Brexit, Passports and Modern Ideas of Identity

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Here in Britain, we are writhing our hands with anxiety about the question of Brexit: that is, Britain’s exit from the European Union.

It’s a big change for us. It could go well, or could go badly. The EU is a big club of 28 nations, with an estimated population of over 510 million people with whom we can trade, travel and work under shared rules. We’ve been a member since 1973.

Now, after a huge referendum where the “leavers” won by a margin of 52% to 48%, the United Kingdom (that is, Great Britain and Northern Island) is due to officially leave in March 2019. Before that time, citizens are free to move, live and work within the borders of all EU member states without (much) hindrance. Though we don’t yet know how things will stand in the future, once we’reout, the freedom to move between European countries is likely to get much more tricky.

Circulate within any conglomerate of people in Britain today — an office block, a university campus, a supermarket or a bank — and you sense the blending of nationalities as a result of open borders. I have a feeling that, even as the debate over immigration grows more heated, that the actual coalescence of multi-national people is becoming increasingly seamless and unproblematic. To encumber this state of fluidity with the instatement of visas and increased passport controls will impinge us with new dilemmas about who belongs and who doesn’t. Therefore, I suspect the impact will be as much psychological as practical.

The history of the passport is instructive here. Before World War I, the status of the passport was fluid. For several centuries the passport took the form of a letter of introduction, a Safe Conduct document appealing to the host nation to allow the carrier to cross a territory without fear of harm. Present day UK passports still carry a similar message, requesting that the bearer be allowed “to pass freely without let or hindrance.” When the nineteenth century brought a surge in both business and leisure travel thanks to expansive rail networks, the actual enforcement of passport controls were relaxed. Compared to the numbers of people making border crossings, few held official documents.

As Europe sunk into war, the commensurate anxieties and tensions changed the status of the passport from a document of request to a document of identity. The League of Nations convened to secure passport design guidelines, whereby signatories “should agree on a uniform style of passport issued to identical standards.” In Britain, the new passport was valid for two years and contained a photograph and a signature, as well as a brief physical description.

It is interesting to note how the new documentation took on symbolic significance for writers and artists of the time, who were more likely than most to treat the crossing of borders as a natural human right.

In Raymond William’s classic account of Modernism, “such endless border-crossing at a time when frontiers were starting to become much more strictly policed and when, with the First World War, the passport was instituted, worked to naturalize the thesis of the non-­natural status of language. The experience of visual and linguistic strangeness, the broken narrative of the journey and its inevitable accompaniment of transient encounters with characters whose self­-presentation was bafflingly unfamiliar, raised to the level of universal myth this intense, singular narrative of unsettlement, homelessness, solitude and impoverished independence: the lonely writer gazing down on the unknowable city from his shabby apartment.”

What I believe Williams is referring to by the “non­-natural status of language” is the increasing disparity between traditional habits of thought and identity embodied by the apparent “naturalness” of one’s own language, compared to the actual myriad realities of “foreigners” given by the shape and color of their languages and customs. Thus, modern writers began to see the contextual nature of language, and in such circumstances were free to experiment with the boundaries of the form.

To a great extent, we no longer experience language as non-natural, since the opposite category of “natural language” is outmoded.

The old Justice Commissioner for the EU, Viviane Reding, extolled the current situation in plain terms: “Today, as European citizens… you can travel 3,000km (1,860 miles) across Europe — from Vilnius in Lithuania to Valencia in Spain — without once stopping at a border.” In other words, our natural status is as free individuals at liberty to roam over enormous territories without let or hindrance. I worry this freedom is too important to loose.

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”. Website:

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