Monday, 6 April 2015

Happy New Year! Thanks to British Conservatism

Happy New Year!

Surprised? Asking yourself what year starts on 6 April? Whether there’s some calendar you’re unaware of, in one of the world’s great religions?

Here’s a clue. It’s not a matter of celebration for most people.

No, 6 April is the start of the British tax year. 

But is that really the answer to the right question? Or are you now wondering “why on Earth does the British tax year start on 6 April?”

The ecclesiastical year was used for centuries for administrative purposes throughout Christendom. It contains Quarter Days: Lady Day on 25 March, marking the annunciation to Mary that she is to bear the child of God, Midsummer day on 24 June, Michaelmas on 29 September and Christmas on 25 December.

Note the spooky exact nine months between Lady Day and Christmas Day. Almost as though they’d been specifically picked to correspond to the canonical length of a human pregnancy. We’re being told that the birth of Christ was a truly human event, not a supernatural one (begotten not created, and all that.)

In this system, the year started on the first Quarter Day, 25 March. The British tax authorities followed that convention. Religiously.

“OK,” I hear you cry, “but that still isn’t 6 April, is it?”

“Patience, good sir or madam,” I reply, “the story is not yet complete.”

For over a millennium and a half, Europe lived by the Julian calendar, named after that skilful general, wily politician and outstanding murder victim, Julius Caesar. Alas, however, his calendar is based on their being 365.25 days in the solar year, the time it takes the Earth to travel round the sun. The extra quarter of a day was compensated for with a leap year every four years.

In fact, 365.24 is a better approximation. So 1600 years on, the calendar was out with respect to the seasons by as much as 12 days. Pope Gregory XIII decided this had to stop, so he introduced the aptly named Gregorian Calendar in 1582. This skipped ten days, and decreed that a year divisible by 4 would only be a leap year if it wasn’t also divisible by 100 (so 1900 wasn’t a leap year), unless it was also divisible by 1000 (so 2000 was a leap year).

“OK,” you object, “but 25 March plus 10 days only takes us to 4 April.”

“Hold on,” I counter, “we’re not there yet.”

Britain is famously one of the great conservative countries, if “great” and “conservative” are words that can be used together. This is a nation whose regime, a limited monarchy, has merely evolved since the eighteenth century; by contrast, France has had three monarchies, two Empires and is now on its fifth republic.

Oddly, there’s little to choose between the two countries in quality of government. Though perhaps that’s not so odd.

Anyway, Britain was officially Protestant by the time of Gregory’s reforms, and wasn’t having anything to do with this strange Papist change to the calendar.

“What, it is a leap year, unless it’s a century years, except if it’s a millennium year? Who’ll even remember?”

Gregory XIII
Author of a necessary reform to the calendar or of a Popish plot?
So we stuck with the Julian system. Good enough for Caesar, good enough for us.

But by the mid-eighteenth century, it was all getting too much. Goods would arrive in London days before they’d been sent from Calais. A settlement sent on time from Edinburgh would arrive way over deadline in Milan. It was all too confusing.

So in 1752 Britain swallowed its pride and, with a sense of being excitingly innovative, switched from “Old Style” dates to “New Stye”. By then the gap had grown by another day, so the skip had to be eleven days, not ten. There was a lot of suspicion and resistance, as people felt they were being robbed of part of their lives, but the change went through.

Britain wasn’t by any means the last to make the change. Russia, even more conservative, clung on into the 20th century. It took the Communist revolution of 1917 to bring the calendar in line with the West, by which time the difference was thirteen days. But with all the bloodshed, I suspect losing a couple of weeks wasn’t a top priority to most Russians. Though deep-rooted conservatism culminating in violence might give them something to ponder even today.

In Europe, Greece was the last country to go, losing its thirteen days in 1923.

One body that wasn’t going to put up with being robbed of any of the time due to it was the British Treasury. So it stuck with the old dating of Lady Day, adding eleven revenue-collecting days to the tax year when the change took place. 

Well, nominally adding eleven days, though that kept it the same length, if you see what I mean.

So there you have it.

“Hang on, hang on,” you complain, “eleven days after 25 March still isn’t 6 April. 25 plus 11 is 36. March has 31 days. 36 minus 31 is 5. So why doesn’t the tax year start on 5 April?”

“OK, OK, you’re right,” I have to confess.

In 1800, which wasn’t a leap year in the new system, the tax authorities decided to nick an extra day again. So they shifted the start of the tax year on one more day, taking us to 6 April.

And then in 1900, they decided that they’d had enough.

“What, some century years we have to add a day, others we don’t? Who’ll remember?” they asked. And they stopped doing it.

And that really is the end of the story.

Happy New British Tax Year!

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