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The passport: little book, big story

An interest in passports is often sign of a nationalist turn
October 13, 2016

For some, Brexit will only be realised when we see the new British passport—presumably with the notable absence of the words “European Union” at the top. But that might not be the only change. Backed by many Tory MPs, the Sun is campaigning for a return to the “old blue” cover that was replaced by the burgundy European version in 1988. The campaign got a boost at the Conservative conference, when the Brexit secretary, David Davis, let slip to reporters at a fringe event that “I liked my old blue passport.”

The memory of old blue’s loss goes so deep with Andrew Rosindell, chair of the unjustly neglected All-Party Parliamentary Flags and Heraldry Committee, that if he could introduce one bill to the Commons, he says, it would be the return of the old passport design. “Having the pink [sic] European passports has been a humiliation,” he adds, mysteriously. In truth, the “old blue” worked as a symbol of Britain, by exemplifying our fondness for eccentric codes. The thing was plainly black, in most eyes, so knowing it was actually “old blue” was the sign of a true Brit, like being able to pronounce Cholmondeley or Leicester.

Only recently has it become a passport’s job to symbolise anything much. The first travel papers long predate the modern nation state; they were just letters signed by powerful people explaining that the named person was one of their friends, and so should not be messed with. The earliest example we know of was granted to the prophet Nehemiah by the Persian king Artaxerxes in about 450BC, according to the Old Testament. Nehemiah was off to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

The first we hear about passports in England was the Safe Conducts Act of 1414, which made it high treason to kill, rob or “spoil” someone possessing a letter of safe conduct from the king. By 1540, signing all these letters had become such a burden on Henry VIII, that they began to be handled by the Privy Council. They were already called “passports,” although it is not clear whether the name came from the idea of passing through sea ports or through French “portes,” meaning city gates.

Throughout this time, passports had nothing to do with patriotism: there was no reason why passports should not give the king’s protection to a foreign national, and they often did. The Italian revolutionary Felice Orsini travelled from Britain to France in 1858 using a British passport, and there tried to assassinate Napoleon III, causing no end of cross-channel awkwardness. Having a passport was a mark of status, but it said little about national identity. Few people had or needed one, since foreign travel was rare—and didn’t require a passport anyway.

Overseas voyages, both for migration and the pleasure of the well-to-do, became more common in the first, Edwardian era of globalisation. Things changed abruptly in the First World War, when the fear of spies suddenly made it important to keep track of nationality and whereabouts. The first modern British passports therefore emerged from the British Nationality and Status Aliens Act of 1914. They consisted of a single, folded page with cardboard covers, and included a photograph, signature, and personal description, recording details such as “shape of face,” “complexion” and “features,” where the entry might read: “Forehead: broad. Nose: large. Eyes: small.”

In 1920, following an agreement among the League of Nations to standardise the passport book format, and “old blue” emerged. From then it barely changed, and so became a familiar booklet showing you were British, like a pocket flag.

The move to the smaller pan-European passports was mainly practical, to speed up EU travel by standardising documents, in an era when globalisation was picking up pace. They are uninspiring things, however, and might have been lilac, maroon or purple until burgundy was chosen, after five years of discussion, in 1981. Perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not, the new design seemed to forcibly flavour a familiar British symbol with the EU, to subsume it even, as one of many extensions of the continental brand.

Following 9/11, the desire to keep track of people got stronger, but so did the technology for doing so. In 2006, microchipped biometric passports, also known as ePassports, became standard. The then Labour government was keen on biometric security, which it planned to include in its proposed national identity cards, although in the end the changes made were mostly those required to comply with the US Visa Waiver Program. Neither fingerprint nor iris scans were ever included. The embedded chip just stores its own copy of the printed information and photo, making for a speedier, more secure check. There have been small tweaks since, and new interior designs. From 2010, the design theme was “Scenic Britain.” Since 2015, it’s been “Creative UK.”

De La Rue, the firm that handles the design and manufacturing of UK passports, has a 10-year contract that began in 2009. Secretly, they must be hoping it expires before they have to decide what the symbol of Brexit Britain should be. Retaining the burgundy, even without the EU elements, would needlessly enrage nostalgists on the “Leave” side. On the other hand, returning to “old blue,” as the Sun demands, seems so obviously retrogressive, as to confirm all the Bremainers’ worst fears. A new colour is the obvious compromise, but it can’t stray far from the Union Jack mood board, which brings us back to blue or red, as white would of course look terrible after a while. Perhaps a case can be made for British racing green?