In the week before Christmas, Theresa May tweeted to the world that “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.” This was sent with a link to the Conservative Party webpage describing how the blue colour was first used in 1921 and “remained the colour of choice until the UK joined the EU and the burgundy common format colour was adopted.” The implication is that, free from the restraints of the EU, the passports (produced as part of an over-eleven year £490 million contract including printing and assembling) are being heralded as a restoration of tradition as we go through with Brexit.
The tone here, that of a patriotic pride and rebellious nature, reflects a key rhetoric that was churned out during the Leave campaign leading up to the EU referendum. Many Leave voters had been encouraged to embrace the attitude that we needed to return to a ‘golden age’ of Great Britain, found in the early 20th century. Images of faded Union Jacks and KEEP CALM slogans were used to push for Brexit – not so subtle remainders and reminders of a time during the World Wars when patriotism was seemingly vital for British victory. Therefore, the duplication of similar campaigning was a clever tactic to tap into a nostalgia that is particularly prominent for older voters, but also an insinuation that leaving the EU was a battle that needed to be fought and won.
the duplication of similar campaigning was a clever tactic to tap into a nostalgia that is particularly prominent for older voters
However, the announcement has already met much ridicule and criticism. The Labour MP David Lammy mocked the nostalgia seeped into the symbolism of the blue passports, explaining how “Brexit is beginning to feel like a huge effort to turn the clock back 100 years with some misguided imperial overtones.” The former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, Charles Powell, also openly derided the move by the Conservative government: “So long as they are content with symbols, rather than substance, I see no harm in letting them have their way. Perhaps we should go the whole hog and reintroduce ambassadorial dress uniforms, as well as bowler hats and stiff collars for senior civil servants.” Critics have branded the blue passports as a cheap, melancholic move that exposes the government to be condescending to the electorate, as well as an embarrassment when desperately trying to match up to the EU in negotiations.
Critics have branded the blue passports as a cheap, melancholic move that exposes the government to be condescending to the electorate
The criticism that our government, and therefore our country, is being presented as a laughing stock for the rest of Europe is also supported by the response of the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt. He retorted by tweeting a picture of stacks of fake passports, adorned with the blue and yellow EU flag, along with the caption: “If we had known in advance that blue was so important to the UK, we could simply have replaced our passports by this one 😊” Verhofstadt’s joke followed a previous tweet that clarified how Britain could have chosen to have any colour passport while still remaining in the EU – therefore undermining the “independence and sovereignty” that the blue was meant to represent and instead being seen as an attempted distraction while Brexit negotiations go on to prove more difficult.
Conservative MPs have defended the blue passport against the waves of criticism though. Nadine Dorries, MP for Mid Bedfordshire, stated that what “this reaction demonstrates is the contempt with which many of the Remain establishment hold the electorate… Sadly, some people seem to think it’s shameful and wrong to be proud of our country…The people voted to take back control – so why should we not take back control of our passports and return to the traditional navy blue?” Jacob Rees-Mogg also praised the symbolism of the blue passport, adding that he hoped that they would be printed in the UK as well.
the apparently minor announcement of blue passports is actually an echo of the continued debates around Brexit
As the EU referendum exposed divisions in the country in a rather ugly light, the apparently minor announcement of blue passports is actually an echo of the continued debates around Brexit. Is this an emblem of an independent country taking back control or a condescending publicity stunt to distract from the realities of the negotiations? When we’re having to pay a £500 million bill, is an overzealous oozing of patriotism over navy passports actually a front over the price we now have to pay? In years to come when we have officially left the EU, we will have to see whether our blue passports are an “iconic” symbol of “a proud, great nation”, or more a representation of an expensive, petty wistfulness.