The BBC2 film 'The Secret Art of Government' exposes a much-valued perk of office: the right to indulge in some behind-the-scenes art-collecting. Their choices are revealing. By Mark Irving

It is in the little things that the true nature of power is revealed. By the time Tony Blair's car was speeding towards Buckingham Palace for his meeting with the Queen on 2 May last year, removal men were already at work taking down one of his predecessor's John Major's favourite paintings - a portrait of the cricketer WG Grace - which hung in the Prime Minister's study at 10 Downing Street. It was back at the headquarters of the Government Art Collection by 2pm the same day - a small but cruelly delicious symbol of how swiftly the political weather vane can turn.

The Government Art Collection (GAC) celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, but few people will have heard of it, let alone seen the works of arts it possesses. Established in 1898 by the then Ministry of Works as a means of saving money in the cost of decorating government buildings, the GAC remains hidden within a secret location in Soho. Its faceless corridors wait to receive municipal visits from men and women whose tenure of office is overshadowed by the single most important rule of governmental public relations: always guard against the slightest display of excess. This is one which certain members of the current administration - Lord Irvine comes to mind - have spectacularly failed to observe, but within the secure storerooms of the GAC, where the picture racks glide slightly back and forth, the politicians can relax their guard and indulge in the forbidden fantasy of being art collectors.

However, art and politics makes curious bedfellows and when those in power have at their disposal an art collection consisting over 11,500 separate items (five times the holdings of the National Gallery) the results can be particularly intriguing. A strict hierarchy is observed as to who gets what, with the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretaries of State taking precedence over non-Cabinet ministers and under Secretaries of State for rights to the best quality works.

In the past, some ministers have occasionally tried to subvert the allocation system: Doctor Wendy Baron, director of the GAC from 1978 to 1997, remembers how the disgraced MP, Neil Hamilton went over her head to David Mellor, then heading the department of National Heritage, in an attempt to secure a painting which he had been told was already due to go to the British Embassy in Beijing. "It was a fairly dodgy week or two but now the picture is in Beijing," she says, with a trace of a smile.

"The business of selecting a painting is an interesting one, because it does send out a message about your beliefs and values," says Paul Moorhouse, curator at the Tate Gallery, one of the sources of National Art Treasures which the GAC can call upon to supplement its own collection - a practice which has attracted considerable controversy over recent months.

"But pictures can also be used to make people think these pictures represent your values. So art can be used as a mirror and a mask," he says.

The problem is that the use of art to project personal or public value systems can be a mercurial process, one which defies containment. What, for example, are we to make of Peter Mandelson's picture choices? In the office of the Minister Without Portfolio there hangs Michael Salaman's painting Separate Worlds - a picture which is, according to the artist, about "loneliness and frustration, the desire for the unobtainable and the inability to communicate" - alongside two etching by Chris Orr illustrating John Ruskin's problematic relationship with women: in Was That John? , the young Ruskin is seen lying on his bed, with open mouth and trouser fly agape, in a flush of ecstasy.

The small girl in the corner is a reverence to Rose Le Touche, the nine- year-old child with whom he was temporarily infatuated. In the other, Def In Venice, Orr explains that "Ruskin is standing on a balcony and she is inside the bedroom looking at her own sexuality in the mirror and obviously feeling very frustrated. Below there's a gondolier serenading somebody, maybe Ruskin - which might have a slight hint of another direction Ruskin may have felt." According to David Willey, one of the GAC staff, Mandelson personally monitored the hanging of these pictures.

In No 10, Blair's collection of contemporary art work includes a print by Mark Francis showing magnified spermatozoa, a strange exception to the amorphous abstract images he has had installed elsewhere in the building. "While we've got plenty of portraits of Whigs and Tories, it's a problem for us to find suitable Labour heroes," explains Willey.

Consequently, Oliver Cromwell has acquired a new radical cool, and is the hot pin-up of both Frank Dobson and John Prescott - a fact which alarms Conservative Peter Lilley, who considers that Cromwell's famous loathing of Parliaments sets "a dangerous precedent". His own favourite image is an imperious photograph of Charles De Gaulle, a man not, it must be said, noted for his liberal policies.

Abstract images are therefore perhaps more useful to a regime that has placed so much emphasise upon the modern. Since the election, many ministers have been anxious to toe the party line initiated by their leader and exchange what is perceived to have been "Tory taste" - paintings of fox- hunting and hare-coursing, rolling landscapes, societies' grandees - for "modern" works. Armed with a purchasing grant of pounds 100,000 per annum, the director of the GAC has been busy building up the collection's range of contemporary art. Her purchases include work by artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, who are otherwise famous for producing mannequins of sexually mutated children.

Gordon Brown, as one would expect, sails against the preferring wind of change in his own window selection for No 11 Downing Street. Characterised by a taste for gentle Impressionistic landscapes of the French Riviera, Brown's artistic preferences are a far cry form the hard-edge contemporary chic loudly espoused by his boss next door. Feminists maybe upset to learn that he is believed to have returned a stunning portrait of Ada, Countess Lovelace - regarded by many experts as the founder of modern computing, a painting of pecuniary relevance originally destined for the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

But the embarrassment with this country's past which typifies this government's attitude to art has been particularly evident in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where Robin Cook's rejection of the magnificent portrait of Jan Bahadur Kunuar Ana in his private office on the grounds that it is "backward looking and ideologically unsound", is, according to Caroline Dakers, Professor of Cultural History at Central St Martin's College of Arts and Design, "A profound misreading of the past, since the work was given by Nepal to cement relationships between our two countries."

Since the painting's removal, Cook has been unable to fill the gap on the wall with anything better than a gilt frame mirror. But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of this government's attitude to art has been the task given to Mark Fisher, Minister for the Art, to implement a cultural policy throughout the organs of government - something which has been more usually associated with Napoleonic France, Soviet Russia and the United States of the 1960s, during which the CIA famously used Abstract Expressionism as a propaganda tool to project America's vigour to country's around the world. In the film, John Tusa, chairman of the GAC talks of a "real revolution" taking place within government and his fellow committee member Charles Saumerez-Smith, director of the National Portrait Gallery explains that the GAC should follow Government policy.

This policy has filtered through to the British Embassy and high commissions aboard - where the majority of the GAC's works of art are displayed.

Sir David Blatherwick, HM ambassador in Cairo, talks of his keenness to do away with the "greeny browny pictures" and how he would like to "make things more glitzy. Our ballroom cries out for red, white, and blue and then we could put some more British painting on the wall."

But don't blame the stuffed shirts. Look nearer the seat of power, at the policy documents put out by Demos which has the Prime Minister's ear. With its espousal of an official visual culture which does away with scenes of rolling hills and dabbling streams, which prioritises urban chic over rural tradition, we are being sold, "a culture developed out of drizzled olive oil rather than congealed fat", according to Adam Gopnik, Paris correspondent of The New Yorker.

It is not a development which pleases Doctor Wendy Baron, who offers a grim warning in the film: "I don't think you can just rebrand the country - a country is not a commercial product. It can't be rebranded."

'The Secret Art of Government', BBC2, Saturday 13 June, 7pm

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