If you want an end-of-year snapshot of the UK’s descent into a basket case of distorted values, you need look no further than the juxtaposition of two statements made by Theresa May last week.
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister stood in the House of Commons and talked down the plight of 2,500 homeless children in a London borough. They would not, she explained with teeth-gritted forbearance, actually be sleeping on the streets; they would instead spend Christmas in hostels or bed and breakfast accommodation – places she doubtless envisages as hygge-rich havens of festivity.
Less than 48 hours later, she was talking up the return of the “iconic” blue passport, which, to listen to many Tories, is the greatest British victory since the Battle of Trafalgar and more than adequate compensation for the chaos the party is inflicting on our economy and international standing.
The move was not, we were to believe, a distraction from the embarrassment of the publication of the sector by sector assessments of the impact of Brexit, which, despite the hype, turned out to contain little of note, but a validation of the vote to Leave, the first tangible example of Britain “taking back control”.
Of course, May was right in a way: the blue passport does have a symbolic value. Not, as she and others have suggested, as an expression of the country’s “independence and sovereignty”, but of the extent to which the Brexiteers have been willing to surrender so much of importance to a lie, a myth, a nostalgia for a halcyon past that never existed.
Fittingly – given the fallacious nature of much of the Leave campaign – almost everything about the blue passport narrative is fake. The EU didn’t ban them (other EU countries have passports in colours other than burgundy) and many of the genuine restrictions over size etc are dictated not by the EU but by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and by our participation in the US waiver visa programme. Those restrictions will remain regardless of the eventual colour.
Given that the old blue passports were scrapped in 1988, no-one under the age of 30 has ever owned one, an inconvenient fact that divests the words “iconic” and “return” of all meaning. Meanwhile, many of those who have grown up with a burgundy one have a strong emotional attachment to what it represents: the ability to move and work freely within EU countries. They will no doubt be delighted to find those privileges have been squandered to the false memory syndrome of a bunch of right-wingers; just as they were delighted to discover their chances of ever getting on the housing ladder had been scuppered by the bailing out of reckless banks.
Why would anyone even use the word “iconic” to describe a colour scheme? “Iconic” – if it is to be used at all – should be reserved for great landmarks or instantly recognisable works of art, not mass-produced booklets. It’s farcical. But then so much of the passport debate appears designed to complete our transition from respected global player to international laughing stock. On LBC, Nigel Farage, architect of the whole Brexit debacle, said “ he couldn’t be happier” because the promised blue passport – stripped of the words “European Union” – proved we were on the way to becoming a proper country again. But then, as if to mock him, it emerged that the two companies bidding for the £490 million contract to produce them were based in France and Germany. How happy or otherwise this made the former Ukip leader was not recorded.
Farage’s display of cognitive dissonance was surpassed by Tory MP Andrew Rosindell, who claimed: “The humiliation of having a pink passport will now soon be over and United Kingdom nationals can once again feel pride and self-confidence in their own nationality, the same way the Swiss and Americans do.”
The suggestion the UK had a pink passport would have baffled most people. Rosindell’s decision to brand it as such was presumably a hat-tip to some stereotype of femininity; as if EU membership represented weakness or subservience; or that customs officers across the world couldn’t help sniggering behind their hands at this badge of national emasculation.
The inanity reached its peak with a variation of the great “what colour is this dress?” debate of 2015, as Remainers posted images of pre-1988 passports insisting they were not dark blue, but black. The country was hovering on the edge of a precipice and people were arguing the toss over trivialities.
The idea that a country’s stature could be determined by something as ephemeral as the colour of its travel documents (as opposed to the ideals it embodies) is all the more offensive because, to those whose civil liberties are threatened, a passport of any colour can mean the difference between freedom and servitude; the difference between life and death.
A year or so ago, I spoke to Syrian refugees who had undertaken difficult journeys to foreign embassies to acquire the documents that would allow their family to flee on an aeroplane rather than board some overcrowded catamaran across the Aegean Sea.
For those trafficked into the country under the pretence of a proper job, it is the confiscation of their passports on arrival that keeps them powerless and beholden, unable to leave their captors and return to their homes. How vapid and superficial must the Tories’ triumphalism appear to those desperate for the right to cross from one state to another; how vapid and superficial will it feel to us when we and our “iconic” blue books are stuck at a passport control we would once have sailed through.
But those who led the charge on Brexit with no idea how to deliver it need their totem, their amulet to protect themselves against the disaster they have created. So they will go on believing in the symbolism of the old-style passport, even as that belief increases other countries’ derision.
They will keep on trying to sell us the delusion of identity, sovereignty and control as the country becomes increasingly insular. They will persist in trumpeting Britain as a “great nation” even as they bring it to its knees; as universal credit pushes people on to the fringes of society; as schools and food banks struggle to mitigate the effect of their policies on the poor and vulnerable.
Brexit Britain is a country where the Government thinks homeless children should be grateful they’re not sleeping on the streets. What’s not to be proud of?