Winston Churchill And The Problem Of Who's Who On Our Currency

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At around this time last year I had, what I thought was, a brilliant idea of what to write for my dissertation. The cut and thrust of it was: How do we decide who should appear on British banknotes? For instance, why was Faraday chosen and not Brunel? Why Wellington over Nelson? I assumed that there would be hidden political motivations involved, that the social and cultural climate of a certain time would influence decision makers and that pressures from outside and within the Bank of England would play a significant role in selecting which historical figure should feature on our money.

Unfortunately, this bolt of inspiration came to me too late. I came up with it about two weeks before my deadline and I had already spent the best part of a year working on something else. Not to mention that I’d been trekking out to the National Newspaper Archives in Colindale to do hours of research. So I didn’t get to research this exciting area of political intrigue and I just plodded on with my boring work on the riots. Violence and looting are just no substitute for old men sitting around deciding whose face should adorn our paper currency.

Don’t steal my idea though because, as I found out last week, it’s actually totally worthless. The decision to put Winston Churchill on the new five-pound note was left in the hands of the outgoing Bank of England governor, Sir Mervyn King, as a goodbye present. It turns out that rather than have a complicated process to decide who should feature on our money we just hand out the decision as a retirement gift. What else can you get the man who has everything?

Draft for the Winston £5 Note

In fairness to King, Churchill’s inclusion was loosely based on a suggestion by the public. There wasn’t an actual vote or anything but there is a vague list of suggestions out there somewhere and King noticed a couple of people had asked for Churchill on their notes. He didn’t just pick a name out of thin air but, in the end, he had to accept but undervalue the hoi polloi. The Churchill five-pound note will be his legacy to the country. That and the financial crisis.

Considering some of the candidates that the public would have selected if left to their own devices, King didn’t have much of a choice. He had to ignore them and just pick someone sensible. Ideas proposed included Terry Wogan, David Beckham and Robbie Williams. It was Churchill himself who said that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. This is what he meant. If you think that Robbie Williams should be on a £5 note then you simply cannot be trusted to make these decisions.

Sir Mervyn has also decreed that from now on we are going to be calling five-pound notes ‘Winstons’. Whether this is a good nickname or not, it’s unlikely to catch on if a stuffy old man in a suit tries to force it. When there’s a banker trying to be a trendsetter – unless he’s talking about pin-stripe suits (cool) or self-entitlement (really cool) I’m not listening.

Mervyn King – bringing back stripes

It’s like trying to make your own nickname work – you can tell as many people as you want to call you ‘Skip’ but it won’t take off unless you get your cooler friend to start doing it. Maybe the Bank of England should get Will.i.am to make a song about his ‘Winstons’ or we could call the next Bond movie Winstons Are Forever. Cara Delevigne could do something to help too. She’s so hot right now.

Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames MP, is more positive than I that the ‘Winston’ tag will catch on with or without Cara. He was unequivocal in fact. “Of course it will.” He said. “We are all going to go to Tesco and be buying our groceries with Winstons, and that of course would have given him more pleasure than anything.” Of course it would! What could be more pleasurable than knowing that your face is on pieces of paper being stuffed down pole dancers g-strings, used to snort cocaine, and as a worthy substitute for loo-roll in the houses of some Premier League footballers and Old Etonians?

The creation of the Winston, replacing the outgoing Elizabeth Fry (Fryver), means that there are now no women on any British money (with the obvious and quite noticeable exception of the Queen, which doesn’t count. Don’t be facetious). There should be far greater representation of iconic British women on our banknotes. There have only ever been two women while their have been more than six times as many men.

Churchill also sets a precedent as the first modern politician to be put on a banknote. The problem here is that politicians are inherently divisive characters. Particularly the Tories. Churchill, as the classic ‘war time leader’, may be the exception that proves the rule but his inclusion could set us down a difficult path. We need to be careful when we (and by we I mean the next governor of the Bank of England) decide who will grace the next note change – presumably when Darwin is replaced on the ten-pound note.

You’re next Darwin

Right now, it feels slightly worrying that the next person on the tenner could be Margaret Thatcher. You can just imagine David Cameron defending the decision: “I think it’s only right that we honour such a dominant woman who did so much for our country. I look forward to being able to go to the shops and buy my newspaper and coffee with a Maggie”.

Actually, on second thought, you can’t imagine that because the ‘Maggie’ nickname would never catch on.

But, if Thatcher did get her face on our money, all hell would break loose. You could forget her economic legacy, forget the £75 billion rebate from the European Union and kiss all sanity goodbye because people would be burning their money in the street. That can’t be good for the economy.

Although, on more positive note, at least it would create some more riots for undergraduate historians to write dissertations about.