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. 

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer

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

11 thoughts on “Passport pantomime

  1. “It is reassuring that this pre-Christmas PR stunt by the government has, it seems, fallen flat. ”
    Has it? I’ve spoken with quite a few people who voted Leave and whatever their politics and whether they think it trivial issue or not they are invariably positive about changing the colour back.

    “Clearly, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.”
    However British nationalism and the English/England exceptionalism it promotes, and is held dear by many across the UK is.

  2. As a metaphor for the essentially tribal nature of Brexit and the mess the government is making of it the passport colour is hard to beat. Never mind that we didn’t have to change the colour in the first place, and the proposed royal blue lacks the gravitas of either navy or burgundy. With a bit of luck we’ll finish up with the old colour wrapped around the current content.

  3. How about a Wales/EU passport – blue or any colour you like (I rather like green) – that makes us Welsh EU citizens. Nice big circle of golden stars and a fiery red dragon.

    Could be useful for a new EU border between Wales and England – well, if they can have a barrier-free border between the Republic and the rest of Ireland, then surely we can have the same thing? (Seriously the DUP might be happier if NI, Scotland and Wales were all together with the Republic in the EU).

    In years to come our friends in England would look enviously over the border at the results of our far-sightedness and relative prosperity, as we avoid the devastating impacts of Brexit – mainly austerity on steroids for the foreseeable future and the erosion of citizens rights as we ‘all pull together’ and ‘make a sacrifice for the country in this new and exciting time of opportunity’.

    Over to you Government of Wales …..

  4. “…We must all have missed it.”

    Truer words were never written. “We,” meaning the people in the bubble of the media and political classes who talk only to each other and therefore assume they are “all,” have missed a great many things, which is why the gap between rulers and ruled is now wider than it has ever been since we became a nominal democracy. This is not a situation that can continue.

    GTD is nevertheless correct in his assessment that our national self-esteem is at low ebb. This might not matter to our cynical, jetsetting ruling class, but to most of us, national identity is important to our sense of self, whether we identify ourselves as British or Welsh or both. This is not to claim that we are better than anyone else, only that it is something in which we take pride. If our national self-esteem is battered, it impacts on our personal self-esteem.

    Symbols matter. In itself, the colour of a passport is indeed meaningless. What it represents is not. Metropolitan trendies do not seem to understand the thrill most Britons feel when we think of Magna Carta, Agincourt, Tilbury, Trafalgar, Biggin Hill, and the Union Banner flying again over Port Stanley. These are the images that come into our mind when we look at a British passport. What are the equivalent images conjoured up by an EU passport? Delors and Juncker and their ilk tucking into the foie gras at our expense.

    So, while the colour of a passport might seem trivial, it is an important step in restoring our national self-confidence. The media and political classes should take a lead in this – or get out of the way.

  5. @ JWR
    “So, while the colour of a passport might seem trivial, it is an important step in restoring our national self-confidence.”

    Most of these in need of having their national self-confidence restored probably aren’t aware that although the colour will revert to blue the size of the passport will stay the same. No return to the big blue passport whose loss is mourned by so many.

    Apart from on close inspection the new UK passport won’t look any more unique than the passports of nearly ninety other countries including Croatia, Iraq and the Republic of Kiribati which also have blue passports.
    Should we be concerned and plan how to counteract the inevitable dip in national self-confidence when these people realise they’re not actually getting the big blue one back.

  6. Let’s follow the example of the European Union and have different passports for England, Northern. Ireland, Scotland and Wales and perhaps Cornwall with UK passport printed at the top of the passport. The Isle of Mann manages okay with using a UK / Isle of Mann passport let’s follow

  7. Like most people I know, I don’t give a damn what colour it is as long as the words European Union are removed from the cover and everywhere else.

    ‘Can anything speak louder about the current puerile state of’ Welsh nationalist thinking than to make an issue out of this at all?

  8. CapM, if you wanted to get really picky about it – surely not – you could also point out that the old passport cover was closer to black than blue and was of a card so stiff as to be impractical to carry around casually.

    Yet that would be missing the point, as you well know. The passport is in any case subject to regular redesign and would have evolved on its own even if we had not joined the EU. The loyalty to the old passport is about loyalty to the UK not to any specific design or colour.

    That is why many of us bought passport covers that mimic the old design. After we leave the EU, extreme Europhiles will have the same option but with the current design.

    It would be interesting to see the sales figures for the black and burgundy options.

  9. @ JWR
    “That is why many of us bought passport covers that mimic the old design.”
    And you all had to take your passports out of the mimic covers when you presented them to border officials. Just like those people that bought orange, pink, calf skin or Sponge Bob Square Pants covers for their passports.

    “After we leave the EU, extreme Europhiles will have the same option but with the current design.”
    I’d be surprised if any Europhiles even extreme ones thought that the what a passport cover looked like was more important than what the passport actually enabled and empowered you to do.

  10. @JWR
    You appear to have missed the point I made in my first comment which was that the symbol of a blue passport does matter to the Brexitally minded.

    And when all’s said and done Brexiters will hold that symbol dear whether they’re taking advantage of rights, privileges and convenience conferred by a UK passport that is subject to the terms and conditions set by the EU or the lesser rights and privileges and inconvenience conferred by a UK passport that isn’t’.
    Either way Brexiters will consider that they’re better off. Why? It’s obvious, it’s because the passports are blue!

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