London Comment: Decimalisation

When I was a kid we learned about units of British money by tedious repetition - there were twelve pennies in every shilling, twelve pennies in every shilling, twenty shillings in every pound, twenty shillings -- you get the idea.

The way the currency was split up into pounds, shillings and pence made sense to the Romans, who invented the system, and nobody since cared to argue. Money, after all, is one of the few certainties in life. Or at least it was - until that fateful February day back in 1971 when the Government emptied our pockets and purses of every familiar coin, and gave us a shiny new set cast in inferior metal with different values and names.

When Governments change things it usually costs a fortune - and this cost us more than 6 billion dollars at today's prices. Our dear old shilling and chunky half-crown vanished overnight. The pound survived, but the penny was linguistically decimated -- just as the currency was decimalised.

The penny became and remains a vulgar and almost worthless little object known as a P. We used to have solid silver sixpences - but six old pennies were only worth 2 and a half of the new tin Ps, so the mean men in the Treasury didn't bother making a replacement. To start with there were also half P's, but after just thirteen years, the Government scrapped the lot.

The inevitable happened. The new money, however well it was explained, confused us all. Every other shop rounded up the price of every other commodity and we all had to pay - in pounds and pain and those horrid P's. But just because we've now got a logical system like yours with the British equivalent of cents, nickels, dimes and dollars - all calculated in tens - doesn't stop us hankering after the good old days of threepenny bits and solid golden guineas.

I don't expect sympathy. We don't deserve it. The politicians never put the change to a vote, they just did it and we - being Brits - grumbled and quietly accepted our fate. The old money had been around as long as the British Empire. On the day after St Valentine's Day 40 years ago, they simply massacred it.