Pen Mendonça

Black and gold: a turning point for British currency

Banknotes of Colour have successfully campaigned for legal tender to be more representative, showcasing Britain’s rich and diverse histories. One small step for man, one giant leap towards a more united country?

In November 2018, the Bank of England launched a campaign to see which pioneering British scientist the public wanted to feature on the new £50 note. 

This presented an opportunity for Zehra Zaidi – a former Conservative parliamentary candidate who has ardently fought against Islamophobia throughout her career – to propose that a Black, Asian or ethnic minority individual be considered for the honour. 

And so her own campaign, Banknotes of Colour, was born. Zaidi teamed up with cultural commentator and Windrush campaigner Patrick Vernon in a bid to make the legacies of Mary Seacole, a British-Jamaican military nurse, and Noor Inayat Khan, a British Special Operations Executive Agent in World War 2, who was posthumously awarded the George Cross for her bravery. 

Although Zaidi and Vernon lost their campaign for the £50 note, their perseverance and determination has paid off. Banknotes of Colour caught British chancellor Rishi Sunak’s attention, and these two incredible women will now be considered to appear on brand new British coins. 

The figures on the notes and coins that have passed through our hands for 400 years are not (and arguably never have been) representative of the richness and diversity of British culture and society. It was vital for Zaidi to raise awareness about the individuals who helped build Britain as we know it today and what better way to do that than get their face engraved on legal tender?

The Face caught up with Zaidi to discuss why this victory is so much more than just symbolic.

How did the campaign get started?

I’ve always been an equalities campaigner. In 2018, I had been talking about combating Islamophobia and building unity through conversations around role models, so I suggested Noor Inayat Khan, but people didn’t know her story. She was one of only four women to receive the George Cross – the highest civilian gallantry award – and she happened to be Muslim. People didn’t know she was the first female radio operator to be sent to enemy occupied France, and that during the time she was in Paris, the Gestapo had dissipated the French spy network. British authorities told her to return because it was too dangerous, but she stayed to help the French – she was betrayed and captured, but she never revealed any intelligence secrets under interrogation. Her final word was Liberté”. People had no idea that one George Cross recipient out of four, 25 per cent, was Muslim. So I was like, OK, this is really, really important. 

How did you come to work with Patrick Vernon for the Mary Seacole campaign?

He was actually campaigning at the same time to remind people of the contribution that Black people have had in this country – he’s a Windrush campaigner, and he was like, Let’s talk about these great people who have helped shape Britain and do so much good.”

When the Bank of England announced a £50 note campaign, both of us went, Right! We’re going to have Noor, we’re going to have Mary.” We had separate campaigns, but we came together at that point under the banner of Banknotes of Colour to try and make history. In 400 years of banknotes and coins, there has never been anyone of colour on a banknote. 

So we came together, but in July 2019 the bank announced that Alan Turing was going to be on the £50 note. After that we separated, but I continued and thought, I’m going to see if I can chase coins. The Bank of England does banknotes and is operationally independent from the treasury, but for coins it’s the chancellor that tells the Royal Mint to draw up plans for new coins. I thought I might have better luck with the treasury, and obviously I have!

Did you and Patrick band together to approach the treasury?

Yes. We wrote a joint letter with about twelve signatories, which included Trevor Sterling, the chairman of the Mary Seacole Trust and Shrabani Basu, the chairman of the Noor Inayat Khan Trust. It included historians like Kate Williams and Clare Mulley. We formally came together again, this time no longer under the Banknotes of Colour [moniker] but We Too Built Britain. We wanted it on coins, and in a future campaign we’re looking at statues. 

Do you know who they’re planning to put on the coins?

Service to the nation, especially military service, is a category that historically includes more people from ethnic minorities. In a time of conflict, recruitment is obviously on a more level playing field, and people from all across the Empire and Commonwealth were honoured for bravery. 

We gave them a list of six people: Mary Seacole, Walter Tull who was one of the UK’s first Black footballers for Spurs and also the first Black officer in the British Army, Khudadad Khan, the first Indian to be awarded the Victoria Cross, Krystyna Skarbek who was a Polish-British agent, and Kulbir Thapa, the first Nepalese Gurkha to receive the Victoria Cross. We have variety here, and these are just six suggestions. We’re saying, open this up for nominations, let everyone get excited about their heroes. Let’s have a real celebration from every community, let’s raise awareness and educate young people, let’s get schools involved and then decide. We’re really open about this. 

Why do you think it’s so important to have these diverse symbols on currency? What is so inspiring about it?

The main reason is that people from all backgrounds helped build Britain. We wanted to show an inclusive history with people from all ethnic and minority backgrounds and all walks of life who helped shape this country. 

A banknote is supposed to represent who we feel contributed to our history, our economy, our culture as a nation. And so we just felt this absolute urgency to acknowledge that we’ve always been here and that ethnic minorities have always been part of that conversation. 

We’ve achieved so much, and we all have an equal stake at contribution in society. Anyone online can see there’s division post-Brexit, division within policy. How great would it be to have someone of Muslim heritage, someone of Jamaican-British heritage, someone of Polish heritage recognised for their contribution to the country? It’s not a panacea, but it might show that all these communities living now have a role to play and we acknowledge that. Positive role models are not negative stereotypes and unity is more important than ever, so let’s move forwards.


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