‘In years to come we shall be able to claim that we pioneered in this country the general everyday use of credit instead of cash,’ said an ad for Barclaycard shortly after its launch as the UK’s first mass-market credit card 50 years ago this month. In that first campaign, one million cards were sent out, unsolicited, to Barclays customers and others. ‘In a short time,’ the ad went on, ‘we hope that four million people will show their Barclaycard, sign the bill and pay us at the end of the month.’
Back in June 1966, any public debate that was not about England’s chances in the World Cup was highly likely to be about the merits or dangers of this financial novelty. On the plus side, it signalled the coming of the cashless and chequeless society. On the minus, thousands of unwanted cards might end up in the wrong hands, leading to an epidemic of fraud; some men joked that fraudsters would probably be less extravagant card-users than their own wives — while some wives took offence that their husbands had been sent cards but they had not.
Half a century on, cash, cheques and card fraud are all still with us but we can see that what these plastic rectangles really gave society was a shame-free excuse not to ‘pay us at the end of the month’ but to accumulate as much debt as competing irresponsible lenders could offer. By March this year, total UK credit card debt stood at £64 billion, or £2,381 per household — which at average interest rates and minimum repayment terms could (according to the Money Charity) take 25 years to pay off.
So happy 50th birthday, Barclaycard: essential consumer tool though you swiftly became, you were the first of many financial innovations of your era that turned out to be ticking time-bombs: like the self-certified subprime mortgages that were supposed to help the poor become home-owners, or the derivative instruments that were supposed to help traders hedge excessive risks; or the single currency that was supposed to promote prosperity and economic convergence across the benighted continent of Europe.