The annual UK budget can, without wishing to sound jejune, mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. To those more politically inclined, say a Chancellor of the Exchequer, it can range from an ‘enjoyable ordeal’ (Lawson) to being a ‘…bit of a bore’ (Macmillan) or being defined, by one of our American cousins, as ‘Clearly a budget. It's got a lot of numbers in it’ (Bush Jnr).
For those of us whose political power extends to a 5-yearly, X marking exercise our views on the budget can still vary wildly. For some, it might not register at all, with politics playing truant in many people’s lives. To others it provides an opportunity to grumble about the added pennies and pence put on such hallowed substances as petrol, cigarettes and booze; or for the more commercially involved it can – via such delights as business and corporation taxes – have a rather distressing effect on people’s bottom lines.
‘Storm clouds are gathering again’ Osbourne 2016
For those at interest levels of 51% or above, you may be inclined to ask: so when did this all start then?
There are no firm dates to rely on when the budget came into existence, but the department responsible for it – the Treasury – is Royal in origin. Before parliaments and politicians - and the Glorious Revolution (and the Bill of Rights) - it was a heady time for royalty as basically what they said, very firmly went. One of the first recorded references to the budget appeared in the Domesday book with William the Conqueror offering someone called Henry the job of looking after his treasure.
Much later though, the balance of power shifted decisively from the royal household to parliament, after a spot of religious tension and a bit of overthrowing of James II. The resulting Bill of Rights handed power to the politicians along with the tax and spending remits.
'Anne, did you hear that noise?' James II pre-GR & BoR
The role of treasurer went through some rather unusual transformations and for a period the holder of the office was known, unofficially, as Prime Minister. However, in 1827 there was a parliamentary HR overhaul that split the First Lord (PM) and Second Lord (Chancellor) into two distinct positions. This staffing decision, although a good idea in principle, did introduce us to one of the most important relationships in politics. This relationship, when working well, can resemble a Bernie Taupin & Elton John partnership – think Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. When not, one which has the power to destabilise a government – think Jagger and Richards’ Dirty Work.
Harmony & Had It With You
Each year, with a certainty usually reserved for the prospect of death – and aptly – taxes, the budget always falls on a Wednesday in March. This budget heralds the approaching end of the financial year, with the current budget concerning itself with the year ahead (post-April 1st). But before all this, a few things should happen first. In a ceremonial nod to that pre-Bill of Rights era, the Chancellor must present an outline of the budget to the Queen – over dinner no less, the day before (a meeting for which most would like to be a fly on the marble). The following day, the Chancellor gets to present to his (to date it’s always been a him) cabinet chums before being chauffeured the short distance from Downing Street to the House of Commons; not before - of course - the obligatory, arm-outstretched photo op outside Number 11, holding a battered piece of red luggage, presumably containing the budget speech.
Did you put my Perrier in here?
Then on to The Commons, and despite the eight drinking establishments on site, no glasses or bottles are to be taken into the chamber, please. However, parliamentary tradition allows the Chancellor to take a vesselled elixir into the chamber while delivering his speech. Incumbent, Osbourne, opts for water – as did previous Chancellors Brown and Darling. Others, though – according to the official Parliament website – have gone for a whisky (Kenneth Clarke), spritzer (Nigel Lawson), gin and tonic (Geoffrey Howe), brandy and water (Benjamin Disraeli) and, oddly, a sherry and beaten egg (William Ewart Gladstone). Whether a snakebite and black has ever, or will ever, make its way into the chamber remains to be seen.
Sherry and beaten egg
With a roar from backbenchers and jeers from the opposition, the Chancellor stands and delivers the speech. The longest speech goes to Gladstone in 1853 who took 4 hours and 45 minutes to deliver his speech, although sadly no records show how many beaten egg sherries he sank in the process. The shortest, at a breezy 45 mins, was Disraeli in 1867.
So back to the future, 2016; what were the new entries, the movers, the shakers and what has fallen out of favour and the flavour front?
The 2016 Budget
• Sugar Tax, which isn’t running today on a 12-1 tip at the Cheltenham Gold Cup but is in fact what it purports to be, a tax on sugar, or rather a tax on sugar in liquid form. Apparently we each get through about 250 litres of the stuff each year which is causing obesity and draining healthcare resources. From April, sugary drinks will be catorgorised into two rates with cola drinks and energy drinks paying a higher rate and fizzy fruit drinks paying the lower. You will be pleased to hear that a Shandy Bass remains untouched from the tax (with other shandies, of course, being available).
A liquid sugar shelf
• Secondary schools get to bid for £285bn extra funding to set up after-school activities like drama, sport and art. Expect to see a major spike of expertise in these areas in ten years’ time.
• Staying with schools, compulsory maths lessons until 18 which feels - for those statistically challenged - like a punishment akin to detention on a good tele night.
• Lots of technical, number driven stuff on borrowing, GDP and debt. Cuts to Capital Gains and National Insurance for the self-employed (you’re hired!); Life-time ISAs for lifetime savers; Corporation tax to drop by 3% and a bit more money for infrastructure projects and toll road booths.
• In the economy, the Chancellor had to dial down, somewhat, growth expectations, a move akin to be being told to turn the party music down by a disgruntled neighbour. Apparently, though, according to the BBC, the UK is still set to grow faster than any other Western country so, like totally, party (but not too hard) and keep the bloody music down!
A Young Conservative house-party
And more importantly:
• Fuel, beer, cider, wine taxes are all to be frozen creating a huge block for the nation to break bits off. It’s going to taste funny but you’ll get used to it and also speak to your car manufacturer before using.
• Excise duties on tobacco to rise by 2% above inflation.
A full summary can be found on the BBC website here.
So whatever your level of interest, there is absolutely no escape from the effects of the budget. It decides how much the government collects from us and how much it spends on, say, treating varicose veins to staffing your nearest library. It's pervasive. Its rays fan out from Westminster like an annual fiscal dawn; its light creeping across the land, illuminating all of England, and most parts of Wales, leaving commentators and the rest of us to pass this political luminous source through prism after prism after prism after prism.
All images courtesy of Wikipedia except for George Osbourne which is via Flickr Si Lee 2014.