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The Budget: Red Boxes and Booze!

Simon Read

RedBox 300x221 The Budget: Red Boxes and Booze!The rituals behind today’s Budget announcement are a lot more interesting than the Chancellor’s speech. They centre around two key events.

The first is the Red Budget Box which is – without fail – held up to please the gathered snappers outside Number 11 Downing Street by the Chancellor before he heads to the Commons to make his speech. The second ritual is the right of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to knock back booze as he presents his Budget statement to the House.

Sadly, the current Chancellor George Osborne will fail to keep the traditions going properly today. One is his choice, but when it comes to the other, he has no choice.

Let’s deal with the latter, which concerns the Red Budget Box. The original hand-crafted wooden box – lined with black satin and covered in scarlet leather – was made for William Gladstone in 1865. It was used by every Chancellor after Gladstone, apart from James Callaghan (1964–1967) and Gordon Brown (1997-2007), who both had new ones commissioned.

Brown’s Box – made of yellow pine covered in scarlet leather – is the one pictured. It was made by dockyard trainees in his Dunfermline East constituency in 1997. When Alistair Darling became Chancellor in 2007 he sent for the traditional Box, as did George Osborne when he became Chancellor in 2010. But since then Osborne has been forbidden to use the old Box as its condition has deteriorated. It’s now on display at the House of Commons before being returned to its permanent resting place on exhibition at the Cabinet War Rooms, part of the Imperial War Museum.

Which Box will Osborne hold aloft today? It’s a new one first used in 2011 and commissioned by The National Archives. It was hand-made using traditional techniques and materials by a team of experts including carpenters, bookbinders, and engravers and the Archive paid £4,300 for it.

What is the significance of the Red Box? None really. It simply contains the Budget Announcement. And that could just as easily be carried in a plastic bag, couldn’t it? In fact it was on one occasion when the Chancellor was Norman Lamont. The Speech was carried by his aide William Hague in a plastic bag. So what was in the Red Box that Lamont waved at photographers? A bottle of whisky!

Which, neatly, brings us to the second of the traditions – the right of the Chancellor to have a tipple while presenting the Budget. Booze is otherwise banned from the Chamber under parliamentary rules. Where does that tradition come from? My sketchy research hasn’t revealed the answer so I would be grateful if anyone can tell me.

It’s at least since Gladstone, who enjoyed a cocktail of sherry and beaten egg back in the mid Nineteenth Century when presenting a four-and-a-half-hour long Budget Speech (incidentally the longest ever). Since then Chancellors have quaffed glasses of brandy (Winston Churchill), whisky (Kenneth Clarke), gin and tonic (Geoffrey Howe), milk and rum (Hugh Dalton) and spritzer (Nigel Lawson), among others. Meanwhile, when making the shortest-ever Budget Speech at 45 minutes in 1867, Benjamin Disraeli supped brandy and water.

But the current Chancellor will be having none of that today. Fittingly for our time of austerity, he’ll be knocking back the water. In fact that’s become a mini-tradition in itself, since Gordon Brown elected for a glass of water in his first – and every subsequent – Budget in 1997. He was followed by Alistair Darling and, in turn by Osborne.

So no booze and no traditional Red Box. I’m certain that won’t be the first disappointment from Budget 2013.

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