Book in Focus
The Politics of Decimalisation in the UK"/>

20th July 2022

Book in Focus
The Politics of Decimalisation in the UK

Britain’s Other D-Day

By Andy Cook

Just over 50 years ago, on the 15th February 1971 (D-Day), the countries of the British Isles abandoned their centuries-old currency of pounds, shillings and pence (£sd). It was one of those rare moments in history when a significant aspect of the everyday lives of the entire population of both Britain and Ireland was permanently transformed. Henceforth, the transactions between shopkeepers and customers, bus conductors and passengers, bar staff and drinkers would be undertaken using a new decimalised currency. Wages would be paid, and accounts settled in pounds and (new) pence, the old heavy pennies and half-crowns rendered obsolete and replaced by lighter smaller coins, and the familiar nicknames of the “bob” and “tanner” would soon fade into memory.  As the official advertising campaign jingle had it, “decimalisation will change your lives”.

Within a few months, the changeover to the new coinage had been implemented so smoothly that the chairman of the Decimal Currency Board, Lord Fiske, declared it to have been “the non-event of 1971”. This judgement has been reinforced by historians of the period, and until now there has been no in-depth study, either of the political impetus behind the reform, or of what the decisions made and policy implemented around decimalisation can tell us about the broader political and economic history of the period. Instead, histories of the ‘60s and ‘70s have either ignored decimalisation altogether or treated it as merely a piece of administrative tidying-up with no broader significance. More recently, and particularly in advance of the Brexit referendum, some commentators have sought, with no supporting evidence, to include decimalisation as part of a wider narrative in which the governing elite of both major parties sought to impose a “creeping Europeanisation” on a reluctant British population.

As someone with an avid interest in UK and Irish political history and having lived through the change to the new coinage (I was 14-years-old in 1971), I was both intrigued by the virtual absence of decimalisation in the historiography, and keen to explore whether this gap was one which merited rectification. I concluded not only that it did, but that, 50-plus years later, there were strong resonances between the debates over decimalisation, both at the time and in retrospect, and current pre-occupations with the UK’s post-Brexit relationships with Continental Europe, Ireland, and the Commonwealth.

The research I undertook for the PhD thesis upon which this book is based included a wide range of primary sources. These included the papers of the Committee of Inquiry on Decimal Currency (1961-63), otherwise known as the Halsbury Committee, which recommended the decimalisation of the pound, and of the Decimal Currency Board (1967-71), as well as Prime Ministerial and other government papers held in the National Archives at Kew. Other sources at Kew included the records of the Consumer Council and (online) Cabinet Memoranda and Conclusions. I also examined documents held in the Bank of England Archives, and the TUC and CBI archives at the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University, as well as the National Archives of Ireland in Dublin.

As a result of this research, I concluded that characterisation by Eurosceptic commentators of the decimalisation project as part of a more general pro-European zeal was wide of the mark. Although the decisions around decimalisation were contemporaneous with the UK’s attempts to join the European Economic Community (later the EU), the two issues were not linked. European considerations were barely mentioned either in the Halsbury Report or Parliamentary debates on the subject. No attempt was made to harmonise the value of the new coinage with the major currencies of Western Europe, which generally had a major unit, such as the Deutschmark or French Franc, worth around a tenth of the value of the pound.

Instead, the focus of the debate within the UK was whether to retain the pound as the major unit, or to follow the example of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, who had already replaced, or were preparing to replace, their own £sd coinage with systems based on a major unit worth 10 shillings, i.e. half the value of the pound (the South African Rand introduced in 1961, and the Australian and New Zealand Dollars introduced in 1966 and 1967 respectively). Despite major interest groups representing both retailers and consumers, as well as the Trades Union Congress and many MPs favouring the ten-shilling option, which removed the need for a half-penny coin, anomalous in a truly decimal system, the Government chose to retain the pound as the major unit. This reflected a traditionalist attachment to the pound sterling as the heaviest (highest value) major currency unit in the world, worth more than twice the US dollar. The Labour Government, led by the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and his Chancellor, James Callaghan, far from seeking conformity within European practice, maintained and reinforced a British exceptionalism, based on the supposed prestige of the pound. In this they were supported, and indeed influenced, by the City of London, and more specifically the Bank of England, who were fearful that foreign bankers might use the abandonment of the pound as a trigger for a speculative attack on the value of sterling.

If European considerations were absent, or at best marginal in the UK’s deliberations, the same cannot be said for the Irish Republic. At a time when Anglo-Irish relations are in the spotlight as a result of the fallout from Brexit and the controversy around the Northern Ireland Protocol, it is fascinating to see how the debate surrounding Ireland’s relations with Continental Europe and the UK, played into the country’s decision making around decimalisation over 50 years ago. At the time UK decimalisation was announced, in 1966, the Irish pound was pegged to sterling, and indeed British and Irish notes were used interchangeably in both the Republic and Norther Ireland (although not in mainland Great Britain). This reflected the economic interdependency between the two countries, with more than 70% of the Republic’s exports going to the UK, and 50% of its imports coming from there. What’s more, in border areas, what was official international trade was effectively local trade, with shoppers routinely crossing the border on a daily or weekly basis.

From a practical point of view, it would seem obvious that Ireland should implement the same system of decimalisation as the UK. However, the decision to follow Britain’s lead, and decimalise on the same basis, and at the same time as the UK was only finalised in 1968, two years after Britain. The reason for the delay was due to division within the Irish government and elsewhere on the system to be adopted. Some of this was on the nationalist grounds that Ireland should adopt a different system, based on ten-shillings, as a way of asserting her independence from her neighbour. However, unlike in Britain, there was also considerable support, both from within the government and from industry, for the adoption of a major unit of a florin, or two shillings, on the grounds that this was closer in value to the main currencies of Europe. This was seen as a necessary precursor to Ireland taking its place as a modern European nation, a process further advanced by Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community alongside the UK in 1973, and the Republic’s adoption of the Euro in 1999.

What is striking about the history of decimalisation in the UK and Ireland, despite its neglect by historians, is how the debates at the time echo through to the present day. From the discourse about Britain’s place in the world outside the EU, its relationship with the Commonwealth, and Ireland’s move from a British to a European orbit, the germs of all these issues are present in the discussions 50 or 60 years ago. My book plays an important part in exposing and amplifying these links and thereby rectifies an omission in the historiography of the 1960s.

Andy Cook graduated with a BA (hons) in History from the University of Lancaster, UK, in 1977. After a career in Public Sector Financial Management, he returned to academic study and completed an MA with distinction in History at Huddersfield University, UK in 2015. His dissertation on the Northern Ireland Labour politician, Vivian Simpson, was published in Saothar, the Journal of the Irish Labour History Society in 2017 (vol 42). In July 2020, he was awarded a PhD from Huddersfield University for his thesis, “Britain’s Other D-Day: The Politics of Decimalisation”. He also co-authored, with Dr Mark Stocker, an article on decimalisation entitled On the Money published in the April 2021 issue of History Today magazine.

The Politics of Decimalisation in the UK: Britain’s Other D-Day is available now at 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.

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