At Hughenden Manor last spring, I was thrilled to spot Prime Minister Disraeli’s famous “red box” in his study. It’s a kind of box used for the last 150 years or so by British government officials. It’s really just a briefcase, but so much more romantic–and quintessentially British. These boxes were first used in the 1860s. They were covered in red-dyed rams’ leather, embossed with the Royal Cypher and lined with lead–reportedly so that if the carrier were captured at sea, the box would sink with all its secrets intact. The lead also made the boxes pretty strong in the event of bombing or other catastrophe. The lock is on the bottom of the box, guaranteeing that nobody will walk off without locking it. (Does anyone ever forget, grab the handle and spill the important documents? Let’s hope not).
Until very recently, important government officials proudly carried their red boxes wherever they went. (Naturally, a government official is always hard at work, so the box is necessary at all times). Any man or woman would walk a little taller carrying the jaunty red case. And what a status symbol to casually place on one’s table on the train!
Queen Elizabeth, like Disraeli’s Queen Victoria, receives her own royal red box daily. It contains documents the sovereign must sign before they become law. I’d like to think the Queen’s red box will exist for a long time.
But now, the British government is phasing out the revered symbol of power in favor of secure smartphones. For one thing, ministers have developed the wasteful habit of having their boxes shuttled from place to place in chauffeured limousines, as described in an article from The Independent. Then there’s the problem of security. A fingerprint-activated smartphone is apparently safer (at least until it’s hacked.)
So in England, red ministerial boxes are going the way of red curbside telephone boxes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli lived in a slower-moving world. His red box came with him to his country home, where he worked in his quiet study between long walks inspecting his grounds. There was time for him to think, to read actual books, to reflect on the weighty problems of state. I fear that Britain’s government ministers will now be more like the rest of us: constantly intent on a pocket-sized screen.
Somehow, I can’t see the elegant Mr. Disrael hunched over a smartphone.
I wouldn’t give up my own smartphone for anything, of course. It’s my only camera, as well as my window into the wider world. I can look up most anything with a few thumbstrokes. But if I were a British government minister, I would miss my elegant red ramskin box with the Royal Cypher and the lock on the bottom.
Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!