In a week that will be rich in political plotting, a timely book looks at how the physical design of 10 Downing Street can affect politics.
Written by researcher in residence, Jack Brown, who was never actually in residence, it looks at the power dynamics of the placements of offices and rooms within 10 Downing Street, and how an advisor’s proximity to the beating heart that is the Prime Minister affects the decisions that are made.
It’s an odd world for those of us more used to working in a fixed office, for while the architecture of 10 Downing Street is relatively fixed, who gets the plum offices is paramount. Except during an unexpected transition of power, the incoming team have often been inside before to inspect the place as part of the Civil Servant’s planning for a change of Prime Minister, and here people plot and scheme to get the best rooms.
The best rooms change fairly regularly depending on the mood of the Prime Minister and where in the building they prefer to work, either the Cabinet Office, or the newly christened Thatcher Room, where she used to work a lot — and where Gordon Brown commissioned a portrait of her to go above the fireplace.
The book is at times a bit heady with names and titles and if you’re not familiar with the 1960s and 70s, then it can be a bit bewildering at times. A map of 10 Downing Street would have helped immensely in placing the geography of the rooms within the building. Having been inside for a look at the state rooms and vaguely familiar with the layout, the book still left this reader feeling a bit lost in a maze.
If you’ve ever watched Yes Prime Minister, you might be aware that it is very loosely based on actual events, but the episode The Key takes on a whole new meaning. The fictional political advisor’s fight to be in a room opposite the men’s toilet so she can hear all the gossip turns out to be far more real than you could ever expect.
Where the book is strongest though is the history of the building, and is rich in anecdotes about the decades leading up to the wholesale rebuilding that took place in the 1950s. So badly decaying was the building that there were worries about heavy TV cameras and staff often had to move guests around rooms in case too many congregate in a room and cause the floor to collapse.
What we see today is a facade in front of a modern building that is itself designed to look old. The illusion of the continuity of the office and power exercised within being a long thread throughout the book.
The core of 10 Downing Street is very small and intimate and that is seen at its huge advantage over the grand Presidential offices in other countries. In tiny offices with little privacy, it’s hard to keep a secret (much to the delight of journalists), but also means people are very much aware of who is doing what and when.
The question the book leaves up to the reader is whether that makes for the better, or worse government.
As a book, it’ll naturally appeal to anyone interested in politics, but it’s really about how social history and heritage architecture affect each other, from the permanent staff, the girls in the garden room typing, and the temporary political schemers, and the domestic challenges of living above the shop.