The HQ of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office is open this weekend as part of London’s Open House scheme. I came away with two ideas. First, they should treat the Durbar Court as an indoor garden for senior civil servants to tend. It would give them useful experience of the cultural differences between the UK and other countries. Second, they should commission a new building, with gardens inside, outside and on top. Sir George Gilbert Scott’s design, completed shortly after the ‘Indian Mutiny (aka India’s First War of Independence) could then become a Museum of Empire, dedicated to involving visitors in a discussion of the pros and cons of imperialism and globalization. Douglas Hurd, when he was Mrs Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary, used to say that Britain was a country which could ‘punch above its weight’. I wish we could either stop punching or learn to punch well below our weight. This would be a genuinely ethical foreign policy – and a lush display of semi-tropical plants in the Durbar Court would be a step in the right direction. The original design, by Digby Wyatt, had the Court open to the skies, which must have been cold. It is believed that it was glazed over to receive the Sultan of Turkey in 1867. The Durbar Court is now used for receptions and would be a softer and less imperious place if well planted.
Or should it remain unplanted in the interests of historical accuracy?