What do new passport images say about modern Britain?

Passport Weather symbols appear across many of the pages

The Home Office has revealed the template for the new British passport, featuring images representing the four nations along with symbols of the UK's maritime heritage. So what does it say about the UK?

If the average Brit abroad were to lie back and picture home, what would spring to mind?

Oak leaves drifting past a row of cottages in an idyllic country village, perhaps? Maybe yachts sailing past rugged cliffs, where seabirds circle a lighthouse.

These are the sort of images that foreign immigration officers will be presented with when Britons enter their shores.

Leafing through the revamped UK passport will also give them an insight into the British obsession with weather, as meteorological symbols appear on many pages.

Meanwhile, the four nations are represented by landscape scenes of the Giant's Causeway, Ben Nevis, the Gower peninsula and the white cliffs of Dover - the result of a Home Office staff competition to select national symbols.

Passport page

Identity and Passport Service chief executive Sarah Rapson insisted there was no attempt to "represent every single aspect of Britain" but that they had deliberately chosen scenic images.

However, for design guru Stephen Bayley, the passport's references to our maritime history, dry stone walls and Blenheim Palace are nothing more than cliches, symbolising the "British disease of a soft-focus nostalgia for a past that never was".

"National iconography shouldn't be a tired old museum piece. The image bank needs topping up," he argues.

"If you take the passport as being a national advertisement, the official view of Britain is that it's an island with bad weather populated by seagulls.

"I'm not advocating the inclusion of material from hit book Crap Towns in our travel documents, but at least that would advertise our acute sense of irony - surely one of our proudest national possessions."

Mr Bayley says a truer reflection of Britain would be to focus on its arts - music, poetry and fashion - technology such as Formula 1 cars and innovative architecture.

However, Nick Wadham-Smith from Counterpoint - the think-tank of international cultural relations body the British Council, says using modern symbols can be problematic.

Start Quote

Stamps were a good way of circulating national identity but fewer people are using them - flags are also less common”

End Quote Nick Wadham-Smith British Council

"If you had an iconic rock band, who would you choose as representative? They can become dangerously dated in a passport that lasts 10 years."

Mr Wadham-Smith suggests the new passport design reveals a UK that is comfortable with promoting its national heritage after spending a decade portraying itself as a post-colonial, multicultural society concerned with global issues.

"Britain has established itself as a modern nation, so these images can come out of the shadows," he says.

As to why the government has chosen to include these images, Mr Wadham-Smith says it has taken a chance to use national symbolism at a time when it is becoming less easy to find elsewhere.

"Stamps were a good way of circulating national identity but fewer people are using them. Flags are also less common, so it's not surprising to find iconography of national identity coming into the passport."

The new images, he says, will provoke nostalgia for those overseas for long periods of the Britain they have left behind. While those at home will be reminded of a certain kind of "Britishness".

However, Mr Wadham-Smith adds it is inevitable their use will have unforeseen consequences.

"The immediate, rather ironic, effect is that at a time when the government might wish people to holiday in the UK, they are giving us images of the most delicious places in the UK in a passport."

Below is a selection of your comments

Presumably Mr Bayley, in his call for art, music and poetry, would want modern examples, not much-loved classics. Yet how much of the modern output will actually stand the test of time and still be in the consciousness of people in even 10 years time? As for innovative technology and architecture - look at an F1 car from 10 years ago and see how innovative that looks these days. Equally, how much modern architecture has actually made it on to the nation's list of favourites? (and I mean the nation, not the London trendies) Again the answer is not much. The simple fact is that the images on the new passport will be just as relevant in 10, 20 or even 50 years as they are now, and to most they represent the UK far more than any trendy art.

David Priddy, Datch

How come there are no mosques or temples depicted on the new passport? These buildings are now just as much a part of Britain, in fact moreso to most people than a row of thatched cottages and a seagull.

M Howden, Brighton

I would prefer to have a choice - passport with iffy pictures or plain passport. I doubt there will be such a choice, so I will be stuck with the twee images. Pah!

dalasini, Woking, UK

The new passport looks like an amazing advertisement for the National Trust. The Trust looks after all of these places and it's wonderful to see these images being promoted in this way - home and abroad.

Andrew McLaughlin, Swindon, UK

I am not British, so perhaps I should not say anything. With permission, however, I would suggest that the new design is, in fact, rather good. Mr Bayley may be a design guru, and he may even be right about the stodginess of at least some of the symbols, but let's not forget that we are talking about a passport, an official document.

D. Fear, Heidelberg, Germany

Come on - it's a passport! Get real, who cares... if you think that that foreign immigration officers will be looking at the pictures you have not travelled too much in your life! My suggestion is let's show the real UK - binge drinkers vomiting in the street, obese people riding around on little buggies, huge horrible plastic gastro pubs etc.

Brian Waine, Bangkok, Thailand

Sorry if I've completely missed the point but why does the passport design need revamping? Surely it's working quite well as it is - do we actually need to spend money on 'fixing' something (with twee designs) that isn't broken?

Louisa Hibble, Leicester

Official documents such as passports require a design change every so often to make them secure and keep one step ahead of those whom wish to falsify them. Therefore yes we do need to spend money on fixing it because while not exactly broken, (it's still fit for purpose) it's old and relatively easy for experienced forgers to illegally reproduce.

Simon, Maidstone

I think a seagull very appropriate; they're noisy, aggressive and dirty - a fine pictorial representation of the British abroad.

Richard Wadsworth, Lancaster

The bird pictured is actually a fulmar, not a gull (a very different family of birds).

Tony, London

They've missed a trick - they could have used bridges, to show how the UK links people and societies together. There's the Forth Bridge (Scotland), Severn Bridge (Wales), and the Newcastle-Gateshead "Winking Eye" (England). OK I'll need help from the Northern Irish to use a bridge there. Alternatively there are many "modern" images that could have been used, such as all the paraphernalia that came with the Millennium - the Dome, the London Eye, the Newcastle-Gateshead bridge, to name but a few.

Ant Taylor, London

Whatever the new design, it is good to see that the opening statement "requesting and requiring" still stands. It has a lovely 19th century ring to it, with the implication of "if you don't, a gunboat will be sent". I had expected some standardised euro-drivel, written by committee, along the lines of "if its all right with you, let the bearer in, but you can detain him/her/it indefinitely if you want to, and of course you don't need to make anything easy".

Tom Jones, Peterhead, Scotland

The debate surrounding design here seems to be operating under the mistaken assumption that passport images will be the principle images that will inform people's opinion of a country. That is simply not true. There is a vast wealth of other available information out there. On the internet, on the television, on many other sources. Mr Stephen Bayley's argument might hold water if the passport was all people saw of Britain. But the fact is that when looking for an all-round image of a country, people do look elsewhere and, when they do, they will see all the modern aspects to Britain to which he refers.

Michael Trimmer, Canterbury, Kent

All I can say is: I'm just glad I have an Irish passport.

Daniel McNally, Co Down, N Ireland

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