Marks or merks, it's all sterling currency

Abandoning the pound shouldn't be a cause for grief; there are some classy alternatives around

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If the Germans don't want the ecu to be called the ecu, I quite see their point. It was always an ingenious - very ingenious - way of keeping the money French: I see, from an old coin catalogue, that an ecu d'or au soleil of 1615 would set you back, these days, about £500, but that, oddly enough, a demi-ecu of 1643 costs roughly the same amount. There was also such a thing as a quart d'ecu and a twelfth-ecu, an ecu aux lauriers, and in the 1790s a constitutional ecu. So for the French, whether their sympathies were royalist or revolutionary, the idea of the ecu would be comfortingly familiar.

And this very familiarity would revive in the Germans that ancient sense of inferiority to the French. Whereas if, as suggested, the unified European currency were to be called the euromark, this policy would be easier to sell inside Germany. Well, I mean, talk about stating the obvious. Of course the Germans would prefer that the mark should continue, and continue to be called the mark. And they might receive some support in Scotland, where I see that, at least during their Eighth Coinage (under James VI in 1601) there was such a thing as a "quarter thistle merk".

There is a great deal to be said for the word mark - mark of quality, mark of esteem, mark of respect. When the Milk Marketing Board was abolished, it was replaced by a thing called Milk Marque, a term that clearly had been market tested and was found to have some association with quality.

And I think most people would like their money to appear to have quality. A couple of decades ago the German mark could be roughly estimated at four to the pound. A decade ago the calculation was nearer three. The other day a Berlin bank gave me 2.1, and they didn't seem very keen to argue about it.

I thought - just for a moment - of demanding to see the manager. I thought of making a scene, pulling rank, reminding the good fellow who won the war, pointing out the dire consequences if the Berlin airlift had failed, and so on.But this wasn't exactly a central Berlin bank. It was a small suburban affair. And I realised (just in time to save my dignity) that I would probably be treated to some rather suburban arguments in return.

Then a further thought struck me: suppose this rather suburban bank was actually giving rather a good rate, that they simply hadn't yet heard the news about the free fall of sterling. Or suppose they'd given me a special, generous rate of 2.1 simply because they didn't want to embarrass me in front of the rest of the queue.

I know that our economy is "the envy of Europe". I know this because our ministers often repeat it.But my observation is that, while our economy is indeed the envy of Europe, our currency is not. I wonder how many people would object if they went into work one morning to be told: from tomorrow you will receive your salaries in German marks. Certainly they would want to know how their new salaries had been calculated. But how many would object in principle to being paid in German money?

Of course it may be that in a certain country at a certain period, a great deal of national pride is invested in the currency. The prime example would be the former West Germany itself, which dated itself as a society from the moment of currency reform, which took care to keep its currency out of the meddling hands of politicians, and which grew alarmed, at the time of reunification, above all for the future of the currency.

And we might say that the United States has a feeling for the dollar that is bound up with a sense of nationhood and self-respect. This is demonstratedby the handsome, permanent, immutable look of the dollar notes in their various denominations. The dollar is, in currency terms, a classic.

At the other end of the spectrum, take the Ethiopians, among whom nationalistic pride could hardly be more developed, or more inflexible. And yet for centuries the Ethiopians were happy to use the Maria Theresa thaler, because they thought it a very good currency. They could cope with the idea that some very good things came from somewhere else, and were worth adopting.

The British take nationalistic pride in many things - empire, royalty, language - but do they really take such pride in their currency? I know people have been shouting about the Queen's head on the coinage, but are they shouting about the coinage or about the Queen? We change the coinage, and we fool around with our banknotes, so often that it is hard to believe anyone remembers what it all looked like in "the good old days", whenever you would like to locate them.

We talk about sterling qualities, taking sterling as a byword for reliability. But this is a dead metaphor. Nobody wants a currency based on the value of silver. Besides, the metaphorical force of the word sterling might well derive from the sterling standard as applied to wrought silver, our knowledge that British tableware has kept over the centuries to a particular level of purity (925 parts in 1,000). Our currency has nothing to do with sterling standards in this sense.

A bus driver pointed out to me the other day that the pound coin I had given him was a fake. He didn't seem outraged. He said with tired patience: "If you want me to explain the difference, I will." He was used to being handed fakes, just as the women at the check-in desks are used to holding up notes to the light to check for forgeries. In another society, I have often thought, the mere act of publicly doubting the customer's honour would get them run through with a rapier. But we have learnt to live with the idea that our cash is full of fakes, and is to an extent debased. So we have adjusted our idea of personal honour, and do not normally take it as an insult when the cashier does a routine check.

In the same way, we have got used to the idea that our own currency is inappropriate for certain transactions. It is no betrayal of your country to travel with dollars in your pocket in parts of the world where the dollar is simply a recognised means of exchange, just as one took Maria Theresa thalers (the word dollar is supposed to derive from thaler) to Ethiopia, or Abyssinia as it was.

I doubt that people would be at all upset, in the long run, about adopting a European currency, if they felt itwas going to be more reliable than the one they had. So I personally would welcome a currency based on the German mark, but called, perhaps, out of deference to the French, the marque. Or, out of deference to the Scots, the merk.

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