Let’s get a few things clear; I don’t like national definitions because by nature they fall into cliche. For decades our idea of an American was a loud bloke in a ten-gallow hat. Now Americans think we’re all like Russell Brand. My US book jackets all feature a Union Jack, a bowler hat (ever seen one of those on someone’s head? Then you’re over sixty) and Big Ben. And stereotypes are always out of date.
When I think of the British I see an eclectic group of people, Anglo, Indian, African, European – I can’t make sense of the image of a man in a bowler hat.
So when it came to redesigning the British passport, artists had a chance to show who we now are – and what have they come up with? Meteorological symbols, thatched cottages and seabirds. Design guru Stephen Bayley says ‘”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.’
But what could you use that doesn’t date? Famously, British Airways ditched their Union Jack striped tailfins and replaced them with more ethnic designs which were disastrously received. Universally hated, they were deemed a safety hazard, because having so many different designs on a fleet could have led to mis-identification in the skies.
So, what is an enduring national identity? Surely, people’s faces – but perhaps people expect to see Buckingham Palace and rows of crofters’ cottages. I’d suggest a litter-strewn Starbucks outlet, drunken teens in Nottingham and a pair of bedraggled, miserable hikers on a rain-blasted moor in Scotland, but that’s just me being cynical.