“For we all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them”, wrote George Eliot in Middlemarch. The metaphor in which Theresa May has recently got her thoughts entangled is that blue is good and burgundy is bad. With the announcement of the return of the ‘iconic’ blue passport, blue now means an assertion of sovereignty whilst burgundy is a surrender of independence.
We like symbols. Symbols are important. They express immediately, and in ways often more powerful than words, complex systems of emotions, thoughts, concepts. They give form to the abstract and have a unique and unifying force. But the Brexiters heralding the second coming of the blue passport as a ‘victory’ over the EU are farcically mistaken. It is merely the victory of style over substance.
The rhetoric enveloping the blue passport reveals what lies at the heart of Brexit: the generational divide. Getting our blue passports ‘back’, as headlines from The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and others proclaimed, is a meaningless statement for millions of Britons. When Scottish Labour Press officer Gordon McKee tweeted: “I’m not getting a blue passport ‘back’, I’ve never had one”, he spoke for everyone born after 1988, when Britain voluntarily adopted the colour burgundy. Rather than May’s symbol of sovereignty, the former Thatcher aide Charles Powell views the blue passport as a symbol of “nostalgia on which the predominantly elderly Brexit constituency thrives”.
This nostalgia for our old passports, and the hysteria among Brexiters for getting them ‘back’, is absurd. Many Brexiters were bemused to find that the Conservatives’ design for the new passport looks quite different to the old model. Isn’t that shade of blue a bit lighter than before? Weren’t the old ones sort of…black? Why isn’t it going to be hardback again?
There is a touch of irony to all this: getting our old passports ‘back’ really means conforming to global standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation in Montreal. (More foreign bureaucrats). These standards mean no more hardbacks. Nor will the colour chosen by May’s team be the same as the old. We are simply getting a passport void of all its current freedoms, but one that shares a closer resemblance to the colour of the party who got us in this mess in the first place. Some commentators have sardonically noted that the shade of blue can be described as “imperial”. Our own special blend of rose-tinted, imperial blue.
All talk of getting our passports ‘back’ is therefore ridiculous. The ‘old’ is a chimera. We will really be getting something new, something a bit disappointing, with a vague resemblance to a past which is now impossible to reconstruct and revive. Is that not the whole essence of Brexit?
May’s decision has provoked further demonising of the EU. The Sun’s subheading ‘The Government has agreed…to scrap the EU’s burgundy model, enforced on the nation from 1988’ construes our current passport as a symbol of oppression. But nothing was ‘enforced’ on Britain. As has been pointed out over the past week, there was nothing legally binding in the agreement: Croatia chose to retain its passport colour when joining the EU in 2013. It was not bludgeoned by ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ for its decision, nor is it any more of a nation because its passports are not burgundy.
Beneath this symbolism lies not only what David Lammy MP called ‘misguided imperial undertones’, but a reminder of how far the Brexiters’ promises have unravelled. With substantial promises of a properly funded post-Brexit NHS having evaporated last year, the Tories must now settle for mere symbols, and dress them up as ‘victories’.
But how can a victory be a victory when there is no opposition? What does the EU care for the colour of our passports? This sudden valuing of symbols over substance reveals a desperation – the need to give the public some good news before the end of the year. So, like that great-aunt with no idea what to buy her great-nieces-and-nephews for Christmas, May has given us her botched ‘Brexmas’ present, outdated, unwanted and redundant.
Rather than a defining reaffirmation of our national identity, the blue passport reveals the frailty of that which it proclaims. An Observer editorial wryly noted “a blue passport will not assuage Britain’s identity crisis – it symbolises it”. The fractured ‘nostalgic’ symbolism is a thin veneer for Britain’s irrepressible anxiety about its current place in the world. We have traded the privileges of the burgundy passport for the decrepitude of the blue.
Brexit, from the start, has been wrapped up in metaphors. The blue passport odyssey is simply the latest, and one which, pitiably, the Brexiters seem unable to disentangle themselves.