Brexit Is The Latest Blow To The British Pound, Once A Symbol Of Economic Might The pound was long the symbol of Britain's economic might. The chaos surrounding Brexit, the country's 2016 decision to leave the European Union, has sent the currency falling sharply.

Like The Empire Itself, The British Pound Is Not What It Used To Be

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's been some time since Britain's empire extended around the world. But the British pound, long a symbol of Britain's global power, is still a source of great pride in the country. Over the years, though, the pound has lost a lot of its luster. And the turmoil surrounding Brexit has hurt its stature even more.

Here's NPR's Jim Zarroli.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: In the late 1990s, Europe embarked on a radical experiment. It got rid of Italy's lira, Germany's deutsche mark and the French franc, among others, and replaced them with a single monetary unit, the euro. Only one major country refused to get on board - Britain.

Here is then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.


GORDON BROWN: We will not seek membership of the single currency on 1 January, 1999.

ZARROLI: The decision was driven by much more than economics. The pound, also known as the quid or sterling, is a rich cultural symbol, a powerful reminder of the past glory of the British Empire. Pound notes have been adorned with some of the most illustrious figures in British history - Shakespeare, Dickens and Darwin.

Today people such as Jacqueline Kupfer (ph), a pharmacist's assistant in London, say giving up the pound is almost unthinkable.

JACQUELINE KUPFER: I think it's because it is so old. You know, you've got it in old books and literature and everything that talk about the pound. And it's part of our kind of culture, really. I think anything that you try to replace it with wouldn't - I don't know. It'd be a bit tacky, I think.

ZARROLI: The pound is encrusted with centuries of British tradition. One pound was long equal to 240 pence. It bewildered tourists. In 1971, the government decided to simplify things. One pound would now be worth 100 pence. It took some getting used to. Even students had to take classes in the new money.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Can anybody tell me how many new pennies we're going to have in one pound? Gordon.

GORDON: A hundred.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's a hundred new pennies.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My mom doesn't like the 50 pence, but I do.


MAX BYGRAVES: (Singing) Gone are the days when 12 old pence added up to make a shilling - not much sense. The half-crown, too...

ZARROLI: The singer Max Bygraves even put out a song about the new pound.


BYGRAVES: (Singing) Now some people who were feeling very bright have put their heads together just to make things right. They have made it easy for every citizen because all we have to do is count from one to 10.

ZARROLI: Through all the changes, the pound has long symbolized Britain's economic might. At one time, the pound was used to buy and spend all over the world. It paid for roads in Africa and railroads in India. It financed cotton fields in the American South. Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of "A History Of Money" (ph).

NIALL FERGUSON: If you go back to the 19th century, the British pound occupied the place in the global economy that the U.S. dollar does today.

ZARROLI: But as Britain's power waned, so did the pound. The government tried to stem the decline. After the Second World War, travelers were barred from taking pounds out of the country.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Hey. You can take your holiday or business allowance in traveler's checks but not more than 5 pounds in sterling notes...

ZARROLI: Efforts like these notwithstanding, Britain, over the years, would have trouble controlling the pound's volatility. Niall Ferguson remembers living through it.

FERGUSON: My childhood was, in some ways, scarred by periodic sterling crises. I think they were my introduction to economics as a boy growing up in Britain.

ZARROLI: In 1992 came what was perhaps the worst crisis of all. It was known as Black Wednesday. Deep-pocketed investors, led by George Soros, made enormous bets against the pound, and the whole world watched as the pound collapsed.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: The most dramatic U-turn in government economic strategy for 25 years was forced on the prime minister and chancellor by the overwhelming pressure of billions upon billions of pounds being sold in the foreign exchange markets.

ZARROLI: Soros was said to have made a billion dollars in just one day. Since then, the pound has only lost more ground. Today it's worth just $1.20, a fourth of what it was worth almost a century ago. One big culprit lately has been Brexit. Britain's decision three years ago to leave the European Union sent the pound tumbling. The government's chronic inability to come up with an exit plan has driven it even lower.

David Blanchflower is an economist at Dartmouth College.

DAVID BLANCHFLOWER: The chaos that sits around a possible no-deal Brexit is scaring the markets, and so the pound is falling steadily.

ZARROLI: Blanchflower says the pound could soon be worth one dollar. In the history of the pound, that's never happened. Today the British pound, with all its glorious tradition, endures. But like the empire itself, it's not quite what it used to be.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.


Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.