Tuesday 15 February 2011

The day they confiscated our history

The past may be a foreign country, but at least it is a territory well supplied with guide books and maps.

Opinions may differ on precisely what happened at Suez in 1956, say, but the facts are out there and we are much more likely to reach a sensible conclusion about those events than we are to predict “what next” for Egypt and ex-President Mubarak.

For me, the Suez crisis of 1956 has always been tantalisingly out of reach – within my lifetime, but before I began to take the slightest interest in anything beyond a bottle. Some things remain remarkably constant, when put like that, but Britain has changed almost beyond recognition in my lifetime, and our humiliating withdrawal from Egypt in 1956 seems increasingly like the tipping point.

It led to a crucial loss of self-confidence: the rapid withdrawal from the remains of Empire, the rundown of our armed forces, the first application to join the Common Market. We ceased to be a country that went its own way and did not care what the rest of the world thought, and embarked on a programme of trying to fit in.

There was no sadder example of this, to my mind, than the abandonment of our distinctive and glorious currency 40 years ago today on “D-Day”, where “D” stood for “decimalisation”. Like that von Trapp girl in the Sound of Music, I was 16 going on 17 at the time, and naïve enough to feel excited by the novelty of it all. I remember volunteering to do the rounds of the Benton shops for my mother, to save her fiddling with the unfamiliar new coins.

We had been softened up for weeks beforehand by The Scaffold singing repetitive dirges to us in public information films: the chorus “Give more, get change” ran through my dreams for years afterwards. This was all based on the premise that there was going to be a prolonged transition lasting up to 18 months, during which “decimal shops” would co-exist with “LSD shops”, disappointingly not specialising in hallucinogenic drugs but simply continuing to use the old currency.

In fact, like most Government forecasts, this proved to be hopelessly inaccurate. The change was almost instantaneous everywhere, with only the Corporation buses continuing to use the old money for a week until they felt confident that most passengers would possess the right change.

It was only later that I began to reflect on what we had lost: a unique coinage that offered a history lesson in every handful of change, with the coins of five reigns in everyday circulation, including pennies showing Queen Victoria as a young woman as well as a veiled widow.

From the halfpenny to the majestic half crown, via the octagonal brass threepenny bit, there was something of beauty and interest in every transaction. The coinage proclaimed that this was an ancient nation with a proud history that took its symbols seriously and attached importance to good design.

What has happened since is almost too sad to contemplate – and surely it isn’t just coincidence that a pound today is worth roughly what a shilling was in 1971?

For 40 years we have kept slithering down the slope of meek conformity. Yes, we may still muster a ragged cheer when the House of Commons declares that prisoners shall not have the vote, but we know that the next act will be a humiliating cave-in and climb-down. Meanwhile another barmy European Court looks set to confiscate a sizeable chunk of my pension on the grounds that it discriminates against women if insurers allow for the fact that men die more quickly.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when the world went mad, but February 15, 1971, was undoubtedly an important milestone on our descent, and deserves to be remembered today with an appropriate sense of loss.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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