Decimalisation 'sticking point' was biggest change in British currency

Pound coins

It is now 50 years since decimalisation was introduced - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Fifty years have now passed since decimal currency was first introduced across Britain. Although certainly not an issue unique to East Devon – the change affected the whole nation – it seems too big an historical event to ignore.

‘D-Day’ or ‘Decimal Day’ occurred on February 15, 1971. The day itself passed off smoothly but the change had been in the pipeline for a very long time. Switching to decimal currency had been discussed a number of times in the 19th century with Parliament voting against the idea in 1824. By the early 1960s, most of the countries in the Commonwealth had switched over but the Conservative government which left office in 1964 dithered over the issue. In 1966, their Labour successors, Harold Wilson and his chancellor, Jim Callaghan, made the decision to push Britain into the decimal era. A huge decision was made remarkably casually with Callaghan apparently suggesting the measure be announced in the next Budget and Wilson merely responding, “why not?” Decimalisation was discussed by the cabinet too, but, for once, there was little serious dissent over the issue. By the time decimalisation was complete in 1971 Britain would once again be under the Conservatives who were at the time under the leadership of Edward Heath.

The process was actually more gradual than the phrase, ‘D-Day’ might suggest. In April 1968, the 5p and 10p coins were brought in. In October 1969, the 50p coin – the world’s first seven-sided coin, was introduced too before finally, on Decimal Day in 1971, the halfpenny, 1p and 2p coins came into circulation. The designs on the reverse sides of the coins were designed by Christopher Ironside.

In the meantime, an extensive public information campaign had been launched to ensure Britons knew what to expect. Actress Doris Hare appeared in a series of adverts broadcast on ITV entitled ‘Granny Gets The Point’ in which she played an old lady who was being taught about decimalisation by her grandson. Steptoe and Son star Wilfrid Brambell released ‘Decimal Song’ while Max Bygraves released his own record, ‘Decimalisation.’

Some remained unconvinced, however. Polls suggested only around 46% support for the change overall and with the tabloid press warning of disaster, pamphleteers in London’s West End suggested a boycott over the government’s ‘failure to consult public opinion.’ In fact, the day itself passed off remarkably smoothly. Some shops brought in smartly dressed young women specifically to help customers with their decimalisation enquiries while British Rail switched over one day early. There were widespread concerns over possible inflation as greedy shopkeepers might ‘round up’ the amount of the new currency they were owed. But, in reality, this didn’t really happen. There was inflation in the next few years, but it had other causes.

There have been a few changes since. Half-penny coins were withdrawn from circulation in 1984 while one-pound notes stopped being issued at the end of 1984 and were withdrawn completely in 1988, as £1 coins came in. The £2 coin has been in everyday use since 1998. 5p and 10p coins were resized. However, decimalisation remains the single biggest change in British currency history.

Today Britons are divided into groups. There are those aged fifty-five and over who still have some distant fading memories of the pre-decimal era. Then there's everyone else (including me) who not only doesn’t remember the old system but who also finds it totally unfathomable. 240 pence in a pound?

Without wishing to go into the politics of it, Britain’s progression to decimal currency was probably an essential prerequisite for our joining (in 1973) what was then known as the Common Market. The Common Market, in time, became the European Union and now, after nearly a half century we have withdrawn from it.

Despite this, there seems no real suggestion from anyone that we might go back to the old system of shillings and pence at this stage. Time has moved on.

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