The Spectacular Pantomime of the Budget

Proceedings in parliament are often described in theatrical terms; and the budget is one of the most theatrical of all parliamentary performances. Budgets are complicated affairs, the result of a intense process of debate over a year, a ‘daunting’ process (according to John Major) of representations, advice, meetings, scrutiny and decisions. On budget day, though, they are boiled down into ‘a spectacular pantomime’ as Ken Clarke put it; ‘a fun day in the House of Commons and on television and a reward for the year’s hard work’ (John Major, The Autobiography, 145; Kenneth Clarke, Kind of Blue, 337-8). The whole thing naturally suits performers like Winston Churchill, who was described by his biographer Roy Jenkins, himself a chancellor forty years or so later, as giving budget days ‘even more of a sense of occasion than was habitual, with the surrounding ritual fully matched by the élan with which the budget speech itself was delivered’. (Churchill, 402)


Opening the box

It is not known when the budget first became established as an annual event: as just a verbal statement, rather than involving anything procedural, such as a motion, it doesn’t get noticed in the House of Commons’ procedural record, the Journal; and the records of what was said in the House in the eighteenth century are too patchy to be able to say with any certainty when chancellors began to deliver an annual statement of income and expenditure. We can say, as this earlier blog describes, that the word first becomes used to describe such a thing in the 1730s and 1740s. ‘Opening’ the budget already implied not just revealing a secret, but doing so in the manner of a magician – misdirecting the audience so they fail to realise what was really going on, don’t notice the messy series of compromises that all budgets involve. An opposition writer sourly remarked of the practice in 1768:

The state of the funds for the time being, and the plans for the rising year are kept as close as they can be from the impertinent and jealous eye of what is called opposition, till the awful ceremony comes of revealing the mysteries of the Budget. This is generally some studied performance; a narrative ex parte, which very few of the hearers come prepared to examine or debate at sight. As it is a dry subject in itself, the orator of the day summons all his art and eloquence to make it entertaining as well as instructive. It is perhaps embellished with some pretty stories of bulls and bears, or tickets, or instalments; or in its turn some profound maxim of economy is demonstrated, such as that paying your bills at Midsummer instead of Michaelmas, will save a quarter’s interest, or any other proposition equally subtile and surprising. In the meantime, the substantial parts of the plan, whether right or wrong, pass unheeded and unexamined, are voted reported, enacted, all in a trice, as matters of mere form, towards the latter end of the session. [A Caveat on the Part of Public Credit, Previous to the Opening of the Budget, for the Present Year, 1768 London: for J. Almon, 1768]

The impression of hermetic wizardry is vastly enhanced by the business of the box, the repository of the secrets to be revealed by the magician on budget day. It’s unclear how Gladstone’s despatch box , said to have been made for him around 1860, became such a venerated piece of equipment, but obvious why: the idea of the box being opened echoes the notion of the old budget containing secrets; and Gladstone’s towering status as chancellor no doubt made it a talismanic object for his successors (a little like Pitt’s formal gown of office as chancellor was cherished by Disraeli, who was reluctant to surrender it to his successor Gladstone, resulting in a stiff formal correspondence). It wasn’t the first box: Sir Charles Wood is referred to as having a box ‘dangling from his finger’ as he entered the House to present the 1851 budget. Ward Hunt caused much amusement by being a few minutes late to deliver his budget in 1868, and by arriving without the box, which was shortly afterwards delivered to the Table of the House. The incident is said (by what authority I can’t tell) to be the reason for the ostentatious display of the box to the press as the chancellor leaves No. 11. Lloyd George is pictured holding it in 1910, but not making anything of it; there are photographs of Winston Churchill self-consciously holding it in front of him as he marched to the House in 1929, accompanied by his PPS Robert Boothby and various members of his family; Neville Chamberlain showed it off in 1936  and Sir John Simon held it up for the press in the modern manner before presenting his 1939 budget.

As an opportunity for an unchallenged display of authoritative financial and oratorical brilliance, the budget has been grasped by successive chancellors. Isaac Barré complained in 1774 that the budget was usually ‘the triumph of the minister’: ‘it is looked upon not only as unfashionable, but foolish to get up and dispute what is in the Budget’. [Thomas, 80] Foolish, because in exclusive possession of all the facts the chancellor was in a position to swat away ill-informed comment and make his antagonist look ridiculous. There is a reason why budgets sometimes seem brilliant on the day they are delivered but fall apart on the scrutiny of a day or so – something that happened just as much in the nineteenth century, for example to Disraeli’s infamous 1852 budget, as it has more recently. Even Gladstone’s celebrated 1860 budget looked less good when examined in detail in the clear light of day, as people ‘began to disengage their minds from the bewitching influence of this great oratorical power, to examine calmly the different parts of the wonderful piece of machinery which Gladstone had constructed, and to detect and expose the weak points and objectionable provisions which it contained’. ‘A few days’ calm consideration’ of Asquith’s 1908 budget, too, was said to have ‘considerably damped the enthusiasm even of those who at first shouted the loudest’.



Flogging the theatrical metaphor to death, the National Liberal chancellor, Sir John Simon, presenting the budget in 1938, described it as ‘our annual problem play presented in three acts’:

In the first act we have the review of the financial year which has just closed, and the comparison of the actual outturn, both of expenditure and of revenue, with the estimates which were made 12 months ago. This contrast between prophecy and performance brings out the first figure of definite interest in the drama, which is the balance—on the present occasion, as the Committee knows, a substantial surplus of £28,786,000. … Then comes the second topic on which I have to enlarge, namely, the components of the total—the very formidable total—of our prospective expenditure in the present year, and the estimate of prospective revenue on the existing basis of taxation to set against it. … Then, the figure of the balance having been precisely ascertained after a necessarily rather elaborate statement, the stage is set for the curtain to rise on the third and decisive act, and the author presents to his critics in the stalls and to the public in the gallery his solution of the problem which he has thus laboriously developed.

Budgets after 1938 became considerably more complex, encompassing a statement of what was happening in the economy as a whole, a task subsequently devolved to the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), but still part of the annual budget process. Yet the basic process remains the same and the theatricality has scarcely diminished, with little bits of business relished by the media just as much as the big secrets of tax and spending.

Clarke says that chancellors began the speech by giving a long and detailed analysis of the state of the economy, because it was believed that no actual tax proposals could be publicly announced before the London markets had closed, and says he abandoned this. (Kind of Blue, p. 340) But even before the analysis of the economy was included, and well before the markets would still have been open when chancellors began their speech, commonly after five, chancellors tended to delay the big announcements until late in the speech, teasing their audience to maintain their interest throughout the whole thing. The Palladium in 1851 noted how Sir Charles Wood ‘took care to bring the rhetorical device into play of keeping his hearers in suspense till the latest moment, and the intense interest with which his statement was “watched”, was well shown in the undisturbed silence which prevailed from beginning to end’. Gladstone was deemed in 1862 to have wasted this opportunity: great orator though he was, he had decided to give the substance of his speech in the first two hours, and then try ‘to show that he was a man of genius devoting himself to philosophical finance; and he gave another hour of talk, which was very fine in its way … Nevertheless, it fell very flat; and it is certain that members who came to have their curiosity from a tax-paying point of view satisfied went away in great numbers, and left the Chancellor to speak to the country through the usual channels. Now, if he had made this the first part of his speech, it would have been listened to by most with gratification, and by all perforce, who wanted information about the national balance sheet.’


Stamina and egg-flip

Even in the eighteenth century people liked to record the length of the budget speech, presumably partly because they were usually very long (though there were plenty that were longer). Speeches reported in the nineteenth and twentieth century tended to last more than two hours, often over three. Peel’s speech of 11 March 1842, ‘acknowledged by everybody to have been a masterpiece of financial statement’ that ‘took the House by storm’, lasted three hours and forty minutes. Lloyd-George’s radical budget of 1909 was supposed to have taken four hours and 21 minutes, with a break of half an hour at the instance of the leader of the opposition for his voice to recover. Disraeli’s budget speech of 3 December 1852 is said to have been the longest, supposed to have taken five hours , though much of this was down to Disraeli’s baroque verbosity (it is said that there was a break in the speech, though I haven’t found the evidence for this). It was all the more remarkable given that Disraeli was, as it happens, suffering from the flu at the time. Gladstone’s tour de force the following year (18 April 1853), in which he first made his reputation as a chancellor, laying out his decision to retain the income tax, lasted just four-and-three-quarter hours. Seven years later, on 10 February 1860, he spoke for four hours in another celebrated performance, whose most controversial proposal – which was to provoke a huge row with the House of Lords – was the repeal of the stamp duty on paper. Like Disraeli in 1852, Gladstone was unwell: the budget had already been postponed for a week as a result, which was supposed to have enabled some businesses to act on rumours of what the budget would contain. A newspaper report described in detail the elaborate allusion the chancellor made to his illness on arriving in the House to deliver the budget:

Have you heard the story of Mr Gladstone and his pots of jelly? All the world knows that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had an attack of bronchitis that cost the country thousands of pounds sterling. While the right hon. gentleman was undergoing a course of warm baths, ipecacuanha, and oxymel of squills [two herbal remedies], and was perspiring in triple folds of flannel, the wine merchants and importers of brandy were clearing their warehouses and cellars of every pipe and bottle they could lay their hands on, which were shipped with all despatch to Jersey and other places, in view of drawback. Mr Ferguson, the eminent surgeon, being sent for and besought to act with vigour, treated the right bon gentleman’s larynx with so much skill and success that in four or five days the Chancellor of the Exchequer was reported to be convalescent. It was creditable to both sides of the house that, forgetting political differences, they greeted Mr Gladstone with a general cheer when he walked up the floor. No sooner had he deposited upon the table of the house the dingy red box he carried under his arm, than he drew forth three yellow jars, like those in which hairdressers vend their bear’s grease. With a glance at the ladies’ gallery, to shew Mrs Gladstone he was a man of his word, and another at Mr Ferguson, who had a seat under the gallery, the right hon gentleman turned to Lord Palmerston, and pointed out the formidable preparations which his doctor and nurse had insisted upon making for his Budget speech. At any other time we should have supposed. that the small yellow pots contained something to illustrate the Chancellor’s speech – some article of manufacture for example – to shew the injurious nature of Excise interference, or the capabilities of improvement of some vexed trade, as Peel held up a glass watch spring to the gaze of honourable members, to show the uses to which that material might be put. But it was clear from the smile and gesture with which Mr Gladstone showed bis jars to the Prime Minister, that they contained jelly, or some other mucilaginous, albuminous, or butyraceous substance for Iubricating the palate and tonsils of the invalid financier.

In fact, the so-called ‘pomatum’ pots [i.e. a pot containing hair oil such as would have been available at a hairdresser’s] almost certainly contained the famous egg-flip, a mixture of sherry and egg which would become a routine accessory for Gladstone on occasions (not just budgets) when he spoke at length. (The sketchwriter Henry Lucy described how ‘it is carefully brought into the House and cautiously deposited on a corner of the table where it is likely to be free from the sweep of the orator’s arm. Thence at convenient intervals it is produced, and the Imperial Parliament looks on in wonder as Gladstone, putting the stout neck of the ungainly bottle to his lips, draws in the nourishment, and starts again like a giant refreshed; but not before he has carefully corked up the bottle and replaced it in a situation of security on the table’.)

Gladstone’s 1860 budget may have been the origin of the tradition that during the budget the chancellor flouts the normal rule that no food or drink is brought into the chamber. In fact, it is far from clear that in the nineteenth century such a hard and fast rule existed. It seems to have been common to bring oranges into the chamber (there was an orange and apple seller with a stall in Westminster Hall), and the ‘rule’ against drink was perhaps more of a running joke – perhaps motivated by suspicion that what was in the glass was rather stronger. It was certainly known for members to fortify themselves before speaking in the notoriously hostile Commons, and not just with alcohol: Pitt was said to do so, discreetly behind the Speaker’s chair; Wilberforce attributed his successes to opium; and the snuff kept until recently by the doorkeepers no doubt was also intended as a pre-speech pick-me-up. ‘The House of Commons always cheers when there has been a big division, or when a glass of water is brought in’ Lucy wrote of the late 1880s, telling a story about a member trying to avoid derisive attention by bringing two glasses of water into the chamber balanced inside his hat and placing them at his feet under the bench, and another of Lord Randolph Churchill asking for a brandy and seltzer in a highly audible stage whisper while he was addressing the house (it was brought to him by his faithful follower Sir John Gorst).

It was Lucy who popularized the story about chancellors and their ‘tipple’. ‘In the brave days of old’, Lucy wrote, ‘there was no embarrassing modesty in the matter of taking refreshment at the table of the House of Commons through the discharge of onerous duties’. He claimed that ‘Mr Disraeli’s honest tumbler of brandy-and-water was plainly in evidence during his budget speeches, and if the scheme was intricate and the exposition prolonged there was no hesitation in replenishing it’. I have not found any other reference to Disraeli’s brandy-and-water, though Ward Hunt, chancellor in 1868, was supposed to rely on soda water. Lucy wrote a whole column about the difficulty George Goschen experienced when giving the budget in 1888: trying to avoid potentially derisive laughter over taking a drink while he reimposed a surtax on British and foreign spirits, he limited himself to a glass of water; his chief secretary, William Jackson, however, brought in a glass of port, which he slid in the course of the speech towards the chancellor who, gratefully reaching for it, knocked it over instead, and ‘amidst a scene of indescribable confusion, Mr Jackson wildly mopped the table with ineffectual blotting pads’. Diary of the Salisbury Parliament, 262.

Lucy’s piece on chancellors’ budget tipples is probably the basic source for just about every newspaper boxed piece on the subject ever since, though, of course, there is an additional accretion of twentieth century facts. The latter might include Lloyd George’s beef tea, apparently handed to him across the Table by the leader of the opposition, Arthur Balfour; Sir John Simon’s soothing, but non-alcoholic concoction prepared by his wife containing honey, brown sugar, lemon and water; John Major’s brandy and water; and Clarke’s insistence on ‘a good glass of whisky’, though not an undiluted one. The Labour chancellor, Philip Snowden, was recovering from a prostate operation when he delivered his budget speech in April 1931, as a critical budgetary crisis loomed. As with Gladstone in 1860, his doctor was in attendance in the chamber during the speech, but unlike Gladstone, there was no pomatum pot, only water.


The fascination of the Budget

The pantomime has generated a high degree of excitement, both in the House and outside it, since the eighteenth century, as, no doubt, it was always intended to do. ‘The Budget is remarkable for the interest Members generally take in it, as well as the outside public’, the Graphic wrote in 1888: ‘A crowded House waits patiently for the story of the receipts and payments of a past financial year, and when the chief “points” of the chancellor’s proposal are enunciated, the Members rush out into the lobby to telegraph the proposals to club or constituents, and criticism and comment are given up to the few financial enthusiasts and crotcheteers who remain’. The Daily News in 1890 referred to the rush: ‘before half-past seven upwards of seven hundred private telegrams had been handed in  at the House of Commons Post-Office, the senders being principally members of Parliament’. The rush to the telegraph rather suggests that some members were keen to take full financial advantage of their very brief opportunity for arbitrage.

The nineteenth century sketchwriters, particularly William White, the doorkeeper who managed to achieve a parallel career writing for the Illustrated Times in the 1860s and 1870s, provided pen pictures of the occasion inside and outside the chamber. For Gladstone’s speeches in the 1860s the House was (White wrote) ‘full to overflowing; not only was every bench crammed but members squatted on the steps in the gangways, with their hands clasped round their knees, to ease the awkward position, for three hours at a stretch, at the risk of stiffening in their limbs and even lumbago in their backs. Behind the chair there was a crowd of standers, unable to sit or squat, and another above the bar. In the peers’ gallery and above the clock you might see princes, ambassadors, archbishops, bishops and peers of all ranks—the one-half of them obliged to stand in the passage because there was no room for them to sit; whilst every part of the House allotted to strangers was crammed.’ White pointed out, though, that the interest in the budget depended as much on expectations of the chancellor as interest in his financial proposals’. Henry Lucy wrote a whole column in 1890 about Lord Cottesloe’s dedicated attendance in the gallery on budget nights over fifty years (Diary of the Salisbury Parliament, 261-2)

Outside interest might be just as lively. White described queues St Stephen’s entrance before it opened in 1863, with people who already had tickets (‘orders’) provided by a member waiting in St Stephen’s Hall as early as 7am, as the orders were no guarantee of admission. Hours before the speech started, he wrote, there were three times as many people waiting as the gallery would hold; the Lobby was crowded with spectators, some of them the agents of speculators, who rather than placing themselves in the gallery whence it was difficult to extract themselves quickly, would hang around waiting to catch the earliest reports from members leaving the chamber, which they would then relay to their employers as quickly as possible. Though again, White noted a distinct falling-off in interest from the public when it was no longer Gladstone who was delivering the budget. And then there was the press. Already in 1851 The Palladium described how the newspapers would make special arrangements for it, putting on ‘some of their best men’, and ensuring that each would have short turns in the chamber, to ensure that the copy would be delivered faster and more efficiently. But the whole process of briefing the press on the content of the budget so well described in Damian McBride’s account of managing the press response to Gordon Brown’s budgets seems to have been a much later, largely post-second World War, development.

A piece in the Graphic in 1930 talked of the ‘fascination of budgets’: ‘Our Budget is like our English climate. We abuse it, but in our hearts we almost cherish it. It is a national possession. Just as no other country knows quite such vicissitudes of weather, none experiences just that annual fear. Climate and Budget alike make us aware that we are hardier folk than our neighbours. A year without the chancellor’s dreaded statement would be as savourless and unEnglish as a year without the Grand National’ (April 12 1930). Perhaps the budget is not longer quite so fascinating as it was, and at the moment, at least, there are a few other things preoccupying the minds of many. But the annual pantomime may still be, at least, a welcome distraction.


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