For British Officials, Questions Hit Home
Wednesday, June 7, 2006
LONDON BY APPOINTMENT ONLY: Chevening, 17th-century estate that author Rudyard Kipling called "enchanted," 115 rooms, marble floors, breathtaking spiral staircase and 3,000 acres of lush grounds in southeastern England. Suitable for entertaining foreign heads of state.
Only British foreign ministers need apply.
Britain maintains a spectacular real estate portfolio worth tens of millions of dollars for its top government officials, from Chevening House to luxury London apartments. These "grace and favor" homes are at the heart of a debate inflamed by issues of class and privilege, touched off by the recent publication of photos of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott playing croquet on the lawn of his country mansion at 4:15 on a Thursday afternoon.
Prescott grudgingly gave up the government-owned Dorneywood estate last week, saying he would never be able to relax again on its 215 acres as long as tabloid newspaper photographers were lurking in the well-trimmed hedges.
Although much derision was focused on the croquet mallets, for many people the more interesting glimpse into life at the top of this country's political food chain was not the game in the grass but the majestic 21-room mansion in the background.
"It's a relic of the empire that should be done away with," said Norman Baker, a Liberal Democrat member of Parliament, adding that Dorneywood should be sold and the proceeds put into the national treasury. He said freebie opulent homes used by cabinet members were "from a bygone era and they have no place in the 21st century."
There seems to be no clear count, or at least none that has been made public, of how many estates the British government has or what they are worth, according to interviews with a dozen government officials and spokesmen. The most famous is Chequers, the prime minister's stately 16th-century country home that Tony Blair and his family use on weekends.
Some top military officials also have government residences, and two government apartments in central London are vacant because of cabinet reshuffling. The royal family, of course, has a long list of government-owned residences, starting with Buckingham Palace.
The term "grace and favor" originally referred to houses and apartments owned by the monarch and given to royal family members, butlers and others by the "grace and favor of the sovereign," said Kenneth Rose, a royal biographer.
Although staff salaries might not have been particularly good for a butler at Hampton Court or Windsor Castle, free accommodation in an apartment there was cherished, according to Rose. Over time, he said, the term has come to mean any residence that comes with a government job.
But now that cabinet ministers such as Prescott are paid salaries of $250,000 or more, people are questioning whether the government should be doling out these perks. "Why should we have to pay for a man who earns more money than most to live in a house that is bigger than most?" asked Terry Bundy, 38, a London sandwich shop owner, referring to Prescott. Bundy said politicians could just as well "go to a park to play croquet."
Defenders of the grace and favor inventory say many of these residences serve an important function and cost the taxpayer little because they were bequeathed to the government by millionaires and are maintained by private trusts.
Until the 20th century, Britain's rulers typically owned vast tracts of land; the aristocratic class was the political class, and finding a decent ballroom in which to entertain visiting dignitaries was as easy as ringing for the butler. But as merit gradually sneaked into the equation, political power increasingly passed to a class of leaders who did not necessarily boast sumptuous ancestral homes. To avoid the embarrassment of government leaders entertaining grandees from abroad at the pub, several members of the landed gentry -- often those without heirs -- donated their grand residences.
For example, Foreign Office officials said Chevening was left to the nation in 1967 on the death of the seventh Earl of Stanhope, who died childless and left a trust to cover the expense of maintaining the mansion. Dorneywood was donated to the National Trust in 1944 by Lord Courtauld Thomson, a wealthy landowner who also had no children to take over his mansion. Fliss Coombs of the National Trust said Thomson died in 1954 and left a trust that still covers the upkeep of that mansion.
Until he gave up Dorneywood last week, Prescott enjoyed a double scoop of government real estate: He also keeps an apartment in Admiralty House, an 18th-century brick residence near the Whitehall government complex. Margaret Beckett, the foreign minister, also has an apartment there.
As foreign minister, Beckett has use of Chevening, and ministry officials said she intends to use it "in an official and private capacity." She is also entitled to use a house in central London that British media reports say has a ballroom and an extensive collection of art and antiques.
"People are only jealous," said Helen Jackson, 35, a London secretary. "Anyway, it's just like a company car -- lose the job and you lose the house."