Memorable moments in Budget history

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The Chancellor’s 2016 budget, which included tax cuts for small businesses and a levy on sugary drinks, has been largely well received in the press, nevertheless it’s unlikely to go down as one of the most memorable.

Indeed, many of his predecessors took advantage of the right of any Chancellor to drink alcohol during their Budget speech – something no Minister is allowed to do at any other time of year.

According to Parliament UK Kenneth Clarke enjoyed a little whisky in his Budget glass, whilst Nigel Lawson chose a spritzer, Geoffrey Howe a satisfying gin and tonic and Benjamin Disraeli a brandy and water.

Churchill also liked his brandy, but without the water, Hugh Dalton enjoyed milk and rum and Hugh Gaitskell had orange juice with just a dab of rum.

That other great Victorian Chancellor William Gladstone was even more adventurous opting for a combination of sherry and beaten egg.

Good for his energy it seems as Gladstone was also involved in another of Budget history’s highlights (or lowlights if you were sitting too near Gladstone after his potent egg mixture) – the longest ever speech.

It clocked in at 4 hours and 45 minutes on the 18th of April 1853. If there was anyone still awake in the chamber at the end of it this was the rousing conclusion: “Burden if we must; benefit if we may – with equal and impartial hand; and we have the consolation of believing that by proposals such as these we contribute, as far as in us lies, not only to develop the material resources of the country, but to knit the hearts of the various classes of this great nation yet more closely than heretofore to that throne and to those institutions under which it is their happiness to live.

Perhaps more fitting to the modern bitesize generation was the shortest ever speech – a whirlwind 45 minutes given by Disraeli in 1867. Perhaps he had run out of brandy. And perhaps Geoffrey Howe had too much when he decided to call his new dog Budget in the early 80s.

The British Budget, the event not the dog, is a colourful tableau of traditions and eccentricities but the name itself derives from a historical French word called ‘bougette’ or little bag.

Chancellors of the past, since the first speeches in the 18th century, used a leather bag to carry their important financial documents before this evolved into the scarlet red Budget box first used by our friend Gladstone in around 1860.

He was said to be extremely enamoured by the box hugging it to his breast “with a kind of affectionate yearning suggesting the love of a mother for an infant”.

Battered and fraying it was replaced by Jim Callaghan in 1965. Gordon Brown also went for a new version in 1997, with Osborne reverting to the Gladstone box in 2010 before he too used a new version in 2011.

The colour of the box has stayed sacrosanct with a few diversions – who can forget Danny Alexander holding up a yellow briefcase just before the 2015 election to outline the Lib Dem’s economic and financial plans in case of an unexpected victory in the polls?

Perhaps George Ward Hunt would have, if he hadn’t been dead for around one hundred years of course. The absent minded Hunt opened his Budget box in 1869 only to find that he had left his speech at home. The 21 stone Hunt, the biggest Chancellor ever, only lasted six months in the job despite Disraeli informing Queen Victoria that he “has the sagacity of the elephant as well as its form”.

Another huge mistake was made by Hugh Dalton who leaked large parts of his Budget speech in 1947 to the London evening paper, The Star.

Unfortunately for Dalton the reporters at the paper worked faster than he had expected and let the capital know about the increase of a penny to a pint of beer and a dog racing tax before he had got to those parts of his speech. Dalton resigned the next day with PM Clement Attlee lambasting him for being a “perfect ass”.

According to those fine traditionalists at the Daily Mail Budget Day was also once very much about style – an excuse for Chancellors and other MPs to dress up in their finest fashion like a Parliamentary Royal Ascot.

MPs would wear top hats and formal morning dress with Labour MPs staying true to their class loyalties by turning up in miners helmets.

What a shame this was before the emergence of the Green Party – flares and wooly cardigans no doubt and the SNP, all tartan trousers and Braveheart battle face paint.

Fashion also plays a key part in the traditions of Budget Day in Canada.

Almost every year before the finance minister delivers his budget speech to the House of Commons he has to buy a new pair of shoes. The choice has ranged over the years from trainers with blue laces, to boots and Canadian made brogues.

Some canny finance chiefs have lived up to their role opting for some budgetary re-soling rather than forking out for a new pair. During times of recession it is also customary for the finance boss to keep his old shoes on.

What makes this tradition even more wonderful is that no-one knows why they have to bother.

The first record of shoes sparkling up Budget day dates back to the 1950s but the origin of the tradition is still unknown.

Australia’s Federal Budget has its own wacky ways.

The press, for example, are locked up with the budget papers on Budget Day and have to give up their phones to Government officials. Only when the speech is finished are they allowed to leave.

According to a recent article in Yahoo Finance it was also revealed that at least six kilos of M&Ms are eaten by budget division staff in the Aussie treasury in the weeks leading up to the budget. If all the budget papers were stacked on top of each other they would reach 500 metres high.

Australia’s first budget in 1901 was written on shaving paper to save money and is always heard on the second Tuesday in May.

In Holland the Budget Day is given a very grand title – Prince’s Day – and since 1815 has been held on the state opening of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

On the day itself the King or Queen of Holland travels in the Golden Coach to the Hall of Knights in The Hague. Since 1904 the King or Queen then reads the speech in the Hall, announcing the Government’s main plans for the year ahead.

Later that day, the Minister of Finance gives the House an overview  of the cost of the plans announced in the Speech from the Throne.

Holland also has its own budget briefcase dating back to 1947 when Anglophile finance minister Piet Lieftinck felt he wanted to add a touch of British style to the event.

The current briefcase is made of goatskin parchment lined on the inside with blue silk. Pretty but perhaps not that effective as it is too small to contain all the necessary budget documents

India also has a rich budget history. The first speech was given by James Wilson, the founder of The Economist, in 1869 and now tend to hold a very spiritual and magical content.

In 2011 Pranab Mukherjee invoked Lord Indra, the Hindu rain god, with prayers also being given up to the goddess of wealth Lakshmi.

“While, like last year, I seek the blessings of Lord Indra to bestow on us timely and bountiful monsoons, I would pray to Goddess Lakshmi as well. I think it is a good strategy to diversify one’s risks,” he said.

In 2012 he even turned to the wisdom of Mary Poppins.

“When everything goes well with the economy, we all share in the joy. However, when things go wrong, it is the finance minister who is called upon to administer the medicine.” In other words, the finance minister’s job is to tell you that there’s no spoonful of sugar,” he said.

Beat that George…

David Craik is a freelance journalist writing for a range of national newspapers and magazines primarily on business topics.

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