The new £50 banknote design is out for consultation, and people from all across the UK have been asked to nominate a famous face who is dead, UK-born, and has contributed to science. If, like me, you haven’t seen a £50 banknote in a while: it currently features Matthew Boulton and James Watt (both of steam engine fame).
The shortlist features all the names you’d expect. Stephen Hawking is there, as are Alexander Graham Bell and Patrick Moore. After the furore surrounding putting Jane Austen on the tenner, it’s good to see a range of women including Ada Lovelace, Mary Anning, Rosalind Franklin and Mary Seacole. But the nominee causing the most stir is the former prime minister, Baroness Thatcher.
Before she became one of the most divisive UK leaders of the 20th century, Margaret Thatcher was a chemist who was rumoured to have invented the soft-scoop ice cream (a claim the Royal Society states is untrue). On Tuesday on BBC Ulster, Dr Adrian Hilton noted that Thatcher was an enthusiast for scientific innovation during her time in government, and put science at the heart of her agenda.
However, when we see Thatcher’s portrait, science isn’t the word that comes to mind. She’s not known for her work in Stem but for her work in politics. That work was divisive, was once described as “gratuitously offensive”, and caused suffering in vulnerable communities. It’s impossible to put her on a £50 note and see it as a commemoration of her scientific brain, just as we didn’t look at Churchill on the fiver and remember his work as a historian.
Whether you are left- or right-wing, one thing we can surely agree on is that Thatcher’s leadership led to division across society, and her legacy continues to divide us today. Any attempts to celebrate her life will inevitably be read as political.
Those politics included homophobic legislation, violent suppression of the miners at places like Orgreave, policy decisions that increased poverty, the breaking up of union power and industry, a war that led to 48 British casualties, (a war my own father fought in), and the disaster of the Poll Tax. That’s not to mention a period of race riots, rising inequality, hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, and the political legacy of neoliberalism (in itself a divisive question).
As someone who grew up in a gay family in the late 1980s, Thatcher to me has always symbolised Section 28 – the legislation introduced 30 years that banned the “promotion of homosexuality in schools” and which enshrined into the statute books that homes like mine offered only “pretend family relationships”. In a now infamous speech, she said we need to stop teaching children that they “have an inalienable right to be gay”; the law caused huge harm to the LGBT community.
That’s just one community. What about the miners’ families who saw their pasts and futures smashed to pieces, and who went hungry during the bitter and divisive strike? What about the towns and villages that are still struggling to recover today, after years of privatisations, closures, and a neoliberal economic policy that has worsened the gap between rich and poor?
The message Thatcher on a £50 note sends to these communities is definitely not “chemist and science enthusiast”.
Thatcher has her supporters, and many praise her time as leader. In cannot be denied that she was a person of huge influence, and she was historically important for a range of reasons, not least her status as the UK’s first female PM.
But the £50 note decision gives us a chance to celebrate those who we recognise as having done something amazing for science, not someone whose major legacy is one of political division and ideological controversy.
Ada Lovelace and Rosalind Franklin are contenders, and provide a perfect opportunity to celebrate women in Stem whose contribution was undervalued in their lifetimes. Mary Seacole could become the first person of colour to adorn a banknote. Then there’s Alan Turing, who would have struggled to even make the school syllabus under Thatcher’s Section 28 regime. We’ve had allegedly queer men on banknotes before; a well-known gay hero would be a welcome addition.
In truth, it’s more likely that these or favourites like Hawking will make it to the Royal Mint. And let’s face it. In our post-Thatcher world, with a divided Tory government presiding over a struggling economy and rising inequality, most of us will never get to see a £50 note anyway.