Opinion

The Downing Street decor has always been about modesty — until now

Downing Street, a modest and no-great-place of government splendour, is once again in the very centre of the political eye

Design flaws: The pricey wallpaper choices for 10 Downing Street have proved contentious Photo: Chris J. Ratcli fe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The little row of Georgian houses that connect, at the back, to Horse Guards Road, and connect St James’s Park to Whitehall, is going through the mill in terms of public debate. Downing Street, a modest and no-great-place of government splendour, is once again in the very centre of the political eye. But this time it’s not so much about the functions of the officers of state but the uses to which they have put expensive rolls of wallpaper. And who has commissioned such garish and costly products.

I thought I was not involved in the debate myself until, picking a thought from his mind, a man standing in the queue in our local pharmacy said to me “Six hundred bloody quid a roll? That’s madness.” I looked at the man, wondering why I had been chosen to enter this debate with him. Until I realised that this wallpaper scandal had actually brought many people into political debate who may not have been drawn in before. It was a ‘live’ discussion and the man wanted my opinion as I waited for my pills.

Alas I had nothing to say other than that I had not kept up with the wallpaper scandal. And I left the shop soon after. He must have been disappointed, but I was vacant of thought about what to think.

This often befalls me when there is very serious public interest about something like wallpaper, or this time last year Cummings’ Barnard Castle eye test. I can’t get excited, but can see that these events are often opportunities to enter the debate. As if they are metaphors for the whole performance of Her Majesty’s Government.

Forget about policies and their propagation and execution; wallpaper and eye tests, and sundry other faux pas littered through political life, are supposedly moments of political clarity. And offer a field day to all who are not of the government’s political persuasions. But I can’t think of a thing to say worthy of comment.

So when all the debate was going on about wallpaper, I was thinking of the actual physical terrace of modest Georgian houses I have known for most of my life. As part of my ritual as a truant child travelling on the 11 bus that passed Downing Street, on through to my visits there to meet with prime ministers to discuss big issues; and The Big Issue itself.

Certainly the wallpaper scandal has possibly caused harm to the reputation of the present administration because it comes against a background of terrible suffering throughout the UK

Nor forgetting my time standing at an impromptu press conference held in the street outside Number 10 by Edward Heath when he got into power in summer 1970. Those were golden days for anyone being a Whitehall traipser like me, for there were then no fences and armed coppers to stop you actually walking past the PM’s house.

Those now-tired old Georgian houses, constructed in the 17th century, were not always prestigious abodes. The nearby St James’s Park and neighbouring Birdcage Walk were notorious for prostitutes of both sexes, with the writer James Boswell living in Downing Street and using the services of the local trade.

Interestingly, Boswell’s great claim to fame was his Life of an earlier Johnson – Samuel Johnson – whom Boswell traipsed around London following, and out of it making his ‘considered ultimate’ biography of the great man. Like his more recent namesake, the earlier Johnson was a consummate wordsmith, able to verbally spin and bedevil, and proving it by writing the best early Dictionary of the English Language.

For such a short street, Downing Street underlines a kind of modesty of appearance that seemingly befits the home of the prime minister of Her Majesty’s Government. None of your White House or Élysée Palace for the various Bobs, Benjamins, Ramsays, Ernests, Winstons, Clems, Harolds, Maggies, Tonys, Theresas and Borises that have occupied this modest home. You may wonder why it needs such corpulent wallpapers when it seems to contradict the whole idea of Downing Street. That the woman or the man chosen as its occupant is an ordinary person given an extraordinary job.

Certainly the wallpaper scandal has possibly caused harm to the reputation of the present administration because it comes against a background of terrible suffering throughout the UK. Moral outrage reigns supreme. Perhaps conspicuous expenditure should not be allowed because we are not like the American royal family – the presidents – where big bucks and Fifth Avenue prices reigned supreme. Where ‘swanking it’ goes with the job, combining as they do the two jobs of monarch and political leader into one (Alas Boris is only American by birth. Swanking for him is verboten!).

All I know from my travels on the 11 bus is that Peter Jones, a John Lewis shop, is a spit and a fart from Number 10. And there you can truly pay some mouthwatering big bourgeois prices. Yet Boris is a modest officer of state, as were all of the long line of former Downing Street occupiers.

So let this be a lesson in the evils of haut décor!

John Bird is the founder of The Big Issue

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