By Ted Bruning
I’ve just found my cheque book. It wasn’t easy because the last time I used it was in July, when I bought a car, and in fact the last time I used it before then was Christmas 2013 when I ran out of ideas for presents and gave my kids cheques instead.
Oh, and in my pocket I have £1.56…
What does all this have to do with anything? Well, on 29th June 1966, Barclay’s Bank launched Britain’s first credit card (the Barclaycard, since you ask), and money as I and others of my vintage once knew it has been dying ever since.
The credit card and its contemporary, the charge card, were responses to the illusion that cash and money was the same thing. Despite the fact that the Lombards had disproved the idea centuries earlier by providing international credit facilities in which limitless sums could be moved around without anyone so much as sniffing a ducat, people in the post-War age still had to carry cash to cover all their spending. And in post-War America, spending was getting more and more extravagant.
One of the luxuries the newly-rich post-War Americans were starting to spend more and more lavishly on was dining out; and the first charge card, Diner’s Club, enabled them to do just that. If you didn’t customarily carry enough cash to pay for a blow-out for yourself and all your friends – or for yourself and that one special friend – and provided you had a fat enough salary, all you had to do was pay an annual fee and your card would cover the bill at any participating restaurant. It wasn’t credit, though – the balance had to be cleared in full every month. Diner’s Club launched with 200 members and 27 participating restaurants; by the end of the year it had 20,000 members and other high-value retailers were clamouring to be allowed in.
Finders Services, launched in Britain in 1951, was a straightforward copy; it was swallowed up by Diners Club in 1962, and in 1963 American Express, another charge card operation, arrived in the UK too. (Barclaycard also had an American connection: it was a franchisee of the Bank of America’s BankAmericard scheme, later rebranded as Visa).
At first, Barclaycard and its rivals were similar in operation: since extended credit was illegal in Britain until 1968 you had to clear your Barclaycard every month, just as with Diners Club and American Express. But it was always intended to be more democratic than the charge cards, which were aimed at the well-off and the prestige trades. It didn’t charge a fee, for a start; there was no salary qualification but there was a credit limit; and given Barclay’s established position in the UK it was accepted by a much, much greater number and variety of retailers.
Without going into too much detail, here’s how plastic has fared in those 50 years. 1969: the cheque card arrives. 1972: the Access credit card is a co-operative of several banks. 1987: the debit card is born. 1995: debit card transactions exceed credit card transactions. 1998: debit card transactions exceed cheque transactions. 2004: plastic overtakes cash. One could go on, but you get the picture. Plastic rules.
Which raises a question I’m qualified to ask but not answer? What exactly is money? It’s clearly not the pennies like cartwheels I took to the sweetshop as a child. It’s not a fistful of fivers, either: a fiver isn’t really a fiver at all; it’s just a picture of a fiver. Money as a reflection of itself? It’s no more ephemeral a concept than money as a seemingly endless chain of electronic ones and zeroes.
And if money doesn’t really exist, why can’t I have more of it?