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Here’s why Brits brandish that weird little red suitcase on budget day

By Matt Phillips
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

It’s got to be the most iconic photo-op in government finance. (Which is not exactly saying a lot.) Yep, it’s the moment when Britain’s budget chief—the chancellor of the exchequer—trundles out in front of Number 11 Downing St. and proudly dangles a weird little red suitcase like a self-conscious kid showing off the first fish he ever caught to his father.

And it just happened! Here’s George Osborne with the budget today.

AP Photo / Kirsty Wigglesworth

The question is: Why?

Well, the history of the little red suitcase stretches back to 1860, when Queen Victoria’s budget chief, William E. Gladstone, needed something to carry the massive load of documents he had to walk down to the House of Commons. It was a lot of paper, as Gladstone’s speeches had been known to last hours. In fact, his April 1853 budget speech is the longest on record, clocking in at four hours and forty-five minutes.

So the original budget box was made: 14½ by 10 inches, wooden, lined in black satin and covered with red leather, brass hinges, the Queen’s monogram in gold embossing, and the words “Chancellor of the Exchequer.” Simply put, a nice box.

Such a nice box, in fact, that for over 100 years straight, British budget chiefs used it as a helpful prop on budget day.

See. Here’s Neville Chamberlain, and the missus—for a long-time the ritual photo op inexplicably included the chancellor’s wife—looking natty in 1937. Even back then the budget box had seen better days.

AP Photo / Eddie Worth

Here’s another nice one. Sir John Anderson and his wife in 1944.

AP Photo

And so it went, for the most part. Labor chancellor James Callaghan used a different box from 1965-67. His successor went back to the Gladstone model. In 1997, Tony Blair’s chancellor, future Prime Minister Gordon Brown, also tried a redesign that he used throughout his stint at Number 11.

But Brown’s successor as chancellor, Alistair Darling, went back to the old standby.

AP Photo / Sang Tan

And when the Tories took back power in 2010, Osborne stuck with Gladstone.

AP Photo / Akira Suemori

But alas, the Gladstone box was on its last legs. Soon after the above picture was taken, the budget box was retired to the National Archives. It is currently on loan to the House of Commons, where it can be seen in the Division Lobby “for as long as preservation conditions allow.” It is ultimately set to be displayed as part of the exhibition at the Cabinet War Rooms, a museum that once served as Churchill’s bunker command center during World War II. Still, 150 years is a pretty good run for such a high-profile box.

And we have to say, the current budget transportation device also qualifies as quite a nice box.

AP Photo / Kirsty Wigglesworth

It should be, as the National Archives commissioned it, paying £4,300 ($6,500) for it. If it lasts as long as Gladstone’s, that will be a pretty sound investment. The main difference between the new one and the original is that the new one features Queen Elizabeth II’s monogram rather than Victoria’s. Who knows if there’ll be a royal monogram 150 years from now.

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