Paris Gourtsoyannis: A blue passport can’t cure a blue life

Blackpool's illuminations don't light up the problems facing the seaside town suffering from 'Shit Life Syndrome'. Picture: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Blackpool's illuminations don't light up the problems facing the seaside town suffering from 'Shit Life Syndrome'. Picture: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
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It’s normal, psychologists tell us, to feel a bit blue at Christmas, what with the long nights, the cold weather, and the family frictions made raw by close proximity and a bit too much supermarket prosecco.

Blue is definitely the colour this Christmas, thanks to the government’s triumphal announcement that UK passports will return to some shade of it (some confusion here – is it the navy of a confident royal blue? The people must be told) after Brexit.

Despite Theresa May’s insistence that the “iconic” blue passport is “an expression of our independence and sovereignty – symbolising our citizenship of a proud, great nation”, the news has left a few people feeling low.

With most people knocking off work at the end of last week, and not a lot else in the news to talk about, at the weekend Britain’s commentariat chose passports – blue or burgundy – as their hills to die on, the last stand of 2017.

Of course, EU rules never stopped the UK from having a blue passport, but it makes sense for member states to use the same colour and have ‘European Union’ written across the top, purely to help police and border authorities in 28 different countries – and it makes sense to change now.

But a shrill nationalist whistle blast from May provoked so much of the nonsense that has followed.

Critics were chided for pointing out what a ridiculously tokenistic gesture it is, even by the standards of identity politics, to change the colour of a document that has the royal coat of arms on the front, 30-odd pages illustrated with actual British icons inside, and bears a message on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen.

Then there was the outrage directed at those who, quite wrongly, claimed the colour change was behind the £500 million cost of delivering the passports, from people who shrugged at a referendum campaign built on falsehoods that make half a billion pounds over 11 years look like loose change.

Cutting through it all, my colleague Dani Garavelli put it brilliantly in a column in Scotland on Sunday on Christmas Eve, comparing the seriousness with which the government approaches passport colours versus the tragedy that is child homelessness.

Even if you take the government at face value, however, it is found wanting. It’s wrong to dismiss blue passports as a gesture of empty nostalgia, we’re told, because that ignores the deeply held beliefs of a great number of voters who wanted out of the EU and who will have seen last week’s announcement as a victory.

If so, it’s worth asking who those people are, and what it means for them.

In Blackpool, you could probably find a few. The Lancashire town with its famous illuminations voted by 67.5 per cent to leave the EU – the highest level of any local authority in northwest of England, and just outside the top ten for the whole of the UK.

Its population is also older than the English average. With a median age of 42, most people in Blackpool are likely to remember swapping an old, dark navy passport for a new burgundy one.

Blackpool was the subject of an eye-opening investigation earlier this year – probably one of the most important pieces of journalism in 2017. The Financial Times’ employment correspondent Sarah O’Connor delved deep into the web of social problems facing the depressed seaside resort.

The piece revealed how GPs in the area had developed a shorthand to describe the toxic mix of challenges that mean men in Blackpool are likely to die five years earlier than average for England: “Shit Life Syndrome”.

Poor housing, insecure work, widespread isolation: Theresa May came to power promising to tackle the injustices that strip life for many people in Blackpool, as well as seaside towns and de-industrialised cities across the UK, of the opportunities that the average person in London or Edinburgh can expect.

And Brexit campaigners tapped into the seam of anger running beneath places like Blackpool, making promises they couldn’t keep and offering a better future, albeit with little sense of how it would be delivered. Is a blue passport really keeping faith with them?

It’s a question that increasingly needs to be directed not just at the government, but at Labour, too. Blackpool is split between two Westminster constituencies – one Labour, one Conservative, although with the collapse of what was a sizeable Ukip vote, both are now effectively marginals where the need to appear more committed on Brexit is equal.

While the announcement was criticised by most opposition parties, including in strong terms by Nicola Sturgeon herself, Labour’s response was muted. There was condemnation from a number of pro-EU backbenchers like David Lammy, but the criticism from Jeremy Corbyn was gentle and low-key by comparison.

A poll of UK students just before Christmas found that 68 per cent of them support Labour, up from 55 per cent before the June general election. Astonishingly, 55 per cent of them believe Labour’s position is to remain in the EU; many more Remain voters backed Labour not because they believed the party shared their views on Brexit, but because they felt they had no other alternative.

The challenge for Labour next year will be reconcile the sorts of voters (to say nothing of some of the party’s leadership) in places like Blackpool, who are happy enough to see their passport turn blue, with the views of the young, cosmopolitan movement that put Corbyn in power and robbed the Tories of their majority.

And if both the opposition and the government want to be faithful to the true meaning of Brexit this Christmas, they need to focus on finding a cure to Shit Life Syndrome.

Leaving the EU isn’t it. A different colour passport definitely isn’t it either. All the best for 2018.