An interest in passports is often sign of a nationalist turnby Leo Benedictus / October 13, 2016 / Leave a comment
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.