Christmas is full of symbolism, traditions and rituals – carols, holly, mistletoe, trees, turkeys, puddings, mince pies, brandy butter, Brussels sprouts and an extravaganza of presents. It is all good fun and it brings momentary happiness to many families and groups of friends. However, perhaps the indulgence and consumerism associated with contemporary British Christmas celebrations has become too much of a good thing, distracting many of us from contemplating the significance of the simple birth of Jesus in Palestine that the feast commemorates.
Reflecting on this, I felt fairly certain that Father Christmas claimed much more attention than Jesus around 25th December. It then struck me as strange that Father Christmas has come to be regarded as so British. The very fact that he is popularly perceived to reside at the North Pole and drives a sledge drawn by reindeer implies that, if he is seen in these parts, he must be a short-term seasonal immigrant. His reindeers are likely to have evaded pet passport controls. Fortunately, even if his English is confined to just one thrice-repeated word of one syllable, he receives a great welcome! He is lucky not to have been consigned to an immigration removal centre. Ho! Ho! Ho!
Symbolism plays an important part in the celebration of Christmas but also touches on many aspects of our daily lives. As we grow older, we may find ourselves increasingly nostalgic when we invoke memories of the “good” old days. The “bad” aspects of old days are conveniently forgotten and the “good” ones tend to be burnished. In normal times, such looking back is quite harmless and even soothing, but when it leads to calls for “turning the clock back” it can easily obstruct progress or, as we are now seeing, divert attention from addressing the more fundamental issues affecting our future.
Given the government’s failure over the past 18 months to come up with a consensus on the shape of Britain’s future relationship with Europe – devoting just less than an hour and a half of Cabinet time to resolve the complex set of issues – it was no surprise that the Prime Minister couldn’t resist pressing the “blue passport” button before going off to celebrate Christmas. It was easier for her to toy with symbolism than to face up to reality.
In committing herself to replace the present burgundy-coloured British passport with a look-alike of the old blue one, Mrs May played on the nostalgic instincts of older voters towards the trivial matter of the look of a routine travel document. Although our passports are issued by the British government, not by the EU, and EU member countries have been free to select their cover colour, the dark blue cover has somehow acquired the status of an “iconic” symbol of British nationalism. In announcing her decision, May reinforced these nostalgic perceptions by claiming “The UK passport is an expression of our independence and sovereignty – symbolising our citizenship of a proud, great nation”. The implication of her statement – that we must leave the EU to take control of our passport colour – is misleading as the EU that has never obliged us to use burgundy passports, any more than to drive on the right or to join the Euro!
Far from being an innocent gesture, however, her action distracts public attention from her continuing inability to come to grips with the many substantive and urgent issues affecting the future capacity of British citizens to travel, work and trade without impediment around Europe as well as between the two parts of Ireland. Changing passport colours is a sop to nostalgia and fake nationalism which will cost millions and may simply leave us last in the customs queue – a queue that would not exist if Britain were to stay in the single market and customs union or even (dare we suggest?) remain in the EU.
The Prime Minister calls on us to trust her to negotiate on our behalf, but can we really give her our confidence if she still can’t tell us where she is heading on the really big issues that will impact on our children and grandchildren – who have never known a blue passport – for the rest of their lives?
Maybe her next move will be to call on Santa Claus to dress in Tory blue rather than Labour red if he is to be allowed visa-free entry to the UK after March 2019.
Ho! Ho! Ho!