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.