Brian Monteith: passport should reflect all of UK

The opening pages from the new British passport design. Picture: PA
The opening pages from the new British passport design. Picture: PA
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I have never considered myself a nationalist but I have always considered myself a patriot. So if there is something that might make my blood boil it is the complete lack of comprehension that is often displayed by people in authority towards what makes the United Kingdom.

The British passport is something of an icon. People go to great lengths to have one and many people were upset when the European Union changed its colour from navy blue to burgundy in 1988. These trivial things matter to people.

Before passports a letter of introduction issued by the Privy Council would give you hope of safe conduct. That changed from 1915 when a photograph was included on a sheet of paper that folded into an eight page passport with card cover. Over the years it has evolved further with changes in technology used to make it harder for forgers to copy.

I renewed my passport two years ago and its pages are now more like bank notes, filled with thin line drawings of scenes from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Every five years a new design is released and this week the latest version was announced to a storm of controversy. Illustrations of nine “creative” people are now on the pages – but only two of them are women, setting off a predictable debate about gender equality.

More as a jest I remarked to my wife that it would not surprise me if there were also no Scots, so it was initially in sorrow rather than anger when I found out my fears were justified. There were indeed no Scots – and no-one from Wales or Northern Ireland either. Not so much a British passport as, well, an English one.

Now these redesigns don’t just happen overnight, in fact it has taken two years for the new pages to be agreed and prepared to represent the development of UK culture over 500 years. Where then were these bureaucrats living during the independence referendum? A cave? Have they no understanding of what makes a sense of national identity, never mind representing that visually on the British passport?

It is too late to change the new passport now, it will be printed in the millions – but a new one will be required in five years’ time and so working by the dictum of “don’t get mad, get even” there is an easy way to right this wrong. When the design for the next generation of passports are finalised there should be seven women and only two men – and none of them English!

Instead of carping on about it we should respond positively so that balance is achieved and a message is sent out to those Little Englanders and cultural ignoramuses that mistakenly think that for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland simply read “England”.

So, with tongue firmly in cheek, I thought I should suggest my candidates for the next UK passport.

Starting in Northern Ireland I would look towards the Olympic gold-medal Pentathlete Mary Peters – although born in England she was raised in Ulster and has always sought to improve the opportunities for fellow athletes in the province. As her compatriot I would choose one of the founders of the Peace Movement, Betty Williams, who sought to heal the divide and fought against bigotry, intolerance and violence from all sides.

From Wales I would go for influential fashion guru Laura Ashley, who has been copied by so many designers and retailers since the seventies. I would also include the Victorian nurse Betsi Cadwaladr who, when she went to Turkey and the Crimea was more concerned with results than rules, upsetting Florence Nightingale, but achieving the impossible.

From Scotland I would suggest Elsie Inglis for the example she made in her life and the lives she too saved through the hospitals she founded in France, Greece and Serbia during WWI. There’s Mary Slessor, the Dundonian missionary to Nigeria who spoke for women’s rights and stopped the killing of twins among the Efik people. And I would add Jenny Geddes. Were it not for Geddes throwing her stool at the Dean of St Giles’ shouting “daur ye say a Mass in my lug?” Scotland would have adopted King Charles I’s Book of Common Prayer and changed from presbyterian to episcopal liturgy – and Scotland would no longer have been the Scotland we know and love.

And the men? Who better than Edinburgh’s Sir James Cowperthwaite, the Scottish administrator who made Hong Kong what it is today. By his foresight and aversion to more and more government planning he set the rules for Hong Kong to turn from an impoverished tiny British colony to a model of economic growth that delivered a good standard of living to millions.

And who better to finish on than a man who was born in Liverpool and raised in Motherwell by his Scottish parents. Despite playing for England the legendary Joe Baker considered himself utterly Scottish. A hero to Hibbies that saw him grace Easter Road, he also played for Torino, Arsenal, Nottingham Forest and Sunderland before coming back to his beloved Hibs and then Raith Rovers. By parentage, birth and employment a true Brit worthy of any British passport.