A member of our household recently received a new passport from Her Majesty’s Passport Office, just in time for summer vacations. On the front cover is the familiar coat of arms of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the lion and the unicorn. Inside the back cover, the bearer’s photo and a chip. But it’s the pages inbetween which caught my attention – on each page, empty for future visas, there are different images of the British Isles. There are picturesque beach huts looking very much as if they are from Southwold Beach. There is a Durdle Door, the famous sea arch of Dorset. There are pictures of moorland, and of rolling hills much like the South Downs.
On this quintessential identity document – there to confirm individual identity, but also a statement of national identity and statehood – Great Britain is presented therefore as a set of diverse, striking and unpopulated landscapes, mostly coastal. Checking my own older passport, I found that its pages are adorned with images of British birds: waders, eagles, herons. This is a striking way of representing British identity, to its own citizens/subjects and to foreign border officials the world over. It is reminiscent of the soft-focus images of the United Kingdom adopted by British Airways on its in-flight crockery, on the paper ties which adorn its plastic crockery, and on posters displayed in its planes… misty, blue depictions of the Oxford skyline, or Brighton pier. The British Airways images are at least of places of human habitation, references to a human heritage. But the Passport Office offers us just landscape.
When the euro was being launched in 2001-2, there was much debate as to which symbols to put on coins and notes, national or European. Coins retained national symbols, but the notes carried famous bridges, as a neutral image, and a helpful metaphor perhaps for the European project. Bridges were clearly the compromise option. It’s a sign, then, of how contested British identity is today that the Passport Office judged that national identity was best expressed without any reference to, e.g., famous British individuals, or buildings, or cities, but to something as abstract and seemingly timeless as landscape. I once heard a folk singer in concert perform a song about British identity – the basic jist was that, no matter what your race, or place of origin, what united inhabitants of this island was ultimately (only?) the landscape itself, which we could all agree to love. For historians and nation-builders, nationalists and patriots in the 19th and 20th centuries, national identity was all about history. Now that we, in multicultural 21st century Britain can’t agree on a universally palatable narrative of British history, the Passport office at least has junked history altogether in exchange for geography, or even geology. As historians, on some level we are clearly failing to offer our fellow citizens a useable narrative of their past.
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Durdle Door, Wikipedia Commons