Sunday, 19 March 2017

The One Pound Coin: A Tumescent Duet


So. Farewell then, the £1 coin. You aren't quite dead yet, but we are all waiting for you to die, just like Kirk Douglas and The Queen. There is even a date: 15 October 2017. That is when the £1 coin ceases to represent a fraction of Britain's economy and instead becomes just a meaningless, weighty lump of golden metal.

But aren't coins just lumps of metal anyway? It's only because the Bank of England says that they're worth something, and we believe them, that coins are valuable. Without legitimacy the £1 coin only has value as scrap metal or as a collectable. The metal is worth about five pence; uncirculated £1 coins from 1983 sell for about £10, or twice that for shiny proof coins, but will future generations will care about the £1 coin? People collect old coins because they have meaning; they evoke an age. My suspicion is that the £1 coin will remind future coin collectors of the Austin Minimetro and Steve Davis, neither of which command the same kind of respect as HMS Dreadnought or Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Western Railway.

As an investment the £1 coin's more-than-tenfold rise in value has beaten stocks and shares, at least in theory. In practice it would be difficult to sell a million pristine 1983 £1 coins in a reasonable timescale. Furthermore you have to factor in storage costs. One million £1 coins would weigh roughly the same as a Harrier Jump Jet, and would be harder to move from place to place. Also, have you heard the internet rumours about Kirk Douglas? There are several of them, and they're not nice.

I am old enough to remember when the £1 coin was new. For me the £1 note will always be something that came in commemorative packs. Apart from the golden colour, the weight was the first thing that struck me about the new coin. There is an old maxim that if you want to make a small thing seem valuable you need to make it heavy, and at a weight of 9.5g the £1 was unusually heavy for something so small. In 1983 only the 50p and the 10p were heavier.

The £1 was introduced in part because the 10p was too big and heavy for the purchasing power it represented. Ten pounds' worth of 10p pieces weighed over a kilogram, and although British people in the 1970s were used to a hard life of heavy manual work, the new men and women of the 1980s were bred for a service economy; the coming wave was svelte, androgynous, more likely to use plastic to pay for cocktails than old-fashioned physical currency. The 1980s was a stylish decade and it made sense to have smaller, less stodgy-looking coins.

In my mind the £1 is inextricably linked to three things. Firstly Peter Davison as Doctor Who; secondly the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher, and thirdly the twenty pence piece, which was introduced the year before. The 20p was the Royal Mint's first postmodern coin. It was a miniature copy of the modernist 50p; it was the Thatcher government's first salvo against Ted Heath's pro-European New Pence. In 1982 the 20p was fresh and new. The 1/2p, 1p, and 2p coins had been introduced in 1971 as part of the move to decimalisation, but looked and felt much older; the 5p and 10p coins dated from the 1800s, when they had originally been the shilling and the florin respectively. An entirely new 50p had been introduced in 1969, but although the design was distinctive the coin was never very popular. I remember that our village only had one 50p coin, and you had to ask the local shopkeeper to look at it - but only after he had washed your bottom, which seemed normal at the time but now strikes me as strange, because he did it even if you hadn't been to the toilet. I didn't own a 50p piece until I was eighteen years old. I gave it to a girl, who said "thanks", and I remember feeling disappointed and angry that she didn't do anything. I wonder where that coin is now.

The 20p piece was, like Channel 4, both state-of-the-art and controversial, but it was quickly embraced as part of Britain's cultural fabric. It is now hard to imagine life without it. Other things the Thatcher government introduced in 1982 were synthesisers, microwave ovens, Prestel, and also calculator wristwatches and video recorders. All of these things were fantastic but it was the £1 coin of 1983 that took back the Falkland Islands and put the Great back into Great Britain. If the 20p was a playful commentary on coin design the £1 was no joke. A small, heavy, golden coin that had useful purchasing power and was produced in large enough quantities so that everybody could have one, provided that they voted for the Tories and not nasty old Labour who wanted to take away your pound coins and give them to lesbians, boo hiss. In just three years there were more £1 coins in circulation than 50p pieces, despite the larger coin's 14-year head start. The 50p was Laserdisc; the £1 was DVD.

Shortly after the £1 was introduced Britain won a general election, vanquishing batty old Michael Foot and the trendy new SDP. I like to imagine Margaret Thatcher filling her handbag with £1 coins and battering the opposition to death, which would be entirely in character and not inconceivable given that Denis Thatcher was a millionaire. In my opinion the coin hasn't dated. It is my favourite of all the coins. The slimmed-down 5p and 10p have their charms, but on a practical level they don't buy very much. The copper coins feel like something from the distant past, when life was cheap and everything was dirty, and I cannot accept the £2 coin. Its bimetallic design is an impressive technological feat, but the coin just seemed to appear. No-one consulted me. If it had captured the public's imagination there might now be Two Pound Shops, and a McDonalds hamburger would be £1.99, but in practice no-one seems to have cared for it. Now that the £5 note has had a high-tech makeover the £2 coin feels doubly pointless.

I have always associated it with the Tony Blair years; I like to imagine that Tony Blair saw a headline in the Daily Mail about alcopops, or devil dogs, or Geri Halliwell's decision to leave the Spice Girls, and decided that the best way to distract the public and win votes was to introduce a new coin immediately. It would be no more irrational than New Labour's other policy initiatives. I concede that the Latin inscription around the 2015 edition of the coin - QUATUOR MARIA VINDICO, which means "I will claim the four seas" - is however awesome.

The 1983 pound coin had a Latin inscription as well. DECUS ET TUTAMEN, which I will not translate in case it helps forgers. Sadly the simple design of the £1 has made it a target for counterfeit coin fakers, and so there will be a new coin, which is bimetallic and has twelve sides. It has a chip inside it that can track each and every coin, which raises the question of why they don't just put a chip inside the original £1 - it's thick enough - or a small battery that can make it hover or shoot out sparks or something.

Still, by October the original £1 will cease to be legal tender, which raises the question of whether there will be an orgy of low-denomination spending in the run-up to the great cut-off. The smaller coins are only legal tender up to certain amounts - £10 for the 50p piece, for example, beyond which you have to mix in some other coins - but there is no such limit with the £1 coin; will someone try to pay for a Bentley or a surplus Harrier Jump Jet with £1 coins? Time will tell.