Thursday, 17 May 2007

Beer and Sandwiches ... yes, and pizza and omlettes too

This is just a little political aside that I was reminded of when writing about John Prescott. In the early 1990s I was fortunate to be invited to look around Number 10 Downing Street, which is the official residence of the British prime minister. It was an interesting tour. The thing about the house is that it is actually cramped, especially in the residential area upstairs. This is why when Tony Blair came to power he actually swapped with Gordon Brown. Blair with (at the time 3 and later 4) children took over the much bigger flat at the Chancellor of the Exchequer's residence of Number 11. Brown at the time was unmarried so used the premier's smaller flat.

Now off on another point before I bring them together. In the 1960s and 1970s especially when the Labour Party was in power, the media would refer rather derogatively to the 'beer and sandwiches' talks between the prime minister and trade union leaders. It was portrayed rather as the premier, especially Harold Wilson (prime minister 1964-70 and 1974-6) as trying to come down to the level of the ordinary man. What the media neglected to note was that there are no large catering facilities at Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street than there are in the average family home. So, in the days before fast food outlets, bottled beer and sandwiches were the practical way to feed people during long meetings at Number 10.

The 'beer and sandwiches' comment is still used to refer rather dismissively to the (nowadays rare) talks between ministers and trade unionists. However, things have moved on. Margaret Thatcher would run up to her flat when Cabinet meetings dragged on and make the Cabinet (around 22-24 people, plus the Cabinet Secretary, the leading civil servant) omlettes, which suggests she must have had stacks of eggs available. John Major, however, maybe reflecting his populist roots would send out for pizzas to be delivered from the Victoria branch of Pizza Hut. It is ironic that no terrorists caught on to this. The IRA fired mortars which landed in the garden of Number 10 and shrapnel flew through the windows (why they were not bullet/blast proof I do not know) damaging a painting inside, but they never replaced John Major's pizza order with explosives.

So, sometimes these phrases bandied around by the media actually have a more practical basis than their abuse gives credit for. It will be interesting to see if Brown has 'coca cola and burgers' talk with trade unionists in the future or whether they all simply pop out for a kebab.

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