Winston Churchill vs Elizabeth Fry: who made Britain really ‘Great’?
Winston Churchill’s already ubiquitous face will soon fit neatly into our wallets as the Bank of England unveiled its brand new £5 note set to come into circulation in 2016. The new design, which will replace one featuring Victorian prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, depicts the wartime leader against a backdrop of the Houses of Parliament with the quote ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’. Although I have no problem with Churchill’s face adorning our currency or his continuing popularity amongst the British people I do think his new elevated status is more a sign of the times. If it were not for his role in the Second World War, Churchill would have been a very forgettable politician. He crossed the floor twice, going from the Conservative party to the Liberals and back again in the first half of the 20th century and was briefly unseated by the only prohibitionist MP Britain has ever had in 1922. Despite being credited for victory in the forties, he was demoted from his position as First Lord of the Admiralty for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in 1915-6 during the First World War. He might have been crucial in the Second World War but his record is not spotless. No-one is perfect. Not even Winston Churchill. It is also never fails to amuse me that he so often depicted as the icon of the anti EU lobby and UKIP’s campaign literature when he is quoted as saying this in Zurich in 1946:
“We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living.”
But I digress. The inclusion of Churchill on the most widely distributed banknote in the UK demonstrates the country’s desperate need for a bit of security. Britain’s attachment to its ‘finest hour’ is fading but strong. Over the course of the many, many snow days we’ve been subjected to this past year, regional- and even national- broadcasts have often resorted to portraying the atmosphere as a ‘blitz spirit’. Because not being able to get to work is obviously comparable to living through an air raid every night. With continued austerity, slow growth, bad politicians and terrible weather the British people are longing for a comfortable, face from the past to give them hope. The rejection of Elizabeth Fry, currently the only woman apart from the Queen to be featured on the notes, is also telling. She was a social reformer in the early nineteenth century who has been referred to in the past as the ‘angel of prisons’ for efforts to reform the prison system and make them humane. Given the revulsion and horror that convulsed parts of British society at even the idea of prisoners’ voting last year, the public zeitgeist is not really on her side. But while I don’t object to Churchill being on the £5 notes I do think it is a shame Fry is being removed. She is currently joined by Charles Darwin on £10 notes, Adam Smith (economist and author of The Wealth of Nations) on the £20 note and James Watt, Matthew Boulton (who invented the modern steam engine) and Sir John Houblon (the first governor on the Bank of England) on the £50 note. These people are remembered (or not remembered often in the case of Fry and Houblon) for their country to Britain’s social and economic development. Whether or not Churchill ‘saved’ Britain, he did not change the way we think. And thinking is in far too short supply today. Fry was one of the very first social reformers in the nineteenth century which paved the way for the Welfare State created in the twentieth. Darwin was part of the scientific wave which shrugged off religious explanations for the world and without him, we arguable may never have had modern geneticists. Adam Smith is the so-called ‘Father of Economics’ as his book lay the foundations for laissez-faire economics which the modern subject is still heavily indebted too. Watt and Boulton’s technical innovation catalysed the Industrial Revolution that made Britain the richest nation in the world for a very long time. Houblon’s creation a central banking system which financed that Industrial Revolution and allowed it the breathing room to invest and expand. We may owe Churchill a debt for keeping Britain ‘Great’. But Fry and her fellow socio-economic pioneers are owed it even more for making us ‘Great’ in the first place. Courtesy of Caroline Mortimer