Sunday, 5 April 2009

The mystery of the missing days

It’s the fifth of April, the last day of the fiscal year in Britain. What better time to spend a few moments thinking about why this country’s tax authorities work to that calendar?

It feels like another one of those classic British eccentricities, like why our most expensive private schools are called ‘public schools’. That one is all to do with the link between public schools and the Black Death. Depending on your political viewpoint, you’ll regard that link as astonishing or entirely appropriate. Either way, the mid-fourteenth century plague wiped out one in three of the general population but two in three of the priesthood, leaving the country perilously under-supplied with the educated men who staffed the administration. In the coming decades, steps were taken to get a lot more young men into education. One of the major initiatives was to break from the old system of schools associated with great households and which took students only on invitation – private schools – and set up schools to which anyone could apply – public schools. They weren’t, however, state schools or necessarily free.

As for the fiscal year, throughout the Middle Ages four great dates spread reasonably evenly over the twelve months were viewed as the moments at which significant contractual decisions came into effect or debts were settled. These were the quarter days: Lady Day (25 March), Midsummer Day (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September) and Christmas (25 December). Why was 25 March called ‘Lady Day’? Christ, we were told, was born on Christmas Day. Given that the tradition is that there were lambs in the fields at the time, this seems deeply unlikely. But the Church swallowed that implausible belief, and then worked backward from it on the equally questionable basis that a pregnancy lasts exactly nine months. Consequently, Christ’s conception must have occurred on 25 March. So it was ‘Lady Day’ because it was the Feast of the Annunciation.

More importantly, it was the also the traditional first day of the year. This is why the tomb of Elizabeth 1st shows her as having died in 1602 although she died on 24 March 1603, the last day of the previous year in the old reckoning.

At that time the tax year and the calendar year were exactly aligned and both started on 25 March.

Then the Catholic Church decreed that we were counting dates incorrectly. Pope Gregory XIII decided in 1582 that the time-honoured Julian calendar, named for the illustrious Caesar himself, should be replaced by one called after himself and which he claimed stuck more truthfully to the real movement of the sun and moon.

He was right, as it happens, but, hey, in this good Protestant land, why should we honour decisions of the bishop of Rome? There was probably a hidden agenda anyway.

Even Catholic countries took a while to adopt the new calendar, giving up ten days each time as they did it. Then little by little the Protestants of Continental Europe switched to the new system, but there is a grand tradition in this country, honoured to this day, of distrusting the motives of Continentals, so we stuck to Julius and only gave in to the new system ages after everyone else. It’ll be the same with the Euro, you mark my words.

Finally, Wednesday, 2 September 1752 was followed in Britain by Thursday, 14 September: the time it took us to come round to the idea meant that we had to lose eleven days rather than the ten of the Continent. Apparently, there was serious discontent in parts of the country as people reacted angrily to the theft of eleven days of their lives.

Whoever else lost eleven days, it certainly wasn’t going to be the tax authorities. So they just delayed the start of the new year.

If you’re smart at arithmetic, it won’t take you long to work out that 25 + 11 = 36 which, given that March has 31 days, takes you 5 April. And indeed that was the new start of the tax year, until 1800. At that point the Julian and Gregorian calendars diverged by another day (because there was a leap day in 1800 in the Julian calendar but none in the Gregorian – century years are not leap years for three centuries out of four – those of you who noticed there was a 29 February in 2000 need only live another 91 years to establish that there won’t be one in 2100). So from 1800 the British tax authorities had their year starting on 6 April. They’ve made no further adjustments since, so that’s where it's stayed.

As so often, what looks like eccentricity on our part turns out, when you investigate it closely enough, to be simply pure, unadulterated logic.

Incidentally, we weren’t the last to switch to the Gregorian calendar. The Russians didn’t manage it until the twentieth century, and only following a Communist revolution, at which point they had to write off 13 days. That’s why the political event that brought the Bolsheviks into power and made the shift in calendar possible is known as the October Revolution, although it happened in November.

And you thought there was no fun to be had from history?

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