Robert Jenrick, the Treasury minister, has cropped up in today’s papers announcing that the Government has no plans to scrap the penny and tuppence coins.
If that news sounds familiar, it’s because the idea of scrapping the copper coins was the subject of a one-day u-turn by Philip Hammond only a month ago. But it’s the annual ceremony to test new one-pence coins and the Government has taken the opportunity to drive the message home.
However, Jenrick’s speech wasn’t focused so much on the specific virtues of the penny – the case for which apparently centres on the needs of “charities, small businesses and arcades” – than making a broader case for the value and utility of cash, especially for rural communities with only intermittent access to the equipment needed for electronic payments.
More than that, he apparently explicitly made the connection between hard currency and individual liberty, quoting Thatcher: “More than simply economic freedom, the right to keep what you earn, to enjoy property, to regard the state as servant and not master, it is the understanding that from free markets, flow all our other freedoms.”
(Taken alongside Liz Truss’s paean to the liberating power of markets in yesterday’s Telegraph, and it really looks as if the Treasury team are having a bit of a libertarian moment.)
Although the grand language might make this speech look like merely a grab for patriotic headlines – and maybe it was – there are serious concerns about the implications of abolishing cash.
An economy where the state could track and trace every transaction would certainly be harder for criminals to operate in, but it would also hugely expand a government’s potential power over its citizens – not to mention being much more exposed to the risks of cyber-warfare attacks on the systems underpinning an entirely electronic economy.
Whether or not we keep the penny and tuppence coins is probably not terribly important – we are the last of the so-called CANZUK nations not to have scrapped ours yet, and after almost 30 years New Zealand is not scrambling to reintroduce the cent. But it’s good to see ministers demonstrating a broader appreciation of the importance of cash to a free and secure society.