The Table

The Blavatnik School today took a field trip to No.10 Downing Street – one highlight of which was a chance to sit at the famous Cabinet table.

Downing Street is a short row of Georgian town-houses situated a small cul-de-sac off the main thoroughfare of Whitehall in central London.  As the office and home of the British Prime Minister, Number Ten has one of the most celebrated doorways in the world.

Inside the black door with the brass plate are a handful public room – well decorated, tasteful, on a human scale, certainly not overwhelming, or too showy or grand.  Perhaps a mirror of how the British like to see themselves.  Like the country, these rooms resonate with the past and perhaps the most poignant room in No.10 is the cabinet room (shown in the photograph from the National Archives accompanying this blog)

Under the green baize the cabinet table itself is antique, long and tapered at either end. Victorian leather upholstered chairs are placed around it and in the middle is the only chair with arms – the Prime Minister’s.

Yet it isn’t the dimensions or design of the table which are important – it is the history.

Around this table for over two centuries politicians and officials sat and made policy decisions.  It was around this table that modern cabinet government, modern representative government was born.  Here the American colonies were lost, continental wars planned, and a global political and industrial empire was built.  In the 20th century, Lloyd George sat here on Armistice Day in 1918, Churchill on VE Day in 1945.  Shortly afterwards, Attlee and his cabinet discussed India and Pakistan’s partition in 1947; Harold Macmillan drafted his ‘Winds of Change’ speech on Africa, and as one of my African colleagues pointed out, across this table many countries finally achieved independence.

In my lifetime, national states of emergency have been declared by Heath; negotiations undertaken with the unions by Wilson; bailouts from the IMF agreed by Callaghan; armed forces committed to battle by Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron.  Health, education and welfare policy has been fought over, and bombs have fallen from the sky.

People sitting at other tables in government capitals around the world are now more powerful, and in the modern world the boardroom tables of large corporations have influence on the lives of people to a degree which once only governments could have.  Some of the Blavatnik School’s First Cohort will one day sit at similar tables around the world, making decisions which shape public policy.

But perhaps there is no other table in the world, which has witnessed the grand sweep of history over the past two hundred years, no table upon which the papers of state have been laid awaiting decisions which have affected hundreds of millions of lives around the world for good or bad.  This has been the existence of the cabinet table at No.10 Downing Street.

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