It’s time we had Welsh heroes and heroines on our banknotes
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
In Wales, we don’t have banknotes that reflect who we are as a nation.
Money is fiction, but in Wales, it does not tell our story. It tells the story of another nation. To all intents and purposes, the story is that of England.
A £10 note does not have any inherent value. You can’t eat it. You can’t drink it. You can’t drive it. You can’t live in it. It’s not of much use if you are on your own on a desert island.
A £10 note only has value because we believe it does. Without that, it would not be worth much more than the paper it was printed on.
According to the historian, philosopher and best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari money is a mental construct. It is a construct that enables human beings to cooperate in large groups. It is extraordinarily powerful. Wars are fought over it. It determines who prospers and who does not. Who has it and who does not can literally be a matter of life and death.
Harari said: “Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.”
Its power reigns across nationalities and the most extreme ideological divides. Osama bin-Laden, who became the poster boy for terrorism after the horrific attacks on 9/11, despised American democracy and the ideas and ideals that underpin it. Yet he still very much believed in the power of the American dollar.
Therefore, who we have on our money makes an extremely powerful statement. It reflects who has power, and who does not. This is not something new. Julius Caesar, the Roman dictator plonked his mug on coins after he usurped power. He saw that the coins not only had value not as a means to purchase goods and services, but as a powerful propaganda tool. It was a way of telling people that he was in charge.
So, who does our money say is in charge in Wales? It’s certainly not us. At the moment in Wales it reflects that the people of Wales do not have its destiny in its own hands.
It was recently announced that Alan Turing is to be the face of the Bank of England’s new £50 note. It’s a brilliant choice, and I am genuinely thrilled about it.
The genius computer pioneer and codebreaker is undoubtedly a hero. It is difficult to think of anyone more worthy of such an honour. If anyone deserves to have their face emblazoned on a banknote it’s him.
His story was brought to life by Benedict Cumberbatch in the marvellous film The Imitation Game.
During World War Two he helped accelerate Allied efforts to read German Naval messages enciphered with the Enigma machine. This saved thousands of lives and was pivotal in winning the war.
He also played a pivotal role in the development of early computers, first at the National Physical Laboratory and later at the University of Manchester. The computer you use, your smartphone exists because of the genius and the tenacity of that man.
When it was announced that Turing would feature on the new £50 note, Bank of England governor, and central banking’s answer to George Clooney, Mark Carney, said: “Alan Turing was an outstanding mathematician whose work has had an enormous impact on how we live today.
“As the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, as well as a war hero, Alan Turing’s contributions were far-ranging and path-breaking.
Turing is a giant on whose shoulders so many now stand.”
Despite all this, he was treated abominably by the establishment. He was chemically castrated after being arrested after having an affair with a 19-year-old Manchester man.
In 2013, he was given a posthumous royal pardon for his 1952 conviction for gross indecency. This and his inclusion on the £50 note makes a powerful statement about LGBT rights and their importance, and it is one that I applaud.
In Wales we should be able to make powerful statements of our own, to celebrate our own heroes.
The Bank of England is not the Bank of Wales. It is not Banc Cymru. Yet it is one of the most powerful institutions in the UK and has a profound impact on the lives of the people of Wales.
It literally determines how much the pound in your pocket is worth. It determines how much people pay on their mortgage.
A rate hike could be the difference between a family keeping its head above water, and sinking; losing its home. It could mean the difference between a business being able to service its debt or not.
Its remit also extends to regulation. If you don’t think this is important then let me just remind you that it was a lack of regulatory oversight in the US and the UK that was largely responsible for the 2008 financial crash. We are still suffering from its decade-long hangover.
The Bank is overseen by a board of directors, known as the Court of Directors. They are appointed by the Head of State on the recommendation of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor.
Its mission statement says that its job is: “Promoting the good of the people of the United Kingdom by maintaining monetary and financial stability”.
The Bank of England does to a good job in reaching out to businesses across the UK to listen to their views. However, it can only do so within certain institutional constraints and those constraints are by definition rather limiting.
There is no Welsh representation here. The dearth of Welsh faces on the banknotes we use in Wales is a reflection of the lack of representation we have within the UK’s institutional power structures.
It is an example of a broader silencing of Welsh voices, and whitewashing of Welsh culture and identity on these isles.
Welsh speakers especially know this all too well. We didn’t even have the Welsh language on our road signs until the 70s.
The Welsh language is not represented on our banknotes either. The message our banknotes currently sends is that the Welsh language is of little importance.
Is it any wonder that people are arming themselves with paintbrushes to scrawl Cofiwch Dryweryn (Remember Tryweryn) on walls the length and breadth of the country? When people’s voices aren’t heard within the halls of power, they make them heard beyond them. The story is of the drowning of a Welsh-speaking village to steal our water, and the reaction to it is a poignant example of this.
Those are just a few indignities we’ve had to endure in a cornucopia of indifference and downright hostility from the powers that be.
Almost every country on earth has their own heroes and giants on their banknotes. In America they have American Presidents.
Why should Wales be any different? Why shouldn’t Wales be able to pay homage to its heroes? Are we less worthy than these other nations? Of course we’re not.
Why shouldn’t we be able to honour David Lloyd George? The Welsh Wizard was the first Prime Minister of the UK who wasn’t an aristo. As Chancellor of the Exchequer he laid the foundations for the welfare state.
We could have Iolo Morganwg, who was responsible for the establishment of the Gorsedd of the Bards 1792. It became the guardian of the language and culture of Wales. It was formally linked with the Eisteddfod in 1819, an act which ultimately led to the National Eisteddfod we know today.
It would also give us the opportunity to do a better job of representing women on our banknotes.
It was only comparatively recently that a representative of half the population was deemed worthy of inclusion on a banknote by the powers that be, when the English novelist Jane Austen was put on the £10 note.
We have many hidden heroines in Wales, and it’s about time we stopped marginalising them and started acknowledging their contribution to our society.
It was noticed that there was a shocking dearth of statues of women in Wales.
Because of that, the Hidden Heroines campaign was launched to immortalise a woman who had made a significant contribution to Wales in a statue to be erected in our nation’s capital.
Wales’ first black headteacher Betty Campbell won the public vote. She was a member for the Commission for Racial Equality and did much to promote diversity in Wales. Well if she is good enough for a statue, well why not a Welsh banknote too?
To have a woman from the BAME community on our banknotes would send an incredibly powerful message about the value we place on diversity in our society.
Betsi Cadwaladr, the famous Welsh nurse who worked alongside Florence Nightingale (they didn’t get on apparently) during the Crimean War is another option. The Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board was named in her honour in 2009.
Elaine Morgan, the TV writer, feminist icon a ground-breaking evolutionary theorist would be another worthy choice, and there is no shortage of other women who would be just as worthy of being on a banknote.
We should be able to have legendary Welsh rugby captain fantastic Alun Wyn Jones on our banknotes if we damn well please. Some might think that Gareth Bale and his fine man bun would look rather fetching on our banknote. I know I’m being slightly frivolous here but the point is serious. The choice should be ours.
I do not claim to be an expert on monetary policy. However, I do know an unequal power dynamic when I see one. This one is so pervasive that it seems people barely notice it. It has been normalised. We don’t even have to open our eyes. We need only acknowledge what is right in front of them every day.
The answer could be for Wales and the other nations of the UK to have proper representation in the Bank of England and for this to be reflected on our banknotes. It could be for us to have our very own Banc Cymru. No doubt there are challenges to be overcome and plus and minuses with each approach.
What is certain however is that the current situation is profoundly undemocratic and disrespectful to the people of Wales, and that has to change.
This lack of control has real-world implications. Powerful people can make decisions that harm our nation and at the moment we are powerless to stop it. Each time we use an English banknote is a reminder of this harsh fact. It is a potent symbol of cultural oppression and institutional powerlessness.
Our money should be a reflection of who we are in Wales. At the moment it is not. We are treated like we are unimportant; as if we do not exist. We need to remind people that we are here. Da ni yma o hyd after all.