Richard Evans: "Mr Gove is definitely a donkey. A donkey who pretends to be a lion.” richard evans

Outspoken Cambridge historian Richard Evans has criticised the issuing of a commemorative two pound coin bearing the image of Lord Kitchener.

Speaking to Varsity, the regius professor and president of Wolfson College said that the coin "gives the wrong message".

The coin, which is the first of a set of five to be released by the Royal Mint this year as part of events commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, will reproduce the iconic "Your country needs you" recruitment poster.

“The image simply conjures up patriotic mobilisation. We need to think more carefully and in a more grown-up way about the First World War,” says Evans, who warns that the coin could shut down public debate.

"Obviously there are a lot of different points of view over whose head to include on a commemorative coin. I don’t think it should be railroaded through."

Evans is not alone in raising objections to the design. Labour councillor Sioned-Mair Richards has started a petition to replace the image with that of Nurse Edith Cavell. The petition has so far gathered almost 50,000 signatures. Evans supports the suggestion: “Her action was not one of narrow patriotism; she helped many different kinds of soldiers, soldiers of different nationalities. Her famous statement of course is 'patriotism is not enough’.” A spokesman for the Royal Mint has said that the series will include "a number of different high profile individuals and events from the wartime period.”

However, Evans’s criticism of the coin reflects his wider fears of the First World War being celebrated as a British victory.

Speaking about the release of letters and diaries of soldiers to commemorate the anniversary, he said: "They conceived themselves as fighting to defend the British Empire, not what Mr Gove says are western liberal democratic values.”

“We have to remember that Britain was not a democracy in 1914. Forty percent of adult males did not have the right to vote,” he adds.

Evans calls for people to “raise their eyes above the western front”. He supports those centenary events which emphasise the international element of the war: “The commemorations will begin according to current plans I’m told with a joint Anglo-German ceremony at a Belgian graveyard where there’s an equal number of British and German soldiers buried.” 

Despite the professor's broad support for government plans, the centenary has rekindled tensions between Evans and Michael Gove, who recently used an article in the Daily Mail to label Evans’s arguments as those of “an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue”.

Evans says that it was a personal attack: “I played a very public part in criticising his personal draft of the national history curriculum for the schools, which he was then obliged to withdraw, and I don’t think he’s forgiven me for that.”

He adds: “I don’t think that Mr Gove should try to shut down the debate by condemning, or by branding people like me as unpatriotic.”

The soldiers of the First World War have famously been described as "lions led by donkeys". A comment on Gove’s latest article attributed that description to the leadership of the current government. Evans shares the sentiment.

 “I think in respect of his proposed national history curriculum, Mr Gove is definitely a donkey. A donkey who pretends to be a lion.” 

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