I was delighted to read last week's news that from 2016, Winston Churchill will be the new face of the fiver (five pound note, about $7.50, if you're reading this in the US).
Now, my reaction isn't surprising, given that I wrote a book about Sir Winston. But it goes far beyond my appreciation for the man who led Britain through her darkest hour and into her finest.
The pound is a reminder to Brussels that Britain is still, in the best ways, the same country that Churchill gave his all to preserve. While the Tory Europhiles (step forward, Mr. Heseltine and co.) wanted to let the Euro technocrats consign our currency to the history books in favor of the gold-starred monstrosity of the Euro and Tony Blair would surely have done the same, several things stood in their way.
Chief among these was arguably Gordon Brown's finest political act: his Five Tests. These were conditions that the British economy had to meet before the then Chancellor of the Exchequer would permit Britain to join (see: capitulate to) the single currency. I'd like to believe that, despite his failings as Prime Brown is a man who understood the economic catastrophe that would be unleashed if he let Blair do away with the pound.
Because it's not just about getting to choose pictures to put on your country's notes and coins - though I believe that both American and Brits agree this is important, given the historical giants whose images these countries put on their currency (as did Jesus, and, ahem, John Maynard Keynes per this Daniel Hannan video).
In fact, the ability to make such decisions, to name your coins, to set their value, etc. is a key marker of how much influence a government and the people who elected them have over their country.
Certainly British author David Downing is aware of how important currency is not just in domestic affairs, but also on the world stage. In the wonderful conclusion to the John Russell series, Masaryk Station, Downing's protagonist ruminates on the currency reform that America, Britain and France initiate in their occupation zones within postwar Germany in 1948. Echoing Keynes, Russell tells one of his CIA handlers, "Whoever controls the currency runs the economy, and whoever controls the economy runs the country. If Washington leaves Berlin out, then they're handing it to the Russians."
And how did the Soviets respond to the currency reform? In the same manner any authoritarian regime reacts to a threat to its power and legitimacy - by attempting to reassert control in the most dramatic fashion possible. In the case of 1948, this took the shape of the Berlin Blockade, whereby Russia locked down all road, rail and water travel between its zone in the East and the British, French and American zones in the West. The goal was twofold: force the Western allies to abandon the currency change or quit Berlin. Thanks to the imagination and resolve of General Lucius Clay, George Marshall, Harry Truman, Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin, they failed on both counts.
Downing incorporates such geopolitical elements into his narrative in a way that gives readers deeper insight and encourages them to read more. His unsentimental appraisal of the actions of the prime movers before, during and after WW2 - through the cynical, battle-weary eyes of Russell - means that while Downing's work is fictional, it is also a clear-sighted appraisal of the times. There are of course many in-depth studies of the Cold War and the Berlin Blockade, but if you want the characterization of a master writer combined with the insight of a novelist who clearly knows his history, Masaryk Station is a fine starting point.
The issue of who makes currency decisions and what bitter harvests these choices reap at home anf abroad is no less relevant almost 70 years on from the fateful time Downing describes.