Large numbers hold a particular fascination to some people but, I suspect, for the majority of us, they are meaningless. A hundred pounds in your pocket is a measurable sum. Buying a car for £10,000 has some meaning. Valuing a house at £300,000 also has meaning. It is a sum our brains can cope with.
But how do you visualise £1.5 billion? That, in stark terms, is £1,500,000,000. The mind refuses to comprehend the sum.
Take a million pound coins though. If you set yourself to count them, at an average rate of one per second, foregoing eating, sleeping and all other essential activities, it would take you just over eleven days to count them. Now stack up £1.5 billions-worth. My calculator tells me it would take 47 years – yes, 47 years, dear reader – to count them. More than half a lifetime just to count the things.
So why this fascination with £1.5 billion?
Well, that is the sum, according to today’s Sunday Telegraph, that Mr Gordon Brown, possibly the worst chancellor we have ever head, squandered between 1999 and 2001, by selling 395 ton of the nation’s gold, at the rock-bottom discount price of $275 an ounce, in order to buy up euros.
At the time, gold was at a 20-year market low. It has now risen to more than $450 an ounce. Had he waited, he would have raised a little over £3.77 billion, a difference of more than £1.47 billion.
In more prosaic terms, that equates to £58.41 for each household in Britain. Currently £1.47 billion would fund 50,840 new policemen, 58,480 new teachers or 57,640 new soldiers – although why one would want to spend the money on more policemen, heaven knows; the ones we have are neither use nor ornament.
And, as was widely canvassed at the time the sales took place, the chancellor's decision to part with what amounted to half of Britain's gold reserves was entirely motivated by political rather than economic factors – a preparatory step towards joining the single currency.
Strictly speaking, this cannot be laid at the door of the EU, as it is a measure of the ineptness of our chancellor, but it is another facet of the baleful effect the "project" has had on our body politic. I suppose it is a small amount compared to what we have to pay just to belong to this accursed construct but, when the reckoning comes, this adds more than half a lifetime needed to count the cost.
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