As we draw towards the end of 2017 I wonder if we have learnt anything valuable. Perhaps, my first conclusion, on reading the last week’s news is that our media and political class have an enduring proclivity for the banal and stereotyped posturing. It is clear that the main focus for political debate over the year has been Brexit and its ramifications. However, as the year closes are we clearer on its implications or the plans, are we now having serious, considered thinking ? Unfortunately it appears not.
The last week’s press and media has concerned itself with the future colour of British Passports and the fact that they will be blue rather than burgundy. Both those on the leave or remain, or the left and the right, sides of this debate have been childish and disappointing.
Those on the right tried to sell us the return of the blue passport as a sign of national rebirth; Theresa May called it an expression of “independence and sovereignty” that reflected “citizenship of a proud, great nation”, and The Sun labelled it “a stunning victory” suggesting the “iconic” blue passport would stir the blood and warm the heart of those patriots who carried it.
This attempt to make a necessary, bureaucratic change appear as a victory was shamefaced in its stupidity and ignored all of the other factors which had lead to the changed format and colour of the passport over the past years. This attempt to make the change in colour symbolic unfortunately stirred up echoes of jingoism and nostalgia for an old, long gone, imperial past.
Those on the remain camp were equally deplorable; warning of hidden costs (which were not present) and dangerous queues. A popular meme on social media resurrected the slanders that people who voted for Brexit were unintelligent savages. Even Guy Verhofstadt, the EU’s chief Brexit coordinator decided to avoid any serious discussion of the issue of passports and simply proceeded with a mocking tweet, ignoring the symbolism and significance of nationhood by mocking the decision on the colour.
All of these attitudes miss the point. As we leave the EU we will again be a nation apart from the EU and will thus need a passport to signify this. There is really no question or issue about this. The colour issue is a smokescreen, a red herring, something to blind us to the real issues. The real issues as the free movement of people and what it means to be a citizen.
A serious issue in discussing Brexit and passports is the ability of people to move between countries. I favoured us having a system that enhanced immigration and did not limit us to free-movement of white Europeans for the purposes of cheap labour. I wanted us to look at our historic links with the Indian subcontinent and perhaps encourage movement here. We have long standing cultural and family ties with this part of the world and perhaps fostering these ties would go some way to making restitution for the unpleasant aspects of our imperial past. This is an issue concerning nationhood and the new passport that we need to discuss. It has nothing to do with colour and is being avoided.
The passport is often seen as a marker of citizenship, carrying your countries passport marks you as a citizen of that nation. However, how should we define this right to citizenship and the passport, is place of birth adequate ? Does someone who was born here, but contributes little to the commonweal, have a right to a passport, while someone born abroad and diligently adding to our commonwealth does not. Should the test of citizenship, which carries with it the right to citizens’ benefits, be based on your contributions not the happenstance of your mother’s labour. Perhaps we could discuss whether the passport can be seen as a membership certificate and discuss how we define who is a member ?
There is room, and need, for discussion on the issue of the passport ; why do we need them ? what do they signify ? who is entitled to one ? But we really don’t need to spend much time on its their colour.