At a time when Britain has never been so multicultural and diverse, there’s a clear case to be made for why we should have Stephen Lawrence on the new £50 note.
According to the Bank of England, which announced this week plans to redesign the current note, banknote characters “allow us to celebrate people who have shaped UK society through their thought, innovation, leadership or values.”
I’ve spoken to a few people about this matter. This week, a relative unleashed a deep sigh as I explained why I’d like to see this happen. When I stopped to ask them if they had some sort of respiratory issue, they replied: “No, but don’t talk wet. He’s a silly choice for the £50 note.”
Some believe it’s hard to justify Stephen being on the banknote because he was a victim of crime and didn’t himself do anything, per se.
Others might say being murdered doesn’t elevate someone to the status of being a hero or someone who should be celebrated. And in any case, he was sadly not the first person to be killed around that specific time - or ever - as a result of racism.
True, the Eltham-born teen doesn’t match the conventions of the typical characters that have been featured on the British banknote. He is not renowned within a particular vocation - but only because he was struck down in his prime before he could take flight as the architect he aspired to be. Nonetheless, he has shaped our society.
Killed in a racist attack in 1993 at only 18, Stephen’s death brought about much-needed social and political reform. This happened because he lived.
In particular, the events that closely followed his murder opened the eyes of the British public to the harsh realities of racism, something the black community had known and endured for years but that had been ignored for decades.
Stephen’s death may well have gone on to save the lives of others, improve mass consciousness and make future generations’ lives easier. As Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Council, said: “For the first time the British public saw parents, a family, whose grief was so patent and whose dignity was so clear, that everybody could identify with them. White Britain realised that, actually, black Britain and black Britons aren’t really that different.”
It was a watershed moment in UK history and Stephen was at the centre of it, though he absolutely shouldn’t have been. Ahead of the memorial service marking the 20th anniversary of his death, then-prime minister David Cameron described his murder as “a moment that sparked monumental change in our society - change that has been brought about by the tireless efforts of Stephen’s family in challenging the police, government and society to examine themselves and ask difficult questions.”
This makes him an emblem of change. I believe Stephen represents values of diversity, inclusion and fairness. In 2018, we could well do with a reminder of the importance of these qualities.
Just this week, the Crown Prosecution Service released its annual hate crime report and, unsurprisingly in the age of Brexit, the Windrush scandal and Donald Trump, numbers are on the increase. It is estimated there were 101,000 incidents of racially motivated hate crime per year - 101,000 too many in a country that’s supposed to be built upon liberty and tolerance.
Doreen and Neville Lawrence’s relentless campaign for justice for their son resulted in the Macpherson inquiry and report, which established that institutional racism remained a huge problem within the Metropolitan Police Service. The report’s recommendations paved the way for a much-welcomed restructuring of policing and the means by which it can be held to account.
I was born months before Stephen’s murder and, throughout my entire life, I’ve been familiar with the case through news coverage and family discussions.
By the time I started my GCSEs, I could tell you chapter and verse what had happened so far. Many others share the same experience but Stephen could have been my cousin, uncle or brother - so his death had deeper and more troubling resonance.
Stephen Lawrence, and the case surrounding him, symbolises the very best and very worst of the UK.
His existence, the best: Stephen had dreams, aspiration - representing promise.
He was a young man who was widely admired - demonstrating camaraderie, unity and the core British values of democracy and tolerance.
As a teenager he represented the vitality of youth - the future.
As a young black British man, he was multiculturalism and diversity.
As a descendent of the Windrush generation, he represents dignity.
And yet, his murder is a constant, sobering reminder of the worst of Britain and the racism that still thrives in every corner of society to this day, albeit more covertly.
Still, the complexity of Stephen’s life and death shouldn’t rule him out of being an option for our cash. After all, every single character on the banknotes is flawed, representing the best and worst of us in some way. Winston Churchill, for example, was a great leader who happened to be a racist too. And no, the latter point is not up for debate.
On numerous occasions, I’ve been called a monkey or the n-word, like Stephen was on the night he was targeted and killed. There have been lots of times where I’ve been told to “go back to where I come from” which, incidentally, is Brixton, not Africa. There have been plenty of times where I’ve felt ostracised, like countless others who do not fit the status quo.
The question shouldn’t be why we should have him on our money but, rather, why not? There’s never been a black person on a British banknote. Why is that? Are black people good enough to pour money into the economy but not to see themselves reflected on the money, itself?
Believe it or not, continued lack of representation leaves a lasting impression - especially on young, impressionable minds. Children are watching. When I was old enough, about eight, my mum began to regularly send me to the shop to buy her a Pepsi Max and other goodies. She’d carefully place a £5 or £10 note in my hand, utter careful instructions - “don’t talk to strangers”, “hurry up and come back” - and tell me to bring back every penny of her change.
The first few times she did that, I vividly remember examining the banknote, intrigued. I wondered who the then-ambiguous person depicted was and, after enough years passed, wondered why none of them looked like me. I grew up and became used to being ‘the other’, and the fact that certain things just don’t occur because of the order of the day. But sometimes that’s just not good enough.
There are a plethora of black people who are more than qualified to be on our cash, not least Stephen. He died because of the prejudicial attitudes that come as a result of privilege and empire, and I think having him on our British cash would be atonement, in a way, for the part that this country played in his death - a reminder of Stephen’s plight, how far we’ve come as a society and how far we have to go.
‘Diversity’ appears to be very much the ‘in’ thing nowadays. Many institutions preach about it, and indeed the Bank of England states on its website that “we want the characters who make it onto our banknotes to come from different backgrounds and fields”.
If the establishment wishes to put its money where its mouth is, so to speak, then having Stephen Lawrence on the £50 note would be one of the most impactful ways to go about doing that.
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