radio review

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The Independent Culture
Decimalisation, so I dimly remember, was heralded by a lively propaganda campaign designed to assure us (a) that it was not a sneaky way of raising prices, and (b) that it was so simple, even a child could understand it. And to prove that point, an offensively smug child regularly appeared on the radio to explain conversion rates. But these revolutions seem to pass with peculiar ease. Should it ever happen, the transition to a Single European Currency will be equally distressing. But a few years later, it will be hard to recall what the fuss was. That was one of the morals to be drawn from Patriotic Money, a new four part series devoted to national currencies. In the first, Kevin Jackson related the changing fortunes of the pound sterling over the last century.

It was a tale of almost unqualified decline. Nothing, he suggested, has ever been quite the same since the gold sovereign went out of circulation during the First War. Then again, nothing has ever been quite the same since Britain went off, then back on, then finally off the gold standard, and since successive devaluations and joining and leaving the ERM. We heard the ancestral voice of the Chancellor in 1931 announcing "a measure suspending the payment of gaw-uld by the Bank of England". We heard a topical Calypso from the 1950's (Jamaica being part of the Sterling Area): "Devaluation give me a blow/ When the Pound it fell down so low." Most of these developments, Jackson pointed out, were preceded by government protests that they were absolutely out of the question.

Even more piquant was that the pound itself was almost abolished in the move towards decimalisation. Opposition, which is to say Conservative, politicians had urged that Ten Shillings should become the new unit of currency. The pound was retained.That narrow escape did make you wonder - given that neither coins nor values are constant - what there is to hold onto, beyond the national honour of a name.

Or rather, it emphasised a fundamental discrepancy which Patriotic Money often noted: the way strength of feeling about a currency, one of the primary symbols of national difference, is barely connected to economic realities - suggesting that, if and when the great debate gets underway, some people will be talking finance, and other people will be talking symbolism, without much prospect of mutual engagment. No, it will be very distressing.