The BBC has announced that Winston Churchill is to replace prison reformer Elizabeth Fry on the five pound note.
Now this is a lighter story – some would say trivial. It is more or less fait accompli, being both the within the will and power of the outgoing chairman of the Bank of England, who called Churchill:
“a hero of the entire free world”
“a truly great British leader, orator and writer”
Far be it from me to stand in the way of a historical juggernaut of deification. Actually that ship has probably already sailed. Churchill’s elevation above the level of mere mortal began even before his death in 1965. Necessary wartime propaganda, the opportunities for oratory, and the absence of journalistic criticism, when combined with the postwar Tory electoral machine, meant that after 1940 he never faced the same more balanced critique of other political figures.
Today the mythological Churchill, a latter day King Arthur, is firmly ensconced in public conciousness – from being voted the “Greatest Briton” of all time in a BBC poll, to being portrayed in all his clichéd caricature on Doctor Who. Google may knock him down to third result in favour of a car insurance firm with a dog mascot, but otherwise his legacy is solid.
The problem is, Churchill was never the god among men that the one-dimensional caricature would have him. In wartime he was not universally loved. When he visited bombed out working class areas he was booed as often as cheered. Servicemen in North Africa subversively flipped him two fingers (and not in a “V-for-Victory” salute). He of course lost the landslide election in 1945, and when he returned to government in 1951 he only did so despite his party losing the popular vote.
Churchill’s wartime leadership was confined to great oratory, in which he evidently excelled. He squabbled with Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke, often proposing audacious but tactically stupid ideas for winning the war. He was responsible for the botched intervention in Norway in 1940, almost pushing the Norwegians into the axis camp before Herr Hitler outdid him in diplomatic tact. Late in 1940 he even considered going to war with the Soviet Union in support of Finland in the Winter War.
After his wilderness years in the 1930’s as a glorified pub bore, only Chamberlain’s personal popularity could bring Churchill into the War Cabinet. He had been a serial traitor as an MP – jumping from Unionist to Liberal and back to Conservative over the course of twenty years. As Chancellor during the 1926 he hinted at sending the army to shoot striking Welsh coal miners. Earlier he had of course been responsible for the disaster at Gallipolli – another audacious plan of high risk and little tactical merit. I haven’t even yet mentioned the gassing of Iraqi tribes, the Bengal famine or the Lienz cossacks.
But the myth of Churchill – who’s own lucky break in becoming orator-in-chief at a crucial moment saw his legacy get solidified within the wider war legend – is pervasive. And so a politician as polarising in his day as Gordon Brown and David Cameron are now becomes the first modern Prime Minister to appear on English currency.
But if not Churchill, who else?
Since Churchill will be replacing the last woman on the back of an English banknote (Darwin, Adam Smith, and the others being decidedly male), would it not make more sense to follow the lead of New Zealand?
Kate Sheppard was the most prominent member of New Zealand’s women’s suffrage movements, and it was her efforts which helped make that country the first in the world to grant universal suffrage. Today Sheppard appears on the New Zealand ten dollar note, a reminder to modern generations of the debt of gratitude they owe to women like here. Perhaps it would be more appropriate for the UK to recognise someone like that? Someone who campaigned for a better future, not someone who held stubbornly to a reactionary Victorian world-view of Imperial glory abroad and deferential paternalism at home.
Someone like Christabel Pankhurst, or Barbara Castle, or maybe someone else entirely. Suggestions in the comments.