Face of the Nation: The Importance of the People On Our Bank Notes

The projected new £5 note featuring Winston Churchill, credit www.guardian.co.uk

The projected new £5 note featuring Winston Churchill, credit http://www.guardian.co.uk

The idea to write about the faces on bank notes is one I’ve had for a long time, but is also one that had hit the back-burner along with everything else during my blogging hiatus. Bank notes have forced themselves to the forefront of my mind of late though for many reasons – first and foremost Churchill being unveiled as the new face of the English £5 note, but also because i’m travelling to the USA next week and have a heap of Dollars to study out of awe, as well as a vague memory of seeing someone online argue that they never saw women on banknotes. All this being the case, it seems that the time is ripe for this article.

But what, if anything, do the faces on bank notes represent? Thinking about it, their meaning isn’t too enigmatic – I think its quite clear that bank notes should feature national icons, people who popularly represent the best, bravest, and most innovative figures in the nation’s history. That is the base line for who should feature on currency, but there are also some other characteristics that they ideally inhabit – an important one being to be largely politically neutral. This makes it particularly hard for politicians, especially in Britain, to win a place on a note as they are often defined by their policies. In the case of Churchill, he is an ideal candidate because I doubt anyone associate him most immediately with his awkward relationship with Conservatism, but instead as being the ‘War leader’ at a time when Britain was more united – at least nostalgically – than ever, in the one British military effort that Britons overwhelmingly approve of.

Where bank note rosters (if you will) often fall down, is in representing the nation’s population. This is a natural extension of the necessary neutrality – the point of that neutrality is to no represent something that then excludes sections of society, but looking at notes in Britain and the USA, they aren’t too representative of society. There are two women – Elizabeth Fry, a missionary, on the English £5, and Elsie Inglis, a suffragist, on the (slightly more progressive) Scottish £50 – on British notes, though Fry will soon be replaced by Churchill; and everyone else is a white man.

I should also explain that I find a certain romance in the £5 note (or the lowest value note of any currency) in that they are among the most commonly used notes as well as the most humble. I think certain figures suit that note more than others; though I hove not thought long and hard enough about what other valued notes may represent. I should also note that I don’t for a second think the selection process for bank notes should be so prescriptive as to have quotas based on gender or ethnicity, but I do think there should be a general interest in representing more genders and ethnicities in the 21st Century. With that in mind, for a bit of fun, and to generate a bit of discussion, i’m going to draw up my own currency rosters, which are as follows.

English Notes
£5 – Olaudah Equiano
Though the tales of slavery he recounted may, it seems, have ‘gilded the lily’, the slave who bought his freedom and wrote about it so eloquently to help bolster the cause for the abolition of slavery would be a fantastic choice for a bank note. A more humble story is impossible to find and so his background makes him perfect for the £5

£10 – Winston Churchill
As mentioned before, the iconic war leader is so synonymous with Britain’s ‘finest hour’ that he is perhaps the most natural choice to grace a bank note.

£20 – Emily Bronte
The author of Wuthering Heights deserves her place not only because she wrote one of the great British novels, but because he inclusion represents the importance of the arts in British culture being as she is perhaps the most lauded member of the celebrated and talented Bronte family; a family who of course have especial significance in Yorkshire.

£50 – Isambard Kingdom Brunel
The civil engineering marvel, responsible for the building of several steamships, important bridges, and, most significantly the Great Western Railway was perhaps the greatest pioneer of the Industrial Revolution, which itself brought about the greatest shift in British society, leisure, and manufacturing. Being so crucial to a crucial period cements Brunel in the very foundation of modern Britain.

Scottish Notes
£5 – Robert Burns
Very few single figures are so central to a nation’s identity that Robert Burns – rightly or wrongly – is to Scotland. Burns is such an icon that the 250th anniversary of his birth drew year long celebration in Scotland with his visage visible all over the nation. Similarly, ‘Burns Night’ is perhaps more treasured a national holiday than even St Andrews Day, such is the power of his memory. This is perhaps because ‘The Ploughman Poet’ is so synonymous with the voice of ‘the people’, making him a perfect choice for the £5.

£10 – Mary Seacole
Seacole, so proud of her Scottish descent, represents a kind of romantic immigrant story that should not be necessary to justify their existence, but that nonetheless shows the incredible value migrants can bring. Jamaican born, Seacole became a sadly overshadowed contemporary of Florence Nightingale who nonetheless did sterling work setting up a ‘hotel’ in Crimea for injured soldiers, completely independent of the army who refused her recruitment. As both a woman and a black woman, her inclusion on her bank note would recognise both groups as they deserve.

£20 – Alexander Fleming
Scots cling proudly to their stellar record of technological, engineering, and medical innovation, and that history means that there are many innovators to choose from. However, it is arguable that no scientific discovery made by a Scot is as important as penicillin, the antibiotic that ha saved so many lives across the world; and so that no Scottish innovator is as important as Fleming.

£50 – Elsie Inglis
Inglis already features on Scottish notes, and given her achievements and what she represents, it is hard to remove her fro them. A pioneering medical mind, Inglis sought to improve the quality and specialisation of the treatment of women in hospitals and maternity units, often philanthropically going the extra mile to pay for the recuperation of her patients at the seaside. Her passion for the treatment of women naturally extended to a passion for the improvement of the treatment generally in society, and she played an important role in the foundation of the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Her being on our currency is a source of pride and should serve as a guiding beacon towards gender equality.

As a British citizen, I feel qualified to comment on British notes, and far be it for me, a non-American, to comment on their currency, but given my avid study of American history and culture, and the fact that American ‘bills’ were a catalyst for this article, I have decided to discuss them, not least because they’re all members of the white elite. This status of people featuring on bank notes is exemplified is an earthy way in a memorable scene from the wire in which D’Angelo says “ain’t no dead white guy got hisself on money ‘cept he was president”. Of course this isn’t quite right as Hamilton “ain’t no President” which in the show hints at the disconnect between the country’s leading powers and the common man. While I understand that the men that feature on the notes are part of a really strong founding narrative of the nation, the recent milestone announced by the American census bureau that non-white births now outweigh white births in the country means that the bank notes are grossly unrepresentative of the true nation. With that in mind, here is a suggested roster for the Federal Reserve:

US Notes
$5 – George Washington
The first President of the United States and man who gave his name to the nation’s capital should be the one to grace the country’s lowest and most humble bill.

$10 – Martin Luther King
King’s legacy of social change in unparalleled in the Western hemisphere. He is a man who served – and still does – as a bacon of hope for a downtrodden people, so much so that Martin Luther King Day is one of the most important public holidays in America. No non-politician is more important to the America of today and so he deserves unreservedly to feature on their bank notes.

$20 – Rosa Parks
Rosa Parks deserves her place for many of the same reasons as King, with the added incentive that she was a strong, wilful woman and a role model to all of America’s women – black or white.

$50 – Abraham Lincoln
The degree to which ‘Honest Abe’ was ‘The Great Liberator’ is up for much historical debate, but what is clear is that his rhetoric towards the end of the Civil War make him a figurehead 9at least) for racial equality. What is also clear is that as the President who presided over the Union’s victory in he civil war, he is etched in the progression of the United States in to what they have become today, for better or worse.

$100 – Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Like Churchill, FDR was very much a war leader who was defined in a non-partisan way. His ‘New Deal’ was a measure to improve the stock of every American; something helped greatly by the profits of war – a war that America didn’t initially want, but one that brought decades of confidence and prosperity thereafter.

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