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Working Lunch Wednesday, 12 February, 2003, 16:21 GMT
Very interest-ing
Adam Shaw
Adam in a field, recently
It all started in a field, many years ago.

That's where the concept of interest was born.

We take it for granted today that if you borrow money, you'll have to pay back a bit more.

Or if you have savings, you should expect to earn more than you put in.

But back to that field.

Surplus

Well, to be precise it wasn't just one field, but the idea was developed about 6,000 years ago.

Adam with wheat
From small seeds...
Farmers were trying to scrape a living from the land when for the first time they found they had a surplus of wheat.

They decided they could let someone else have the wheat they didn't need.

In return, they would ask for something - perhaps a favour or an item they could make use of.

So the concept of interest was born. But it had its moral objectors.

Exchange

Fast forward to Athens in 300BC and you'd have found the Greek philosopher Aristotle arguing against interest - or usury.

Greek philosopher Aristotle
Aristotle: None too chuffed
"Money was intended to be used in exchange but not to increase at interest," he wrote.

A few years afterwards, Jesus threw the moneylenders out of the temple, a symbolic act that represented the Church's dislike of interest.

In fact it was banned for hundreds of years until the Church began to lose some of its power in Britain and the state took over that things changed.

There were still moral objections, but the state deemed the practicalities should outweigh them.

Enduring values

"The spiritual roots of the objection to interest, which is that it leads people to trust in their income in the future instead of trusting in God, trusting in relationships and trusting in enduring values, that is the thing that gets forgotten," says the Bishop of Worcester, the Rt Rev Dr Peter Selby.

Bishop of Worcester
Bishop: Spiritual roots
"People assume that if credit's a good thing then more credit is a better thing - that is not the case."

It's Henry VIII we should thank for being able to get any credit at all.

He decreed that there could be legal paying of interest.

But he was quite astute, and set a ceiling of 10%, so people wouldn't be taken advantage of.

Over the years, having interest meant businesses could expand.

Adam Shaw as Henry VIII
Henry VIII in action (reconstruction)
It was presumed that the respectable banks and other institutions would protect the vulnerable.

But today, 450 years after Henry, those with moral concerns about high rates of interest are becoming increasingly outspoken.

Without interest, Pat Conaty would not have felt the need to found National Debtline and Business Debtline.

"In a modern society where there is no ceiling on interest rates in Britain," he says, "it leads to all sorts of unjust circumstances where people are actually paying the earth for small loans, particularly people who are on low income."

He says that other countries have achieved tougher legislation to stop rates soaring, and thinks the UK should follow suit.

And while Pat's concerns are certainly not new, the growing reliance on credit in the modern age gives them a fresh urgency.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Adam Shaw
"Interest rates have become part of the landscape"
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