GLADSTONE’S BUDGET BOX (c. 1860)

Every year on Budget day, the Chancellor of the Exchequer – the UK’s finance minister – stands on the doorstep of his official London home, 11 Downing street, and raises a battered red briefcase towards the waiting press. The case’s worn, dog-eared appearance is meant to reassure – the age-old traditions live on – but in reality most people look upon its annual appearance with gloom. For the Chancellor is about to give his budget speech to Parliament and that always means bad news for someone.

The battered budget box has been used by dozens of British Chancellors of the Exchequer since 1860 and is one of the most potent symbols of the British government

This famous briefcase, first used by William Gladstone when he served as Chancellor in 1859-66, is, technically speaking, a box, one of a whole family of red or black despatch boxes used by the British government to transport classified documents.

The Budget box’s body is made of pine and covered with scarlet ram’s leather, while the inside is lead- originally intended to make the box sink in case of disaster at sea – and sombre black satin. The case has an oddity shared by all despatch boxes in that it opens the opposite side to the handle, making it possible to carry without its first being locked.

Former Chancellor Alistair Darling holding the famous battered red budget box

The original Budget box had been used by all but two Chancellors since Gladstone. Sadly, owing to its fragility, its last appearance was for the Budget of June 2010, after which it was ‘retired’ to the Cabinet War Rooms.