Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Color of Empire

Pity the poor Brits. They used to say that sun never set on the British empire, a nod to the fact that its possessions circled the globe. From India to Egypt, from the Sudan to New Zealand, historians estimated that the Union jack flew over roughly 25% of the world's land mass. However in a relatively short period of time, day became night. And now the United Kingdom is just the four countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Yes, there are still 14 overseas territories and 3 Crown dependencies spread far and wide. But if you factor out their Antarctic claim, you're left with such footholds as the Falklands, Pitcairn Island and Montserrat. All together they add up to an area less than the size of New Jersey. Hardly the British Raj.

In other arenas where they used to rein supreme it's no different. In culture high and low, they used to set the tone, with names ranging from Shakespeare to Benny Hill, from Laurence Olivier and Mr. Bean, from JRR Tolkien to Monty Python. In music the names of favorite sons defined rock and roll: the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath. But then they go and produce the Spice Girls and One Direction. How far they have fallen.

This past year saw perhaps the biggest retreat of all, with Brexit pulling the UK out of the European Union. It seemed like a good idea to some, a chance to reclaim their old glory and run their own ship. Never mind that it's safe to say that not everyone thought it through: immediately after the vote the most searched question on Google was "What does it mean to leave the EU?" Now, a year later, banks are shifting operations to Berlin, Richard Branson pulled out of a deal that would have brought 3000 jobs to the UK, and Lloyd's of London is setting up Lloyd's of Brussels.

Still, some good might come of it after all. Putting aside the economic ramifications, a large part of the reason for the vote was to get the country out from under the thumb of the EU. They wanted to be free its onerous regulations, including such rulings as "all bananas must be free of abnormal curvature," while cucumbers were to be "practically straight" and bent by a gradient not to exceed 10 millimeters per every 10 centimeters in length. Not that the English themselves were completely devoid of stupid rules: it is still on the books that placing a postage stamp bearing the monarch's head upside down on an envelope is considered as act of treason.

But perhaps the best reason of all was for the UK to get back its manhood. Well, not its manhood per se. But starting in 1988, the country's passports were redesigned to be in compliance with a common format agreed upon by the EU. And that meant the cover included the phrase "European Union" over and above "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland." As if that weren't demeaning enough, the color also changed from a dark royal blue to what some called burgundy, others called maroon, but what many considered pink.

Just how big a deal is this? Conservative Member of Parliament Andrew Rosindell said "The restoration of our own British passport is a clear statement to the world that Britain is back. The humiliation of having a pink European Union passport will now soon be over and the United Kingdom nationals can once again feel pride and self-confidence in their own nationality when travelling, just as the Swiss and Americans can do." A word of caution: while I can't speak for the Swiss, I do have to tell my English friends that the fact that my USA passport is blue isn't going very far in making me feel confident about what's happening here at home.

Still, every little bit helps. But it's not a given that the old blue book will make its return. The Home Office has invited businesses to apply for a 490 million pound redesign contract. As perhaps a preview of possibilities, design magazine Dezeen had a contest asking for suggestions. Among the finalists are a bunch of blue variations as well as other hues, a half pink/half blue design for those wishing an escape hatch, and one emblazoned with the legend "Full United Kingdom - Resident" which is also abbreviated on the cover in large letters as "FUK-R." Take that, Brussels.


Marc Wollin of Bedford always has his passport ready. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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