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How Sweden and the UK are leading the global shift towards a cashless economy

Sweden is forecast to become cashless by 2030.

In the summer of 2015, as David Cameron cast around for ideas for his Conservative conference speech, an ambitious proposal caught his eye: a cashless economy. Former No 10 aide Daniel Korski, who developed the policy, suggested setting a target of eliminating hard currency in Britain by 2020.

“The prime minister eventually said, ‘I like this but I don’t think it’s for conference,’” Korski, now the chief executive of Public, a venture capital firm, recalled when we spoke. “But the real resistance was the Treasury and the then chancellor [George Osborne]. There was real concern about where this would go politically.”

In his recent Spring Statement, Philip Hammond, Osborne’s successor, announced a consultation on the related policy of scrapping 1p and 2p coins. Copper coins now cost more to produce than they are worth and 60 per cent are typically used in just one transaction before being stored at home or even thrown away. But confronted by an incipient “save the penny” campaign, the government retreated the day after Hammond’s announcement.

The idea of a cashless economy can appear utopian, the kind of “blue-sky” policy beloved of Cameron’s erstwhile adviser Steve Hilton. Yet in Sweden this apparent fantasy is close to becoming a reality. Cash transactions account for only 1.4 per cent of the value of all payments and the country is forecast to become cashless by 2030. Market traders, churches and homeless magazine vendors all accept card and phone payments. More than 900 of Sweden’s 1,600 bank branches no longer take cash deposits. The country’s Riksbank, the world’s oldest central bank, is considering launching a national cryptocurrency: the e-krona (inflation-ravaged Venezuela recently created the oil-backed petro).

Even without government support, the UK has become one of the world’s most cashless societies: cash accounts for only 3.9 per cent of all payments by value (compared to 10.7 per cent in the eurozone and 8.1 per cent in the US). For Korski, this is an unambiguously positive trend. One of the benefits of a cashless system, he told Cameron, is significantly reduced crime. In his 2016 book, The Curse of Cash, the Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff disparages paper currency for aiding tax evasion, theft, corruption, terrorism, the drugs trade, human trafficking and the rest of a burgeoning black economy. Though a digital system creates new forms of crime, illegal activity becomes easier to trace.

Other benefits include higher economic productivity. “We’re still struggling to measure the productivity gain of the near-disappearance of high street travel agents,” Korski told me. In 2015, the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andrew Haldane, argued that a cashless system would aid monetary policy by allowing negative interest rates to be imposed in times of economic stagnation. At present, if charged by banks for storing money, consumers are able to hoard cash.

Beyond purely conservative objections, critics warn that a cashless economy would further marginalise the elderly and the poor (who disproportionately use cash). Korski described this as “incredibly insulting” to pensioners, who are increasingly likely to use cards and mobile phones. “You have to have smart policy for the majority and then various schemes to support the minority.”

The poor, Korski argued, were currently penalised by their reliance on cash, which leaves them unable to access digital discounts and services. A cashless system would also make them less vulnerable to theft and to exploitative employers.

Even Rogoff concedes that paper currency will still be needed as a backstop in case of disruptions such as power outages. He is for a “less-cash” economy, rather than a cashless one.

Yet a transformation is underway: all that is solid is melting into air. Thomas More’s Utopia depicted an imaginary republic in which “the use as well as the desire of money” had been “extinguished”. But though a moneyless society is still a fantasy, a cashless one is not. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.