An Ottoman Piatsre (Sultan Selim III, 1789) and a Maria Theresa Thaler (later restrike of the 1780 coin). Photo: James Dawson
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When it comes to coins, Isis is clearly not as good as gold

A plan by the terrorist organisation to issue its own currency – in gold – reveals a further attempt to play on the history of the early Caliphs.

A cynic may say that what the leader of terrorist organisation Isis, Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and Winston Churchill have in common that they have attacked the Kurds but another thing may be the gold standard. It was recently reported that Isis plans to introduce its own currency, issued in gold, silver and copper. Though – unlike Churchill, who shortly will appear on the new £5 note and appears on the still legal tender 1965 five Shilling coin – Baghdadi won’t appear on his currency. The designs, in accordance with Islamic artistic traditions of not showing humans or animals, will apparently depict Arabic writing, mosques, palm trees, crescents and even a world map.

The plan seems to be a currency based on the bullion value of the metals in the coins, in contrast to all present world currencies which merely have a (widely accepted) token value. It is based on Isis’s interpretation of Sharia law and financial systems and deliberately emulates the currencies – the gold dinar and silver dirham – established by the early Caliphs.

The early Islamic Empire initially relied on Byzantine coins or copies of pre-Islamic Persian Sassanid coins. It was not until nearly 60 years after the death of Prophet Mohammed that they started to introduce their own coins. The Byzantines had pointedly placed the image of Christ on their latest issues and so the Umayyad Caliph of Damascus, Abd al-Malik, introduced a new standardised Islamic silver dirham in 691AD. The original coins, flouting any ban on human images, depicted the Caliph himself. It was not until 697AD that coins minted with only Arabic calligraphy were produced. These provided the pattern for most subsequent Islamic coinage. Though as the Islamic Empire fractured local rulers started producing their own money. Italian renaissance coins, issued to more exacting standards, started replacing local monetary systems in the late 1400s. Later silver dollars (Austrian thalers and Spanish pieces of eight) became widely circulated. The most popular Middle Eastern coin became the Maria Theresa thaler, the buxom image of the Holy Roman Empress being more popular with traders than Arabic calligraphy. The coin had a trusted weight set in 1754 at one-tenth of a Cologne Mark and continued to be produced following her death in 1780, its use for trade purposes being confirmed by the Vienna Currency Treaty 1857 (it is still minted today). The alternative coinage of the Turkish Ottoman emperors, who had assumed the title Caliphs of Islam could not keep up. It became debased, produced from billon, an alloy with less than 50 per cent silver. The Ottomans were also late in adopting Western scientific advances – they continued to produce imprecise hammered coins until 1844, only then introducing Western-style mechanically milled coins. Despite still ruling the Middle East, further decline led to the Ottoman Empire defaulting on its debt. In 1881 Ottoman finances were taken over by Western governments and corporations under the Ottoman Public Debt Administration.

Precious metals on the face of it sound like an ideal material for money, something durable that holds its value over time. But experience has proved this wrong, all world currencies now use base metal or paper. Bullion values are dictated by supply and demand, based on the usefulness or desirability of a commodity. Gold and silver do not have many practical uses, beyond jewellery or a perhaps tarnishable sets of cutlery. Their value is not intrinsic and is susceptible to great fluctuations. If the ratio between the value of gold and silver changes then bad money drives out the good as people spend the devalued coins but keep the increased value ones. The amount of coins in circulation is also just a fractional amount of money in an economy, the rest is in bank balances, debts owed or other commodities.

Problems with the gold standard include the finding the metal: greater availability leads to inflation; scarcity leads to deflation, which limits demand and cuts investment. The coins themselves are subject to clipping, people cutting small bits off the edges, and hoarding, as Germany experienced in the lead up to its hyper-inflation in the early-1920s. Harsh punishments will not help bolster the currency as people become wary of handling clipped coinage, avoid all but the most essential transactions or resort to barter. Sooner or later gold and silver currencies have to be debased.

Precious metal was commonly used in all pre-modern currencies but coins were relatively rare only circulating amongst the few. To have a wider cash-based economic system required a different approach. It was Sir Isaac Newton (scientist and habitué of the Bank of England’s last one pound note) who formally established the gold standard, whereby paper currency was backed by gold reserves, in 1717. Other European countries adopted the gold standard in the 1800s, the recently united Germany being one of the last to do so in 1872. However, countries left the gold standard in the First World War. Churchill, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, put Britain back on the gold standard in 1925. Criticised for the deflation that led to 1926’s General Strike and for the disastrous consequences of Britain’s inability to respond to the Wall Street Crash, the National Government took Britain off the gold standard for good in 1931. The Bretton Woods financial system established in 1946 left the American dollar as the only currency backed by gold, with all other major currencies pegged to the dollar. This persisted until the Nixon Shock 1971 when draws on US gold reserves, mainly from France, and the costs of the Vietnam War took America (and the world) off the gold standard.

British coins continued to contain silver for many years after leaving the gold standard. The original 0.925 quality silver in half-crowns, florins, shillings and sixpences was cut to 0.500 in 1920, just enough to still merit the name silver, and our coins stayed this way until the dollar became the world’s reserve currency in 1946. The First World War, Great Depression and Second World War had largely forced other countries to abandon silver earlier. Switzerland continued minting in silver until 1969, but if you visit today you won’t find any 5 Franc coins older than the first cupro-nickel coins issued in 1968. Gold and silver coins are generally only found in commemorative coins issued for collectors.

Coins, as well as a means of exchange, convey historic value. They are metal, mass-produced and therefore survive. The designs portray the issuer’s political and artistic views. If the Isis coinage is produced the best that could be hoped for is that it becomes, after sufficient passage of time to let its memories of its crimes fade, a numismatic foot note. Though it is to be hoped that, like the disgusting zinc coins that were all the Third Reich could afford to produce in the Second World War, they are viewed with as much disdain by collectors.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder