What has made the women on banknotes campaign so successful?

A petition calling for the Bank of England to include women on banknotes has garnered over 30,000 signatures. Social media and a tangible, realistic goal have helped its success.

This morning, campaigners dressed as influential British women presented a petition to the Bank of England to keep women on banknotes. Elizabeth Fry, the only woman on our currency who isn't the Queen, is set to be replaced by Winston Churchill. But the campaign, led by Caroline Criado-Perez has been building momentum. Alongside the over 30,000 people who have signed her petition, she now has the support of Ed Miliband. The new governor of the Bank, Mark Carney, has promised to look into the matter. On Threadneedle Street today there was plenty of interest from press and passers-by. But what has made the campaign so successful?

The internet has obviously had a significant role to play. Criado-Perez says it allows messages to “spread like wildfire” and provides women with ways of making themselves heard. On TV and Radio, “women tend to be the object of stories; they’ll be victims or case studies and won’t necessarily have a voice themselves”. On the web, they are commentators and activists, enthusiastically getting behind campaigns like this one. She cites other growing feminist movements No More Page 3 and Everyday Sexism, both of which have effectively harnessed the power of social media.

Making use of the internet has been vital, but it has been what campaigners call the ‘tangibility’ of the issue that has captured the public’s attention. Banknotes have a physical presence in our lives, they populate our wallets (or not, in my case) and form a part of our interactions with others. Vicky Beeching, an academic and broadcaster who has been involved in the campaign told me, “There’s a very physical payoff here. We are actually campaigning about something we are all very familiar with – it’s not an ethereal, kind of pie-in-the-sky type thing … We’ve got a clear goal and it’s hopefully a very achievable one.”

Criado-Perez maintains that the threat of litigation has also been important in getting a response from the Bank. She says, “I think they probably felt it was quite easy to brush of annoying women just making a noise. But it’s much harder to brush off a legal, technical point that says actually you haven’t considered the Equalities Act.” Using funds she has raised through online donations, she is now in the position to force the institution through an embarrassing legal battle, should it be required. This has given the petition and the campaign as a whole, considerably more clout.

A further reason for the success of the campaign is that it taps into the wider injustice of poor gender representation. Brie Rogers Lowery, the Campaigns Director at Change.org, the website which hosts the petition, said: "Caroline's campaign has been a perfect example of online movement building - finding an accessible, everyday example of a deeper, more complex issue.” Criado-Perez added, “It’s a really sort of good jumping off point to talk about wider issues about how we expect public institutions to behave and women’s representation overall in lots of different areas.”

By making the most of a flourishing online feminist community, identifying a tangible and achievable goal and keeping legal action very much on the table, the banknotes campaign has got off to an promising start. It has entered the public conciousness, is making headway in the political establishment and looks set to go from strength to strength. Others would do well to learn from it.

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Photos from today's event:

Photos from Vicki Couchman.

Campaigners outside the Bank of England. Photo: Vicki Couchman.

James is a freelance journalist with a particular interest in UK politics and social commentary. His blog can be found hereYou can follow him on Twitter @jamesevans42.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt