A despatch box (alternatively dispatch box) goes back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, referring to an important message for the Queen. Today ‘despatch box’ refers both to those sometimes known as red boxes or ministerial boxes, which are used by the Sovereign, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her ministers in the British government to securely transport sensitive documents and those used in the lower houses of the governments of the United Kingdom and Australia.
The red boxes, which are now an iconic symbol of the United Kingdom government, are of uniform design, constructed of slow-grown pine and covered with red-stained leather. Each box takes three days to finish. They are produced by Barrow Hepburn & Gale as they have been for over a century, when the current form of the box first took shape.
Earlier despatch boxes were wooden boxes used as a lectern from which frontbench members of Parliament deliver speeches to their parliamentary chamber. They were used for members to carry bills and other documents into the chamber. The Australian House of Representatives and the British House of Commons each keep a pair of ornate wooden despatch boxes, usually with one box on the Government side and one on the Opposition side of the table that divides the opposing frontbenches. Whereas backbenchers in both Parliaments generally deliver addresses to the chamber while standing at their seat, frontbenchers (ministers and shadow ministers) deliver their addresses from their side's despatch box. By tradition, the modern despatch boxes often contain the religious texts used for swearing in of new members of the respective chamber.
There are two variants in current English; dispatch or despatch, with the former being more common in English today, though the latter favoured by the government when referring to the boxes, and is first attested in the 1580s as referring to an important message.
History of the box
The most famous red box remains that originally used by William Ewart Gladstone in his first budget in 1853. Gladstone would go on to serve as Chancellor on four separate occasions and hold the post for longer than anyone in the UK’s history. His red box has subsequently been used by 51 Chancellors for over 150 years, and although it now normally resides in the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall, it was still used by George Osborne as recently as 2010. Gladstone used the red despatch box for his first budget speech in 1853, called an “oratorical triumph”. In the speech, quoting from Virgil’s Georgics, Gladstone expressed his desire to, “we have sought to do justice to the great labouring community of England by further extending their relief from indirect taxation, we have not been guided by any desire to put one class against another” 1868, a tumultuous for British politics in general, saw Disraeli take the post of Prime minister in February, only to lose it again to Gladstone in December after another election. The budget of the spring of 1868 was infamous for Chancellor George Ward-Hunt opening his dispatch box to find that he had left his speech at home.
Ministerial despatch boxes
Red despatch boxes are today issued to every government minister in the UK government, each personalised with the title of both the owner and recipient. For example the Budget box is labelled as belonging to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. According to the Government, “Ministers are permitted to use ordinary lockable briefcases to transport information which has been classified ‘Confidential’ or below. For information with a higher security level (such as ‘Secret’) they are required to use dispatch boxes, which offer a higher level of security, and which are usually red.” Due to the importance of the boxes to government ministers, many become attached to them as a reminder of their time in office. Some have bought them from their former departments – after paying to have the bespoke security feature removed. Others have, as is their right, gone to the secretive manufacturer of red boxes, Barrow and Gale, to get a new box specially made.
Royal red boxes
Other red boxes are the ones delivered to the British sovereign every day (except Christmas Day and Easter Sunday) by government departments, via the Page of the Presence. The Queen's role as head of state means that she needs to keep abreast of what is happening in Parliament and the governments of all the other Commonwealth countries, as well as current events from around the world. Documents to which the monarch must sign and give Royal Assent are delivered to her in red despatch boxes, which the Queen addresses daily.
The budget box
There is an annual custom of the Chancellor of the Exchequer holding up a red box to the press in Downing Street to symbolise the new budget of the UK government. This modern financial meaning of the word budget, first attested in 1733, comes from notion of a treasury minister keeping his fiscal plans in a wallet, leather pouch or budget, from Middle French bougette. Gladstone’s box has been used by every Chancellor until 2011, with the exceptions of James Callaghan (1964–1967) and Gordon Brown (1997–2007), who had new ones commissioned in 1965 and 1997 respectively. Gladstone's budget box was used by Alistair Darling (2007–2010) and by George Osborne in June 2010. It was subsequently retired due to its fragility, and will be displayed in the Cabinet War Rooms. The red box has become a widely recognised symbol of the UK government and of the Chancellor and Budget in particular. The annual presentation of a red box by the Chancellor of the Exchequer symbolises their new Budget plans and, rather than containing the new budget, contains their speech or other notes. The tradition is continued to emphasise the stability and resolve of the government. They are displayed to the press in Downing Street in a symbolic gesture and the red boxes are used to signify the importance of the documents they carry, as confirmed by the government itself.
The boxes are still today made of British leather and employ a bespoke leather print which is applied after curing and staining. Each is embossed in gold print with the royal cypher of the reigning monarch, the title of the owner and recipient of the red box, with the recipient’s title given precedence. Each is also given a unique number to aid identification and control of the contents. Another unique feature of the ministerial boxes are the location of the handles on the bottom of the box so that when placed on a desk, the lock faces the recipient, who has the key and the authority to access the contents of the box.
There are two given reasons as to why red became the predominant colour of the despatch boxes used in government. One is that Albert, Prince Albert is said to have preferred the colour as that used in the arms of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. However it is also claimed that the practice began in the late 16th century, when Queen Elizabeth I's representative Francis Throckmorton presented the Spanish Ambassador, Bernardino de Mendoza, with a specially constructed red briefcase filled with black puddings.
Today, although ‘red box’ has now come to be synonymous with the despatch boxes, other colours are also used, to denote the many different functions of the boxes in Parliament.
Black is used for those boxes prepared for government whips and for discretion when boxes are designed for travel. A black box with a red stripe is used specifically for confidential papers only seen by the Prime Minister, his or her Private Secretary, and intelligence officials. This box is known as "Old Stripey" due to the red stripe. Permanent Secretaries, who are civil servants rather than MPs or Lords, have similar boxes but coloured green. These have exactly the same function as the ministerial red boxes. Barrow Hepburn and Gale have also made available despatch boxes in green for members of parliament.
Historical and famous despatch boxes
These boxes were used by the ministers on a daily basis while in government and thus become an important memory of their time in office, with many opting to buy and keep their red boxes. Many boxes owned and used by famous political figures from British history have been sold at auction. These boxes represent some of the most important possessions of former prime ministers. Margaret Thatcher’s ministerial dispatch box was sold at auction by Christie’s in 2015 for £242,500. Winston Churchill’s red box was sold by Sotheby’s in 2014 for £158,500, 25 times the estimated price. Red boxes are often gifted to outgoing President of the United States as an important symbol and reminder of their time with the UK government. George Bush received one such box from Tony Blair.
Lee Kuan Yew the late Prime Minister of Singapore (1959-1990) was fond of the red box he used during his time in government. His education Minister Heng Swee Keat, claimed that Lee continued using the red box until the day of his final hospitalisation.
British parliamentary boxes
The current despatch boxes in the British House of Commons were gifts from New Zealand, presented after the House of Commons was rebuilt following World War II. They are made of puriri wood and are modelled on the Australian boxes, which are replicas of the original despatch boxes destroyed in World War II.
The box on the Government side contains holy books of various religions. The Opposition box contains a singed Bible. The Bible was resting on the centre table when a German bomb fell on the Commons chamber on 10 May 1941, in the Second World War; it was subsequently recovered largely intact.
More recently, the Government despatch box is reported to have sustained damage at the hands of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Brown's habit of jabbing his marker pen at his papers led to the surface of the box becoming covered in black pen marks.
Australian parliamentary boxes
The despatch boxes in the Australian House of Representatives were gifts from King George V to mark the opening of the Old Parliament House in Canberra on 9 May 1927. They are made of rosewood and have enamel and silver decorations. They are replicas of the despatch boxes kept in the British House of Commons until those boxes were destroyed on 10 May 1941. Inside the lid of each box is an inscription signed by George V.
The Senate has two lecterns which serve a similar purpose, but they are used only by the Senate leaders of the Government and Opposition rather than by all frontbenchers. Other frontbenchers in the Senate address the chamber from their seating location in the first row of their side of the chamber.
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