Coining it in
Viewers of the 1970s retrospective series currently running on BBC2 would have done well to tune in to Secret History (17 August) on Channel Four instead. If studied wackiness is your thing, there was nothing to beat this particular programme—called “Funny Money”—about the joys of Britain’s move over to decimalised currency. It was an entertaining and well put together journey through the various research proposals, government White Papers and newspaper campaigns which acted as a prelude to the abolition of the old pound shillings and pence monetary system that was in use in Britain until 1971.
The programme included interviews with the politicians and civil servants in charge of the changeover, most notably the impish-looking civil servant who led the research into decimalisation in Britain and who then led the team whose task it was to prepare British business and consumers for the move over to the new system. At the time it was clear that he found the fuss surrounding the entire thing hilarious, and looking back on it more hysterical still—in fact, he can barely stop laughing.
It is difficult indeed to get inside the minds of people whose attachment to an inanimate object of little intrinsic worth is such that they will launch campaigns to “save” and “protect” it. We are not talking seals or whales here, but sixpencees and ten bob notes. Such was the attachment to the old system that many proposed replacing it with a ten shilling system which would have abolished the old pound completely and replaced it with a ten shilling unit of currency called something like “The Royal”. Given their current political stance it is ironic that foremost amongst those in favour of this system of abolishing the pound was the Conservative Party. Indeed, the programme contended that the majority of MPs were probably in favour of it and the decimal system we now have was only pushed through on the Labour whip at the time because it was Harold Wilson and his Chancellor of the time, Jim Callaghan, who was driving it. When the Tories under Heath won the 1970 general election they implemented the proposal they had previously campaigned against and Britain adopted the system of one hundred new pence to the pound, replete with an oddly-shaped fifty pence piece and minus the sixpence and ten bob note.
Money, money, money
If Secret History’s interviews with the top civil servants of the time are anything to go by they expected little short of blood on the streets when the changeover finally came. They had run a low budget public information campaign aided by Max Bygraves and periodic, pertinent references to decimalisation in Coronation Street. Instead, on “D-Day” itself, 15 February, the phones of the decimalisation task force stopped ringing and they sat in their offices laughing as one of the greatest fusses over nothing in British economic history fell into place. Soon the newspaper campaigns stopped, the silly season stories about young children swallowing the new two pence piece were put to rest and even the barmy bloke on the south coast whose gents outfitters shop refused to recognise the new currency eventually gave up the ghost. All that was left was the residual suspicion that decimalisation had increased inflation, though new scapegoats for that (the trade unions) were just around the corner.
The one possible failing of the programme, delightfully made as it was for the most part, was that it failed to explore the obvious modern parallel: the potential introduction of the Euro as a currency to replace the pound sterling. If the public could grasp the operation of the decimal system within a relatively short period of time and with few lasting complaints, the euro should be no problem, especially as it is also a decimal currency and doesn’t therefore mean a changeover to a completely different system of monetary accounting.
Today, of course, there are another breed of “save-the-pound” pranksters in our midst. This time they have managed to achieve something that decimalisation couldn’t—they’ve split the historically dominant political party of capitalism in this country, the Conservative Party. The modern “save-the-pound” campaign may have sounder basis in the reality of capitalism than opposition to decimalisation ever did (for some sections of the capitalist class at least) but its petty nationalist and parochial rhetoric is almost identical.
Of course, Secret History failed to touch upon the fact that while all this controversy about Britain’s currency has been raging over the last thirty or forty years, the alternative campaign for the complete abolition of all money and monetary exchange has been ongoing—in the pages of this journal and elsewhere. We must concede that it is an educative process that is certainly taking longer than the changeover to decimal currency did, but it will be worth the wait. Unlike decimal currency or the euro, the abolition of money really will be something worth waiting for and eventually, a source of real joy for billions and not just for a handful of Treasury civil servants.