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Ancient and modern

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[Dave Birch] I was totally shocked to arrive home from work the other day to find my good lady wife celebrating with her tax rebate cheque. Apparently HMRC miscalculated millions of Her Majesty’s subject’s tax bills and we were one of the lucky overpayers. We are a couple of gallons of petrol better off than before. But a cheque! HMRC must have our ethnic background on file as “Amish”. Despite the fact that since time immemorial (for me) we have paid our tax bill online via internet banking, the creaking hand-cranked contraptions at the Revenue are apparently unable to use any form of payment invented after the Act of Union (in 1701).

To be honest, I’ve always been puzzled by the Amish, the strange religious sect in America made popular by the noted screen actor Harrison Ford in his 1985 film “Witness“. The Amish reject “modern” technology, but they seem to me to have a rather arbitrary definition of what constitutes “modern”. Why, for example, do they use wheels? Or nails? Or chemical fertilisers? What’s the cut-off point? 1750? Why not the invention of the transistor in 1948? Or the synthesis of urea in 1828?

The Amish, particular the Old Order Amish — the stereotypical Amish depicted on calendars – really are slow to adopt new things. In contemporary society our default is set to say “yes” to new things, and in Old Order Amish societies the default is set to “no.”

[From The Technium: Amish Hackers]

Speaking of reactionary sects that eschew the modern world to remain in the comforting cocoon of a romanticised rural past, I read in the Daily Mail that

Plans to scrap the use of cheques from 2018 were dropped today after the UK Payments Council admitted there was no better paper alternative.

[From Cheques will not be scrapped in 2018 but because there are no better alternatives | Mail Online]

Well, the wrinklies have triumphed again. Another minor skirmish in the intergenerational war for resources has been won by Joan Bakewell’s generation and our children are going to be made to subsidise a paper cheque system that should have been a distant memory for them. The Payments Council has been forced to cancel the end of cheque clearing (originally scheduled for 2018) and promise to keep cheques

for as long as customers need them

[From Payments Council – Payments Council to keep cheques and cancels 2018 target]

Note that I am specific in the wording, as were the Payments Council. No-one was banning cheques: they were ending cheque clearing. If someone else — the Post Office, Age Concern or the CBI — wanted to run a cheque system, they were free to do so. And, to be honest, that would be a good solution, because then their members could pay for it and those of us who couldn’t care less if they never saw another cheque could have ignored them.

I suspect that in the coming age riots of 2025, the cheque book will used as a rallying symbol of revolt by our impoverished offspring because the banks (ie, bank customers) are going to have to pay to support paper cheques into the foreseeable future. This is ridiculous. If some people (eg, my mum) want to carry on using cheques, it should be on the basis of full cost recovery: if you want a cheque book, you should pay for it, and if you want to cash cheques, you should pay £2 (or whatever) to do so.

The Government is aware that, although there are declining numbers, 54% of adults still write cheques, and on average every adult write 13 cheques and receives 4 cheques each year.

[From Frequently asked questions on the closure of the cheque system – HM Treasury]

Yes, but that misses the point. When I last wrote a cheque to my son’s school, I didn’t want to. I would much rather have used PayPal, internet banking, my debit card or M-PESA. I don’t want to receive cheques either, from HMRC or anyone else.

When someone sends you a cheque, it’s like being set homework.

[From Digital Money: I could imagine using this]

So what happened? In recent weeks I’ve had some conversations with people countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark where no-one has seen a cheque for a generation asking me why the UK is different. It’s the British disease: faced with the end of cheque clearing in a generation, the British response is not embrace electronic alternatives, for charities to look at inventive and efficient online and telephone giving, for small businesses to exploit the Faster Payment Service (FPS) or for the Post Office to create its own paper-based alternative but to moan and complain and demand that everything be kept the same as it is. What happened was that reactionary press comment, entrenched interests, publicity-seeking MPs and a fragmented industry have combined to conspire against the forces of rationality and modernity. And they won.

But why stop there? Cheques are quite modern invention and I don’t understand why the Commons Treasury Committee and the Daily Telegraph want to turn the clock back only to the 17th century. They are not true conservatives, whereas I am. I have therefore decided that my only course of action is to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to force the Payments Council to reinstate the tally stick system that was prematurely ended in 1834. My great-great-great-great-great grandfather was perfectly happy using tally sticks and was, I’m sure, most distressed by the end of the scheme and the burning of the sticks in the Houses of Parliament furnaces which, as you may recall, resulted in the fire that destroyed the medieval palace and a splendid painting by Turner. It is most unfortunate that Associated Newspapers and Saga did not exist at that time, since I feel they might have been able to spearhead a successful campaign against the introduction of foreign methods (such as double-entry bookkeeping).

Tally sticks had numerous advantages over paper cheques. They were much harder to forge, for example, and were understandable by a largely illiterate population (a situation soon to be restored in this United Kingdom). The sticks were far more durable than cheques are, cheques being made out of flimsy paper instead of fine English wood. Why was this sound and practical system swept away for the convenience of bankers! It is my right to continue to use the tally sticks developed under William I for as long as I need them and quite reasonable of me to demand that the rest of society bears the costs. I hope The Telegraph will support my campaign with vigour. And while we’re at it, why haven’t farthings been legal tender since 31st December 1960? I tried to use some when out shopping the other day and they were refused: outrageous.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

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7 thoughts on “Ancient and modern”

  1. At first I thought the Amish might be insulted, but then I realized…
    Really enjoyed this!

  2. Andy Ramsden says:

    A cracking read Dave. A place on the next series of Grumpy Old Men beckons!

  3. phil@yarwell.demon.co.uk' PhilT says:

    My bank (Citibank) will only issue a cheque book if you write to them justifying why you need it. They also seem to be getting increasing fussy and reject cheques for minor infringements, corrections etc. I just got myself a debit card machine.

  4. neil@chyp.com' Neil McEvoy says:

    Why announce something several years in advance just to have people moan at you throughout that period? Cheque usage will decay to almost nothing by 2018 anyway – along with the users.

  5. chris@middlingssolutions.co.uk' Chris White says:

    Yet another reason for UK Clearing banks to end ‘free’ banking

  6. I liked the humorous way you wrote this piece 🙂

  7. dvdoyley@gmail.com' DVD says:

    Excellently written.
    Cheques are a blagger’s dream. The number one blaggers are the banks, who actually like them because it’s yet another way for them to filch money from us by, amomgst other tactics, debiting the paying account 3 (often more) days before crediting the payee account. It’s only because the banks can see that there won’t be enough dinosaurs left who still use (note my choice of the word ‘use’ rather than ‘rely’) them by 2018 to make them the easy money spinner they once were.
    Other blaggers are those who write cheques knowing there isn’t enough money in the account to cash them. This was a bigger problem when guarantee cards were still in use but even now, cheques are used as a delaying tactic to eek out a few extra days credit at the expense of the recipient.
    I agree with the view that those who want cheque books should both have to justify them and pay for the cost of using them. 2018 was more than enough time to phase them out and it could easily have been acheived in 18 months. I’m not one to support the banks normally but on this, they have my full support: make cheque use as difficult and expensive for those who insist on them as reasonably (relative to cost and effort) it deserves to be.

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