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U.K. Tradition Carried On In Battered Red Box

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U.K. Tradition Carried On In Battered Red Box


U.K. Tradition Carried On In Battered Red Box

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Now for a unique British tradition. This week, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer carried the government's new budget to the House of Commons, the document made the trip in a famous red briefcase. Now, every cabinet minister has a red briefcase. It's something they've been doing since the 1800s. Making those leather briefcases all this time, is the company Barrow and Gale. Mohammed Suleman is a co-director. He joins me on the line from London.

Mr. Suleman, welcome.

Mr. MOHAMMED SULEMAN (Director, Barrow and Gale): Yes. Thank you very much for your welcome.

WERTHEIMER: Could you tell us when this tradition got started? How it got started?

Mr. SULEMAN: The tradition of containing papers of state in a secure box is a very old tradition, but that was a tradition that only applied to the monarch of the day that would receive papers from their advisors contained in a secure box. Later, it was Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband and consort, that formally introduced the use of dispatch boxes by cabinet ministers.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the box that Alistair Darling, who is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, held up for reporters to see is a very dinged up, old-looking box. Is it old?

Mr. SULEMAN: It is extremely old. And you know what we're like in England we love our traditions. And thankfully, that's a tradition that continues. That is a box that belonged to a very famous prime minister and chancellor, a chap called William Ewart Gladstone. And it was his first budget in 1853 that that box was made for and has been used by successive chancellors ever since.

WERTHEIMER: You know, the U.S. budget - and given the British love of documenting everything, I assume the British budget as well - wouldn't fit in a box like that.

Mr. SULEMAN: Well, it's symbolic. The idea is that Gladstone's 1853 budget reintroduced income tax to be used for the wider public benefit. That is why its symbolic value outweighs any amount of paper that it could carry.

WERTHEIMER: Mr. Suleman, I wonder what Alistair Darling actually had in that briefcase.

Mr. SULEMAN: Well, what is usually contained in that briefcase, is actually the chancellor's speech.

WERTHEIMER: And it's a big press opportunity. They build a stand for the press to put their cameras on and have a very big to do about him walking out with the box.

Mr. SULEMAN: Well, as I said, it's quite an iconic thing. And I don't know whether you're aware or not, but we actually also, are commissioned from time to time, to make a red box for the outgoing president of the United States.

WERTHEIMER: ...of the United States.

Mr. SULEMAN: Yeah. And that tends to be a gift from the prime minister to the outgoing president. The last president that we made a red box for was President Bush.

WERTHEIMER: President George W. Bush, the most recent one?

Mr. SULEMAN: Yes, George W. Bush.

WERTHEIMER: Do people think that this is a somewhat eccentric tradition?

Mr. SULEMAN: Not really. These boxes form an essential part of our democratic process. And any democratic government has to be accountable and it runs on paper. And if the paper can be examined at a later date, then all the better for all of us.

WERTHEIMER: Mr. Suleman, thank you very much.

Mr. SULEMAN: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Mohammed Suleman is director of Barrow and Gale, which is located in London.

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