The Bank of England needs to put its money where its mouth is
It's time British money reflected the diversity of a multicultural nation
The first person thought to have put their own face on currency was the Roman emperor Julius Caesar. It was probably mostly inspired by vanity but his image was also an important form of propaganda. It conveyed to the state and soldiers in his pay that he was in charge. Whoever is on money says something to the people who use money.
Today’s banknotes have become an increasingly contentious and powerful tool in displaying who or what is important to a nation’s self identity.
This week the UK’s Sunday Times newspaper published a letter calling for the Bank of England’s next £50 banknote to feature someone from a BAME (black, Asian or minority ethnic) background. The petition was signed by more than 200 politicians, activists and cultural leaders.
I was one of the signatories to the letter, which read: "Ethnic minority communities represent 14 per cent of the British population. We do not lack candidates and arguably their achievements were the greater for having been made at a time when many careers and were effectively closed to them.” The letter also pointed out: “No one from an ethnic minority has yet featured on a banknote.”
It is an important point to make and one that would be a critical recognition of diversity and acceptance by a core British institution at a time when racism and divisions prevail across Europe.
Manchester City player Raheem Sterling has recently spoken about being targeted by racial abuse both from the terraces and and in lopsided media coverage of how he chooses to spend his earnings, compared to white footballers. And earlier this year, UN special rapporteur on racism E Tendayi Achiume said: "A Brexit-related trend that threatens racial equality in the UK has been the growth in the acceptability of explicit racial, ethnic and religious intolerance."
So even while diversity is given lip service, the reality for people of colour is quite different. The Bank of England’s failure to date to be inclusive is an example par excellence. Governor Mark Carney pledged earlier this year to increase diversity among the bank's 4,000-plus staff but when it comes to the actual money it trades in, this has not translated into anything.
When such issues are raised, they typically garner an accusatory response. For example, when writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch looked at Britain's imperialist past though the prism of race in her book Brit(ish): On Race, Identity And Belonging, she was met with the comment: "Couldn’t she summon a smidgen of gratitude for the institutions that have nurtured her?"
The irony is that underpinning many of the pro-Brexit claims have been conversations around re-igniting Commonwealth links and trading with a wider world under the guise of a "global Britain". So the petition rightly asked, in its call for someone from a BAME background to be on the banknote: "What better representation of 'global Britain' could there be?"
This is not the first time British currency has come in for criticism. After £5 notes featuring the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry were withdrawn in 2017, it was pointed out that aside from Queen Elizabeth II, there were no women featured on banknotes. Author Jane Austen was hastily added to the £10 note, with Mr Carney saying: "Our banknotes serve as repositories of the country’s collective memory, promoting awareness of the United Kingdom’s glorious history and highlighting the contributions of its greatest citizens".
Canada is already ahead of the game in featuring individuals from minority backgrounds. Since last month, Viola Desmond has featured on the $10 note. A black civil rights pioneer, she was arrested in 1946 after refusing to leave a whites-only section of a theatre in Nova Scotia and was only pardoned 63 years after her death.
In New Zealand, the $50 banknote featuring Sir Apirana Ngata has been in circulation since 2000. He played a significant role in the revival of Maori culture and was the first Maori to graduate from a New Zealand university as well as sitting as a member of parliament for 38 years.
The hostile responses to the current campaign in the UK speak to a wider implicit racism. Typically, it is framed as a defence of meritocracy. It also includes the back-to-front justification that "you can't pick someone just for their skin colour" – except for the fact that the default position is set to white. And perhaps the most frequently repeated accusation concerns political correctness. But this is not about political correctness; it's about being historically accurate.
Putting a black or ethnic figure on money might be a small gesture but it would make a significant statement. It would mean revered British institutions literally putting their money where their mouth is.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World
Updated: December 20, 2018 04:31 PM