What is it about the proposed change to the colour of the United Kingdom passport? After all it is a minor technical change in an official document, as important as going down to B&Q to get a lick of paint for the front room. It means pretty much nothing, but it also means pretty much everything.
It is no surprise that in the lead up to the referendum and in the years that proceeded it my party’s former leader, Nigel Farage could be seen at public meeting after public meeting, from village hall stages, to the top of buses, in televised debates and on countless interviews brandishing his old dark blue/black passport. As he held it aloft he would issue a rallying cry,
“And we will get our old passport back!”
Inevitably the audience would passionately roar its support.
How can something so functionally unimportant be so important.
It is simple, it is not the 50 pages of security printed, electronically tagged paper and card itself, but what it represents.
When the old passport was disposed of, many, and I would guess, the majority of the people of these islands felt violated. It was if somebody had broken into the house and pilfered a small, worthless but emotionally important heirloom passed down from the great-grandparents with sat, largely overlooked gathering dust on the mantlepiece. It was something of no value to anybody else but imbued with something vital about ourselves.
That is was done by fiat, unheralded, and certainly without public debate made the decision feel underhand, like a footpad in the night. There was no recourse to public opinion, no permission asked, for the Government knew full well that no permission would be granted. In many ways it symbolised for many of us everything that we needed to know of the European Union, the way it worked and the way in which our own Government would act in concert with the Eu against the wishes of the UK population.
Getting that first passport was a rite of passage, into a level of fullness as a British subject, later citizen. Coming off the passport of your parents and having your own was, alongside learning to drive and legally buying a drink in a pub, one of the few markers of maturity which was pretty much universal. Tinkering with it, and printing on its cover the dread words ‘European Community’ felt like a violation. It made real something that we knew inside but had denied to ourselves. The UK was no longer an independent nation, but a subordinate vassal of another, foreign and distant power.
Those words, absurd but poetic and redolent of who we are, printed in the inside cover “Her Brittanic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hinderance…” though in fact last edited in 1979, has echoes of the Prayer Book and linguistic confidence. As you travelled around the world, it gave us a sense of exceptionalism, of substance.
So this decision is to be welcomed, and despite the fact that the tendering process will be handled under EU rules meaning that there is a chance for them to be printed abroad, (and no, the irony is not lost on us), despite the fact that the general design is now governed by the International Civil Aviation Authority standards this is a Christmas present that the whole country can and should applaud.
However, as ever the Grinches abound. One sign of how emotionally and symbolically important getting our passports back has been the response to the decision from those who still dream that the country had rejected self-determination in the Referendum. The great serried ranks of people who spend their time talking down to us, for them the nation is, as one twitter user said, just “somewhere to put my stuff”. Fine, if that is how you feel, but if you cannot understand why this matters so very deeply, you will never understand why we voted to Leave, and to what extent you have lost touch with the country’s beating heart.
Is the change important? It means almost nothing, but it means almost everything.
Henry Bolton, UKIP Leader