Male, Pale and Stale: Churchill Storms the Banknotes


Image: Ray Syed

In a turn of events as shocking as whatever bile has recently spewed from Donald Trump’s mouth, an upper class white man has recently replaced Elizabeth Fry on the English £5 bank note. So who has received the honour of replacing a social activist and prison reformer? Surely a fellow philanthropist would be most appropriate? Unfortunately, it seems that the Bank of England disagree. Enter: Winston Churchill. Yes, the Winston Churchill who won a world war and was recently voted the second greatest Briton of all time in a BBC poll (coming right behind Florence Nightingale).

So, what’s the problem? It must appear obvious that our wartime Prime Minister should get his place on our currency. Well, as I did not have enough printer credits to distribute “Your fave is problematic” leaflets, I’ll explain here as to why the addition of Winston Churchill’s scowling jowls is a categorically BAD idea, and why I have more respect for his Cuban cigars than for the man himself – and it is not just because he was a Tory.

Though considered our best prime minister to date (David Cameron just missed out), Churchill was not always of sound judgement. In the 1910s Churchill made a series of economic decisions which resulted in vast numbers of miners losing their jobs, though Churchill himself saw this as just “a little blood-letting”. Furthermore, despite fighting a megalomaniacal racist for the entire war, he had no qualms over eugenics and believed strongly in the existence of racial hierarchies. Surprisingly, he placed white Britons at the top of this chain. Also an issue is the love of colonialism he displayed throughout his life, at one point in the war pressing India for more rice even though the country was in crippling famine at the time. This, Churchill said, was the fault of the people of India for ‘breeding like rabbits’ and he repeatedly derided calls for greater powers of self-governance for India. Sorry, Winston, but there is only room for one imperialist relic on the banknotes and the Queen has already got that one covered.

Really, it is not just the shady part of Churchill’s past that makes him a less than ideal choice for the banknote. It is the fact that his entire makeup – white, male, upper-class – also makes him a safe choice. We deserve somebody representative of Britain. Over the last forty-six years since figures started appearing on banknotes, we have been shown just two women: Florence Nightingale and the aforementioned Elizabeth Fry. Next year we will also be getting Jane Austen, which, with the usurping of Elizabeth Fry for Winston Churchill, means that one note out of the four available will have a woman on it. None of the notes have ever depicted a person of colour. Furthermore, the three women that have been honoured with banknote have all come from similarly upper-class backgrounds, as did many of the male figures. Consider this yet further proof that our society revolves around the desires of the rich white man.

It is very easy to wonder why it matters who is on the banknotes, when it is questionable as to whether anyone either notices the faces or cares about them. It does matter, though. Banknotes are one of those perpetual things that we use so often that they become part of the background hum, and if even our background hum is prejudiced then we have no hope. We need to eradicate sexism and racism from every corner of society before we have a chance at equality.

Below I have included a list of potential banknote figures for the Bank of England to use as they see fit. Because, you know, they are definitely going to take into account my opinions, as they just love to listen to women.

Official List of Alternative Faces for £5 Banknote:

  • Ada Lovelace – mathematician who wrote the first computer algorithms.
  • Nancy Astor – first female MP and premium smack-talker of Winston Churchill.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft – proto-feminist and writer. May object to sharing note with the Queen as was also an anti-monarchist.
  • Mary Seacole – nurse who set up treatment tents during the Crimean War and battled racial prejudice.
  • Carol Ann Duffy – current and only female and openly LGBT poet laureate to date.
  • Margaret Busby – youngest ever book publisher, and first female black one.
  • Churchill – dog.

Finally, if anyone ever suggests Margaret Thatcher for the banknotes I will brain them with my poetry anthology.

[Laura Foster]

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