News that Winston Churchill’s jowly, glowering face – sans the cigar – is to adorn the British five-pound note from 2016 gives one pause for thought. Notaphilists (people who collect banknotes, as opposed to numismatists, those who collect coins) will be racing to scoop up prize examples of the doomed fivers, which bear the face of social reformer Elizabeth Fry.
That said, the new notes will be worth a lot more than five pounds in terms of symbolism. Sir Winston will be only the second British prime minister to feature on a banknote – and the first to be there for his statesmanship. According to one British TV station, the previous prime ministerial face on a fiver, the Duke of Wellington, was probably “chosen for his record as a general rather than his tenure in Downing Street” because unlike US presidents, British prime ministers are not a generally popular choice for currency notes.
Anyway, there is much to celebrate about the choice of Churchill for a note that some say might henceforth be dubbed a “Winston”. He was, of course, the only British prime minister in history to have received the Noble Prize for Literature (and he thoroughly deserved it; I grew up hearing my mother sing the praises of Churchill’s ‘The River War’). He wrote brilliant speeches (and was not too self-obsessed to reprise the poetry of someone else’s prose). He was an accomplished artist. And he was indomitable (in the way of an older, more resolute generation) about self-improvement, labouring to conquer – and succeeding – the lisp he uncompromisingly called “my speech impediment”.
Sir Winston speaks to everything that is bulldog-like in Everyman.
But as an Anglo-American Indian, I have to confess to viewing with disfavor his refusal to believe that India deserved to be free or even be granted dominion status. He favoured letting Gandhiji die if he had the temerity to go on hunger strike as part of the Independence movement. He really believed that India would descend into civil strife and that Britain would be totally undone (with mass unemployment) if the Raj folded its tent and became history.
He was, clearly, a product of his time.
But a remarkable one, for all that.