Professor Forrest Capie

Cass Business School, City University of London

In ‘Hostile Money’ Paul Wilson brings a different perspective to the study of money and draws on historical experience to illustrate the two-way relationship money has with society. Money can be used consciously and possibly aggressively to shape matters or it can itself be the consequence of, for example, social changes. Wilson discusses in a large coverage over time and space: the effect of social movements on monetary systems; the impact of war on monetary systems; and the interplay between private and state activities and aims.  But there are many other interesting aspects of the story such as counterfeiting, both private and state, or of smuggling and so on.  This is a book full of interest for all kinds of audiences.

John PlenderAuthor of Capitalism: Money, Morals and Markets.Paul Wilson's Hostile Money is an extraordinarily wide ranging reviewof the relations between war, revolution and money - an essential andcompelling guide to a fascinating area where economics  andgeopolitics collide.

Hostile Money

 ‘Hostile Money: Currencies in Conflict’ was published in May and comments from people whose judgement I trust have been encouraging. The idea for this book – or rather, a somewhat larger book – came to mind in 2011 after some 17 years with the British banknote printer De La Rue. During those years I was fortunate enough, not only to work with some really good people, but also to observe at close quarters what was happening to money under the stress of conflict. Business trips to Sarajevo in the wake of the Dayton accord, to Kabul following the 2001 American- led invasion and to Kuwait in the run up to the launch of the Second Gulf War, followed by a visit to Baghdad after that invasion involved discussions with decision makers responsible for the introduction of new currencies following conflict.

Paola Subacchi 

Professor of International Economics, University of London's Queen Mary Global Policy Institute

Paul Wilson, Hostile Money: Currencies in Conflict, The History Press, 2019.

I am intrigued by the numerous links between money, power, and conflict, but I am also frustrated by how the topic is typically treated – mainly by international-relations specialists, because economists generally steer clear of it. This well-researched book, which includes both historical examples and contemporary evidence, avoids those pitfalls, while offering a fresh perspective on some important dynamics.

Project Syndicate Website Book Recommendations 2019

Robert Pringle

Impressively erudite, he never lets his command of detail hold up the story, so that the reader is swept up in the stormy history of money’s role in some of the greatest social, political and military conflicts from ancient Rome to the cyber warfare of the 21st century.

Wilson successfully explores the inter-connections between major social movements/events/conflicts on the one hand and money/monetary systems one the other. 

The author wears his scholarship lightly. He has no ideological axes to grind. He avoids getting bogged down in sterile debates  for example about monetarist versus Keynesian interpretations of the Great Depression or other much-debated periods of 20th century economic history. He rightly views money as a key social institution, responding to political, military and economic pressures but having its own dynamic. Money stands ready to make its contribution to progress, given the chance to do so. It is part of the effort to better the human condition. This combination of qualities make the book a pleasure to read.

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Currency for an Independent Scotland ?

News that polls in Scotland are showing a significant increase in support for independence encourages me to revisit the question of what the currency arrangements might be for an independent Scottish Currency.

At the time of the last referendum, the declared preferred position of the SNP on the question of Scotland’s future currency in the event of independence was that of a pound sterling currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom. The SNP insisted that a continuing currency union would minimise disruption for businesses both north and south of the border. Tactically, it would have the advantage of allaying the concerns of so-called ‘swing-voters’ who had doubts about the wisdom of severing Scotland from a currency system which had worked well for it.


However, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the conservative led Westminster government at that time, George Osborne, ruled out any currency union between Scotland and the United Kingdom, declaring that currency unions were ‘fraught with difficulty.’ In the event, the result of the 2014 referendum was a rejection of the independence proposal by the electorate and much of the analysis of the outcome pointed towards the uncertainty surrounding the currency of an independent Scotland as one of the key reasons for the rejection of independence. One poll indicated that more than half of those who voted against independence cited the currency question as one of the three concerns uppermost in their minds. 


As discussion of a second independence referendum gathered pace after the EU/Brexit referendum, so did public consideration of the currency question.

A new plan, put forward in May 2018 by the Sustainable Growth Commission which the SNP had established in 2016, recognised the importance of the currency question in the 2014 referendum. It set out the intention of moving after independence towards a new Scottish currency pegged to the pound sterling after a  possibly extended transitional period during which the pound sterling would also be used in parallel( albeit without the benefits of a formal currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom).  The plan also envisages the transfer of sterling held by Scottish banks at the Bank of England to back their own issue of Scottish notes to a central bank in Scotland at independence (although the deposits would continue to be the property of the Scottish banks). It accepts that Scottish banks might continue to issue currency for Scotland – in parallel with Sterling - until such time as the central bank would be ready to issue its own currency, implying that , at that point , commercial banknote issue would end.[1]

But , the announcement in the run-up to the 2014 referendum by two of the three Scottish note – issuing  banks – the Bank of Scotland ( owned by the British bank Lloyds) , and the Royal Bank of Scotland -  that their registered headquarters would be moved to London in the event of a vote for independence  must raise the question as to whether they would agree to shift their reserves north following independence.


Commercial banks would of course make their decisions on commercial grounds and that would mean minimising risk. The power of the Bank of England as lender of last resort and the Treasury as a safety net was well demonstrated at the time of the 2008 credit crunch. The cost then of recapitalising the Royal Bank of Scotland amounted to twice the estimated GDP of an independent Scotland.  If indeed they refused to move their sterling reserves north, would the Scottish government permit the commercial banks’ currency to circulate without adequate cover held in Scotland? Almost certainly not.  The decision by the Royal Bank of Scotland Group in the past 48 hours to rebrand its parent group NATWEST may be an indicator of that bank not only severing its brand from the unfortunate events of 2008 , but also as an early step in repositioning itself for possible Scottish independence.


A plausible scenario to emerge from a transitional period of parallel circulation of sterling and commercial notes could see the former hoarded as a store of value while the latter would be used as a medium of exchange. To counter this possibility, confidence in commercial notes could be underpinned by a clear commitment to convert them for sterling – or indeed for any new Scotpound. But would the population then rush to convert their commercially issued notes for sterling? Provided 100% sterling reserve cover is held in Scotland, such a ‘run ‘on the banks could be managed (even if Scottish commercial banknotes would pretty quickly disappear out of circulation).  But the risk would not be manageable in the event that the banks insist on keeping their Sterling south of the border.


In the medium to longer term, the prospects for any future Scotpound backed with sterling will depend on Scotland’s ability to earn enough sterling from its trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. However, the balance of trade between Scotland and the rest of the UK is not in Scotland’s favour. Thus, it would struggle to earn enough sterling to back the Scottish pound in a currency board arrangement for an economy which the SNP must hope will expand post- independence.


There are sound lessons for the SNP to learn from the experiences of Ireland and Estonia following those countries’ independence. But the SNP strategy for a post- independence monetary regime begs as many questions today as it did at the time of the last referendum.

23rd July 2020


This article is a much – edited section from my forthcoming book on National Independence and Monetary Sovereignty.

[1] The Sustainable Growth Commission – The Monetary Policy and Financial Regulation for an Independent Scotland – C 1.23

Written in the Stars

Some recent research has led me down one of the odd byways of linguistic study in the 16th and 17th centuries. In that era, European scholars had begun the study of Hebrew and Arabic, investigated ancient languages with biblical significance such as Syriac and Ge’ez and made the first tentative steps to understand Japanese and Chinese. Jesuit colleges in Rome promoted the printing of texts in Arabic for the Christian communities in the Middle East and the Jesuit college in Macau taught Chinese. On the other side of the earth, a Jesuit compiled the first Grammar of the Guarani language of Paraguay.

In amongst all the well-grounded scholarship and first- hand study based on field work, there was also room for imagination and belief. Perhaps the most striking example was the inclusion by some reputable scholars of ‘occult alphabets’ in their compilations of foreign and ancient scripts. Of these, one, the so – called ‘celestial alphabet ‘, was reproduced in books by leading scholars over the coming 150 years at least.  The first printed example I have been able to find was included in the ‘Three Books of Occult Philosophy ‘of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1533, Cologne). Agrippa, a soldier, diplomat and polymath in the service of the Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and subsequently Charles V, held views on women and their rights that were unorthodox at the time. He was also open about his interest in Jewish thought and in the kabbalah, views which led him into trouble and which he subsequently recanted. On more than one occasion he was accused of heresy.

Cornelius Agrippa: The Three Books of Occult Philosophy – Celestial alphabet

The small circles at the extremities of these ‘letters’ provide the clue: they are the stars which form the letters of the celestial alphabet.  Agrippa’s work set out the idea that by tracing these letters between the stars, the heavens could be read.  His book was translated into English by James Freake and published in London in 1651.

Agrippa’s celestial alphabet was reproduced numerous times in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is reproduced ,for example, in ‘Thresor de Histoire de Langues’ (1613) by Claude Duret Bourbonnois , a judge, botanist and linguist. It also appears as the ‘Supercelestial’ alphabet in the ‘The Heavenly Golden Rod of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ (1616) ,a compilation of alphabets by the Scot, James Bonaventure Hepburn, a member of the Catholic Order of Minims and Keeper of Oriental Books and Manuscripts at the Vatican. In 1622 it was included in the ‘Specimen Litterarum et Linguarum’ (1622) of Jean Baptiste Gramaye, a jurist and professor at Leuven University.

Gramaye had established a reputation as a historian of the low countries. Sent on a diplomatic mission to Morocco, he was captured by barbary pirates and during a 5 -month captivity in North Africa he turned his attention to the languages and culture of Africa and the east. Gramaye’s alphabets, reproduced in woodcut, served as the acknowledged source for identical images published in ‘Purchas, His Pilgrims’ (1625) by the English Protestant clergyman Samuel Purchas, a chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury and committed anti-Catholic. Thus, the celestial alphabet, first published by a Christian Cabbalist was promoted by both ardent Catholics and zealous protestants.

A celestial map showing the letters in their star formations and describing them as the Celestial Hebrew Alphabet was printed in 1629 for inclusion in ‘Curiositez Inovyes ‘by Jacques Gaffarel, theologian and Librarian to Cardinal Richelieu. The Cardinal’s patronage helped to save Gaffarel from the same sort of suspicions of heresy which had dogged Agrippa.

Gaffarel‘s book, translated into English as ‘Unheard of Curiosities’ by Edmund Chilmead and published in London in 1650, explained the operation of the celestial alphabet, which enabled skilled individuals to read what is ‘written in the stars’. Gaffarel cites Rabbi Eliahu Chomer as an authority for the interpretation of the celestial language which is in this interpretation an early form of Hebrew.

It is also described by James Howell in his ‘Survey of the Signorie of Venice’ (1651), again, citing the authority of Rabbi Chomer. Howell uses the celestial alphabet to read in the stars the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, then threatening Venice, in 1655. It is interesting to note that Howell’s book, Freake’s English translation of the religiously tolerant Agrippa and  Gaffarel’s book in its English translation were all published in 1650-1651 ,at a time of heightened interest in  Hebraism, in ancient Jewish legal and political history and indeed in the Kabbalah. It was also in 1651 that the leading English Jurist and scholar John Selden started to publish his three- part work on the Sanhedrin, the Jewish system of judicial tribunals. These works, which show a marked respect for Jewish traditions and learning would have helped to shape a tolerant and indeed appreciative approach to Judaism leading to the re-admittance of Jews to England under Cromwell a few years later.

A quarter of a century later, leading European scholars were still showing an interest in the celestial alphabet. Athanasius Kircher, a pre-eminent polymath and, again, a Jesuit, has been described as the last renaissance man due to the extraordinary range of his studies and publications. Kircher’s book, ‘Turris Babel’ (The Tower of Babel), presents the celestial alphabet as the Ur-language of Hebrew, consistent with the ideas of Gaffarel.

The discovery of new countries and new languages around the world,  investigations into the ancient biblical languages such as Aramaic and Chaldean and an interest in the occult and the kabbalah in some quarters opened minds in the 16th and 17th centuries to ideas such as the celestial alphabet. We may now find these ideas incredible, but in the intellectual – and religious - ferment of the time it is hardly surprising that some ideas might gain currency which would not survive the more rigorous  and sceptical thinking of the enlightenment.

August 2020

Gaffarel’s Celestial Alphabet and Map

Kircher presents the celestial alphabet (2nd Column) as the origin of Hebrew.

Polydromic – the meaning

Some people may be as surprised as I am that it is impossible to find a definition for ‘polydromic’ at any of the on-line dictionaries.

As a noun, Polydrom has existed for at least 5 years and will be recognized by anyone finding this website. Created from the Greek prefix ‘Poly’ – meaning ‘multiple’ or ‘many’ and Dromos – meaning ‘route’ or’ path’. 

So, Polydrom = anything or any place with many routes leading to or from it. Polydromic –   the ability to attain, enter  or exit anything or any place by multiple routes.

For example:

The means to great wealth are polydromic.

The opportunities for recreational escapism are polydromic

Polydromic approaches to education and learning must be the aspiration of any flexible and civilized society

Central park is a recreational polydrom.

The internet is now the ultimate polydrom of knowledge

Why this seems to have escaped the attention of the lexicographers is puzzling.


After careers in the Army and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office I joined De La Rue PLC, the banknote and passport printers in 1994. Over my more than 20 years there in various roles including those of Sales Director of the Currency Division, Managing Director of the Identity Systems business, I travelled to Central Asia, the Middle East, Transcaucasia, the Caribbean, the Balkans, Western Europe and both North and South America. Latterly, eight years in the role of Director of Government Relations presented an unique opportunity to observe the Westminster operation at close hand before it finally descended into its current tragi-comic drama.

Notionally in retirement since 2015, the reality proves otherwise. Accepting an invitation to join the staff of the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce in 2016 when American policy towards Iran had eased, the past year has been spent adjusting to the present US administration’s U- turn.

Apart from a brazen promotion of my own book(s), I hope that this website will also provide the opportunity to share thoughts on others’ books and to invite friends to share their thoughts with me.

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