Keeping our heads after Royal Mail privatisation

Penny BlackA row is emerging over whether the Queen’s head will remain on postage stamps when the Royal Mail is privatised as per the government’s plans. Ever since the first ever stamp, the Penny Black, British stamps have featured the head of the monarch. In the ’60s, the then Postmaster-General Tony Benn, a well-known republican, proposed new stamps that would not feature the Queen’s portrait, supposedly because it was limiting the scope of designers to produce commemorative stamps. In the end, his plan to remove the Queen’s head was thwarted, and instead a small silhouette of Her Majesty was designed, which takes up less space on the stamp and is used on special stamps to this day.

One important consideration I haven’t heard discussed in the last few days is that the Queen’s head actually serves the important purpose of identifying the stamps as British. Universal Postal Union rules say that stamps must feature the name of the issuing country, yet British stamps have never followed this, which is often seen as a special privilege afforded to the country that invented the stamp. Were the Queen’s portrait no longer to be featured, British stamps would presumably have to include a country name, either “United Kingdom” or “Great Britain”. The latter would be inappropriate for Northern Ireland (although that doesn’t stop the Olympic team using it) and UK might not please Scottish Nationalists, particularly those who are still in favour of the monarchy and do not object to the Scottish monarch being shown on stamps at present.

It is doubly important that the Queen’s head remains on stamps. Otherwise not only would we lose the tradition of stamps featuring the monarch, but also that of not having a country name (or often, any text at all) on stamps, which is surely an even greater philatelic curiosity.

Post Office services

The government have also suggested that, even on privatisation of Royal Mail, the Post Office would remain in public ownership. I think that if this is the case, the Post Office should be permitted to offer services from rival couriers, and not be limited to Royal Mail services. Why should Post Offices have to be restricted to offering products from a particular private company? Post Offices should in future accept parcels for services such as DHL and FedEx, which offer much cheaper deals for sending packages abroad, yet are a pain for the average person to use as they need to pick up from premises, which might mean taking a day off work. If the Post Office could recommend a courier service from across the whole market that would be better for consumers, and help secure the future of the branch network. Unfortunately, I expect the government will come to some sort of deal with the new private operator that ensures their products exclusively are offered at Post Offices for the foreseeable future. In that case, privatisation will just mean higher prices, job losses and the same poor range of services as at present, and possibly the loss of our postage stamp heritage too. “Six first class Deutsche Post stamps, please.”

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