Pennies. Look after them, it was once clucked, and the pounds will look after themselves. Of the proverbs whose truthfulness has waned most drastically in post-1950s Britain (“manners often make fortunes”, anyone?) this is a Class A example. Look after 1p and 2p pieces today and you announce yourself as a kind of lunatic. A copper-fiddler. The time and space these coins take up is, to any stable person, worth more than the thing itself. And so the moment has come to set our purses free.
Or at least - to follow in the footsteps of the Commonwealth. Canada ditched the penny piece last month. Australia did the same in 1992. Neither country’s industry shows any sign of collapse. When a shop hits the apparently impossible total of $13.61, Canucks and Aussies simply round it to the nearest 5 cents. Citizens, it can be presumed, are as a result marginally happier, spared the daily finger-rustle through a pocket of change only to come out – like a useless archaeologist - with a copper.
Outside of penny pusher arcades in forgotten seaside towns these coins are simply defunct. You can’t afford a piss with one. The gelatinous crud they used to swap for – cola bottles etc – now consorts with more upmarket coinage. Vending machines act like nothing below the 20 pence exists.
It’s pretty well accepted that, in the next half century or so, plastic payment will usurp cash altogether. Why wait when it comes to the penny? The ½ p was scrapped in 1984, to account for inflation. President Obama suggested last month that the US penny is, as one wag put it, no longer “change he can believe in”.
My own grievance is less practical and more symbolic. As prices have raced away from pennies at the bottom end of the market, so too the purchasing power of larger sums has diminished at the top. Figures released on the weekend show home ownership in steep decline. Ninety per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds now rent, an increase of 13 per cent over the last decade. It seems that saving up to buy something useful with your pennies is now almost as elongated and potentially-futile a process as putting away wages for a house.
So here’s another proverb for the discard pile: “An Englishman’s home is his castle”. Not anymore it isn't. Now an Englishman’s home is most likely a turret in somebody else’s castle. That issue will take political effort to solve; the penny problem won’t. If I was a politician looking for an easy win – the abolition of a time-wasting reminder of our current financial mess - I know which one I’d choose to tackle.