Text Box: Martin Pearce’s May lunch Talk
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Have passports ready for inspection please


          Today we are accustomed to the idea that one cannot get anywhere without the identity document that we know as a passport, unless of course your chosen means of travel is called a patera, when possession of a passport may be seen as a disadvantage.

          We are used to the concept but where did it all start?  For the Brits, the answer seems to be William the conqueror.  He gained his claim to the English throne by means of a distressed English traveller (I use the term very loosely and refer you to Roy for more details).  Having settled in, he was particularly keen to know where everybody stood and his permission had to be sought before one left the island.  This attitude persisted for centuries as far as the gentry were concerned.  In time of war, they might be recruited as leaders or asked to raise a body of men at arms    and their rulers wanted to know where they could get their hands on them.  Hoi polloi, seamen and low cast merchants could usually escape the paperwork but when soldiers departing for foreign wars in the low country campaigns, had to swear an oath of allegiance to the crown before setting sail.

          All of this was thundering nuisance to the gentlemen making The Grand Tour as part of their education.  If you have ever grumbled at issuing delays, think of the position of Sir Thomas Littleton who had to wait on the favour of Charles 1st who signed his passport personally in 1641.  Passports were only valid for one journey and it must have been an uncomfortable feeling to return to the rule of Cromwell when carrying such a document.  The diarist, Evelyn had his passport signed by the King at Oxford and had to swear a last minute oath of allegiance at the Customs House in Dover.  The passage to Calais lasted seven hours and from Flushing to London 48 hours so one had to take the long view of travel.  In fact very few countries required an entry document, unless they used it as a way of taxing a visitor, more like a visa obtainable on the border.  

          The King’s signature may not have been essential but in the 16th century, passports were administered by the Privy Council.  In 1649 Robert Montegu (later Lord Mandeville) had his passport from the Speaker of the House.

          Gradually, documentary matters became a little more organised and letters of safe conduct were written in Latin and English.  In 1772 this was changed to French, that being regarded as the language of international diplomacy and in 1793 a standard single page passport was issued, details being held by the secretaries of state.   Thus, high ranking English officers fought the Napoleonic wars carrying passports in the French language.

          By 1861, the modern transport systems available in Europe and rising prosperity, had enabled so many people to move around that the French got fed up with all the paperwork and gave up using passports.  Many other countries, including the UK followed suit.  This happy situation persisted until the spy frenzy of the First World War.  The UK opted for a single page document, folded into 8 and sandwiched between cardboard covers.  It had a photograph of the holder and a brief description among other details.  This format, valid until 1920, was the last passport to be designed by the Brits.  Whatever jingoistic comments one hears about the “our good old blue passport” is meaningless nostalgia.  That document was designed by the League of Nations and its smaller successor by the International Aviation Agency of the United Nations.  The content is heavily influenced by the visa free travel requirements of the USA.  If you hold a British passport you have to think hard to decide how much of it is really British; the lettering on the cover and the wording of the introduction, perhaps – Hooray!

          The nations of the Schengen agreement have virtually returned to the pre 1914 travel standards but most (not the Danes) have the advantage of national identity card systems that even allow a Spaniard to fly from Málaga to München by showing a little piece of plastic.  There are still self inflicted problems.  I well remember pre-Schengen transport discussions in Brussels and being told, “don’t worry we will invest in electronics and intelligence exchanges to maintain safety and security standards”.  Of course, like Britain dealing with an open market; border personnel were stood down, savings were made but investments in security systems were delayed.  I have vivid recollections of the controls of the past, just look at the stamps in my 1953 passport. I have enjoyed our brief experience of open borders immensely.  I hope that a way can be found to enable us to enjoy something of that freedom in the future.

          I am not alone in that sentiment and press stories of Brits trying to find Irish grandparents or applying for Belgian and German passports have abounded. 

          Our younger son has ensured that he and his three children have dual British/French entitlements.  For me, the outstanding press story concerns the billionaire Christopher Chandler who comes from New Zealand and has an investment fund based in Dubai but finances the leading think tank (The Legatum Institute) that fed hard Brexit thoughts to interested Conservative MPs.  His institute still presses for a hard Brexit but he has covered his bases by buying a Maltese Passport for himself!  

          Even before Schengen, one could sometimes forget the passport.  In the late sixties, Frances and I drove from Deventer in Holland to Düsseldorf and back, only realising that we had forgotten to carry our passports when we were hours into our journey.  Fortunately, the check point was open each time we passed.

          Some years later, we travelled together to Holland to attend a ship launch and found that Frances had packed the passport of our twelve year old son, in place of mine.  The border control in Schiphol raised an eyebrow but let me through, my late father-in-law drove me over the border into Germany where an official tried to stop us but was told that the Nazi period was over as we ignored him and drove on.  I took a train to Hamburg, where I had business appointments and only ran into trouble when trying to leave Germany to fly back to the UK.  The German border police did not find my story funny and kept me waiting until final boarding time when I was told to go to my flight without speaking to anyone.  I think that they felt it better to have such an unreliable figure outside their country.

          My final attempt at passport free travel was my own fault and I found myself at Heathrow, bound for meetings in Brussels, with my passport at home in Cornwall.  I pondered on my position during the flight and landed at Zaventem with my strategy clear in my mind.  Belgium is a trilingual country and is split into language zones.  The gateway to the French speaking centre of Brussels is an airport in the Flemish speaking area.  This is taken so seriously that the border police are not obliged to speak French with their fellow citizens but may speak it with foreigners.  I approached them in Dutch to show that the language that they defended so proudly had international status and was treated with the greatest courtesy.  After a brief pause when I was left alone in their personnel rest area (where sub- machineguns were available to be grabbed) I was issued with a document headed in French “Laissez-passer”; shades of the Napoleonic wars!

          The Scandinavian countries and Finland are members of The Nordic Union and since 1952 have allowed each other free movement across their borders.  One winter, I took the night ferry from Stockholm to Abu, in Finland.  The grinding of the ice floes disturbed my sleep and I was not alert enough to spot the inconspicuous control desk for non-Nordic citizens and swarmed ashore and onto Finnish soil with the rest of the mob.  The penny dropped when I hired a car to go to Helsinki and had to prove my identity again.

          On another occasion, a business friend in Goteborg invited me to spend the weekend in his cottage on an island in the archipelago.  When we boarded the car ferry, he put a local newspaper in my hands and told me to stick my nose in it, lean on the railings and speak to no one while he went into the salon to enjoy a coffee.  This was not quite passport free travel but something worse; non-Swedes were not allowed even to enter this strategic area at all.  At the time, I thought it a fuss about nothing but later, when the Whiskey on the Rocks incident occurred and Russian mini-subs were also reported, I began to understand that the Swedes were serious about their exclusion zone.  In my innocence, I enjoyed my weekend apart from the enforced constipation.  For environmental reasons conventional lavatories were forbidden and the holiday home had an electric loo that was supposed to incinerate my output.  The design was clever enough but the fan directed a blast of cold Swedish air that kept my sphincter firmly shut – maybe that was the idea...

          If these adventures suggest to you that my sub conscience objects to my carrying my British passport everywhere I go, you could be right.  It is bulky, has a black market value greater than most mobile phones and is time consuming to replace.  Do I really need to carry it everywhere, wouldn’t a photo copy or a Spanish driving licence be identification enough?

          An article, posted on the Spanish version of the DGT site on 18th January 2018 makes it clear that foreigners MUST carry their national identification at all times. For Brits that means the passport.  It is a self inflicted wound, our country refused to support national identity cards and some of our more nutty citizens objected to the issuing of the those credit card sized “residencias”. 

          The Spanish authorities said, “thank you” and gave us A4 sheets of paper that are vital documents but not proof of identity, saving themselves money and hassle in the process. 

          Through the courtesy of many officials, we can often get away with a photo-copy, a licence or even the last old residencia card but it is not a right  and use of the old card does lay one open to a fine.

          However one might long for the passport free period between 1861 and 1914, that document is here to stay until we are all chipped at birth like puppy dogs.  I don’t give a damn about the colour but only hope that some genius will cotton on to the value of making them smaller so they fit in my money belt and beyond the reach of pick-pockets.