BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 12:36 GMT, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Thinking inside the box


Where the red boxes are made

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News Magazine

It's Budget day on Wednesday, when Alistair Darling will hold aloft the Chancellor's famous battered briefcase. While most of the interest is focused on its contents, why are these red ministerial boxes still around?

In a workshop in London dozens of red cases are stacked. This is where the famous ministerial boxes start, and end their political lives.

Some are bright red - fresh off the production line - while others are scuffed, worn, some carrying the names of the minister who once hauled them around.

Alistair Darling Wuth Budget box
The most famous of them all - the Budget box

The battered case Alistair Darling will hold up outside 11 Downing Street on Wednesday morning is the most famous ministerial red box of them all - first used by William Gladstone in the 1860s. Almost every chancellor since has followed the tradition.

Ministerial red briefcases - or boxes, to use the official terminology - have been used for centuries to ferry confidential government documents. They are made by the very discreet, London-based leather goods company Barrow and Gale, which rarely grants the media access to its premises. Such is the company's desire to maintain a low profile, its owner prefers not to disclose his surname.

According to the company's records, the red boxes were introduced in the 19th Century by Prince Albert. It is thought their distinctive scarlet colour is because red was a dominant colour in his family's Saxe-Coburg-Gotha coat of arms.

Hand crafted

The design of the boxes has changed very little since. Handmade from pine, which has been grown in a cold climate to ensures greater durability, the boxes are covered with red-stained rams' leather. On the odd occasion, some have even been lead lined for extra protection, says the man from Barrow and Gale.

Red box
1. Case made of slow-grown pine, covered with rams' leather
2. Title of office to which box is attached
3. Royal cypher/monogram
4. Handle sufficient to carry weight of case (2-3kg) plus contents
5. Lock on underside as a security measure

Each box takes about three days to finish and weighs between two and three kilos. One of the most interesting security features is that the lock is on the bottom of the case - so ministers never forget to secure them.

"They're sturdy, they last a long time, and I would go as far as to suggest it is in all honesty the best deal the taxpayer gets from Whitehall," says the spokesman.

The makers won't disclose the cost of an individual box, but information collected through a Freedom of Information request in 2007 showed between May 2002 and May 2007, £57,260.05 was spent on the boxes.

But in an age of lightning-fast internet connectivity and notebook computers which can store a library's worth of information, isn't the ministerial red box a throwback to a bygone era?

It might seem so, but the last effort to update it foundered. In 1997 the government mooted the idea of an electronic red box as an alternative.

David Clark, now a Labour peer, was asked by Tony Blair to come up with innovative ways of running government more efficiently. He suggested a computerised red box, and a prototype design was made. Resembling a conventional ministerial case, it opened to reveal a laptop screen.

Two-wheels bad

The box used fingerprint technology to ensure only the minister it was intended for could open it, and information was to be transferred through a secure government intranet.

Archive report: Red box goes hi-tech

But it failed to take off after resistance from ministers and civil servants, and the old fashioned red box stuffed with ministerial papers persists.

There is, undeniably, a fondness for this way of doing things.

Now Shadow Leader of the House, Sir George Young MP became a fan of the red box during his spell as a minister in the last Conservative government. But the man nick-named the Bicycling Baronet was promptly made to realise that their iconic appearance made them a target in their own right.

"I got into real trouble once for putting all my boxes on the back of a bike," he says. "The department wasn't worried about anything that might might happen to me... but they were very worried that somebody might just remove a red box from the back of a bike."


Yet there have, inevitably, been reports of ministers leaving their cases in packed train carriages while they went off to make a phone call. In fact, discreet black versions are also available for those who need to work as they travel.

"You do get to like them", says Sir George, of the classic red version. "There is something solid, reassuring, traditional, uniquely British about a red box."

But Lord Clark has little time for such sentimentality, believing one day the boxes, hand-crafted in a corner of south London will give way to laptops, fashioned on an assembly-line somewhere in the Far East.

"I think it would speed up communications between the government office and the minister," he says, "and secondly it would improve security. I think the time will come in future we will see electronic red boxes."

Below is a selection of your comments.

According to Barrow and Gale's website, their 'Attache Case No. 42' retails at £2700. One can only imagine that the bespoke versions above cost (us)considerably more...
Tom, Bath

In 1978, when I was ten, I remember seeing the then chancellor Denis Healey stride onto an Underground carriage we were on. He heard me when I whispered loudly to my mate: "That's Denis Healey" and gave me a hairy eye-browed wink. My childish memory may be playing tricks, but I could have sworn he was clutching a red box. Somehow I can't imagine Alistair Darling nipping to work on public transport tomorrow morning.
J Taylor, Fleet, UK

I must admit I admire the elegant simplicity of the Box system, for putting fairly vast amounts of information to ministers, and getting the decisions back. An electronic box might make things simpler for some, but I can guarantee that most decisions would still be made by the minister in the car on the way home.
Civil Servant, Edinburgh

"Such is the company's desire to maintain a low profile, its owner refuses to disclose his surname to the BBC." And clearly asking Companies House for it was too difficult? Like every other company in the country it's owners and directors details are a matter of public record. This faux secrecy may make for an interesting news article but it's simply like any other company.
Ross, Glasgow

Improve security? Is he joking? How many government laptops, memory sticks and disks have been lost over the last decade compared to a red box? This is one piece of tradition we should preserve, not just for security, but for tradition's sake.
Christina, Parkstone

One hardly ever hears of red boxes being lost, but one does hear of government laptops being left in taxis and trains. I rest my case.
John Olsson, Welshpool, Wales

Yet another useless and pointless anachronism in our tradition-obsessed country, like daylight saving, the House of Lords and the Monarchy. For goodness sake get rid of all these laughable old jokes and let's usher in the 21st century in the UK.
Robin, Saffron Walden

Well a laptop will need to be carried in something, so why not inside a bespoke designed red box, by none other than Barrow and Gale?
Frank C, Liverpool

These barrow and gale boxes are gorgeous. I wish I could order one for myself!
David Rodin, United Kingdom

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