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Saturday, March 20, 1999 Published at 16:53 GMT

What's it all about?

Gladstone's battered Budget box from the 1860s

The annual ritual of the Budget - with its familiar staples of leaks, rumours, tax cuts (or more likely tax hikes) and jittery markets waiting with baited breath to hear the chancellor's prescription for the nation's economic health - has been with us for at least 250 years, but where did it all start?

Q: Where does the name 'Budget' come from?

A: The term itself came into use in the mid 1700s and was derived from the French for little bag.

Politicians were often lampooned by cartoonists of the time plucking pills and potions, in the manner of a quack doctor, from their "budget" in a bid to convince a suspicious public that they knew how to cure the economy's ills.

As the term became synonymous with the chancellor's annual statement on the nation's finances it passed into general usage - moving into phrases like 'household budget'.

So it is not really surprising that the chancellor's red leather case still symbolises the political drama of Budget day.

Q: How long has the red Budget box been in use?

A: The first chancellor to use a red leather case was William Gladstone who began using it around 1860. The increasingly battered case was used for more than 100 years until James Callaghan requested a bigger one in 1964.

[ image: Callaghan requested a bigger box for his budgets]
Callaghan requested a bigger box for his budgets
When Roy Jenkins took Mr Callaghan's place the old case was re-instated only to finally pass into retirement in 1997 when the current Chancellor, Gordon Brown, had a new one made by trainees at Rosyth dockyard.

Q: If the Budget's been around for over 200 years how long have we had chancellors?

A: The office of chancellor of the exchequer is one of the oldest in British politics and predates that of prime minister. It is thought to date back to the 1300s, but took on its modern form in the 18th century.

One nineteenth century liberal, Robert Lowe, neatly summed the chancellor up as a "taxing machine" who "is trusted with a certain amount of misery which it is his duty to distribute as fairly as he can".

Q: Are the chancellor's prescriptions on taxes always swallowed without complaint?

A: No. Labour MPs outraged at Tory plans to drop the top rate of income tax to 40% in 1988 attempted to disrupt the speech of the then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson.

Cries of "shame" held up Mr Lawson for 15 minutes until he was allowed to make progress.

More significantly in 1909 the House of Lords threw out Lloyd George's 'People's Budget', objecting to a "super tax" on the incomes of the very rich and a tax on land.

The quarrel, sparked by the Budget, plunged Britain into a constitutional crisis, forced two general elections and saw the House of Lords stripped of its power of veto over the Commons.

Q: What happens when a Budget gets leaked?

A: As the Budget is one of the key moments in the nation's political calendar any leaks to the press have traditionally been taken with the utmost seriousness.

The post-war Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton spilled the beans to a stunned journalist only minutes before delivering his Budget telling him: "No more on tobacco, a penny on beer, something on dogs and pools but not on horses, increase on purchase tax but only on articles now taxable; profits tax doubled."

He was forced to resign.

Q: How long does the Budget take?

A: Budget speeches, usually heard uninterrupted, vary greatly in length. Mr Gladstone holds the record at four hours and 45 minutes for his 1853 speech, while the shortest was delivered by his arch rival Benjamin Disraeli who, in 1867, took only 45 minutes.

With speeches that long it is understandable that the Budget is the only occasion that drinks are allowed in the Commons but, alas, the chancellor himself is the only one allowed to indulge.

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