Does It Matter Who Appears on a Bank Note?

I have to be honest and admit that I don’t really look at my money very often. It disappears into the Twilight Zone that is my purse and reappears when I least expect it. And except when I’m calculating whether I can justify yet another spree on Amazon, I very rarely think about it. The recent announcement that JMW Turner is going to be the “figurehead” on the new £20 note did get me thinking, however – about the nature of coinage and authority.

Neil MacGregor, in his masterful History of the World in 100 Objects (a book I have read and re-read a number of times since its publication) points out that in ancient times, coinage was a suitably quick and efficient method of stamping a new ruler’s authority upon the populace. Think about it; the people use coins for trade, and on each one is stamped the head of the ruler. If the head changes, they know that the ruler has changed. Deceptively simple and because it’s so pervasive, it’s accepted with little argument. Even today, nothing has changed. Coins, bank notes and stamps all have the head of the reigning monarch on them (which, as Elizabeth II has demonstrated, can change over time as the monarch ages). So in that respect, this is a question of grave importance.

But Turner is sharing a bank note with the monarch, and I suppose the question is whether or not his inclusion says something about his status in the cultural hierarchy. I think it’s absolutely crucial. If someone (for example, Jane Austen – remember all that fuss about her appearing on a £10 note?) is worthy enough to appear on a bank note, then they have reached a position where they are suitable for all, good examples of national personality and role models for the wife and servant (to paraphrase the judge in the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial). Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, Edward Elgar, Charles Darwin and Adam Smith have all appeared, or currently appear, on UK bank notes and all represent ideals that could be considered both British and upright. It’s a strangely British idea, I think, but I get an echo of a colonialist empire that just won’t let go.

I believe that it matters greatly who appears on a bank note, because while they remain predominantly white, middle class and male, they are never going to be a true representation of British society. When I get a Gurkha nurse, a Sikh warrior or Jamaican rasta on my tenner, then I’ll say society’s integrated – but until then, it’s Little England all the way.

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