Thursday 30 August 2018

Cabinet of Curiosities by Charlotte Wightwick - Ministerial 'Red Boxes'

Tomorrow is a big day for me. After nearly 18 years, it will be my last day as a civil servant. I’ve spent most of that time advising ministers on their policy ideas and helping turn them from ideas to reality – it’s been a job that I’ve (mostly) loved, although it can be demanding, exhilarating and frustrating in equal measure.

But what does that mean for the Cabinet of Curiosities, I hear you ask? Well, the object I’d like to include this month is a symbol of my time as a civil servant: the ministerial Red Box.

Ministerial 'Red Box', made by Barrow, Hepburn & Gale
The Red Box is exactly that: every minister in government has one (or rather several, to allow for times when one is in transit): bright red ‘boxes’ – essentially oversized briefcases. The outside is red leather with a gold crest and lettering, lined with darker leather. They’re made from wood and lead (depending on who you believe, so that they would sink if thrown overboard from a ship in time of war and/ or to stop them from being x-rayed) and so weigh a ton. (They are also sturdy enough, in contravention of many health and safety rules I’m sure, to be used as a handy step-stool for vertically-challenged civil servants needing to get something off the top shelf.)

The idea of a ‘despatch box’ (as they are officially known) apparently goes back at least to Queen Elizabeth I, and the same company has been making them for the government since the eighteenth century. There seems to be a debate about whether the red colour again came from Elizabeth I’s reign, or as a result of Prince Albert’s preference, but it is clear that the ‘red box’ has a long and distinguished pedigree. They’re used to transport sensitive papers securely (you can get less obvious black ones if a minister needs discretion e.g. if they are travelling by public transport). The most famous one is Gladstone’s, which the Chancellor has traditionally held up on Budget day before the assembled press – although the original is now too fragile to come out each year.

Gladstone's famous red box, held up outside HM Treasury 
by many a Chancellor on Budget Day. Source: Wikimedia Commons
But for a civil servant, ‘The Box’ is a concept as well as a physical object. When submitting papers to a minister, the ‘box time’ is all-important. ‘When does the box go’ means ‘what’s my deadline for getting this to you?’ Sometimes it is just that – a euphemism for ‘deadline’ and no more. But often it still is a reality. Papers really do get put in ‘The Box’, and once it is gone, that’s that. On Fridays, the Box can be sent to the Minister’s home address by post (there are special arrangements with the post office to make sure they’re secure). Alternatively, The Box leaves with the Minister, or can be taken to

 wherever she/ he is. Of course, the most urgent things can now be sent by secure email, but for routine work, The Box remains all-important.

‘The Box’ is therefore also something that the Minister ‘does’. It is their homework, the decisions that need making, the papers that have to be read, between one day and the next. Whatever your views on individual politicians, most ministers work incredibly hard; long hours in the office and in Parliament, and then home with a box full of papers to look at overnight. I’ve seen official papers come back covered in curry (‘I didn’t get home until after 10 so I got a takeaway and ate while I was working’) and jammy handprints (‘I was doing the box at breakfast and the five-year old got hold of it, sorry’).

And of course, it also means that ‘The Box comes back’. Decisions – sometimes partially obscured by curry or jam – are typically handwritten across the papers, and private secretaries diligently decode their ministers’ handwriting and email out to the relevant officials in the wider department for them to be taken forward.

It’s a system which may seem a little old-fashioned, but it works. There’s evidence that people take in more information when they read on paper, rather than on screen (see for instance – so it makes sense to me that The Box should stay to help ministers make the best decisions they can.

They’re decisions that I won’t be as directly involved in, in the future. It is something I’m both sad about and relieved by – I will no longer be clock watching, wondering if I’ll make the box deadline or not, ruled by the tyranny of when a briefcase will leave the building - but nor will I have the undoubted privilege of helping ministers to make decisions which impact us all.

Goodbye to Whitehall - the gift traditionally given to
departing Private Secretaries, signed by the Ministers 
you worked directly for. Mine - from earlier in my 
career - includes the Rt Hon (now Lord) Alistair Darling

1 comment:

Jack said...

These red boxes seem to be really important in the life of civil servants just like you. Wish you good fortune in your upcoming days.