Like many British traditions that people passionately yearn for, you might be surprised to learn that blue passports weren’t actually part of our national life for all that long. The crown has been issuing travel documents since at least the 1400s, sometimes in French, sometimes in Latin, sometimes having to be personally signed by the monarch, but nearly always they were issued as a single sheet of paper. The blue booklet passport was not introduced until 1920, and it was only issued for 68 years. We’ve had the burgundy version for 29 years – about a third of the time the UK has been issuing passports in book form. Around 24 million people in the UK under the age of 29 have never held a blue British passport.
But blue passports we shall have. Quite clearly we’ll need a new design for the passports issued post-Brexit on 30 March 2019, and it would be obtuse of the government to pick any other colour. And if I were running the passport office, I’d already be looking at the extra staff I’d be needing to cope with the rush of people eager to get their hands on the new-look document the second they start being issued. Having used his passport as a prop in so many public appearances, I wouldn’t bet against a certain Mr N Farage being in the queue in Victoria that morning for the photo opportunity it will provide.
When we inevitably do get new blue British passports, I’m sure there will still be a constituency that will moan about them. International standardisation means they will be a lot more similar to the current burgundy EU ones than the stiff-sleeved blue ones people last remember from the 1980s. All of the equipment at our border checks is set up to recognise and act on the chip and other machine-readable parts of a modern passport document. It wouldn’t make sense to go with a format that radically alters that – especially as we’ll still need to be able to read the data from EU27 passports, and all of the British ones that have been issued in the last decade. It’s actually the 86-page Machine Readable Travel Documents standard issued by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization that sets these rules, not the EU, so prepare yourself for a new document design that continues to be criticised for not being traditional enough.
Personally I’m old enough that my first passport was a blue one. But I really don’t care about the cover. I’m sure there will be a booming business in selling EU-style burgundy passport covers so that remain voters can wind up their leave-voting brethren at our border checkpoints, but I shall be regarding them with exactly the same amount of side-eye as I’ve been giving people with old British-style fake passport covers for the last couple of decades. It just seems to me to be such a pointless thing to get worked up about.
But I think there is a serious lesson here for politicians on both sides of the Channel as we head towards Brexit, as much as some of us might be inclined to mock this comfort-blanket nostalgia for imperial British symbols. Croatia has an opt-out on the EU-wide passport design, retaining a travel document that reflects national character rather than their membership of a European-wide body. It strikes me that part of the problem the remain constituency has had with understanding leave voters is because of a failure to address these questions of national identity. The passport colour isn’t important to me, but it clearly has been to a lot of people, and telling them their concerns are trivial isn’t a strategy that wins hearts or minds.
It’s why it is fair to blame David Cameron for misjudging the national mood so badly in calling an EU referendum that he wanted to win on the back of his “renegotiation” with the EU. Why couldn’t he have aimed to come back from Brussels with some key trivial but symbolic victories? It might not have dealt with worries about immigration, but “We’re bringing back blue British passports” and some further concession on labelling goods with old-fashioned weights and measures would have been a more valuable remain campaign tool than the vague promises of change that Cameron obtained from a Europe that didn’t seem to take the threat that Britain might vote to leave seriously enough.
So, sure, we can laugh about people making a fuss over something as silly as the colour of their passport or the flag displayed on their driving licence, but these were powerful visual reminders of what to me looks like slightly boring design harmonisation and standardisation, but which the leave campaign were always able to exploit emotionally as symbols of unwanted power-grabs and a European urge to dictate and centralise.
I’ve been lucky enough to have freely lived and worked in both Greece and Austria in the last decade, thanks to that little burgundy document and what it represented. In their quest to restore this visual symbol of British identity, leave voters have diminished what you can achieve with it.