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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Downing Street Is More Than Merely the Prime Minister’s Residence

Downing Street Is More Than Merely the Prime Minister’s Residence


Number 10 and neighbouring buildings make up an iconic part of the both the “Westminster Village” and the world’s view of the seat of British government.

To date, fifty-two men and one woman have entered the famous black door of No 10 as Prime Minister. It has been their family home; nerve-centre of governments and nation during war; and in times of political difficulties, ‘the bunker’ of beleaguered premiers. It’s the soap opera of the nation.

The front masks a rabbit warren of rooms and passages, a mix of styles and periods, including the very latest security technology. TV crews are almost constantly camped outside, across the cul-de-sac, facing the door. Who comes in and out could be newsworthy. Ministers, visitors, officials, celebrities: the arrival and departure of everybody tells the watching world something about them and the government.

A defeated Prime Minister (Gordon Brown most recently in May 2010), and a new incumbent arriving (David Cameron on the same day), represent the seamless flow of the British democratic tradition. It’s like ‘the king is dead; long live the king’ in the monarchy. The civil service continues, though, serving one administration after another.

Steeped in History

The street was built by and named after Sir George Downing (1632-1689), soldier and diplomat, who, according to the Downing Street website, was rewarded for service under Charles II by the plot of land on which the street today stands. This was despite serving Cromwell after the English Civil War, too. Number 10 was but one of several houses, on both sides of the thoroughfare.

Generally regarded as Britain’s first Prime Minister, first Lord of the Treasury, the first of ‘the first among equals’, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) refused to accept Number 10 when it was offered as a personal gift, insisting it was for his successors. According to Number 10, the Prime Minister’s official Website, that’s why it’s the Prime Minister’s official residence and office to this day.

Walpole served almost 21 cumulative years as PM (still an unbeaten record), living and working in the house, despite being imprisoned for six months in the Tower of London for accepting a bribe as Secretary for War. The term ‘Prime Minister’ was regarded as more of a term of abuse then. Indeed, not till the early 20th century did it become a title of status.

Following him, it was mainly Dukes, Earls and a Marquess (Rockingham) who occupied house and position, including Bute, Wilmington, Newcastle, Devonshire, Chatham, Grafton, Liverpool, Palmerston and North, before commoners such as Pitt, Addington, Peel, Disraeli, Gladstone, Lloyd George and Churchill interspersed with nobility in office. Spencer Perceval held the post for just over two years before being shot in the Lobby of the House of Commons (1812). His body lay in Downing Street for five days before the funeral.

After that, the house was remodelled for a high-profile role, including a State Dining Room, and by the 1820s, it was the centre of government. Next door, Number 11, became official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, by the late 1830s, the neighbourhood was decidedly seedy, with flourishing brothels and gin palaces.

Peel’s secretary was murdered in Whitehall in 1842. Security became an issue, Downing Street’s residential popularity declined. The building of the Foreign Office, complete with its own Cabinet Room, in the late 1860s dwarfed Downing Street’s prestige. Rather than abandon it, Disraeli had it modernised to closer to what people recognise today.

The 20th Century

Visitors pass through the door, past cloakroom and Cabinet Room, to the Grand Staircase, walls carrying paintings or pictures of every Prime Minster in chronological order, most recent at the top. There are also Cabinet group photos and records of Imperial Conferences at the bottom. It’s a walk up history’s ladder.

Clement Attlee (of whom Churchill said: “an empty taxi drew up in Downing Street, and Attlee got out’), Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Wilson (“Whichever Party is in office, the Treasury is in power’), Heath, Callaghan, Major, Blair and Brown are the more recent holders of the office, and Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first (and so far, only) woman Prime Minister. All served during differently turbulent times.

Wars, international/financial/domestic crises, personal sagas, political ebbs and tides, royal visits, foreign heads of state, celebrities/MPs/Lords and ordinary petitioners eager to hand in their supplications to officials inside and pose for photos with the famous door behind them, Number 10 has seen drama; it’s like a stage set. The Downing Street walk from gate to house, is like Hollywood without red carpet.

Number 11 is usually occupied by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. William Gladstone, beginning in 1881 claimed residence in all three, 10,11 and 12, as he was Prime Minister and Chancellor simultaneously. After victory in 1997, Tony Blair took Number 11’s more spacious apartment, as his family had 3 young children (and a baby later), while his Chancellor, at that time unmarried Gordon Brown, took the smaller flat above Number 10.

Ubiquitous Security

In 2001, Number 9 was named after reorganisation, and is the Downing Street entrance to the Privy Council office and home of the Government Chief Whip. Previously, this office bearer resided at Number 12, now the PM’s Press Office, Strategic Communications Unit and Information & Research Unit.

Despite earlier security fears, it was not till 1989, fearing Provisional IRA terrorist attack on the PM (Margaret Thatcher), black gates were constructed, public access denied. Any member of the public nowadays demanding right of entry without an appointment gets short shift, as ‘it’s not a public road’ any longer. Demonstrations are kept across Whitehall, opposite the gates.

Such are the times in which people move about tourist areas like central London. Security is almost as tight at the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Hall, a few hundred yards away. People lobbying there or seeking entry in controlled numbers to Downing Street expect to be searched and watched. It’s worth it, even for those who can but stare through railings, to see living democracy, culture and history in action.

Read On

First published on Suite 101, 6 April 2011.

Image: Number 10’s Iconic Black Door – robertsharp

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