The origin of the Budget briefcase

The origin of the Budget briefcase
The elaborate ceremony of India's Budget Day, in which the finance minister formally presents the country's budget to Parliament, is in itself a giant colonial holdover, harking back to a similar budget speech that has been delivered by Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer for many decades.

But other minor traditions, attendant to that speech, have survived intact into the 21st century. Both in India's Lok Sabha, or Lower House of Parliament and in Britain's House of Commons, the relevant ministers end their speeches by saying, with all the pomp they can muster, that they "commend this budget" to the house. In 2001, Yashwant Sinha, the Indian finance minister at the time, killed off one little tradition when he presented his budget at 11 a.m. Until then, India's the budget speech had begun at or after 5 pm - a practice from the Raj era, when the British and Indian budgets were presented simultaneously, around noon in London and in the evening in New Delhi.

Then there's the object at the center of the money shot from each Budget Day in India: the leather briefcase that the finance minister clasps amorously to his chest, as he poses for photographers on the steps of Parliament.

That briefcase is now perhaps the most notable throwback of the entire exercise - etymologically, to the French "bougette" or "small bag" that was once considered sufficient to hold an individual's wealth, but also materially, to the red briefcase that has held the British budget papers on almost every Budget Day since 1860. (The most pragmatic of the exceptions came in the early 1990s, when Norman Lamont once carried his budget papers in a plastic bag because the budget box had to accommodate a restorative bottle of Highland Park whisky.) Unlike in Britain, however, there is no single briefcase being passed on from one Indian finance minister to the next; Pranab Mukherjee alone has been photographed holding two very different budget briefcases.

The particular briefcase in use in Britain until 2010, when it was retired in frail condition, was a red leather-on-pine box lined with black satin, with the letters VR - for Victoria Regina - embossed on its surface. It belonged to a large family of red briefcases that have been manufactured, since the early 1800s, for British ministers by the London firm Barrow and Gale. Britain's longtime budget briefcase was made for the imperiously sideburned William Ewart Gladstone, who delivered, according to his biographer Colin Matthew, "budget speeches epic in form and performance." One speech, in 1853, ran to nearly five hours; during these marathons, Mr. Gladstone would fortify himself with a concoction of sherry and beaten eggs, prepared for him by his wife.

Indian budget speeches have been much shorter. When Pranab Mukherjee delivered his first budget speech in 1982, lasting an hour and 35 minutes, Indira Gandhi quipped that "the shortest finance minister has delivered the longest budget speech." Manmohan Singh's landmark 1991 liberalization budget speech ran to two hours. In 2003, Jaswant Singh topped that record by delivering his maiden budget speech for more than two hours; there is no estimate available of its exact duration, but on the day after, the Financial Express reported that some MPs had nodded off, and that being in the Lok Sabha was "like being in a cemetery."

Mr. Gladstone was, by any reckoning, a formidable politician: He served as British prime minister four times and as Chancellor of the Exchequer another four times, in a career that stretched for more than 60 years. It was very early in his second tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer, which ran from 1859 to 1866, that Mr. Gladstone collected his new red briefcase, and most accounts point to 1860 as its first year in active service. In which event, the briefcase would have been one of "a series of stage accessories," as an illustrated monthly named London Society then put it, from a truly remarkable event.

London Society breathlessly laid out the drama that led up to Mr. Gladstone's speech. He had been unwell with a severe attack of bronchitis, which had already postponed Budget Day from Feb. 6 to Feb. 10. The House of Commons on that Friday was unusually crowded, and Mr. Gladstone had to be accompanied to the House of Commons by both his wife and his doctor. The anticipation was tremendous: the government was running a heavy deficit of 14 percent, and this budget was critical. Another Victorian periodical, the Illustrated Times, heard the faint cheer accorded to Mr. Gladstone, upon his entry, by the opposition and interpreted it to mean: "We are glad to see you are recovered, but what have you got in that red box of yours?" It went on to outline the wan speech by the Liberal politician Bernal Osborne, who preceded Mr. Gladstone: "How could (Osborne) dream that the House would hear him, or anybody, when the great Chancellor was there with that ominous box of his before him - that box which by many was expected to prove a horn of plenty, and by others a very Pandora's box, without even hope at the bottom?"

Mr. Gladstone spoke for nearly four hours - "less a speech than an epic," London Society gushed. "It seemed as if the Chancellor of the Exchequer had only five minutes to spare, and into that space had to crowd the entire Dictionary. He took the House by storm." He slashed the number of duties from 419 to around 15, renewed taxes on tea and sugar, repealed duties on paper, and explained a recent commercial treaty with France. Crucially, instead of doing away with income tax, as he had expected to do seven years earlier, he hiked it from nine pence per pound to 10.

Outside Parliament, this was an uncommonly popular budget. The German economist Lujo Brentano hailed this speech as evidence of Mr. Gladstone's "incomparable financial genius." No less a grouch than Karl Marx wrote, in the New York Daily Tribune, that the budget was "a great and bold stroke of financial ingenuity." Prince Albert called Mr. Gladstone's "energy and vigor almost incredible." Within the Houses of Commons and Lords, however, the bill faced anger and opposition over the steeper income tax rate and the abolished paper duties. Mr. Gladstone, coming perilously close to resignation, finally had to compromise on some aspects of his budget. (His prime minister, Lord Palmerston, described it to Queen Victoria as "ineffectual opposition and ultimate acquiescence.") Some things endured, though: the rollback on paper duties, which was revived and passed in 1861; the recognition of the permanent necessity of income tax; and, of course, Mr. Gladstone's budget briefcase

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