Tuesday 6 November 2007

Change for change's sake

Gordon Brown has proclaimed this as the Age of Change, but it’s not like that where I live. Try handing over a £20 note to pay for The Journal in my village shop, and see how far you get.

Joking apart (because Robert at the shop is a pushover, really), one of the big changes coming up really does involve our small change. I had an ominous email from the Royal Mint last week, announcing that next March they will implement “the biggest design change in British coinage since decimalisation … reflecting a more contemporary, twenty-first century Britain.”

They suggested that I might like to buy a final reminder of the cherished old designs in a limited edition proof set, available in silver, gold or even platinum (the last a snip at just £4,995.00).

I don’t know why my heart sinks at this news. Like most people of my age, I have always considered the decimal coin designs foisted on us in 1968-71 to be embarrassingly babyish, compared with the unique and glorious coinage they replaced. You only had to handle an old penny or half crown to know that this was a country sure of its place in the world. Better than all the others, that is, with their lightweight, tatty currencies.

The nation’s aptitude for mental arithmetic was founded on having four farthings to the penny, twelve pence to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound. Everyone also enjoyed a free history lesson in their purse or pocket, with every handful of copper likely to yield coins from five reigns.

The images on the reverse of the coins, such as Britannia on the penny, changed little over the centuries. Surely that is how it should be? The symbols of national identity and royal authority are timeless. The most respected British coin around the world, the gold sovereign, has borne the same Pistrucci image of St George and the dragon since 1817.

What will feature on the new coins of switched-on, tuned-in, hip New Britain? Hoodies, crack addicts, asylum seekers? Polish plumbers, Big Brother winners? Verses from the Koran or multi-headed Hindu gods, to demonstrate our much-vaunted cultural diversity?

The downsizing of nearly all our “silver” coins in the 1990s was doubtless intended to soften us up for the introduction of the Euro. But in any case, it fitted smoothly into the multi-front campaign of disorientation that has been waged against us for the last 40 years. One of its most important objectives has been to make us feel that the traditional symbols of Britain are somehow shameful, and eliminate them from national life. When did you last receive an envelope bearing that once ubiquitous legend, “On Her Majesty’s Service”?

Oddly, this latest redesign was conceived in 2005, when the Master of the Mint was one Gordon Brown. A man who suddenly discovered the wonderful value of Britishness, when he realised how hard it was going to be for an MP from a largely autonomous Scotland to govern England.

A further puzzle is that, if the designs on the reverse of our coins are impossibly old fashioned, surely they are less offensive than having the head of an old white woman on the other side? Unveiled, which must seriously upset one important constituency, and underlining the fact that the highest position in the land is denied to virtually all of us (though she is, at least, the descendant of immigrants). Was it coincidence that her latest portrait not only made her look considerably older, but almost changed her tiara to one that did not feature an outrageously Christian cross?

What’s the betting that some favoured New Labour think tank, once it has finished expunging Christmas from our national life, will publish a pamphlet entitled “Off with her head”? I just hope that is only the currency that they will be talking about.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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