The first budget? Walpole’s bag of tricks and the origins of the chancellor’s great secret

The word is often said to be derived from the old french word for a little bag or purse. But there is more to it than that. As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, the phrase ‘to open one’s budget’ was being used in the sixteenth century to mean that someone was revealing something which was secret, perhaps even dubious. It meant something like bringing out a box of tricks. The phrase seems to have been first applied to a statement of government revenue and expenditure during the Excise Crisis in 1733. The crisis was the result of Prime Minister Robert Walpole’s plans to shift the burden of taxation from landed wealth (which fell heavily on the country gentry who dominated the House of Commons) to consumption (which would have a much greater impact on the poor). Whipped up by the highly vocal opposition to Walpole, there had been rumours for months before the opening of Parliament in mid January 1733 that he would announce the introduction of excise taxes on various goods. The excise was regarded with intense dislike because it was associated with interference by bureaucrats in people’s property and daily lives. Walpole finally revealed his proposals amid intense popular and parliamentary excitement on 14th March, and explained and defended them in a pamphlet, A letter from a member of Parliament to his friends in the country, concerning the duties on wine and tobacco. A reply was published by one of the most virulent leaders of the opposition to Walpole, William Pulteney, later Earl of Bath (Pulteney’s career before 1715, when he was a close associate of Walpole, is dealt with in a separate article, here). Called The budget opened. Or, An answer to a pamphlet. Intitled, a letter from a member of Parliament to his friends in the country, concerning the duties on wine and tobacco, it attacked and mocked the proposals as typically Walpolean trickery, like the fraudulent remedies of a quack doctor:

‘At length, the Mountain is deliver’d. The grand Mystery, which was long deemed too sacred for the unhallow’d Eyes of the People, is reveal’d. What is reveal’d? Nothing, but what has been known, confuted and exploded long before it was publickly acknowledg’d’. ‘The budget is opened; and our State Emperick hath dispensed his Packets by his Zany Couriers through all Parts of the Kingdom. For my self, I do not pretend to understand this Art of political Legerdemain; nor can I find out the Difference between a new Tax, and a new Method of collecting an old Tax, which will bring in a Sum, equivalent to a new one.’

The ensuing storm about a general excise eventually forced Walpole to drop the scheme, although it was another nine years before the combined effort of his opponents managed to prise Walpole from power. The word does not appear in print frequently after that, so it may have been some time before it caught on: in 1743 the MP and satirist, and loyal follower of Walpole, Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, penned a bitter little poem called S—y’s Budget; or Drink and be d___d, aimed at one of those who had helped Pulteney to oust Walpole, the current chancellor of the exchequerSamuel Sandys, and his apparent adoption of most of Walpole’s policies as soon as he was safely in office.

It isn’t known exactly when the practice of an annual event at which the chancellor of the exchequer gave an account of the state of national finances was initiated. Peter Thomas in his Eighteenth Century House of Commons tracked down the first use of the phrase ‘opening the budget’ in this sense in 1753.  By 1764, at least, it seems to have been well established. That year George Grenville‘s  budget speech of 9 March (of 2 and three quarter hours) which introduced stamp duties on the colonies provoked a response, The Budget: inscribed to the man who thinks himself a minister, and a counter-response, An Answer to The Budget which took the trouble to explain what it meant (for the benefit of ‘ignoramuses’, it said):

‘When the House of Commons have voted the Supplies, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, towards the latter end of the Sessions, opens to the House, in a Speech, what are to be the Ways and Means for raising the Money granted by the Supplies’.

It also grumbled:

‘It seems to be the evil genius of this country, that every Man is a Politician: Every ignorant City Shop-keeper and Cobler is to be at Liberty to watch the State, scrutinize the Conduct of Ministers, call Names, &c. … Unless some Method is taken that shall put a Stop to this increasing licentious Practice, it will be next to impossible to carry on the public Business.’


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