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Number Ten’s first Prime Minister

Summary:
On September 22nd, 1735, Sir Robert Walpole, Britain's first Prime Minister (although the title was not used until much later), moved into Number Ten Downing Street (although it did not have that number then). Its famous door (through which it was not then entered) has become an iconic symbol of Britain's democratic government. That famous door was not added until 40 years later, and was made of oak until after the 1991 IRA mortar attack on the building, following which it was replaced by bomb-proof material. The black bricks that surround the door, separated from it by the cream-coloured casing, are in fact yellow underneath. They were turned black, as were nearly all London buildings, by the 19th and 20th Century smog of the coal fires that heated every home and the smoke from industrial

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On September 22nd, 1735, Sir Robert Walpole, Britain's first Prime Minister (although the title was not used until much later), moved into Number Ten Downing Street (although it did not have that number then). Its famous door (through which it was not then entered) has become an iconic symbol of Britain's democratic government. That famous door was not added until 40 years later, and was made of oak until after the 1991 IRA mortar attack on the building, following which it was replaced by bomb-proof material. The black bricks that surround the door, separated from it by the cream-coloured casing, are in fact yellow underneath. They were turned black, as were nearly all London buildings, by the 19th and 20th Century smog of the coal fires that heated every home and the smoke from industrial chimneys. Since everyone was by then used to seeing them black, when they were cleaned in the 1960s they were painted black.

Walpole, with the support of two successive monarchs, became Britain's longest-serving Prime Minister, with a spell of more than 40 years. The kings valued his ability to deliver majorities in Parliament to have bills passed to become Acts of Parliament. George II was sufficiently grateful that when Downing Street reverted to the Crown, he offered it to Sir Robert. With admirable restraint, Sir Robert declined it as a personal gift, but suggested it be reserved for holders of the office of First Lord of the Treasury, then the Prime Minister's official title, and one today's Prime Ministers still hold. A brass plate beside the door of Number Ten testifies to this.

Walpole was a moderate. When Europe was at war, he preferred Britain to be out of it, and persuaded George II to stay out of the War of the Polish Succession. In 1733 he proclaimed, "There are 50,000 men slain in Europe this year, and not one Englishman." Without the costs of war, Walpole contrived to reduce taxes. The Land Tax went down from 4s in 1721, to 3s in 1728, 2s in 1731, and finally to 1s in 1732. He also established a Sinking Fund to reduce the National Debt.

He was trying gradually to shift the tax burden away from the gentry, who paid the land tax, and onto the merchants and their customers who paid customs and excise taxes. In modern terms he was trying very sensibly to shift the tax burden from stock to flow, but doing it gradually. He pointed out that gentry "squealed like hogs" at the tax burden, whereas merchants were more like sheep, giving up their wool peaceably.

He built up the Whig ascendency, but his low-key avoidance of controversy and his granting of more tolerance to religious dissenters won him support from moderates of both Whig and Tory groups. The historian H T Dickinson, one of my teachers, wrote, "Walpole was one of the greatest politicians in British history. He played a significant role in sustaining the Whig party, safeguarding the Hanoverian succession, and defending the principles of the Glorious Revolution." 

The residence at 10 Downing Street that he occupied is not what it seems. Walpole had the architect William Kent connect two houses, making the Downing Street front one effectively a passage through to the main building behind it. A corridor connects it to the Cabinet Office much further up Whitehall, and there is a tunnel under Whitehall that we're not supposed to know about that connects it to the Defence Ministry. What is now the Cabinet Room was used by Walpole as his study.

In many ways Ten Downing Street resembles the British constitution it safeguards. There is much more to it than the outward appearance might suggest, and it adapts and changes over time to meet the new challenges it is called upon to face. Yet it preserves the outward form, providing reassurance of continuity. It is modest, rather than grandiose, reminding us that the Prime Minister is a person like us, who lives in a house, as we do, rather than some god-like remote dignitary. Its understated presence reminds us, too, that government and Parliament in this country are here to serve the people, not the other way round.

When people move house, a removal van pulls up outside their house. That is, quite rightly, what happens in Ten Downing Street when we change governments.

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