An ATM. Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
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I blame my present woes on the abolition of old-school cash machines – remember them?

Money is becoming an idea actuated these days by an act no more physical than waving a card.

And so farewell, then, the cashpoint down the road. Two cashpoints, really, but standing together, like conjoined twins, their screens now announce that they will turn for ever dark, and go gently into that good night, on 27 March, although they do not put it exactly like that. We’ve had some good times over the past seven years, that cashpoint and I. Actually, not that many. I think I can count the number of times I have queried my balance and been pleasantly surprised at what I have discovered on the fingers of one hand; a hand that, moreover, has been involved in at least one horrible accident involving agricultural machinery. The rest of the time I either look at the figure on screen with horror or just decide not to conjure it up at all.

The worst time was when bandits inserted some kind of gadget inside its very maw: my card was swallowed up, and later retrieved by them so that they could go on a shopping spree among the fleshpots of east London branches of Argos. But that was hardly the cashpoint’s fault. (Incidentally, fact fans, the term “cashpoint” is, unless Wikipedia is jerking our chains, a trademark registered by Lloyds TSB, so you can’t really use it unless you’re referring to a machine outside one of their banks. But if you do, I won’t tell.)

I remember the first time I saw one of these things. Younger readers are not going to believe what I’m going to say next, but it’s true, I swear. What happened was this: you got a plastic card (two, in my case) with, I am fairly certain, a few holes punched in it, like early computer programming cards; these, instead of any magnetic strip, constituted the card’s identity, distinguishing it from others. You put one in the machine, and out came £10. The machine ate the card, which would be retrieved by the bank and posted back to you. Whether you keyed in a code or not I cannot quite remember. We’re talking a long time ago now: the early 17th century, I suppose, around the time Milton was composing “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”.

A tenner in those days was a stupendous sum, especially to a teenager. You could buy five copies of Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division and still have change left over for a Wimpy with all the trimmings (a bun, some onions and a squirt of ketchup, as I recall). But the interesting thing about the system was the way it combined immediate with delayed gratification. The money came out at once, but you wouldn’t be able to make it do so again for a couple of days, unless you wanted to buy ten Joy Division albums and two Wimpys, in which case you used both cards at once, and then counted the days until they came back to you and you could do it all over again.

Such a system might, if it still existed, have gone some way towards preventing the financial crash of 2008. Well, maybe not that precise system, but one in which cash only came round every two or three days and you had to think carefully for those three days. I blame a good deal of my present woes on the ease with which one is allowed to bump up continually against the limits of one’s overdraft. (Though that is a piffling sum compared to the amount I’ve had to pay out over the past seven years as a direct result of ejection from the family home: a sum, I was rather perturbed to work out the other day, that could have bought me a couple of brand-new Aston Martins, never mind Wimpys, should I have wanted them.)

Anyway, it does not do the heart good to dwell on such things, so instead I will contemplate the way that money is quitting its darksome house of mortal clay (Milton) and becoming an idea – the pulsing of electrons – actuated these days by an act no more physical or determined than a kind of feeble or noncommittal waving of a card at a device.

I bet you it won’t be long before you don’t even need the card; you’ll soon just be able to think about your supermarket bill and the transaction will be complete – assuming, of course, that you have sufficient funds in your brain. (Which reminds me to pass on a tip: the best way to curb your cash spending is to ask for cashback at the end of a shop for victuals. The resulting inflation of the bill will make you reel, and turn over every 10p bit several times before spending it in future.)

OK, over the road there’s a branch of another bank which isn’t closing that I’ll be able to use after 27 March, but it’s over the road.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.