Decimalising the pound: a victory for the gentlemanly City against the forces of modernity?

by Andy Cook (University of Huddersfield)

 

1813 guinea

Some media commentators have identified the decimalisation of the UK’s currency in 1971 as the start of a submerging of British identity. For example, writing in the Daily Mail, Dominic Sandbrook characterises it as ‘marking the end of a proud history of defiant insularity and the beginning of the creeping ­Europeanisation of ­Britain’s institutions.’

This research, based on Cabinet papers, Bank of England archives, Parliamentary records and other sources, reveals that this interpretation is spurious and reflects more modern preoccupations with the arguments that dominated much of the Brexit debate, rather than the actual motivation of key players at the time.

The research examines arguments made by the proponents of alternative systems based on either decimalising the pound, or creating a new unit worth the equivalent of 10 shillings. South Africa, Australia and New Zealand had all recently adopted a 10-shilling unit, and this system was favoured by a wide range of interest groups in the UK, representing consumers, retailers, small and large businesses, and media commentators.

Virtually a lone voice in lobbying for retention of the pound was the City of London, and its arguments, articulated by the Bank of England, were based on a traditional attachment to the international status of sterling. These arguments were accepted, both by the Committee of Enquiry on Decimal currency, which reported in 1963, and, in 1966, by a Labour government headed by Harold Wilson, who shared the City’s emotional attachment to the pound.

Yet by 1960, the UK had faced the imminent prospect of being virtually the only country retaining non-decimal coinage. Most key economic players agreed that decimalisation was necessary and the only significant bone of contention was the choice of system.

Most informed opinion favoured a new major unit equivalent to 10 shillings, as reflected in evidence given by retailers and other businesses to the Committee of Enquiry on Decimal Coinage, and the formation of a Decimal Action Committee by the Consumers Association to press for such a system.

The City, represented by the Bank of England, was implacably opposed to such a system, arguing that the pound’s international prestige was crucial to underpinning the position of the City as a leading financial centre. This assertion was not evidence-based, and internal Bank documents acknowledge that their argument was ‘to some extent based on sentiment’.

This sentiment was shared by Harold Wilson, whose government announced the decision to introduce decimal currency based on the pound in 1966. Five years earlier, he had made an emotional plea to keep the pound arguing that ‘the world will lose something if the pound disappears from the markets of the world’.

Far from being the end of ‘defiant insularity’, the decision to retain a higher-value basic currency unit of any major economy, rather than adopting one closer in value either to the US dollar or the even lower-value European currencies, reflected the desire of the City and government to maintain a distinctive symbol of Britishness, the pound, overcoming opposition from interests with more practical concerns.

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