We rarely have the chance to link to the writing of Hendrik Hertzberg, one of the New Yorker‘s cleverest turners of phrase, because he so frequently writes on political matters (generally outside our scope on this site). But when he writes on another topic, it is invariably worth reading if nothing else for the quality of his writing. This one, as it happens, is closer to our general range of interests because of the ecological implications:
On Wednesday came news that, starting in 2016, the Bank of England will replace its paper currency with plastic.
This doesn’t mean that our British cousins will thenceforth have to make all their purchases with credit cards, as in, “Do you take plastic?” They’ll still have folding money, but it will be printed on sheets of plastic polymers—a stiffer version of the stuff that the plastic bags which disfigure the trees of New York City are made of.
Plastic tends to be environmentally nasty, except for the biodegradable kind, which is so expensive that it’s used mainly for bionic appliances, like heart stents. Polymers are petroleum-based, never a good sign, and no one questions that a plastic bag used once and then thrown away is worse news for Mother Nature than a paper sack that meets the same fate. But the garden-club ladies of England can rest easy. The plastic cash will actually be greener than its paper ancestor, because it will last longer—two and a half times longer, according to the B.O.E., which identifies “the reduced environmental burdens associated with raw material production and processing of new banknotes to replace unfit ones” as “the main factor leading to their stronger environmental performance.”
That, assuming it’s true, is the good news, the comforting news. The bad news, the alarming news, is not what the money is made of. It’s who’s on it. For the first time in the long history of England, Scotland, and Wales, a picture of a politician will be on a British banknote.
“What about the Queen?” you may object. “Isn’t she on every single bill they have over there?” That she is. But even though Her Majesty is the head of state, and even though she has shown throughout her long reign that she has political skills, she is not a politician. She is a symbol. Her picture is functionally a picture of an edifice, like that of the White House on the twenty-dollar bill.
The politician on the new, plastic five-pound note will be Winston Churchill, and if any pol deserves the honor he does. To be sure, it would be only fair if at least a few of those fivers featured the face of Clement Atlee, the founder of the National Health Service. But that would risk opening the floodgates.
In the remainder of the current decade, as the bank rolls out its full polymer line, will it revert to its past practice of honoring what has truly made England great? Judging from its choice for the ten-pound note, next in line to go plastic, the answer appears to be a resounding, reassuring yes. The visage on the new tenner will be that of Jane Austen.
Here, in chronological order, are the fourteen notables who have appeared on British banknotes since 1960, when the practice of non-royal portraiture was introduced…
Read the rest of his post here.