Editor’s Note: Rob Crilly is a British journalist living in New York. He was The Telegraph’s Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and was previously the East Africa correspondent for The Times of London. The opinions in this article are those of the author.
In the end, perhaps fittingly, it was a question of money.
After a four-and-a-half month review, the Bank of England decided it would simply cost too much money to switch production of the UK’s new plastic five-pound notes from a polymer that contained tallow to one containing palm oil.
Or from an “animal slaughter-derived polymer,” as one member of Parliament put it, to a vegetable version.
Only in Britain could the presence of a tiny amount of rendered beef fat in currency cause such a palaver.
It all started in November, when a new fiver hit the streets. For the first time, it was plastic, an innovation meant to increase its life beyond five years – two and half times longer, in fact, than the old paper ones.
Cue news footage of reporters trying to tear the new notes, dipping them in gravy, putting them through washing machines – anything to test their durability.
A chemist at Nottingham University did succeed in destroying one of the new notes, but his method included freezing it with a flask of liquid nitrogen.
The polymer note, then, in every respect, was better. All except one.
The ingredients include a “trace amount” of tallow. Officially, that equates to less than 100 parts per million, or less than 0.1%.
It might not sound like much, but it was enough to cause quite the stir.
When the Bank of England asked consumers what they thought, more than 3,500 people took the time to respond. Of those, 88% said they wanted the animal products removed.
Britain is, after all, a nation of animal lovers.
According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (more on them later), about one in two UK households own a pet. And by some estimates, Brits spend billions every year on their furry friends.
The reason is obvious: No other country needs pets more than the UK.
We are all terrible at receiving compliments or gifts, or coping with human interaction of any kind. What a blessed relief it is to deal with a Labrador, a breed that will never say, “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly,” when offered the last jam tart.
Should I bump into a countryman on a New York street, I will avoid eye contact and make only the vaguest of pleasantries before hurrying on my way. But I will pet his spaniel.
Even the rather conditional love of a Siamese cat is enough for a certain type of repressed man who spent the 1950s at boarding school.
This closeness to our furry friends sets us apart from the rest of Europe. So, while they abuse animals elsewhere – from goats thrown off church steeples in Spain to force-feeding geese for foie gras in France – you can bet one of those shiny new fivers that there is someone in a stripy jumper from the English home counties doing something to stop it.
Britain’s Royal Society for the prevention of Cruelty to Animals is the world’s oldest animal protection charity. It was set up in 1824, a full 60 years before the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (which doesn’t even get the regal sheen to its name).
Victorian literature is chock full of children being sent up chimneys, but I challenge you to find a single mention of a chimpanzee employed as a sweep in a Dickens novel.
If you doubt any of this, just trying wearing fur in London and gauge the reaction for yourself.
This is a nation that is animal crackers.
Slaughtering cows to oil high-street commerce seems to go against some deeply held principles.
Remember, this is a country that, long before Brexit, refused to go along with the euro. There may have been some economic arguments, but there was also too much symbolism tied up in the coins and tokens that bear the Queen’s head. Sluicing it all with tallow seems distasteful.
The problem with all of this is that tallow appears in quite a lot of products we already use.
Tallow, when you look into it, turns up everywhere: cosmetics, bottles, car parts, credit cards.
It is a byproduct of the meat industry. If it weren’t sold on to other industries, it would be waste.
So, replacing tallow in banknotes won’t actually save the lives of any cows. (In fact, one enterprising journalist calculated that just a half a cow could produce all the tallow needed for the 370 million or so fivers in circulation. Presumably, one more will suffice for the new Jane Austen tenner and a 20 due in 2020.)
We’ll just end up chucking away the extra fat and paying more for our beef, which rather conflicts with that other key part of Britishness – the Sunday roast and its leftovers.