Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

3 April 2008

New British Coins: Time For Change?

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I had mixed feelings when they announced a few months ago that the symbol of Britannia (the Boadicea-like female warrior that is a traditional emblem for Britain and the British Empire) would no longer be appearing on any of our British coins, as she does on the current 50-pence piece (see above).  Although she represents a militaristic, imperialistic Britain that in some respects we shouldn’t be too proud of, I contemplated with dread the more ‘appropriate’, ‘contemporary’ symbols of Britishness we were promised we’d be getting. On top of which, the ‘British’ lion seated next to the figure of Britannia could also be taken as a symbol of England: picking up the theme of the Crest of England that appears on the 10-pence piece.

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The new designs were revealed for the first time yesterday. They employ quite a clever idea, which is to depict fragments of the Royal Crest on each of the six coins from 1p to 50p, which – when placed together in the right configuration – compose the complete crest, which is then united in a single image on the £1 coin. This is indeed quite a contemporary-NEWDESIGNSFORMATION

looking design, which re-expresses the idea of a unitary United Kingdom in quite a subtle way. Each of the coins appears to focus on different ‘constituent parts’ of the UK – otherwise known as the nations of the UK. In this respect, England appears – for a change – to come out of it quite well, as in fact all but the two-pence coin show parts of the English Three Lions emblem. By contrast, apart from the £1 coin, the Lion Rampant of Scotland appears in any recognisable way only on the 2p piece: continuing an honourable tradition whereby the higher-denomination coins show British or English emblems, while lower-value coinage is reserved for the smaller nations of the kingdom, as in the present five-pence piece (Scotland) and two-pence piece (Wales).

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Too bad for Wales with the new coins, though, as none of the parts of the Royal Crest contain any overt symbol for Wales – and it’s not as if the Principality is lacking in them: the Red Dragon, daffodils, leeks, even the rugby ball at a pinch! I can see the new coinage is going to re-ignite all the controversy there was last year over the absence of any Welsh element from the Union Flag. But then again, as a survey commissioned by the (English) Justice Ministry found only last week, the Welsh are the UK nation that feels the greatest sense of ‘belonging to Britain’ (more so than the English) – so perhaps they won’t mind too much (says he, tongue in cheek)! And don’t even mention the word ‘Cornwall’!

By contrast, the new designs appear to provide a definite promotion of the (Northern) Irish element, as the Irish harp appears in an obvious way in three of the six coins worth under a pound, compared with no Irish representation in the equivalent coins up to now. Not surprising, perhaps, given that the young designer, Matthew Dent, who won the contest to come up with the new images is from Bangor, Northern Ireland! [PS. I was corrected on this by a reader (see comments below). The designer is from the other Bangor, in North Wales, which only makes the comment about Welsh buy-in to Britishness all the more telling! Unless it’s just an ironic joke intended to provoke a row which, like the design itself, points to the disunited character of the kingdom, as Englisc Fyrd suggests.]

All this apparent focusing in on the emblems for the different nations of the UK could lead one to think that the new design was giving expression to a new consciousness of the UK as comprising distinct nations that are yet held together by the manifold bonds of history, tradition, loyalty to the monarchy (the Royal Crest theme) and that familiar old sense of ‘shared Britishness’. And yet the cleverness of the design is that it suggests that none of those separate national elements is sufficient in isolation: that it’s only when you put them together that you complete the picture and that you arrive at the national unity symbolised by the ‘one-ness’ of the one-pound coin. Of course, the very absence of any overt Welsh (or Cornish) symbolism might already have led one to the same conclusion: that these coins are not at all about celebrating the diverse consciousness and traditions of the nations of the UK but only about providing a modern symbol for the national unity of the UK in the same way that the Union Jack so cleverly embodies the concept of a unitary UK of (five) four three nations.

In fact, it’s the current coinage that does greater justice to the idea that Britain (as opposed to the UK) is comprised (notwithstanding Cornish claims of separateness) of England, Scotland and Wales – given the inclusion of separate English, Scottish and Welsh symbols on the different coins; the English benefiting from a traditional, but demographically proportionate, discrimination in having their emblems feature on both the 10p coin (see image above) and the 20p coin (below).

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But the new coins can of course be read in quite a different way. They could be viewed as symbolising the fact that the old Britain / Britannia is breaking up: a state whose imperial power and certainties acted as such a strong force for unity that the separate identities of England, Scotland and Wales could be celebrated without threatening it. Now, as the unity of the Royal Crest dissolves into fragments, we no longer have images on most of our coins that are complete symbols for either ‘Britain as a whole’ or indeed each of the constituent nations. Instead, we have disjointed bits of the Three Lions, the Lion Rampant and the Irish Harp, with elements from one emblem sometimes crossing over into the image of the other and sometimes not. As if to say that when we lose the vision of our distinct national identities as English, Scottish and Irish (let alone Welsh and Cornish), we lose the integral vision of Britain as a whole – of Britain as one.

Admittedly, this oneness is reunited in the new one-pound coin. But there’s something about this that doesn’t add up. Indeed, if you do add up the ‘values’ of the lower-denomination coins, you get 88 pence, not one pound. So the different values of the lesser coins (the different UK nations) from which the presence of distinct national symbols are deferred (‘differed’, changed) across the sequence of the coins do not properly come together in one-pound (one nation and one unitary (set of) value(s)); rather, they leave an unbridgeable difference.

Another word for that difference – 12p, to be precise – is change. So perhaps the new coins are an appropriate symbol for a changing United Kingdom, after all. But there’s no guarantee, like the comforting circular closure of the one-pound coin, that that change will preserve and reinstate a former unity whose brokenness is aptly symbolised by the fragmentary and incomplete symbols of the nations of Britain – whose search for new identity and values may yet produce even more difference.

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