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 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
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 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/) – 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