While Boaty McBoatface continues to grab the headlines in the UK, the media has recently also shown a great deal of interest in whose face appears on our banknotes. Indeed, the stories display interesting parallels, not least an upsurge of public interest and in at least one instance, a seeming disregard for the ‘people’s choice’.
April was a month of announcements for banknotes, both in the UK and the US. After a long period of deliberation and public consultation the Bank of England announced that the new polymer twenty pound note would feature the artist JMW Turner. On this one I, like many others, am ahead of the game, having watched Timothy Spall scowl around Europe and use a rowing boat to find the best vantage point for painting The Fighting Temeraire (which is also to feature on the note) in the recent film epic. However, when, a few days later, RBS made a similar announcement, I was not equally enlightened. Though I consider myself reasonably well read I have never come across Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and, not being a scientist. I was similarly previously unaware of the important work carried out by Mary Somerville in helping discover the planet Neptune.
The question of who should feature on bank notes has been a bit of a hot potato in recent years, not just in the UK but in countries like Canada, the US and Sweden where there has been a great deal of public debate as to whether those featured truly represent the population. In particular it has been claimed there are insufficient women represented on bank notes and in this respect RBS is to be applauded.
In the US, petitions ran to replace Andrew Jackson, who had featured on notes since 1928. As well as being a slave owner, he was also associated with ill-treatment of Native Americans, which undoubtedly played a part in the 20 April announcement that Jackson’s image is to be replaced by that of Harriet Tubman, an African American woman who led runaway slaves to freedom. Meanwhile, in Sweden the 2015 choice of three prominent women did not meet everyone’s requirements. Some objected to the image of opera singer Birgit Nillson singing Wagner even though it was meant as a celebration of the singer rather than the song.
What the above proves is the importance people still attach to bank notes. In recognition of this both the Bank of England and RBS have involved the public in the process for selecting a character to appear on the notes. Characters have only appeared on Bank of England notes since1970 but the issue of who should appear on the notes has taken on a new importance in recent years. In May 2015 the Bank called on the British public to suggest visual artists ‘of historical significance’ who might appear on the twenty pound note. There were 29,701 nominations for 590 ‘eligible characters’. People obviously care who will be appearing on their notes in 2020! Indeed, there will have been disappointment in the households of Mr Jordan Harris and the 24,000 members of the general public who signed his petition supporting the adoption of an image of celebrity chef Ainsley Harriot on the note. As I’ve already mentioned, the Turner note will feature one of his best known works of art. Had Ainsley been selected who knows what exotic culinary dish would have been felt appropriate. We’ll probably never know.
In the case of the new RBS notes, more than four hundred people suggested 128 characters and the bank cut this to a shortlist of three. Though nominated, Rab C Nesbitt failed to make the final cut. Any attempts to completely democratise the process seem doomed to fail. A late surge in voting from overseas meant Thomas Telford rose from third place to overtake Somerville in the Facebook poll, but RBS sensed foul play and went with the scientist.
Bank notes remain an important means of payment and people care about their design. Who is represented on the notes will always be a controversial issue and cause of debate. What would be my choice? What some of the above examples, and indeed the Boaty McBoatface campaign, demonstrate is that the British retain a keen sense of humour. With that in mind I think the Bank of England missed an opportunity when not selecting Charlie Chaplin from its short list of five for the twenty pound note. The image of a little tramp with bowler hat and a cane would be immediately recognised worldwide, but then someone would inevitably point out that he chose to live in Switzerland!