Richard Porch delves into the secretative process of choosing what appears on our stamps
Would the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas in 2014 provide an appropriate subject for a suite of commemorative stamps to be issued by the Royal Mail? With that question in mind I began looking into the origins of commemorative stamps, how and why they came into existence and what it takes to get them issued.
Now here’s a funny thing. Commemorative postage stamps are widely considered to be one of the most cost-effective and attractive ways of representing a nation both nationally and internationally. Yet the commissioning and design of them in Britain is carried out under a cloak of secrecy, the process is beyond scrutiny and is executed by a publicly-owned business. Is that right or proper?
The tradition of issuing attractive commemorative stamps (at least by Britain) is a fairly new one. It was initiated by Tony Benn when he was Postmaster General in Harold Wilson’s government between 1964–66. Benn wanted to put well designed commemorative stamps to the best possible use by issuing them to project Britain’s heritage, achievements and anniversaries. He also wanted to increase postal revenues and thought that more attractive stamps would not only generate more sales but create more collectors. Which is fair enough.
Looking back to this period, unlike today the Post Office was then a branch of government and had a monopoly on the right to carry mail. This produced a highly conservative approach to the design of stamps and led to them only being issued in connection with State or Commonwealth occasions and significant international events. If you marry that to an innately conservative British outlook that wanted to avoid our stamps becoming ‘cheap and flashy’, as a lot of foreign stamp issues were deemed, then the default setting produced a stamp usually dominated by the Sovereign’s head.
It doesn’t help either that monarchs in the UK have traditionally taken an interest in the design of coins, stamps and medals anyway. King George V was known as the ‘Philatelist King’ because of his extensive collection of stamps of the British Empire and Commonwealth. It was he who admonished Kenneth Clark (later Lord Clark of Civilisation) to …”never let the Sovereign’s head come off the stamps”.
An added complication was that since Britain was the inventor of the postage stamp it didn’t then (and doesn’t now) put ‘Great Britain’ or ‘United Kingdom’ on its stamps. All other nations have to identify themselves on their stamps – have you ever noticed that? So adding the sovereign’s head then became a must. Otherwise how else would you know where it came from?
Finally all designs must be shown to the Monarch before being printed. Technically speaking the Queen has sign-off and is the final arbiter of taste. In the early 1960s Tony Benn tinkered with the distinctly republican notion idea of removing the monarchs’ head from commemorative stamps altogether. However, he gave this up as a bad job. So conservative was stamp design policy initially that only members of the Royal Family (dead or alive) were allowed to appear on a stamp.
Despite producing the world’s first stamp in 1840 it took 124 years and the 400th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare before that rule was changed in 1964. We had to wait another 35 years and the 19p stamp showing Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor (of the rock band Queen) before a living person other than a living member of the Royal Family appeared on a stamp.
Not privatised in the 1980s the Royal Mail is now a limited company owned by the UK government. Should you try writing to the Royal Mail to suggest a subject for a suite of commemorative stamps, for instance the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas in 2014, you’ll get a response that points out a number of things. First, that the stamp programme requires detailed planning and needs at least three years advance warning of a proposal. So my proposal for some Dylan Thomas stamps is only just timely. However; if one casts one’s mind back to the Charles and Diana wedding stamps of 1981, the England rugby World Cup stamps of 2003 and the ones issued for the England Ashes victory in 2005 it seems clear that editions of commemorative stamps can be approved much more quickly, if required.
In fact, the stamp selection process works as follows. A list of potential subjects is prepared by the Royal Mail from suggestions sent in by the public in addition to a list of other themes, events and anniversaries relating to a given year. You’ll also get told that ‘research’ is carried out amongst a cross-section of the UK population as well as amongst philatelists in order to assess potential popularity. The Mail then takes this and their ‘own criteria’ into consideration before finalising the subjects for a given year.
One has to assume that the Mail’s criteria actually means a commercial test of likely profitability. The important thing to remember in all this is that it is the Royal Mail that chooses the subjects for commemoration. What happens next is that a body called the Stamp Advisory Committee comes into play. This body was set up in 1968 and is comprised of up to twelve representatives from the design and stamp collecting communities, a member of the ethnic community, someone from the dti, one from business, print, a well-known broadcaster and so on. This is a voluntary body that meets every couple of months in London. When asked who they were I was told:
“We do not commonly disclose the names of these representatives as we wish to respect the need for them to be impartial in their decision-making process”.
Contrast this with the American equivalent where the identity of their Stamp Advisory Committee is freely available on their website. All the Committee do is make a recommendation to the Royal Mail based on a pre-supplied list. They do not choose the stamps. In 2004 however an interview with a leading collector who was also on the Stamp Advisory Committee revealed that there was:
“…enormous pressure from the sales and marketing arms of the Royal Mail to maintain retail (sales) levels, and (the) Royal Mail is after all a commercial business, with currently severe financial problems…”
So here is the nub of the problem. The Royal Mail is only a business, albeit an ailing one that is facing partial privatisation with a profitable side-line in commemorative postage stamps. This is all well and good and I certainly have no problem with the Royal Mail making money. But we do need a greater say in what appears on stamps because of their importance as cultural artefacts. In its present incarnation the Royal Mail would never accede to giving anyone a say in that because it might affect it’s already fragile profitability.
Yet, given the cultural significance of stamps, this is the poorest of all arguments for denying Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland a greater say in what appears on them. I actually believe that inviting the other three home nations to create suites of stamps representing their distinctive cultures would generate huge interest not just in the philatelic community (in effect diversifying the market) but stimulate a new interest in the non-collector. To say nothing of adding to the general gaiety of nations.
Those little bits of coloured paper we stick to letters to pay for postage are in reality an artform that crosses international boundaries and represents the issuing country world-wide. They can be used to commemorate anniversaries, special occasions and achievements, whether sporting, scientific orartistic. By creating them we would extend patronage of Welsh culture via philately. Oh yes, and it will raise revenue, as was originally intended.
What the Welsh Government should do is prise control of what appears on stamps in Wales away from the Royal Mail or whoever is in charge post-privatisation. The Royal Mail would strongly resist that solely because it needs the cash they generate. But surely this is not reason enough for them to retain control.
A Stamp Fact File