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Chancellor of the Exchequer

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The Chancellor of the Exchequer is the head of the department of the British government that administers the public revenue, including the receipt and expenditure of money for public services. Historically, the Chancellor is the 'Second Lord of the Treasury, but this name is no longer used.[1] The department today is known as HM Treasury rather than the Exchequer, and since May 2010 has been headed by George Osborne, a Conservative. The Chancellor's official residence is 11 Downing Street.

The Exchequer dated from the reign of Henry I (1100-1135), and was thoroughly organised under Henry II (1154-1189). Twice a year, at Easter and Michaelmas, the sheriffs and others who collected the king's revenues came to render their accounts at the Exchequer. The name derived from the chequered cloth on the table used for calculations. At the Easter meeting the sheriff made a preliminary statement and paid half of what he owed. At Michaelmas the sheriff was expected to settle the year's account in full.

The clerk who did the work was, by the mid-thirteenth century, called 'Chancellor of the Exchequer', and the transition of the role from senior administrator to political leader took centuries – only in the mid-nineteenth century under William Gladstone did the role become politically powerful. In 1787 a single 'Consolidated Fund' was established into which all revenues were paid and from which all expenditures were made; procedure was greatly simplified by the Act of 1834; and in 1866 the control of issues of public money and the auditing of accounts were placed in one department under the comptroller and auditor general.

Today, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is the British finance minister. They are always a senior member of the Cabinet and always a member of the House of Commons because all financial measures must originate there. The Chancellor exercises control over finances, in consultation with the Prime Minister and under the control of the Cabinet, and he is given credit or blame for the overall health of the economy. The Chancellor's deputy, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is also a Cabinet minister, reflecting the central role the Treasury plays; this position has been held by David Laws (a Liberal Democrat) since May 2010.

Many prominent leaders have been Chancellor. Gladstone (1852-1855 and 1859-1866) set financial policies based on free trade, balanced budgets, and limited government intervention that comprised the foundation of the mid-Victorian 'minimalist' state. Liberal Party Chancellor David Lloyd George's "People's Budget" of 1909 threatened both the social and economic power of the British landed aristocracy as well as the high-tariff political agenda of the Conservative Party. The budget's rejection by the House of Lords triggered a constitutional crisis unexpected but not feared by the governing Liberals. Winston Churchill, who served from 1924 to 1929, was criticised for returning to the 'gold standard' in 1925, to the detriment of the economy, as well as cutting the army and navy budgets.

The Chancellor is also responsible for occasional parliamentary business. For example, since there is no mechanism for MPs to resign from the UK Parliament, to step down they must be given a Crown appointment which automatically disqualifies them from sitting in the House of Commons. Such a position, which carries no salary or responsibilities, is awarded by the Chancellor - some recent recipients being former Prime Minister Tony Blair,[2] the then newly-elected Mayor of London, Boris Johnson,[3] and former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis.

Footnotes

  1. The Prime Minister is the First Lord of the Treasury, residing at 10 Downing Street, but actually has no role at the Treasury.
  2. HM Treasury: 'Three Hundreds of Chiltern.' 27th June 2007.
  3. HM Treasury: 'Manor of Northstead.' 4th June 2008.
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