THERE ARE few things more controversial‚ÄĒand less consequential‚ÄĒthan the design of a national currency. Just ask Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England. In 2013 he inherited a dispute over the replacement with Winston Churchill of Elizabeth Fry, a social reformer, on the ¬£5 note. Previously, as governor of the Bank of Canada, he had to apologise after an Asian female scientist due to appear on the C$100 bill was bumped by a white woman. In the same year a new C$20 note was called ‚Äúpornographic‚ÄĚ for its depiction of scantily clad statues. So it must be with a sense of weariness that Mr Carney confronts the public debate on who should appear on the bank‚Äôs new ¬£50 note.
It may hardly seem to matter. Cash accounts for just a third of retail purchases by volume in Britain. Within a decade it will be used for just 16%, according to UK Finance, a trade body. The ¬£50 note is used least of all: there are more than twice as many tenners in circulation and six times as many twenties. Few cash machines dispense them. Shopkeepers distrust them. With the exception of crooks, the only group that uses ¬£50 notes in any number is tourists, so the sensible thing may be to choose an ambassador easily recognisable by visitors. William Shakespeare, perhaps‚ÄĒor, since the Bard used to feature on the ¬£20 note, maybe Peppa Pig.
Some countries avoid controversy by settling on a single unifying figure. India features only Mahatma Gandhi on every denomination, South Africa only Nelson Mandela, and China only Mao Zedong. Another solution is to avoid humans altogether. The Bank of Ireland, which issues sterling in Northern Ireland, a province with deep fissures, puts a whiskey distillery on the back of every note except the ¬£100, which has a university. Euro notes feature made-up bridges. Norway takes it to the extreme by pixellating its notes to such a degree that they resemble websites from 1993.
But since British passions have been aroused by a note that few ever use, why not simply produce more? An ¬£84 note could feature George Orwell. A series of ¬£60s could depict the Beatles. A note worth ¬£9¬ĺ might show Harry, Hermione and Ron. Postal authorities throughout the world produce novelty stamps. Central banks may as well follow suit.
These could be produced in such small quantities as to render them instant collectors‚Äô items, thereby reducing the problems of fraud and nuisance. (America‚Äôs $2 bill is rarely seen, partly because its unique design tempts people to hoard it.) The Bank of England might even toy with selling them at a premium. The European Central Bank allows the production of ‚ā¨0 notes as novelty items. In April the city of Trier produced such a note featuring its most famous son, Karl Marx. It cost ‚ā¨3.