IS NOTHING SACRED?
Volume 35, Number 8, August 1998
In mid-June the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, announced that he was seeking private investment to restore the fortunes of the Royal Mint. He had decided on this course of action rather than sell the institution which might have realised up to £80 million. This startling announcement shows how far New Labour has moved from its traditional socialist values. Fifty years ago, when the Atlee government was nationalising the Health Service and everything else that was regarded as a public utility the very notion of selling such a venerable, centuries-old institution as the Royal Mint would have been unthinkable. The present attitude, however, reflects not only a keen appreciation of the harsh economic reality of the world we live in, but also how far the Mint itself has moved in little more than two decades. From the time of Alfred the Great the Mint, source of the nation's coinage, was a jealously guarded royal prerogative and latterly a government enterprise. But all that changed in 1975 when it became a separate business. In recent years its chief executive has been a businessman rather than a civil servant. Its position, in fact, was analogous to Her Majesty's Stationery Office which was privatised in 1995, netting the Treasury the sum of £56 million. Now the restructured Stationery Office is seeking a stock market flotation. In seeking a cash injection from the private sector, the Chancellor (who is ex officio the Master of the Mint) believes that this will open the way to "new commercial opportunities". Some market analysts were predicting that the Mint might expand into the highly lucrative area of security printing, but this seems to be based on the mistaken assumption that the Mint is currently responsible for printing the nation's banknotes, a task undertaken by the Bank of England's own printing plant, as well as the security printers who produce notes for the three Scottish banks. It is believed, however, that the Mint is looking seriously at smart cards, and such diversification has a certain logic about it. If we are, indeed, moving into the cashless society, where even the simplest and smallest transactions will be performed by means of a card, then it makes sense for the Mint to anticipate the diminished use of coinage by embracing the new technology. Once again, the old adage-"If you can't beat them, join them" seems sound advice. Fears that more than 1,000 years of coining at the Royal Mint are about to end seem groundless. Apart from serving the needs of more than 100 countries (the source of most of the Mint's profits), we are convinced that coins as a collectable will still be around, long after they have vanished from our pockets and purses.
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