23 March 2018

Making passports British shouldn’t mean making them in Britain


One of the more irritating aspects of Brexit, for both Remainers and Leavers, has been the number of times people on either side of the argument find themselves corralled alongside those with whom they disagree. With each new issue, it seems, there are either blithering idiots who agree with your stance, but for all the wrong reasons, or those who were on the right side (ie, the one you were on) in the referendum, but who are now producing arguments diametrically opposed to those they used then.

Few rows, though, have been quite as silly as the one over the government’s decision to award the contract for the production of the (reintroduced, blue) British passport to a Franco-Dutch firm, Gamelto, rather than the UK’s De La Rue. This is apparently a “national humiliation” (Priti Patel); a “failure to protect British workers” (The GMB and Unite) and “unfair” (Martin Sutherland, the chief executive of De La Rue).

That’s all rubbish. But so is the idea that bringing back blue passports is an entirely trivial and pointless matter. Of course it is true that jobs, prosperity, the UK’s trading opportunities with the rest of the world, including the EU, and that the long-term position of the nation is improved by leaving are, on the face of it, more important than token gestures like the colour of a passport.

But tokens are important, too. The fact that something is symbolic does not make it less of a material change. The fashion – especially amongst the kind of metropolitan bien-pensant liberals who are more horrified by Brexit – is to pooh-pooh such issues as purely emblematic. Yet they are clearly, for other people, as important as the practical concerns – unsurprisingly, because the whole concept of culture, nationality, custom and tradition is constructed around such superficially unimportant things.

Indeed, the whole business of constructing identity is bound up with notions of elevating often trivial things into markers of belonging. This is often literally a matter of dressing them up – the things which most people take most seriously, such as the courts, parliament, our armed forces and the church conduct much of their business in superficially ridiculous fancy dress. Sneering at that misunderstands a fundamental human drive, which is that we often seek to emphasise the importance of something by making it obviously distinctive from the everyday.

Another technique is to make difference tangible in the everyday, which explains the deep attachment people form to weights and measures, money, football colours, regional cooking and the entire list of objects, from Wensleydale cheese to Derby Day, and Gothic architecture to boiled cabbage cut into section, which TS Eliot chose as together comprising “culture”.

What doesn’t matter, however, for this rather romantic, but deeply entrenched view of national symbols, is who makes the passports, so long as they’re blue. Yet those who thought the idea of changing the passports’ colour was absurd suddenly view it as of major significance that they are to be made abroad (by the firm, by the way, which already makes British driving licences, though we haven’t for some reason heard much about what a disgrace that is).

If the symbolism is what counts, the fact that our passports are manufactured in France makes as little difference as the fact that the vast majority of Union flags are produced in China and as unimportant as it would be if Scottish rugby jerseys were made by a firm in Bologna (which they are).

But the practical, economic argument is wrong, as well. The contract, if it goes ahead as reported, will apparently save the British taxpayer £120 million over its duration. It would surely take a brave politician to argue that spending that extra money for the gesture of having the words “Made in the UK” stamped on them would be a productive use of public money. The pro-Brexit brigade, instead of decrying the decision, should instead have declared forcefully that it was a prime example of the fact that we would continue, and want to continue, trading with other firms within the EU.

They could add that the principles of free trade insist that it is always a mistake to make decisions such as this on nationalist, protectionist grounds: that, in the long-term, jobs are never protected by insulating them from global competition, and that doing so even in the short term comes at the cost of other jobs in other sectors of the economy, by increasing the price of goods, restricting the purchasing power of consumers, and stifling the growth their greater spending power might otherwise have produced.

There are two other obvious examples of entirely contrary stances. One is that of De La Rue, who currently have a very good business manufacturing passports, currency and all manner of other stuff for overseas governments and companies. By their own logic, they should be restricted to the UK market (by any real use of logic, they should have put in a more competitive bid).

The other is the argument about procurement. It is true, as the culture secretary Matt Hancock pointed out, that current EU rules on public procurement require the government to adopt the “most economically advantageous tender” and that we will not be bound by them after Brexit is delivered. It is also true, as David Allen Green, a former government public procurement lawyer, argues, that WTO rules impose similar restrictions.

But it doesn’t follow, as Green argues, that this is “an early emblem of how little control the UK government is going to have in the harsh world of international trade in services”. The government will have as much or as little control as it wishes to exercise. It’s just that it would counter-productive for it to exercise it by restricting, rather than liberalising, trade with other countries – a lesson which should soon be clear when Donald Trump’s tariffs, like all previous tariffs imposed in American history, turn out to be thoroughly damaging and ineffective.

If the twin aims of Brexit were regaining sovereignty while continuing and expanding free trade with other nations, then far from either side thinking it an embarrassment or a cautionary tale, the passport decision ought to be a good example of both. It has let the British people decide what they want it to look like, and let an outward-looking international commitment to the market decide what is the best deal for getting it into their hands at the lowest price.

Andrew McKie is Acting Deputy Editor of CapX.