Wednesday, August 16, 2017

I Promise to Pay the Bearer (if he gives me his details)

Yesterday I went to the public counter at the Bank of England. I wanted to get a fresh crisp £50 note. I gave the cashier two twenties and a ten and asked for a fifty. He asked me to fill in a form (to be precise this was a requirement, not a choice - no form, no exchange).


I asked the cashier for a photocopy. He obliged and this is what you can see above. I've blanked out my home address and phone number.

Last April 2016, I did something similar. I went to the public counter with £230 and exchanged it for some new notes. That time I wasn't asked to fill in a form or give any details. Apparently, the policy of asking everyone to fill out a form was instigated a month or so ago.

The Bank have for a long time had a policy of requesting identification whenever larger amounts of money are exchanged - I think that means anything over £1000 pounds a day.

The Bank now have a data record of me, my home address and phone number, and the fact that I changed £50 on Tuesday 15th August 2017. They also have my declaration about where the cash came from. I told the truth about this but I do wonder if there would be any punishment for lying.

Here is the note I got.


What I intend to do with this note, or what I did with the £230 last April, is not really relevant*. It's not relevant because if you look underneath where it says 'The Bank of England' you'll notice it says 'I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of fifty pounds'. What it doesn't say is 'unless we don't like what he'll do with it'.

It also doesn't say I promise to pay the bearer only if the bearer gives me his details.

Now, being a pragmatist I can understand that if I turned up with £10K in old £50s in a hold-all, it might be reasonable to ask details and demand identification. Perhaps the serial numbers of the notes might match bundles of notes stolen in a violent robbery decades before? It's not right that people should get away with cashing in ill-gotten gains. But the onus should be on the authorities to pursue investigations in those cases rather than pointing the finger of suspicion at everyone who holds the Bank to their promise, by making data gathering mandatory.

Because, ultimately - forgetting all the Bank regulation that is in a constant process of evolution - what the note exchange at the Bank of England is about, is them keeping their promise. The Bank's notes are issued in perpetuity. Old BoE banknotes are always valid at the BoE.

What's going on here is a steady march toward cashlessness; a drive (possibly from the best of intentions, although equally, possibly not) to gather every scintilla of knowledge about cash transactions. In effect, to eliminate cash itself**. This broad movement also appears in the aesthetic of polymer. The path that is appearing (or perhaps being presented) as inevitable, is paper to plastic and then to silicon; the non-existence of non-knowledge, the total elimination of uncertainty.

In their decision last month then, the State - via the Bank of England - has just taken a stride forward into my sovereignty by reducing my ability to transact with them anonymously. This isn't the thin end of the wedge, its actually the thick blunt bit. Be careful of dismissing this as a ridiculous 'consumer complaint'. Anyone seeking fulfillment of the Bank's promise 'to pay the bearer' is now being held in suspicion.

It would be nice if the Bank of England would appreciate Phillip Goodchild's words in the Theology of Money;

The promise of value, is not the value of a promise.

I think they should just uphold the promise written on each one of their notes, as best they can. That strikes me as the appropriate moral action. And, perhaps naively, I believe it's important for the Bank (to at least) be seen to behave in a moral way.

Perhaps, I sound a little puritanical. I think though, that especially since 2008 we've become more exposed to and understanding of the truth about banking and finance. We now appreciate that when we put money in a bank what we are actually doing is buying a claim on the Bank's money. They aren't looking after our money. The minute you hand it over, it becomes theirs. This has little practical impact for people like me who don't earn much. But this practical impact should not be confused with it's significance. The BoE note exchange was a symbolic bulwark against all this. It declared that the banknotes are ours, forever.

The Bank of England should always strive to allow individuals to have a direct one-to-one relationship with value - as much as is possible. This form I had to fill in was an unnecessary and unwelcome barrier. And it speaks clearly about the lack of regard financial institutions have for our individual sovereignty over money.

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[* I guess most people reading this will know why get new notes form the Bank of England and what I do with them. But just in case and in the interests of full disclosure; with the £230 from last April I made The Money Flame collage, and the £50 is due to be my Ritual Sacrifice on Jura on 23rd August next week.]

[** Now, if you've read my stuff you'll know I don't think it's possible to eliminate cash because it's money's default position. We'll always find someway to transact anonymously and instantly. The trouble is the push towards cashlessness creates pain; a minor inconvenience for me, but much more serious if you live under an especially authoritarian state doing things they don't like.]

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