(I apologise for the terrible pun, but I really couldn’t resist.)
I am moved to respond to the latest flurry of speculation in the right wing press that Britain, post-Brexit, might demonstrate its independence and Precious Bodily Sovereignty by… changing the colour of our passports, from treacherous foreign burgundy to beautiful British blue. In particular, my ire was raised by a tweet by Tim Montgomerie alledging that Remainers just don’t get the cultural significance of blue passports. My initial response was that I get it – I just find it bonkers. Why should anybody feel so strongly over the colour of a passport? Yet I find myself asking, in turn – why does all this talk of blue passports grind my gears? And so I came up with three reasons.
Firstly: it seems completely frivolous. Hard Brexit is coming – at the most optimistic, it will be the most complicated government enterprise since the war, at the most pessimistic it looks like it will be hugely economically, socially, and diplomatically damaging. The fixation on blue passports by certain elements of the right wing press is another sign of the maddening flippancy with which these people gamble with our future. If, like Michael Howard, I am permitted to use a Falklands War metaphor, it is as if the Daily Express in April 1982 had been polling its readers on whether to rename the HMS Invincible the Boaty McBoatface. And it is as one with other ridiculous symbolic gestures like the idea that Britain might resurrect the Royal Yacht Britannia as the world’s first trade yacht. Such is the deep unseriousness of much of Euroscepticism, and the willingness of our government to pander to it (and indeed use it to distract from their shortcomings and failures).
Secondly: blue passports have almost no cultural resonance with me. I am 25 years old, and I have never owned a blue passport; nobody under the age of thirty will be able to remember one in use. In fairness, it’s not quite true that I can’t remember ever seeing a blue passport. I remember aged ten curiously flicking through my father’s old passport (probably his first), which I remember as nearly black, the bottom corner snipped off and his name written in by hand on the front page. It did have a strange exoticism. But that had more to do with the weird and wonderful visa stamps, the picture in the front of the face of a much younger man, and of course his Yellow Fever certificate, always an object of childhood fascination. It seemed musty, old, strangely distant in time beyond the measure of chronological distance.
To clarify, I’m not saying that the world has to revolve around me and my cultural memory. No doubt others associate blue passports with national pride and sovereignty, and, well, fair enough. But in the context of the generational divides of the Brexit vote, it feels exasperating. This is a gesture among many which resonates with the older generation who wanted Brexit; meanwhile young people, who voted against it, and who will be most affected by any economic hit and loss of free movement, seem to have been offered nothing either substantial or symbolic. All in all, it just reinforces the feeling that Brexit is being carried out on behalf of and in the interests of one chunk of the population. When Theresa May claims to be interested in bringing us together, this is an immensely frustrating approach.
Finally, there is the fact that it is a return to blue passports. Brexiters of a more intellectual stripe were anxious to argue before the referendum that Brexit was not about moving backwards, but forward – out of fusty old Europe and into the world. I actually think that this resonated with a lot of people frustrated with the status quo, envisaging a new start for Britain. However, the dominant strain during the referendum was rather the restoration of a nation that had lost much to the EU superstate and the depredations of modernity. Hence the blue passports: you might as well suggest that we make them bright red and have ‘MAKE BRITAIN GREAT AGAIN’ stamped on the front in white capital letters. The fixation on ‘bringing back’ imperial units seems to be a manifestation of the same phenomenon, seeking the trappings of an England that has passed away in the hope that it would also be accompanied by the restoration Britain’s relative economic power and position in the world. That most of these changes are irreversible, and many in fact beneficial, means that these hopes are inevitably going to be disappointed. More importantly, such a nostalgic lens will occlude the realities of present day and the opportunities and perils of the modern world. The demand for blue passports, among other things, indicates a sad future for Britain as a country hooked, listlessly, on its own half-remembered visions of past greatness.
This is why tabloid campaigns about the colour of our passports irritate me. I’m not particularly attached to my burgundy version, and I’m not going to heartbroken when it’s replaced by a version in deep blue. But the idea of changing it now, for the reasons given and with the bizzare insistence with which it is pursued by some – that does make me uneasy. It is this movement that has symbolism for me, but rather than symbolising national rebirth it seems to me to embody a trivial politics and indicate a Brexit driven by the obsessive nostalgia of the older generations at the expense of everyone and everything else. I can only hope that I’m wrong.