There’s been an awful lot in the news recently about John Prescott and Dorneywood, the grace-and-favour country house he’s just given up. Which set me wondering: why do we have to have state-owned mansions for ministers anyway?
It’s not as if it’s an ancient tradition. Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country estate, has belonged to the government since the First World War. Dorneywood was given to the government in the last 1940s, and Chevening, normally the official residence of the Foreign Secretary,* has only been used by the government since 1980. The whole idea – giving ministers stately homes to play with, so they can look suitably upper-class when they want to,** is very much a modern one.
Now, I can see why ministers might need somewhere to go and relax, to entertain visitors. Do they really need their own mansions, though? The German federal government owns a big hotel just outside Bonn for that reason.*** The Scottish First Minister lives in a National Trust for Scotland place,**** a Georgian townhouse in central Edinburgh. Why does the British government need a whole portfolio of country houses for its ministers to live in?
* but, at the time of writing, the official residence of Jack Straw; he got to stay on there when he was demoted.
** see also: playing croquet.
*** Pointless boast: I played in a concert there once. It’s a lovely place, if a bit ornate for my taste.
**** note that the National Trust for Scotland is completely unrelated to the English, Welsh and Northern Irish one.