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The Budget: 5 things you didn’t know

Published 20 March 2014 by

It’s Budget week in the UK, and while the latest tax rises and falls will be taking up all the headlines, we’ve decided to fill you in on some of the more interesting things you might not know about this centuries-old British tradition.

1) French lesson

Have you ever wondered where the word ‘budget’ comes from? Well, as we’re a budgeting account provider, we make it our place to know – and we’re happy to share this knowledge with you. The word budget comes from the old French word ‘bougette’, which referred to a small bag or wallet used to carry coins. Originally, the word was only used to refer to the Chancellor’s speech, but today we use it to describe aspects of money management like keeping track of our finances.

2) Boxing clever

Just why does the Chancellor carry the Budget in that tattered red box? Well they didn’t always do this – originally it was carried in a leather bag. Then, in 1860 the red Budget box we all know today was made for Chancellor and liberal politician William Gladstone. The case is actually made from wood, lined with satin and covered in leather.

Since its creation more than 150 years ago, it has been carried by the serving Chancellor for almost every Budget since, with a few notable exceptions. In the mid-1960s James Callaghan carried the documents in a brown leather case, while both Gordon Brown and George Osborne have carried a new version of the classic box.

3) Drinks are on me

A particularly strange rule is that the Chancellor is allowed to drink alcohol when delivering the Budget speech if they want to. While the current chancellor George Osborne has sipped on mineral water during his speeches, others before him have taken full advantage of the rule.

Gladstone once drank a tipple made from sherry and beaten eggs, and spoke for four hours and 45 minutes – the longest-ever continuous Budget speech. Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary William Hague has revealed that back when he was serving as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Norman Lamont, who was Chancellor at the time, Lamont requested that a bottle of whisky be put in the Budget box for him to carry, while Hague carried the actual Budget in a plain folder.

4) Dressed to impress

Believe it or not, Budget day used to be just as high glamour an affair as the Cheltenham Races. Male politicians would arrive dressed in their finest – completing the look with a top hat. Meanwhile, female politicians would also come in elaborate hats – meaning the Commons did not look unlike Ladies Day at the races.

Perhaps one reason that top hats went out of style on Budget day was the 1784 introduction of a hat tax. The tax was announced during William Pitt the Younger’s term as Prime Minister, and the thinking behind it was that the richest members of society would have an impressive collection of hats, and so putting a tax on the headgear would be an effective way of raising money from them.

5) Tax: Strange but true

Speaking of weird taxes, there’s been plenty over the history of British politics – from a brick tax to a hearth tax. And with every new tax comes a new way to get out of paying it.

One of the most famous was the window tax of the late 17th century. Homeowners paid a flat rate, and then an additional charge based on how many windows they had. Some got out of paying as much by bricking up their windows – so you could say the tax was daylight robbery! Less than 20 years later, a tax was introduced on any wallpaper that featured a pattern – either printed or painted. This time, people got around it by purchasing plain paper and then stencilling it by hand once it was on the wall.

More recently, George Osborne created headlines in the 2012 Budget by suggesting that baked goods sold straight from the oven, like sausage rolls and Cornish pasties, be subject to the same 20% VAT charge as hot takeaway food. However, protests from everyone from the baking industry to fans of pasty lunches prompted the government to abandon its plans.