Passport pantomime

Geraint Talfan Davies reflects on the future colour of UK passports announcement

Can anything speak louder about the current puerile state of British government thinking than the trumpeted news of its intention, in a fit of induced pre-Brexit nostalgia, to issue new dark blue passports rather than the current burgundy-coloured document that has been issued to us all for the past 30 years?

Three days before Christmas, as charities tended to the ballooning numbers of homeless sleeping in the streets, Mr Brandon Lewis, then a Home Office minister, but now the Chairman of the Conservative Party, and who was only 17 when the last ‘blue’ passports were issued under the name of Her Britannic Majesty, felt it necessary to command the airwaves to announce this gift to a pining nation, complete with a manufactured lump in his throat.

Ah! He and his colleagues must have known they have been talking of little else in Pontypridd or Llanfairfechan for the past 30 years. The change of colour in 1988 was, according to one Brexiter MP, ‘a national humiliation’.  If a nation can be humiliated by such a paltry change, it must suffer from very low self-esteem.

According to another MP, presumably colour blind, the current passport is ‘pink’ which, we must presume, he deems an insult. Read into that what you will.

But if there has been wailing and gnashing of teeth and a rending of garments on the streets of Penarth or Penrhiwceiber all these years, we must all have missed it.

Anyone under 50 – apart, that is, from Mr Brandon Lewis – must wonder what the fuss is about. Anyone outside Britain, sufficiently careless of their own time to pay attention, must wonder why the men in white coats have not been sent for.

On cue, Mr Nigel Farage, tells us “You can’t be a nation unless you have this symbol”, an assertion that wipes out rather a large chunk of our history, since the first modern British passports were not issued until after the passing of the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act in 1914, and the blue one did not surface until 1920.

I might conceivably understand if, in previous centuries, the select few who were granted a safe conduct letter from the monarch went dewy-eyed as they clutched the royal missive. But in the 21st century? No passport, no nation? Really.

Perhaps, on Mr Farage’s next visit to Trump Tower, Mr Trump will remind him that only 46 per cent of Americans own a passport without, apparently, any diminution in the patriotism of the bereft 54 per cent. Indeed, Mr Trump might also boast – uncharacteristically accurately – that there is a striking correlation between the states that voted for him and the states with the lowest numbers of passport holders.

No doubt people will accuse me of a lack of emotional intelligence if I fail to appreciate the importance of a passport’s colour, but the weakness of the argument is proven by considering the reverse proposition: let’s get rid of a dull inky blue-black document, a million miles from royal blue, and replace it with a rich and regal burgundy colour that represents that very large part of France over which English kings once ruled.

Absurd, but it is the kind of proposition that might easily have emerged from, say, Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg.

The real import of this holiday season row is to emphasise the shallowness of this government in believing that the colour of a passport is a matter that exercises the nation and that could distract it from the pain caused by current levels of austerity, inequality and crying social need.

There is only one issue of substance raised by the prospect of a new passport after 29 March 2019, and that is what is implied by the removal of the words European Union from its cover. That implies a real diminution in the rights of all British citizens – a subtraction not an addition.

In all the talk of curbing freedom of movement it is too often forgotten that leaving the European Union will also restrict the freedom of movement of British citizens, whatever the colour of new passports.

For many people that restriction may be immaterial or only marginally irksome, but for others – such as students and researchers, a wide array of professions and countless businesses – it implies a major restriction in life’s opportunities. Far from ‘taking back control’ it is a loss of my control over my life. That is much more important than the issue of which queue to join at an airport.

It is reassuring that this pre-Christmas PR stunt by the government has, it seems, fallen flat. Clearly, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

 

This article originally appeared in the Western Mail. 

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Geraint Talfan Davies is a member of the Executive Committee of Wales for Europe and former Chair of IWA