Jane Austen and Winston Churchill are practically the only credible banknote candidates

26 June 2013

12:37 PM

26 June 2013

12:37 PM

Silly season is here. A minor row has broken out over which long-dead figures should appear on the reverse side of Bank of England notes. I can’t be bothered to relate the details because you’ve all got better things to do like water the garden, fix lunch or watch Loose Women. Basically, Sir Mervyn King’s got it in the neck from the Continuity Bien Pensants by seeming to back Winston Churchill and Jane Austen for this dubious accolade. So far, so ludicrous. But there’s one more point worth making.

The criteria for this banknote business are that the subject must be enduringly famous and recognisable. This does rather limit the field, particularly where ‘politically correct’ candidates are concerned. What proportion of the population could identify Mary Seacole? Who could pick a Pankhurst out of a line-up? And how many people could accurately describe what any of the above did with their unusual lives?


There’s a good exhibition at the Tower of London showing how the Crown has used coinage as a tool of power and unity. It did so by surrounding the head of the king with simple religious and temporal iconography, which suggested that the monarch was God’s chosen representative on Earth (Parliament tried the same formula in the mid-17th century during the interregnum). This worked because the lumpen-proletariat grasped what it was looking at.

Churchill and Austen are among the most obvious choices to appear on a banknote, and that’s why they are suitable candidates. The Bank of England understands that propaganda persuades best when it engineers an existing stream of knowledge, sentiment and opinion (see Aldous Huxley for more details). Those who threaten Sir Mervyn King with the Equality Act, or, worse, the complete works of Susan Sontag, believe that the “right” opinions can be imposed. A visit to the British Library’s brilliant propaganda exhibition might dissuade them from that view: it has been tested to destruction, and by people who were considerably more determined than Sir Mervyn’s detractors.

UPDATE: Some commentators say that we don’t know what Austen looked like. You might say the same about Jesus Christ. It doesn’t stop either of them being recognisable. All the Bank of England requires is artwork upon which to base a representation. The likeness below is widely known through books, DVD sleeves and so forth.

Jane Austen

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Show comments
  • Jacob Ward

    I’m afraid that you have misunderstood – the person’s *name* must be recognisable, not their portrait.

    What is slightly disappointing is that I don’t think that you could have made this mistake if you had done any research before posting this piece; current figures on our banknotes include John Houblon and James Watt – famous names, but how well known are their faces?

  • Michael Sterckx

    As most average people in Britain are clearly not benefiting from the actions of this mob of self serving individuals in power at the moment and are having their democratic voice eroded further day by day, a portrait of Eric Blair would be a more appropriate symbol.

  • The_greyhound

    I should like to see J. Enoch Powell on the banknotes.

  • Mr Grumpy

    So she’s as recognisable as Jesus, of whom of course we have no contemporary or near-contemporary artistic representations whatsoever. Thank you for confirming my point.

  • Radford_NG

    What about an early tax-rebel:Lady Godiver?

  • crosscop

    How can they put an old ‘racist’ and ‘Islamophobe’ like Winston Churchill on our banknotes? For goodness sakes, he actually said that Islam in a man was like rabies in a dog. We can’t have people who tell the truth about Islam on our money!

  • GAM

    I’m a big fan of Jane Austen. I do find it a tad odd, however, that she is to appear on a banknote given that nobody know’s what she looked like.

    • The_greyhound

      Typical female writer : her gaze seldom strayed from the groin.

  • Mr Grumpy

    In what way is Jane Austen “recognisable”? We have one sketch of her drawn – probably – by her sister Cassandra but described by others who knew her as a poor likeness. We have a much better idea what Shakespeare looked like.

  • CaediteEos

    As if making everyone miserable and uncomfortable in the present isn’t enough, the bien-pensant PC mob now wants to re-write our past too. Trying to deny or play down the influence of white men in our history does no one any favours, not even the minority groups of the present who the metro-left love so much. This sort of self-hating anti-English waffle should be resisted at every turn.