism that Britain's armed forces were understrength compared to those of Nazi Germany. This campaign had been led by Winston Churchill and many expected him to be appointed as the new minister, though nearly every other senior figure in the National Government was also speculated upon by politicians and commentators. Despite this, Baldwin's choice of the Attorney General Sir Thomas Inskip provoked widespread astonishment. A famous remark was "This is the most cynical appointment since Caligula made his horse a consul".[1] The appointment is now regarded as a sign of caution by Baldwin who did not wish to appoint someone like Churchill who would have been interpreted by foreign powers as a sign of the United Kingdom preparing for war, as well as a desire to avoid taking onboard a controversial and radical minister.

In 1939 Inskip was succeeded by First Sea Lord Lord Chatfield. When the Second World War broke out, the new Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain formed a small War Cabinet and it was expected that Chatfield would serve as a spokesperson for the three service ministers, the Secretary of State for War, the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Secretary of State for Air; however political considerations resulted in all three posts being included in the Cabinet and Chatfield's role proved increasingly redundant. In April 1940 the position was formally wound up and the functions transferred to other Ministers.

Name Took office Left office Political party Prime Minister
Sir Thomas Inskip 13 March 1936 29 January 1939 Conservative
(National Government)
Stanley Baldwin
Neville Chamberlain
Ernle Chatfield
Lord Chatfield
29 January 1939 3 April 1940 none
(National Government; War Government)

Ministers of Defence (1940–1964)

The post of Minister of Defence was responsible for co-ordination of defence and security from its creation in 1940 until its abolition in 1964. The post was a Cabinet level post and generally ranked above the three service ministers, some of whom, however, continued to also serve in Cabinet.

On his appointment as Prime Minister in May 1940, Winston Churchill created for himself the new post of Minister of Defence. The post was created in response to previous criticism that there had been no clear single minister in charge of the prosecution of World War II. In 1946, the post became the only cabinet level post representing the military, with the three service ministers - the Secretary of State for War, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and the Secretary of State for Air, now formally subordinated to the Minister of Defence.

Name Portrait Took office Left office Political party Prime Minister
Winston Churchill Churchill V sign HU 55521.jpg 10 May 1940 27 July 1945 Conservative
Winston Churchill
Clement Attlee Attlee BW cropped.jpg 27 July 1945 20 December 1946 Labour Clement Attlee
A. V. Alexander Avalexander.jpg 20 December 1946 28 February 1950 Labour Co-op
Manny Shinwell Manny Shinwell 1.jpg 28 February 1950 26 October 1951 Labour
Winston Churchill Churchill V sign HU 55521.jpg 28 October 1951 1 March 1952 Conservative Sir Winston Churchill
Harold Alexander
Earl Alexander of Tunis
HarolAlexanderD 026065.jpg 1 March 1952 18 October 1954 none
Harold Macmillan Macmillan cph.3b40592.jpg 18 October 1954 7 April 1955 Conservative
Selwyn Lloyd 7 April 1955 20 December 1955 Conservative Sir Anthony Eden
Walter Monckton 20 December 1955 18 October 1956 Conservative
Antony Head 18 October 1956 9 January 1957 Conservative
Duncan Sandys 13 January 1957 14 October 1959 Conservative Harold Macmillan
Harold Watkinson 14 October 1959 13 July 1962 Conservative
Peter Thorneycroft 13 July 1962 1 April 1964 Conservative
Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Secretaries of State for Defence (1964– )

The post of Secretary of State for Defence was created on 1 April 1964. The former Cabinet positions of First Lord of the Admiralty, Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air (responsible for the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force respectively) were incorporated into it and the offices of the Admiralty, War Office and the Air Ministry were abolished and their functions transferred to an expanded Ministry of Defence.

Name Portrait Took office Left office Political party Prime Minister
Peter Thorneycroft 1 April 1964 16 October 1964 Conservative Sir Alec Douglas-Home
Denis Healey Denis Healey Davos.jpg 16 October 1964 19 June 1970 Labour Harold Wilson
Peter Carington
Lord Carrington
Lord Carrington.jpg 20 June 1970 8 January 1974 Conservative Edward Heath
Ian Gilmour 8 January 1974 4 March 1974 Conservative
Roy Mason 5 March 1974 10 September 1976 Labour Harold Wilson
Frederick Mulley 10 September 1976 4 May 1979 Labour James Callaghan
Francis Pym Zconcam61.jpg 5 May 1979 5 January 1981 Conservative Margaret Thatcher
John Nott 5 January 1981 6 January 1983 Conservative
Michael Heseltine 6 January 1983 7 January 1986 Conservative
George Younger 9 January 1986 24 July 1989 Conservative
Tom King 24 July 1989 10 April 1992 Conservative
John Major
Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm rifkind.JPG 10 April 1992 5 July 1995 Conservative
Michael Portillo Michael Portillo by Regents College cropped.jpg 5 July 1995 2 May 1997 Conservative
George Robertson George Robertson.jpg 3 May 1997 11 October 1999 Labour Tony Blair
Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Headshot.jpg 11 October 1999 6 May 2005 Labour
John Reid JohnReidHeadshot.jpg 6 May 2005 5 May 2006 Labour
Des Browne Des Browne MP.jpg 5 May 2006 3 October 2008 Labour
Gordon Brown
John Hutton John Hutton.jpg 3 October 2008 5 June 2009 Labour
Bob Ainsworth 5 June 2009 Labour


  1. ^ This quote has been made on many occasions and the original source is unclear. The highly influential polemic Guilty Men (whose relevant chapter is entitled "Caligula's Horse") attributes it to a "great statesman" (page 74), whom some have surmised was Churchill. However Stewart, Graham Burying Caesar: Churchill, Chamberlain and the Battle for the Tory Party (London; Phoenix, 1999) (ISBN 0-7538-1060-3), page 487 attributes the originator of the quote to Churchill's non-politician friend Professor Frederick Lindemann.


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