60 Glorious Years
Volume 49, Number 6, June 2012
In for a penny SOME of you will have seen our very own Phil on the BBC’s “One Show” or “Breakfast” recently, or perhaps heard him on one of the various radio programmes he was invited on to, or perhaps read his comments in one of the ’papers. What was the reason for this flurry of media stardom? Why did he have the honour of appearing on the BBC sofa next to the lovely Susannah Reid? (apologies to our overseas readers who have no idea what I’m talking about—I’m sure you get the gist . . .). What was the reason for the world at large to turn its attention to numismatics? Quite simply, the penny. Our humblest coin, our oldest coin is, apparently, under threat. There’s no specific threat per se, no government agency has decreed an end to the penny, neither the Treasury nor the Royal Mint has announced its demise but there are enough people, certainly in media circles, who feel that the inconvenient little coin has had its day and therefore its future is worth debating. And judging by the number of calls and comments both the programmes, and our office, have had I think they are probably right. This has all stemmed, of course, from the decision in Canada to scrap the one cent coin. Their “penny” was, apparently, costing 1.6 cents to produce each one—it was economically, therefore, a disaster and had to go. This, following on from Australia and New Zealand doing the same thing back in the 1990s, has inevitably led to the spotlight being put on our own coinage and the future of the good old “coppers”. Now our own “copper” coinage is no such thing. It hasn’t been copper for the best part of 150 years. It isn’t even bronze now—the price of metals in the 1990s meant that we went over to copper plated steel in 1992, just as the new 10p and 5p pieces are now zinc coated steel (have you seen them yet, they are quite noticeable when compared to earlier issues) and this actually means that our smallest denomination coins still cost less than face value to produce (we are not certain of the exact cost per coin, the Royal Mint won’t release the data, but have estimated the metal value in a penny to be approximately 0.2p). This being the case the only real argument to get rid of the penny is one of convenience. The penny itself is, to many people, a trifle, an irritation that weighs down purse or pocket and it is estimated that some £4 billion worth of these coins (and their weightier 2p cousins) are out of circulation, hoarded in drawers, jam-jars, pots, down the backs of sofas, etc. simply because we cannot be bothered to use them. It is true that officially shop keepers don’t have to honour a transaction made with “coppers” if it comes to more than 20p and of course there is little around these days that costs less than that, certainly few things that cost a penny (although you can still buy penny chews) and so it does seem something of an anachronism in this day and age to hang on to our smallest coins. But is the argument “it’s inconvenient” one that holds water? Surely arguments in favour of the penny are stronger? There is the obvious historical argument that it is Britain’s oldest coin still in use (indeed, it was the only coin in existence in “Britain” from the end of the 8th century until the end of the 13th); the rather plausible argument that actually it is our unit of currency (inasmuch that a pound is 100 pennies rather than a penny being one hundredth of a pound, unlike the Americans who have a “half dollar” and a “quarter dollar” our coinage is made up in multiples of pence not fractions of pounds) and the fiscal argument that if you got rid of the penny then inevitably prices would rise—after all, none of us can envisage a world where items currently priced at £1.99 go down to £1.95 can we? We all know they’ll go up to £2—only a small rise, but multiply that over hundreds of thousands of transactions every day and inflation will inevitably follow. There have been some that suggest we follow the example of certain continental countries and round up or down at the till after all purchases have been made (the theory being that sometimes you’ll be ahead, sometimes behind and in the long run it will even out). But I can’t see that working over here— after all, you can bet that somebody will challenge the notion of prices still being in pence if you can’t actually give change! All of these arguments are sound and safe, but there is one more I would like to offer up—and that is a simple “why?” Why on earth would we get rid of something just because it is slightly irritating or slightly inconvenient? If we applied that rationale across the board I dread to think what we would get rid of! I don’t imagine there are too many coin collectors in favour of getting rid of the penny but if there are, if you are someone who finds the penny inconvenient or irritating, then every time you get one why not give it away to a charity? There are enough collecting tins in shops and garages up and down the country to make this relatively easy and whilst charities would, I am sure, prefer larger coinage donations, none of them will turn their nose up at any donation, no matter how small. In this age of “austerity” if you can still afford to do without your pennies then do so by all means, but give them to an organisation who needs them, don’t campaign to get rid of something just because you no longer like it—because there are many of us who still do!
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