What makes Britain great? There is, of course, no single answer (and the French would suggest there is no question), but the nation that gave the world its principal parliamentary system, its principal international language and (sorry, Yanks) its principal sport must have something in its national DNA that sets it apart from all the rest.
It seems to me that a major factor is Britain’s innate conservatism as described and promoted by the 18th century philosopher and politician, Edmund Burke. British society doesn’t change – it evolves. And evolution produces strength, step-by-step. There have, of course, been potholes in the road over the years – most notably the Civil War and Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century – but, let’s face it, after a few years of that miserable puritan they brought back Charles II whose head had fortunately not been cut off along with his father’s. When things went haywire again a quarter of a century later, the King (the last James we are likely to see) was booted across the water and none other than John Locke, the very man who challenged the divine right of kings in his “Two Treatises of Government”, was charged with schlepping the new king and queen from Holland.
There was a marvelous example of British evolution a few months back that, typically, went almost unnoticed. One Friday morning an announcement was made in Perth (the Aussie one) – which is just about as far as you can get from Buckingham Palace without jumping on a spaceship – that henceforth the first born of the monarch (etc) will be the heir to the throne irrespective of gender. In a stroke, countless centuries of common law and statute were set aside and Britain and its Commonwealth moved on (I am aware that political correctness dictates that I should be talking about the United Kingdom – but, frankly, I am a bit ambivalent towards Northern Ireland). And what about Decimalization 40 years ago? After watching sterling evolve over centuries into the quaint system of pounds, shillings (20 in a pound) and pence (12 pence in a shilling) – instead of changing the currency they just dropped the shillings and recast the pence. To maintain an element of originality in the change, instead of using a normal date (like January 1 used for introduction of the Euro) they went for the totally obscure February 15 1971 – which could, at least, have been identified as the middle of the month – in any month other than February.
Which brings me to the central point. I have a hunch (but not an ounce of evidence) that we may be heading for another of those evolutionary changes in the next few years.
Last week, in the month of March as from time immemorial, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne presented the Government’s budget for the coming fiscal year. The Government’s fiscal year starts April 1 but, for the purpose of income tax the year starts on April 6. Why April 6? The story is simply wonderful.
New Years Day used to be recognised in Britain as March 25. That date represents Lady Day when, according to Christian tradition, the Archangel Gabriel informed the Virgin Mary she was going to conceive (count nine months and you get to Christmas Day). The Treasury understandably collected its taxes based on the year commencing March 25. When, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII instituted his calendar replacing the old Julian version European countries gradually adopted it. The Protestant English, however, gave him the two finger salute and hung on until 1752 when, in addition to adopting the Gregorian calendar New Year’s Day was moved to January 1. The tax year was left untouched but for one small point. Adoption of the Gregorian calendar required an eleven day leap forward in the date (there were riots reported at the time of people claiming they had been robbed of part of their lives). Not prepared to give up on tax revenue, the Treasury moved the collection period forward by the said eleven days – meaning that the new tax year would start on April 5. As part of the calendar change leap years are generally skipped at the turn of the century – in 1800 another day was added bringing the start to April 6; in 1900, the Treasury was magnanimous and left the date alone; 2000 was a leap year, so we will never know what Gordon Brown might have done.
It is hard to see how this system can go on forever. I recently had to do some foreign tax credit calculations for a client invested in real estate in the UK – I felt like getting out an abacus (and hitting someone over the head with it). I would assume that one of these years when the economy is doing well and a government is in the middle of its term there will be a quiet announcement from somewhere like the Isle of Skye (if it is still part of Britain) that the next tax year will start on April 1 – but then everyone will probably assume it’s an April Fools joke. Happy New Year.