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17 July 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 10:58am

Why it’s time for British banknotes to recognise ethnic minorities

The Bank of England's failure to acknowledge BAME figures sends a damaging message. 

By Zehra Zaidi

My co-lead for the Banknotes Of Colour campaign, Dr Patrick Vernon OBE, wrote on Monday that it was a victory for diversity and LGBT issues for Alan Turing to be recognised on the next £50 note. We believe Alan Turing to be a giant of British history. 

However, our complaint is with the Bank of England’s selection process, especially the attitude of senior staff to BAME campaigners. We have not been taken seriously (despite our petitions receiving over 150,000 signatures). We have been met with a wall of legalese to the effect that the Bank has fulfilled its Public Sector Equality Duty.

In November 2018, we found out that the category for the new £50 note would be #ThinkScience. We accepted that among household names, it might be hard for a lesser-known ethnic minority scientist to compete. However, the first response that month from Sarah John, the director of notes, failed to even mention the value of ethnic diversity and the specificity of race as a protected characteristic.

Our public support continued to grow. On 16 December 2018, our campaign secured the endorsement of celebrities such as David Oyelowo OBE, Meera Syal CBE and Gemma Chan, who signed a Sunday Times letter alongside 220 people in public life. On 5 February 2019, a letter signed by 100 cross-party politicians was sent by Helen Grant MP to the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney. On 2 April 2019, she presented a Private Members’ Bill in parliament.

We finally secured a meeting with the Bank on 14 February 2019. However, no BAME staff were invited despite the online promotion of the Bank of England ethnic minority staff network. And despite headlines that record numbers of ethnic minority employees were leaving the Bank in part due to its culture. 

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At the meeting, Sarah John insisted that ethnic diversity had been considered at every stage of the selection process. Her main argument was that the Banknote Character Advisory Committee now had BAME representation and that the nomination process was open to the public. So we asked how many BAME nominations were included among the total of 227,299 nominations and 989 eligible nominations. John could not tell us the former figure but said only 1 per cent of the latter were BAME. 

Moreover, John told us that there were no plans for any new note and that, if that changed, it would not be until 2030, by which time cash transactions would be as low as 9 per cent of payments. The ethnic minority population, however, might have doubled from 14 per cent in 2011 (the date of the last census). Finally, when we tried to show that BAME representation on banknotes was part of a global trend by central banks, such as Canada and New Zealand, to recognise historical racial injustice, we were met with complete silence. 

The governor wrote a reply to Helen Grant MP’s letter on 15 February 2019. He inferred that there might be future note issues. So we once more wrote to the Bank for clarity, but this was not forthcoming. The last letter we received on 9 April 2019 from Sarah John offered us little more than the option to provide feedback.

Our campaign was left with no choice but to keep campaigning for an ethnic minority face for the £50 note. We felt we owed it to our supporters. However, we did ask the Bank if the new £50 note could feature two faces (as the current version does): a well-known figure such as Alan Turing and a BAME face. This was also met with a wall of silence.

The Banknotes of Colour campaign aimed to show the positive contribution that different ethnic minority groups have made to Britain. The invisibility of any ethnic minority person on a banknote sends a damaging message that nothing has been done of any significance. 

Moreover, it undermines all the rhetoric of “global Britain” and the strengths of a diverse City of London, Even with regards to science itself, role models are needed from under-represented groups such as women and BAME communities. We also believe inclusivity aids attempts to build a more cohesive society. We wanted to challenge negative stereotypes and build a narrative that inspires and motivates. This was set against the backdrop of the Windrush scandal and cases of increased racism and intolerance.

The new prime minister and chancellor will appoint the next governor. Some campaigners and MPs have called for the next governor to be a woman given the issues around gender and race inequality. Last month, 94 academics and civil society representatives urged the new governor to foster a pluralistic policy-making culture. As the Banknotes of Colour campaign has always maintained, our economic, legal and equalities experts remain ready to work with the Bank to improve internal processes. We would, of course, like to see the issue of banknote representation revisited. 

Zehra Zaidi is the co-lead of the Banknotes Of Colour campaign

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