I can remember two occasions in my life when I cared what my passport looked like. The first was at secondary school when we prepared to go away on our first school trip. On the coach some of us, with embarrassingly childish photographs from a few years before, nervously clutched our passports to our chests. Others with newer documents happily shared them around and demanded to see the full horror of our ungelled hair. The second was on a cricket team tour to Luxembourg, when my damaged passport was rejected at security. I flew back a day later via Copenhagen on a white emergency passport obtained at the British embassy.
That is until now, and the government’s announcement that thanks to Brexit we’ll all be getting proud, blue British passports. The sensible thing to do would be to brush it off for the confected silliness it is. There was nothing stopping us from turning our passports blue, black, or the colour of bulldog piss when we were in the EU anyway. If a few people have so little going for them that the colour of the document they fumble for inbetween hastily buying a badly written spy novel and squeezing onto an EasyJet matters that much to them, then let the Brexit babies have their bottle.
But I do care, because they’ve imbued it with symbolism. When I next renew my passport I will receive one in Brexit blue and I’ll know why it’s that colour — because nationalists wanted it that way. I’ll know that I used my old burgundy one to travel around the continent by rail, and that on that old document I could’ve stopped, found a job and fallen in love. But not on my new blue one. Not on the one chosen to mimic the colour of a passport phased out the year after I was born. I’ll know that a British prime minister thought it important enough to tweet:
“The UK passport is an expression of our independence and sovereignty — symbolising our citizenship of a proud, great nation. That’s why we have announced that the iconic #bluepassport will return after we leave the European Union in 2019.”
And that I thought she sounds like a pub drunk regurgitating a Daily Mail editorial. I’ll know it mattered to ageing nostalgists who cared more about their petty obsessions than what the vast majority of their children wanted.
Symbols matter, we often don’t want them to, but they do. Quite often we don’t get to choose whether we care, because others give them meaning by adopting them — as the creator of a certain cartoon frog can tell you.
If having a blue passport is an important symbol to those claiming it’s a sign “indigenous Brits” have got their country back through Brexit, then whether we like it or not it becomes one for those of us who feel the Britain we were proud of and loved is being torched by such sentiments.
In seven or eight years time (mine’s got a while to run yet), if a son or daughter was to ask why we have different coloured passports, then if one is being honest the reply will be:
“Because some people (let’s call them “snowflakes”, my lad or lass) were unhappy with passports being like your dad’s because his is the same colour as some people from other countries and it upset them to have the same colour passport as a foreigner. It upset them so much that they wanted to change the colour even though it means you and I can’t go to lots of places as easily as I used to be able to.”
As symbols of a culture war being waged by the old against the young go, changing the colour of a passport to an ‘iconic’ design no one under 40 remembers, while blocking the opportunities it once gave them, is a pretty damn good one. A symbol of what we once had, and wanted to keep, why we lost it, who took it from us and why.
A symbol of how an elite posed as anti-elitists, grabbed at the flag and embraced nationalism to connect with voters’ emotions and explain away inconvenient truths and inconsistencies. A symbol of a moment when a divided Britain narrowly chose nostalgia over future opportunity, and the old over the young. And that all this was done in part, so Liam Fox and Boris Johnson can pretend they’re serving in a Disraeli cabinet rather than a 21st Century one.
I have no doubt it’s a simplistic caricature of Brexiteers wide variety of views. But that’s why symbols are important — if you don’t want people to think you share the views of red corduroyed colonels then you have to reach out and reassure those who are used to burgundy being the colour of their passport rather than their trousers. The easiest way to avoid being labeled as a cartoon nationalist is not to act like one.
After the referendum, the Conservatives’ biggest job wasn’t to ensure every extremist on the leave side felt their demands were being met, but to bring the country together. The only way to do that was to reassure those who feel Brexit has cost them an important part of their future. Convince them that it’s a serious and sober project about Britain’s future rather than reflexive jingoism — that their views would still be welcome and listened to and welcome in post-Brexit Britain.
After 18 months the only serious thinking about assessing possible impacts appears to have been cribbed off Wikipedia. Instead we’ve had, “You lost, suck it up”, citizens of nowhere, crush the saboteurs, the promotion of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson’s whistling and roaring lions, a phony war on Gibraltar, the DUP, and now a Tory MP saying this: “It’s a matter of identity. Having the pink European passports has been a source of humiliation. It merged us into one European identity, which isn’t what we are.”
All this makes it look, smell and sound like the Conservatives hold young, socially liberal Britain in contempt. If you start a culture war, the other side will take up arms and it won’t be pretty. Sensitive millennials and Gen Xers didn’t choose this battle — housing and better paid and more secure jobs would top any list of concerns, well ahead of any wars on Christmas, pantomime or patriotism, while passion for the EU has in many cases been sparked by realisations about why its opponents wanted out. But if someone starts a fight, you make damn well sure you finish it.
The 2017 election showed the power of this sentiment. The Conservative Party lost support among the under 45s at such a rate that you might be more likely to find a young person with a mortgage than one who votes Tory.
Despite what Momentum and certain Tories say, we haven’t all become youthful Tony Benns brandishing vape pens instead of pipes. In 2015, David Cameron won 30 to 39 year olds. In 2017 Theresa May lost among the same age group by 26 points. Now, that could be down to Jeremy Corbyn’s astonishing political magnetism — but I doubt it, given that before the general election his leadership ratings with this age group were subterranean — and he still polls behind his party, even among younger voters. 30 to 39 year olds are not all wide-eyed Seven Nation Army singers, but people earning, starting families and looking to get on the housing ladder. Normally, they should be the electoral battleground — those weighing up their personal and social obligations and what to prioritise. Someone, once upon a time, called them hardworking (sic) families.
What changed? Applying Occam’s Razor I’d suggest it was the big political event in 2016 that people under 40, those who never had one of those iconic passports, voted against. They may reluctantly accept the referendum result, but don’t have to be happy about it or the behaviour of those carrying it out. Those hardworking (sic) families seem to be more concerned about the future than symbols of an imagined past — and want reassurance, not a constant reminder that nostalgia may have taken away what they wanted as they grow older.
There’s a deep sense of intergenerational unfairness, of a future stolen by baby boomers who frankly, if they don’t hate their children, do a damn good impression of it. A sense that if our grandparents were the greatest generation, those now hitting pension age are the selfish one. The ones who thought going against the wishes of their kids, denying us the opportunities they had and a decade of economic disruption was worth it to get back their blue passports, have a pop at foreigners, and a fissiparous notion of sovereignty that Brexiteers seem to be as willing to give away to corporations as they are to “take it back”.
Unfair? Of course — it’s an oversimplification. But then as David Cameron understood when putting a wind turbine on his house, symbols are important. And if you act like a cross between Alf Garnett and General Melchett, those who aren’t totally on board will assume that you have contempt for them and their values — and vote accordingly. And you don’t win back trust with insult after insult.
Corbyn is, to say the least, an imperfect vessel for this backlash, ambivalent about Europe and liberalism. He has the policy prospectus of an Underpants Gnome — a start point and an end point, and a load of questions about how it will all work inbetween. But then the first casualty of a culture war is reason, that is why they rarely end well. When our values come under attack, we eschew compromise and bed down with our enemies’ enemies, even if we find them distasteful or wrongheaded in many other respects.
It’s not a happy state of affairs, but it was John Redwood, Michael Gove, Dan Hannan, and Boris Johnson who joined Nigel Farage and Arron Banks in starting the fire — liberal England didn’t light it, we’re just trying to fight it. The Conservatives joined UKIP in drawing up the battlelines — first Brexit itself, and then the pursuit of one that satisfied their most rabid right-wing MPs rather than a compromise that healed the wounds they opened and have been salting ever since.
The most recent figures from YouGov show Labour leading the Conservatives by 17 points among 25 to 49 year olds, but Corbyn just 8 points ahead of Theresa May on who would make the best Prime Minister. Among the same age group, 52 per cent of people believe Brexit is the wrong decision while 36 per cent believe it’s the right one.
Intellectually, Britain’s younger generations are more divided in their views of the Labour leader than they are on Brexit — but the Conservatives’ fundamentalism is pushing even those who have their doubts about him into the Labour camp.
For many (including it seems, Michael Heseltine), the prospect of Corbyn reined in on Brexit by Labour MPs is less terrifying than a Tory Party in hock to Nadine Dorries, Paul Dacre and Jacob Rees-Mogg. As 1970s throwbacks go, Corbyn is cuddlier than the ghost of Enoch Powell.
Brexiteers every gloat, obstruction, missing impact assessment, empty nationalistic phrase, rant about lost tradition and insult hurled means that it looks more like a reactionary mess to non-believers. To counter this, they could prove there’s a grand plan beyond petty parochialism — but not by bringing back an “iconic” passport none of us remember, and will now think of as our passport to nowhere. As it is, it’s just another sneer and toxic sign of contempt that there’s an unbridgeable divide on values — and another sign that there is no plan beyond vapid nationalistic statements of British exceptionalism.
So if there’s one person who should be celebrating his blue passport Brexmas present it’s Jeremy Corbyn. Because symbols do matter, and this one is another salvo in the culture war that’s propelled the Labour leader from having little chance, to the brink of power.