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Sterling Identities

David Blaazer traces rival nationalisms within the British Isles from banknotes.

While most nations of the European Union accustom themselves to their new, transnational coins and banknotes, the continuing debate over whether and when Britain should follow suit demonstrates its capacity to arouse passions out of all proportion to the possible economic merits or demerits of the proposal.

The pound appears to be intimately bound up with many British people’s sense of who they are, and of their place in the world. While such feelings are not unique, the national currency appears to have a visceral importance in Britain (or, more accurately, in England) which is largely absent in most continental European countries. Indeed, were English attitudes more widespread, it is unlikely that Europe would currently be witnessing the simultaneous disappearance of eleven national currencies.

Remarkably in English polemics on the euro, the complex, multinational history of the pound itself is almost always overlooked, and it is often forgotten that the symbolic and emotional aspects of the question look quite different in the different kingdoms of the Union. Evidence of those differences can be found in an obvious place: on the money itself, where diverse ideas about nationhood and national identity have appeared regularly since the late eighteenth century. Images from English, Scottish and Irish paper money show not only how their national rhetoric has reflected competing ideas about the relationships between the components of the United Kingdom, but also how paper money has both reflected and shaped the divergent roles money has played in the nations’ respective histories.

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