Weekly Column

The Chequered Tablecloth

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The word ‘Exchequer’ derives from the chequered tablecloth on which Mediaeval Treasury clerks counted up piles of money. It was a confrontational audit process between the powerful Barons of the upper Exchequer and the hapless accountants summoned before them. The cloth was used to visually record the sums of money that were demanded and received, and an accountant was only discharged of their debt on the provision of evidence – a writ authorising expenditure on behalf of the Crown, or a wooden tally denoting that a payment had been made into the lower Exchequer. (The thousands of wooden ‘tallies’ were in 1834 burned in the parliamentary boilers, which overheated and burned the whole Palace down). When Charles I left my old College, Christ Church Oxford in 1646 having used up their silver to fund the Civil War, all he left behind was the old tablecloth, which to this day the Christ Church Boat Club commemorate in their rather gaudy tie. I always wear it on Budget day in antiquarian memory of the origins of the Exchequer.The Exchequer tablecloth is also symbolic of ‘balancing the books’, which Chancellor Jeremy Hunt set about doing in Wednesday’s Budget. It was a steady Budget rather than an eye-catching one; and it is just what the economy needs. The Office of Budget Responsibility prediction that inflation will fall this year to 2% is welcome news indeed and may have had a part to play in what looks like a fair settlement of the Nurses’ pay dispute at a 5% increase. I hope that the other public service workers on strike will take their lead from them. If food prices and energy prices can now return to their pre-crisis norms; and if the economy otherwise stays a strong as it is (leaving on one side the worries about the banking system), we should see a degree of comfort returning to domestic budgets. The PM and Bank of England acted swiftly to prevent significant damage from the collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank; and the Swiss Government similarly saved Credit Suisse. But we must keep a close eye on the workings of the banking system over the next few weeks.There were other attractive aspects to the Budget. Working parents will welcome the 30 hours free childcare a week from the age of 9 months, extending the energy price guarantee for 3 months, (by which time the price should anyhow be returning to normal) will be a relief for many, as will freezing fuel duty; and a tax freeze on draught beer will keep many people locally very happy. (‘A price freeze on warm beer’ as the Chancellor joked.)Some aspects of the Budget are of course less welcome- the increase in Corporation Tax to 25% has been attacked by some businesses, although generous changes to the elements which can now be offset against profits are helpful. I am a low tax Tory and dislike the fact that the Pandemic and Ukraine War have made such heavy demands on the public purse that necessitates such a heavy tax Burden. So I welcome the fact that we are slowly turning the economy round, and seeing growth reappear, one result of which will I hope be a return to a proper tax-cutting agenda soon.The best news of the Budget is simply that Jeremy Hunt is getting things under control. We are closer to ‘balancing the books’, in a way which the Mediaeval clerks and their chequered tablecloth would have understood and thoroughly approved.

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James Gray
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Published Date
March 17, 2023