Posts tagged ‘1921’

January 4, 2018

A True-blue Passport

Passports were once used to enable travellers safe and smooth passage and were only available to a select few. When they became obligatory they became impediments to free passage.  

The United Kingdom is in the throes of all sorts of crises: crumbling health system; rise in poverty; rise in insecure jobs; low pay; staggering inequality but the two issues most exercising the irate green ink brigade devotees of the Daily Mail, Express and other outlets of cultish reaction has been the silencing of Big Ben’s bells and the introduction of a true blue British passport. The bells are in good hands. Passports on the other hand…

No madam, a passport is not necessary for Scotland

No Madam, a passport is not necessary for Scotland

Back in 1858 in that bastion of democracy the House of Lords, Earl Grey (once a Secretary at War – with some Johnny Foreigner ) told his fellow Lords

…there could be no greater proof of the absurdity of the passport system than the regulations proposed by the English Government, and sanctioned by the French Government (other parts of the United Kingdom are available for readers in the North and West.)

On the introduction of the true-blue British passport in 1921 one newspaper correspondent wondered

…whether things will ever be again as they used to be in pre-war days, when one could wander over a good deal of Europe without bothering about a passport at all. We may have to wait a long time before that comes about but, if in the meantime passports are a necessity – and we doubt whether there is any real necessity about them, at any rate for friendly neighbouring countries – there is no reason why they should be a costly nuisance. We ourselves, our friends abroad tell us, are the worst offenders in this respect…your bureaucrat dearly loves a passport… and we make the foreigner pay pretty stiffly for the privilege of landing on these shores. This is sound enough in the case of ex-enemies and undesirables – although no real undesirable that we have ever heard of was stopped from coming here in peace time by passport difficulties. But the French and the Belgians resented the payment of a heavy fee for a visa on their passports and took to retaliation.

Passport war between the UK and Belgium was soon resolved however – for then at least but the French weren’t so easily placated and clapped on a charge for visitor visas.

The issuing of passports was described as a bureaucratic stunt intended to provide work for officials. Passports, it was argued, did not prevent unwelcome guests but merely inconvenienced welcome guests.

One has heard of English business men travelling all over the Baltic States and merely waving their birth certificates on the frontiers. We could make travel easier for our friends and our friends could make travel easier for us. Why not do it, in spite of the officials?

(Sheffield Daily Telegraph Tues 5 April 1921)

And the appearance of these early passports drew comment –  

… in the new passports there is nothing to be puffed up about, not in their appearance [they] could be mistaken for a milk or laundry book in its makeshift sort of look. It has Royal Arms in gilt in the middle and a bit cut out in the cover to slip in a white card with a name on it. It is the same size and colour as diaries.

Passports changed their spots. From being a means of free movement they became obstacles as those fleeing fascism in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s discovered to their cost: the German Jewish philosopher and cultural writer Walter Benjamin, seven years on the run, swallowed poison in Franco’s fascist Spain when denied passage to the US. Anne Frank’s family were also denied visas to the US which would have saved their lives – a mere two examples from a wretched catalogue of restrictions over travel and refusal of documents that spelled death to hundreds of thousands.

In 1974 it was proposed that member states of the European Community should issue passports in a common format but with no sense of urgency over the matter Tory David Maclean became frustrated at the delay over their implementation which he regarded as essential to promote a clear sense of identity within the Community notwithstanding positive and practical benefits – and possible without at any point diminishing our status as Britons.

He explained that the British passport issued in 1921 emerged out of a proposal from the League of Nations to address international travel by rail and it was an international format on its recommendation which was accepted and gave birth to the true-blue British version.

How very British that a reaction against one international style of passport now demands a return to another whose origins are equally international.

Passports preoccupied the House of Lords on many occasions.  

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy longed to return to blue passports while Earl Ferrers (no idea who these people were) asked if it might be possible to include Welsh on the UK passport as Wales is in the United Kingdom. The response was no.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, ever a card, got to his feet to enquire

My Lords, can my noble friend guarantee that there will not have to be a referendum upon this important subject?

Earl Ferrers was on hand to reassure him

My Lords, heaven preserve us from such a thought!

Lord Tordoff, a Liberal I believe, asked about the possibility of introducing special diplomatic passports for Member of the Lords.

On another occasion the House of Lords were at it again when one Baroness Blatch insisted the European passport was a British passport.

We have adopted a common format but it remains a British passport and it remains available only to bona fide British citizens.

She understood, she said, the nostalgia for the blue passport;

…in fact, my own blue passport still has one more year to run. I understand the points being made, but we are party to an international agreement and we signed up to the common format.

Lord King of Wartnaby (Thatcherite Tory) was not convinced.

Can we get back to having a decent passport such as the blue one that I still have? That is very important. We trade in every country in the world. When the immigration officer sees it, he recognises it as being of some value and having some identity. This little red notebook is depressing.

Depressing? Trying to survive in famine is depressing. Trying to avoid being shelled to smithereens in Syria or Palestine is depressing. A ‘little red notebook’ is of no consequence m’Lord.