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A pro-EU anti-Brexit demonstrator rallies outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on December 13. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s imperial vision of a Britain trading on its own terms with everyone is 150 years out of date. Photo: AFP

Brexit backers in Britain tout their passport – which looks like a ticket to a fantasy world

Kevin Rafferty says the stories the Britain-first crowd tell about a return to their old blue passport reflect their delusions about reclaiming their old place in a world that has moved on

Proud patriotic Brexiteers heralded a major victory in their quest to rescue Britain’s sovereignty from the tyranny of Brussels and other malign foreign influences. Prime Minister Theresa May’s government announced that in 2019 the old bold British blue passport would replace Britain’s existing burgundy-coloured passports tainted with the heading “ European Union”.

Brandon Lewis, the immigration minister, boasted that the return of the “iconic blue and gold” British passport was part of “a unique opportunity to restore our national identity and forge a new path for ourselves in the world”.

As in too many other episodes of the Brexit soap opera, these words are a farrago of lies, half-truths and delusions.

Sure, I remember the great British blue and gold passport, though the gold tended to tarnish quickly and wear off. Lewis knows that this is not the passport post-Brexit Britain will return to.

Indeed, all that will happen with passports after 2019 is that the words “European Union” will be dropped and the cover colour will change from burgundy to blue.

The other lie on which Lewis and other supporters of the great British delusion rely is that the wicked European Union forced the United Kingdom to give up its old blue passport to conform with community rules. The so-called “iconic blue” British passport dates back only to 1921, and was introduced not because of a British decision, but because the League of Nations decided the previous year on the common size and standards for passports worldwide.

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This first modern British passport only began in 1915, although the British Home Office traces passports back to letters of safe conduct issued in 1414.

Increasingly, despite the claims of Brexiteers to be rescuing British sovereignty through passports, Britain has to go along with increasingly exacting standards – machine readable, digital, biometric with a chip recording the holder’s data, all enjoined internationally.

Common standards – including requirements that the passport be written in English, French or Spanish, and must include one of the other languages when the issuing authority’s language is English, French or Spanish – are set by the International Civil Aviation Authority, an agency of the United Nations. The United States is also a major player in demanding stricter biometric and photographic details to combat terrorism.

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So the only real exercise of sovereignty available to a post-Brexit government – apart from joining North Korea, Libya and Syria, as well as China, India, the US and more than 60 other countries, in having passports with blue covers – would be to change the second language of the passport from French to Spanish.

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Passports are an illuminating example of the limitations of sovereignty – and the costly pretensions of Brexit. The referendum offered a deceptively simple but false choice – between the known world with all its faults and an illusory world at the end of the rainbow. It is distressing that the post-referendum debate in the UK has been largely based on the shifting sands of illusion. May set the tone with her imperial vision of a Britain as a friend to all the world and trading on its own terms with everyone.

Her vision is 150 years out of date, not least because she does not have the gunboats to enforce her will. The remaining 27 EU members have no reason to do the UK any special favours when leading Brexiteers continue to be rude about Brussels being the source of all evils affecting them. The rest of the world has moved on and countries have their own sets of relations and priorities. That leaves the oldest former member of empire, but who would rely on a deal with Donald Trump’s US?

The passport issue exemplifies the fact that the Brexiteers are still living in a world of make-believe, or maybe they are just lying to themselves and fellow Brits. If they cannot get small things like passports right, what hope is there for the main deal?

Kevin Rafferty, a former Osaka University professor and World Bank official, is a journalist who has edited daily newspapers in 30 cities worldwide

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Brexiteers have a passport to a fantasy world