The drive to a cashless society will marginalise many of us

The council announced it had removed 150 pay-by-cash parking machines last week- in its bid for its PayByPhone system to become the norm
The council announced it had removed 150 pay-by-cash parking machines last week- in its bid for its PayByPhone system to become the norm

Cash is a universally free utility, belonging to everyone and no one.

The last time I was on a London bus, you paid a conductor, using those handy little round bits of metal everyone in those days kept for such purposes.

That sentence dates me shamefully, I know: a whole generation has grown up that has never encountered bus conductors, and that pays for everything with plastic rectangles.

If I went to London now (I confess I have not been there for 20 years), I would be humiliatingly clueless how to catch the 38 bus from Victoria (assuming it still exists), since cash is no longer accepted.

I have no idea how foreign tourists, let alone impecunious Londoners, cope.

Nor, once Boris Johnson has closed all the Underground’s ticket offices – “We all have smartphones now”, he explains, airily – would I know how to travel by Tube.

Nor, for that matter, once cash-paid paper rail tickets are abolished by 2020, will I be able to catch a train.

I was reflecting on this as I read about our city’s coin-operated parking meters being rooted out. Thank goodness I do not drive, as I would no longer be able to park my car.

Apparently you now pay by phone. That is an expression which 20 years ago would have been incomprehensible to everyone, and which remains, I suspect, mysterious, even sinister, to many older folk.

A news report, just the other day, about compulsory “tap-and-go” terminals in shops spoke of this as part of “a major push to create a cashless society”.

As if there is a unanimous demand for a cashless society. As if there has been any public debate about it.

Well I, for one, rather like the traditional cash society. For a start, physical money – a handful of coins, a wad of notes – enables you to see what you actually have to spend, and helps you to live within your means.

Whereas, obviously, the retail industry and the bankers prefer you to be spending blind and impulsively, running up abstract debts, with opaque bits of plastic, phone apps, or (soon to come) watches, keyrings, and bPay wristbands.

The police, and other surveillance authorities, must also be delighted at the digital spoor such payments leave.

I like the notion, as I tender a coin, that I am doing something the Greeks and Romans would have understood, that I am in a tradition of 2,500 years of civilised history.

Cash is a universally free utility, belonging to everyone and no one. I am surprised companies are allowed to refuse what is still legal tender for something as basic as a bus fare.

Bank accounts, credit cards and smartphones, by contrast, are neither free nor universal.

There should not be an obligation to possess one before one can board a bus.

And there remain a host of transactions – giving to beggars or buskers, buying at fleamarkets, paying plumbers, or any number of private deals you do not want digitally recorded – where cash remains essential.

Meanwhile, like any indurated old technophobe, I enjoy moments of schadenfreude at the inevitable glitches the shiny new technology involves – a driver charged £5,340 to park his car in Brighton, a card-paying customer charged £450 for a 69p supermarket loaf, users of the Dartford Crossing toll bridge, where coin payment has been abolished, being charged double.

Such aberrations cannot arise with cash.

I particularly enjoyed the story of the Chinese man, one Mr Gan, who in June insisted on paying for a new £72,000 Toyota Land Cruiser at a showroom in Shenyang with cash.

With, to be precise, 660,000 one-yuan coins, weighing four tons. All legal tender. I am not sure about his motive, but I am glad he was still permitted to make the gesture.