Can we do without cash? Since 2015, digital payments in the UK have outnumbered those in cash, and we are invited by the great and the good to cheer this on. The fully cashless era will be magnificently convenient, they say, with goods delivered directly to the door: no fumbling for change, just tap and go. Some London branches of several chains (Waitrose, Tossed, Doddle) don’t accept cash any more. Many others fast-track customers who can pay by contactless means. Businesses and banks want to abolish cash because they have near-pathological fears of the black market and tax avoidance. Yet we should worry about the death of cash, because physical money possesses worth far above its face value.
Cash is the great leveller. Every penny, pound and banknote sits the same in every hand, identical in value and appearance. A pocketful of change is a gallery-cum–museum. Yes, the Queen is the mainstay, but coins abound in symbols of the Union: the medley of Tudor roses, thistles, ostrich feathers and lions still circulates, now jostling with shards of the Royal Arms. These numismatic quirks reveal the strata of history that shaped the United Kingdom. Where else worldwide would a pocketful of change include royal portraiture, papal titles, Virgilian tags, Roman and Arabic numerals, and three languages? Our notes document British principles: a paper fiver celebrates prison reform, the polymer fiver anti-fascism, a tenner evolutionary theory.
Actual physical money, in the hand, teaches us its true value. Think of the achingly slow harvest of the piggy bank. It’s a sobering life lesson, as is carefully spending your first tooth-derived windfall. With cash, what you see is what you have. Exchanging it demands personal engagement and oils the wheels of a community. At a shop till or pub bar, the exchange of cash takes time: it involves a flutter of physical contact, eye meeting eye and a reminder that trade is human. A digital touch payment is done in a flash: no human interaction necessary. Who wants to have a pint with the prannock who buys a packet of peanuts by card?
Spare a thought, too, for high-street communality. The more that transactions are ceded to electronic devices, the less human the reality of work and trade becomes. Black Friday once denoted disastrous losses of life; now it heralds an artificial, week-long whip-up of slaveringly uncritical consumerism. A life of full e-wallets is one of empty e–wantonness.
We’re told that digital payment is a welcome liberation from the shackles of cash, but exclusively digital payments actually restrict the reach of money. The need for Wi-Fi, electricity and phones prevents serendipitous and anonymous expenditure; buying power evanesces with battery power. Impulsive gifts of money become impossible: no more helping a fellow passenger with a bus fare, no loose change to charity, the poppy seller, a busker or beggar. Cash keeps options open: it’s the lifeblood of the village fête, school fundraiser or car boot sale. It is heartening that market traders the nation over treat the words ‘Do you take cards?’ almost as a hate crime.
Worse still, the lack of cash means even the most fundamental aspects of etiquette are under pressure. Tipping in restaurants is changing beyond recognition. In simpler times, any amount of cash, warmly generous or pointedly small, could be left furtively as a bespoke reward or Parthian shot. In the digital age, there’s no winning strategy: a numerical amount must be declared to the waiting staff, which if low causes instant embarrassment, and if high represents either a panic-stricken, face-saving gesture or a genuine bonus that may never reach the staff pocket.
Our coinage is also an emblem of good luck, if found by chance, cast into wishing wells, or hammered into fallen trees and pub beams. It is the indispensable pocket arbiter of fairness: just call ‘heads or tails?’ (once cross and pile, and, in ancient Rome, caput aut navis — ‘head or ship?’)
Most sports cannot begin without it, and some cannot end. Some are literally made of money: penny football was rife in my schooldays (under Blair, not Bevin). Many a name has been decided by coin toss: Portland, Oregon, Hewlett-Packard and the Epsom Derby showcase the winners. A coin flip got the Wright brothers off the ground, and saved several political elections from a stalemate; by turns, it did for Bernie Sanders in Iowa, and stopped Aynsley Dunbar drumming for Hendrix. What other ubiquitous object could so decisively settle disputes? No doubt, abysmally, there is an app.
Cash is a sober reminder of what money stands for. It promotes independence and engagement. Security concerns are reduced to the age-old matter of keeping hold of what you have. By contrast, a cashless society is a joyless one. Digital self-service is dispiriting and cold: staring silently at an automated checkout or laptop abets consumer autocracy and little else.
Yet Mark Carney, our ever industrious governor of the Bank of England, has already announced his wish to begin the cull with the one penny piece, as he did in Canada in 2012. With some ten billion pennies still doing the rounds, cash in while you can.
David Butterfield is a fellow in classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and is preparing the new Oxford text of Lucretius.