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Banknotes: The Faces On Them And Their Make-up – Public Outcry, Now Public Consultation

By Expert Author: Donald Nason

There’s been much in the press recently about the UK’s banknotes – what’s on them, and what they’re made of.

It was fascinating to read the details about a possible change to the fabric from which the UK’s banknotes are made, and that the Bank of England is running a public consultation programme on whether the UK should move from cotton paper to polymer banknotes.

This follows on from the controversy which raged earlier in the year when it was announced that the picture of the social reformer Elizabeth Fry was to be removed from the £5 note. There was no issue over the choice of her successor – Sir Winston Churchill – only that with the disappearance of Elizabeth Fry there would be no woman on a UK banknote.

However, and thanks in part to a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez from Rutland and which saw protests and an on-line petition signed by 35,000 people, the Bank of England has announced that the £10 note is to bear the picture of novelist Jane Austen, a decision greeted by the Chancellor George Osborne as showing "sense and sensibility".

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, has subsequently insisted that it was never their intention to exclude women from appearing on banknotes, but that they will now be reviewing the selection process.

As for the possible change of material, the Bank of England says that polymer banknotes are resistant to dirt and moisture, so will stay cleaner, and would be more durable, lasting up to 2.5 times longer than paper banknotes. They’re also, apparently, environmentally friendly and a cheaper alternative, plus are able to incorporate advanced security features to make counterfeiting more difficult.

It’s the Bank’s intention that Polymer banknotes would also be smaller and more in line with the dimensions of banknotes in other countries, although size will still depend on denomination – the higher the denomination, the bigger the note.

Consultation meetings will take place at various venues across the country up until 15 November 2013, with the Bank’s decision on the change announced in December.

So, will the public go for change or want to stick with tradition? A recent report from the Payments Council talks about us being ‘creatures of habit’ where personal finance and banking is concerned – they highlight for example that 27 percent of current account holders in the UK are with the same provider as one or both of their parents. Or perhaps the cost and green credentials will sway opinion.

If the decision is made to move to polymer banknotes, the Bank says they would be introduced one at a time, starting with the Churchill £5 in 2016 at the earliest. And if the UK were to go polymer, we wouldn’t be the first country to make the move. More than 20 countries currently issue polymer banknotes, including Australia (since 1988), New Zealand, Mexico, Singapore, and Canada.

So it will be interesting to see the general public’s views on this possible change, “given that banknotes play a role in everyone’s day to day lives”, as The Bank of England says – and whether or not the American writer Cliff Bradshaw in the 1960s musical Cabaret was right with his observation that ‘Money makes the world go around’, banknotes whether cotton paper or polymer, and their digital representation, certainly keep the business world going round.

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