Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Chicks on quids, kings and crowns

Chicks on quids, kings and crowns

“If I were your husband, I would have drunk it!” Winston Churchill’s reputed riposte to Nancy Astor when she swore that if he was her husband, she would poison his tea. Like Sweden’s Kerstin Hesselgren, Lady Astor was the first woman in her country to sit in parliament. However, her blatant anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism ought to ensure a continued lack of tributes in her honour. That she will e.g. adorn a pound note is about as probable as that the British will adopt the euro in the foreseeable future. For Churchill’s part, however, ‘tis time to go into note printing. The Bank of England has announced that the face of the acclaimed wartime leader and Nobel laureate will soon adorn the £5 note.

Hardly anyone disputes the choice of Churchill. He is a colossus, bridging the political divide, gaining more and more of an Augustus-esque status in the public sphere. Parliament’s formal apotheosis may come anytime now.

The fly in the monetary ointment is that Churchill will push the social reformer Elizabeth Fry from the £5 note. Fry is the only woman on the current notes and, what's more, together with Florence Nightingale the only woman to have graced the English notes (not entirely true as Queen Elizabeth II is represented on all notes).

Unsurprisingly, Fry’s forthcoming fadeout has been met with protests in the press, in the parliament, on the pavement. No woman!? Bank of England’s outgoing governor tried to still the storm by tipping off that “Jane Austen [is] quietly waiting in the wings.”

The storm abated not.

The motif of Churchill that the Bank of England plan to use is from the iconic photo on which ’Winnie’ sports his bulldog countenance, taken when he in the midst of war visited Canada in 1941. The same country is where the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, comes from. He took office on July 1st and promised a prompt response to the glaring dearth of female representation (on the notes, that is; not on the bank’s board). The assumption was that if he would let Jane Austen in from the wings, it was probably Charles Darwin’s £10 face that would meet extinction.

And last Wednesday this was confirmed. Starting in 2017, the £10 note will show Jane Austen and a line from Pride and Prejudice (“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”) The Bank also announced that it would review its selection process “in order to ensure that our notes represent the full diversity of British people”.

Compare this with Sweden, where a facial currency reform also draws near. In the world’s perhaps least gender-inequal country the currency is called the crown (SEK), and the upcoming reform will see a note procedure where the sexes take equal turns. Six notes. Six significant Swedes. Three men, three women. All of them cultural personalities (including Greta Garbo and Ingmar Bergman).

This is of course commendable. The gender proportion as well as the cultural fixation. The latter will render the notes devoid of any monarchs (more precisely, of any kings). Being a republican in principle, I prefer to see as few princes as possible on pieces with pecuniary properties. Consequently, I will not mourn that Charles XI (1655-1697) will have to leave the stage of the SEK500-note to Birgit Nilsson, an acclaimed soprano who hailed from the southern province of Scania. Admittedly, Charles XI was a formidable reformer of Sweden’s administration and a renowned protector of Swedish peasants. But he was also a mass murderer of Scanians. It would be equally unfortunate to place on future notes such eulogized kings of war like Gustavus Adolphus, Charles X Gustav, Charles XII. These 17th-18th century kings wreaked hellish havoc on Scandinavia and Europe. They should be studied, yes, but lionization by way of representation on notes of denomination would be improper.

Despite this anti-monarchical, anti-belligerent stance of mine, I do find one king’s imminent removal from the Swedish notes debatable. The pater patriae Suecia. Old king Gustav Vasa (1496-1560). He is set to be deposed from the SEK1000-note. True, he too committed atrocities, was a ruthless executioner of Machiavellian realpolitik, and all of this without any redeeming accomplishments on the cultural front (in contrast to other princes of the Renaissance). Nevertheless, he is the founder of the modern Swedish nation and it is his coronation we celebrate on June 6th, Sweden’s national day, which since being made a bank holiday in 2005 is celebrated in the guise of a positive, tolerant, open-minded patriotism.

On a final note (pun intended), I hereby petition Sweden’s central bank to observe the centenary of Swedish democracy by issuing a commemorative note with the two leaders of the Lib-Lab coalition that 1917-1920 completed the country’s democratization. In this capacity, prime minister Nils Edén (liberal) and Labour leader Hjalmar Branting surely bridges all significant political divides. Not dissimilar from Churchill.

An additional suggestion is to 2021 issue a commemorative note over said Kerstin Hesselgren’s parliamentary entry in 1921. Just like Jane Austen, Kerstin “the First” should not have to wait much longer in the wings.