Greasy Pole: No grace without favour
Anyone whose memory is flavoured with a proper measure of vindictiveness will have little sympathy for the corpses of careers, once so promising, which crowd into the political morgues of capitalism. They will not be moved by tales of the bewilderment and distress experienced by the careerists at the dying of their ambitions. There will be no bereavement counselling for those who contemplate a bleak life without a platoon of flunkeys to organise their days, to usher them unsullied by probing questions from one media-intensive exposure to another. No sympathetic third ear for those who pine for the emotional highs sprouting from a passage of adroit fencing across the Despatch Box. A stolid indifference will be shown to anyone grieving for red boxes and gleaming limousines, uniformed chauffeurs and swarming police escorts. And no glimmer of empathy will console previous inhabitants of the architectural jewels which are known as Grace and Favour Residences
As almost everyone who can switch on a television set or read a newspaper knows, it was deputy Prime Minister John Prescott who, at a time when he must have been desperate to avoid any more bad publicity, swung the media searchlight onto the whole matter of grace and favour residences when he was snapped by a tabloid photographer playing croquet on the lawn of Dorneywood. Croquet – a game which needs immaculate turf, traditionally played by men and women in straw hats with hat bands in club colours. John Prescott, who is supposed to represent the interests of the people of Hull East, where croquet is not a popular game. John Prescott – who once decked a man at an election meeting for throwing an egg at him, who feeds copy to the parliamentary hacks by gabbling his Commons speeches in a riot of confused syllables, mangled words and malapropisms. Prescott the ocean going steward who angered Harold Wilson by being among the leaders of the 1966 seamen’s strike. And all of this was played out on the immaculate turf of Dorneywood – Prescott’s elegant grace and favour home in leafy Buckinghamshire. The tabloids were ecstatic, playing the game they know so well – making sure as many people as possible are aware of embarrassing facts which, no matter how trivial, can then be left to speak for themselves.
Grace and favour residences are big business, coming in a variety of sizes and shapes and being awarded for many different reasons. But none of these homes attract the same degree of attention as the few which are allocated to prominent politicians – “given to the nation” as a retreat for senior ministers where they can re-energise themselves after the exhausting business of trying to control British capitalism. Chequers is unique because it is reserved for the Prime Minister of the day, donated in 1917 for that purpose by Arthur Lee, the Tory MP for Faversham and later Lord Lee. The house nestles among the Chiltern Hills, easily visible from some of the public footpaths around about. Lee gave Chequers on the assumption that, consequent on the sequence of electoral reforms flowing from the Reform Bills, it could no longer be assumed that the Prime Minister would necessarily have their own landed estates. (At the time, some sections if the ruling class had not woken up to the fact that this was an unimportant distinction).
Thatcher was enchanted by the place: “I do not think anyone has stayed long at Chequers without falling in love with it” she wrote – an assessment which would not have chimed in with the millions of workers who spend their lives in homes which, emphatically, they do not “fall in love with”. Ted Heath was also fond of Chequers and stayed there most week-ends, although he was typically frustrated by the refusal of Arthur Lee’s widow, who was allowed to live there until she died, almost forty years after Lee’s death, to agree to the improvements he was impatient to make. Heath organised social events and concerts there, when his guests could enjoy the indoor swimming pool which was a gift from another rich benefactor. If Heath could see no irony in this, the same can be said about Tony Blair and his fondness for hosting events attended by fashionable stars of the media and the entertainment industry – Elton John, David Bowie, Richard and Judy. The publicity was a useful promotion of Blair’s assumed credentials as a trendy – while he devoted himself to his mission to govern the rest of us in a distinctly outworn fashion.
Chevening, a grand house surrounded by a 3,500 acre estate, is now occupied by Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett – although what this will do to her well-known preference for caravan life is anybody’s guess. The Earl of Stanhope left Chevening to “the nation” in 1967, specifying that it must be used by the Prime Minister, a Cabinet minister or a descendant of George VI. Prince Charles at first had his eye on it but then changed his mind; perhaps he was uneasy about being spoiled for choice. In fact Chevening, along with the now notorious Dorneywood, has previously figured in events exposing the meaner, ruthless nature of a politician’s ambitions and their perceived need to enforce recognition of their standing. When the scandal of Prescott’s office affair first broke he was adamant that he would not be forced out of Dorneywood, clinging to the house as a symbol of his power and influence; to give it up would be to admit to a decline in his standing. It was not until the pressure on him became too intense, symbolised by those photographs of him leaning on his croquet mallet, that he changed his mind, in the hope that this would assuage his critics and so save his place in the government. It was rather like Arctic travellers trying to distract a pack of pursuing wolves by throwing chunks of meat off the sledge – except that in this case it was not human lives, but the vanity of an arrogant, discredited politician that was at stake.
There has been another, equally illustrative and sickening, example in recent years. In July 1989 Thatcher had run out of patience with her Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, on the grounds that “…his clarity of purpose and analysis had dimmed”.(which meant that he had disagreed with her too often). When she came to sack him Howe was furious, partly because he would have to give up Chevening, where he was very comfortable. To prevent him becoming too much of a rebellious nuisance Thatcher offered him another post and occupancy of Dorneywood, which at that time was occupied by Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson. After a spell of bitter bargaining Howe settled for Leadership of the Commons, the meaningless title of Deputy Leader – and possession of Dorneywood. A Tory peer later raged at Woodrow Wyatt about Howe’s behaviour and the fact that the reshuffle had been “…overshadowed by a squalid squabble about houses… Why didn’t he keep his own house?”: to which Wyatt replied “probably because he doesn’t have any money and maybe he needed the money when he sold it”. This sordid episode is a commentary on how devotedly our leaders protect their own interests while they savagely denounce any workers who dare to resist the constant pressure to depress their conditions.
John Prescott must have found it very satisfying to lord it over Dorneywood and its acres. It was, after all, tangible evidence that this man who took pride (and won a few votes) in being rough and ready had climbed so high up the greasy pole. All the more bitter the irony then, that the place should have triggered his downfall.