Reading the British Passport

In 2010 the British Passport was redesigned. While the front cover retained its familiar burgundy colour and UK coat of arms, the interior pages saw a subtle but significant change. Whereas the previous version had identical patterns on each page, with a simple watermark featuring the four national plants of the United Kingdom (rose, thistle, leek and shamrock), the new version features a series of images of landscapes from across the UK, accompanied by various weather symbols (rainclouds, snowclouds, cold fronts etc. – a comment perhaps on the British fascination with the weather). These images are not foregrounded, however, since each page is also blank, ready to be stamped by border staff. Instead, they fade into the background, an underlying, barely registered presence in every new passport.

With this change, the British passport, one of the country’s most important and recognisable symbols of national identity, has come to materially signify the way national identity is ideologically established and maintained. Ideology functions as a background to our everyday life, something which does not (seem to) interfere with our actions, as these images do not interfere with the passport’s ability to function as a travel document. What happens, though, if these images are brought into the foreground? What, for a start, do they actually depict?

All are real sites from around the UK, such as the White Cliffs of Dover, but the Passport Authority has also included generic descriptions of the pictures on the left-hand edge of each page. From front to back, these are as follows:

  • Reedbed
  • Geological Formation
  • Coastal Cliff
  • Fishing Village
  • Beach
  • Canal
  • Village Green
  • Formal Park
  • Woodland
  • Lake
  • River
  • Moorland
  • Mountain

There seems to be a coastal slant here, especially in the first five items (the ‘geological formation’ is Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland, a coastal feature), representing, perhaps, the passport’s role in border crossing, and conversely in securing national borders, which are in the UK contiguous (except in Ireland) with the coastline. Yet as the list continues, this is no longer the case. We enter a pastoral world of natural features: lake, river, moorland and mountain. Again, though, not every item on the list is a natural feature. Perhaps the most telling images are grouped in the middle of the passport: the canal, village green and formal park. Along with the fishing village, these are man-made features of the landscape, but of a very particular kind. All stand for a traditional vision of rural, safe, monocultural, conservative, picturesque Britishness, or even Englishness. If this list is supposed to represent the UK, then it is strikingly biased. There are no city features here, not even any towns. It is not representative of Britain as it is, but of a certain dream of Britain; one which is resolutely anti-modern.

Most significant of all, though, is that not one page of the passport includes an image of a person. Even on the village green, the park bench stands empty. Despite this, the passport can be racially characterised, and characterised as white. Whiteness is, in the West, the race which is not seen, since it is always seen as natural and normal. Whiteness is the default race, the background. By failing to include images of people, the passport occludes the fact that none of the places it depicts are associated with immigrant groups. Formal parks, fishing villages and canals are not just rural locations, they are also, overwhelmingly, white locations. Moreover, the absence of people (the people who actually make up the nation) suggests the passport’s primary purpose, which is not to bring people into the nation, but to exclude them. These pristine images of rural Britain paint an idealised picture of an unpopulated country, one which has been protected from uncontrolled immigration by those people who lack such passports.

Another recent change to the British passport seems to stand in stark opposition to these images of rural utopia: the introduction of biometric computer chips, included in passports since 2006. Biometric chips signify a high-tech, modern world, consisting of computerised data and automated checking procedures. This world of advanced security could not be further away from the moorlands and mountains depicted inside the passport. Yet, taken as a total object, the passport tells us that these two things are intimately connected. If we want to have our rural, utopian Britain, we must also accept an increasingly greater emphasis on, and empowerment of, the nation’s security apparatus. The traditional rural landscape of the nation (which is always, of course, a myth), can only be sustained – and sustained as ideology – by that which is most modern. The introduction of rural images in the new British passport is not, then, in opposition to biometric technology, but intimately bound up with it, as its almost invisible ideological underpinning and justification.

Art by Hannah Mae (@madamemae88); check out her work here: http://disassociate.jimdo.com/

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