A typical British mess. Nine famous people are featured in the new UK passport: all English, eight white, and seven men. A demoralising reminder of who is in charge, or a fair celebration of Britain’s heroes?
It’s the pocket-sized document which can tell tales from around the world, and the item we’re most scared of forgetting when we go on holiday. Such is the importance of the passport — and the desire of criminals and terrorists to forge it — that the government releases a new blueprint every five years.
This year’s version boasts advances in the use of UV and infrared light, inks and watermarks. Immigration Minister James Brokenshire says it ‘is the most secure that the UK has ever issued’.
But as a statement of national identity, the new document has caused controversy. Its design, which was launched at Shakespeare’s Globe on Tuesday under the theme ‘creative United Kingdom’, features structures and pictures of nine pioneers: seven men and two women. This imbalance prompted anger among gender equality campaigners, who compared it to the feminist campaign in 2013 to have Jane Austen represented on a bank note. Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said: ‘Instead of being celebrated and remembered, great British women are being airbrushed out of history’. She added that the government could have included creative and influential women such as writer Mary Wollstonecraft and artist Bridget Riley.
The choices have also inspired debate on immigration. Eight of those featured are white but the other, Sir Anish Kapoor, is an immigrant who came to the UK as an international student in the 1970s. Those who, as he did, wish to stay in the UK after completing their studies now face increasing governmentrestrictions.
And, as the SNP dominate politics in Scotland and problems continue in the Northern Irish Assembly, the nine people chosen are all English. SNP MP Stewart Stevenson tweeted that the design ‘seems to omit Scotland and Scots’ while Hywel Williams, an MP with Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, said: ‘I’m incredulous that Wales will have no representation’.[divider]Land of hope and glory?[/divider] We should be ashamed, say some: do we want foreign officials to think we are just a nation of white, English men? The government has missed an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of half of the population and ignorantly driven the nation’s peoples apart. This passport merely reinforces our depressing perceptions of dominance and subservience.
Don’t get taken in by divisive identity politics, respond others — the government could never represent everyone in the space of 32 small pages. These nine people are architects, artists, a mathematician, a computer pioneer, a clockmaker and a writer. Their achievements do not belong to men, the English or white people; their work has benefited us all.
How does this affect me? This is partly an argument about role models — the people we choose to promote can be seen as a reflection of those we think were, are or will be important. If you admire the technical genius of Charles Babbage or Ada Lovelace, for example, you might be inspired to emulate their work.
But does anyone care about this sort of thing? Some certainly do — the issue of role models is behind campaigns of groups such as WISE.
This is an organisation calling for the promotion of women in science and engineering, which tend to be male-dominated.
When could I get one of these passports? That depends on whether you have one already. Your passport lasts for ten years in the UK before you need to renew it — giving us all a helpful reminder of how much older we’re getting.