Richard Heller: The meddling with our money that cost Britain dear

Currency: FORTY years ago, this country was forced to abandon the money which Dickens used, and Newton, and Shakespeare and Chaucer, money which even linked it to the Romans. This money – 12 pennies to a shilling, 20 shillings to the pound – was quirky and confusing. It was inconvenient and inefficient (although somehow it carried us through the Industrial Revolution, the formation of a global trading empire and victory in two World Wars).

Above all, the old money gave our country an old-fashioned image. It set us apart from modern, successful competitors who used decimal currency. More than any other factor, that explains why Britain destroyed part of its heritage – and gained nothing in exchange.

Decimal currency was dumped on the nation by Jim Callaghan, then Chancellor of the Exchequer in Harold Wilson's first Labour government. The black day was March 1, 1966, when Callaghan introduced an interim Budget in advance of the imminent General Election.

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As with all interim budgets, Callaghan had little to say. Then, dramatically, he announced that decimal currency would be introduced with effect from February 1971. His announcement made a story for one day, for which our country has paid for the next 45 years.

Although it was the only lasting memorial of his time as Chancellor, Callaghan never mentioned the introduction of decimal currency in his lengthy memoirs Time And Chance. Perhaps he was ashamed of it.

At the time, he claimed that it would offer "considerable benefits to the country as a whole", although he did not identify them, still less put any value on them.

He created a quango, the Decimal Currency Board, to soften up the country and eliminate resistance to the unwanted change. To ensure final surrender in 1971, the Government (now in the pudgy, gripless hands of Ted Heath) commissioned a ghastly pop song by Max Bygraves called Decimalisation and an even more ghastly television series called Granny Gets The Point, in which a befuddled pensioner had the new money explained by her smart-alec grandson.

From such beginnings, nothing good could possibly come.

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The immediate aftermath of decimal currency was the hyperinflation of the early 1970s. True, there were other causes (the quintupling of oil prices, the miners' strike, the three-day week) but decimal currency was definitely a contributor. Pressure from the City of London led the government to keep the old pound, to bolster its role as a reserve currency.

For a whole generation, governments kept making daft decisions to maintain sterling as a reserve currency, and this was another. It meant that the "new penny" (100 to the pound) – the basic unit for price changes – was worth 2.4 times the "old penny" (240 to the pound). This allowed businesses to put up prices 2.4 times faster in the new system than the old.

Worse still, decimal currency destroyed the will of the British people to resist inflation in the 1970s, because it ended all the prices which they found familiar and reasonable.

I had first-hand experience of this effect, while working for the Price Commission, the government's forlorn finger in the bursting dyke of inflation. Ministers and officials were desperately fearful that the price of the standard white loaf of bread would rise above the psychologically important price of three shillings.

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They thought this would provoke fury, even riot. All manner of stratagems were deployed to defer the awful day. Eventually these were exhausted, and the white loaf rose above three shillings. Nothing happened – because three shillings had been turned into an alien 15p.

Pre-decimal currency inspired pride and affection in our country. Its coins had a host of nicknames. Even its abbreviations, L s d, had dignity and a history as old as Rome. Decimal coins have never inspired any nicknames, and their abbreviation, p, lends itself only to off-colour jokes.

Pre-decimal currency inspired dazzling feats of daily mental arithmetic – from schoolchildren buying sweets, from shop assistants and transport staff giving change, from punters calculating winnings, from anyone with a complicated order in a pub or a restaurant. Decimal currency has created a generation of Britons who cannot shop or give change or make any commonplace transaction without the help of automation.

Decimal currency was typical of many changes in recent British life whose only purpose was to create an illusion of change and progress, whose benefits were assumed rather than calculated, and which nobody really wanted except a small elite who stood to profit from them.

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Another such change, around the same time, was the total re-drawing of the map of local government, in pursuit of imagined efficiencies. Millions of people, without being asked, were told that they lived in some outlandish new county, including many proud Yorkshire people banished to pseudo-places like Cleveland, Humberside and Cumbria. The changes were very good news for local government managers – and stationers. Did anyone else get any benefits?

The same period saw the supreme example of change foisted on the British people by a self-regarding lite in the name of modernity. We joined the European Community. It is why I beg leave to introduce a Bill to repeal the Decimal Currency Act.

Richard Heller is an author and journalist. His new cricket-based novel The Network has just been published.

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