We all know they do, despite the fact we often pretend they don't. This enduring truth was never more sharply defined than during the recent spat over the UK's intention to revert to blue passports after leaving the European Union.
Hailed as a step forward by some and derided as a regressive irrelevance by others, it's been instructive to observe not only the varying reactions to this announcement, but also the surprising depth of passion and feeling it's evoked on both sides of the Brexit divide. It's interesting to note that the change of colour will in no way affect the passport's function (except perhaps within the EU itself), but that's done nothing to cool the heat on either side of this increasingly bad-tempered debate.
That's the trouble with symbols. They wrap so many deep-rooted ideas together that they become stronger and more enduring than the multitudes whose lives they touch. Just think of an iconic brand like Coca-Cola, which has become much more than just a fizzy drink and is now an essential part of America's cultural DNA. It's become a proxy symbol for the very idea of America and American culture worldwide.
Like countless conquerors before them, the EU Commissioners understand this only too well. They know that to destroy an idea, identity or culture, you must first destroy its most readily recognised symbols. Why else would they have invested so much time, money and treasure to chip away at passport design? The passport is the most universal, yet also personalised symbol of both national and individual identity. If (as has so often been claimed) trade and security cooperation were really the benign end goals of the European Project, there would simply be no need to waste time and treasure harmonising national identity documents. Yet still they went at it with a passion and drive bordering on the obsessive, and they've never let up. It's surely no coincidence that the words European Union appear first, and above all other national symbols, signs, crests and stamps. This is no accident, and those two words are there for the sole purpose of signifying the EU's supreme legal authority over member states. There is no other logical explanation for those words' primary and prominent positioning on every citizen's most valued identity document.
It's worth noting that the burgundy passport was mooted by some as a stepping stone to the eventual removal of national symbols from all EU passports. Such a move proved to be universally unpopular, but still the EU Commissioners thought it important enough to risk the ire of both citizenry and national governments alike by sending up a test balloon.
Whether you believe that nation states are a barrier to human progress or the essential driving force behind it, there is no longer any credible argument that the EU has not been a decades-long attempt to create a pan-European identity at political, legal, cultural and individual levels.
This is the problem that unreformed Remainers and referendum deniers will face long into the future. They betray their true intentions, attitudes and beliefs with every casual insult and untruth they knowingly fling at those whom they clearly believe to be their inferiors. After all, if passport design is just a distraction from the real issues of jobs, prosperity and trade…why are they so upset by the change? I know the answer, so do you…and so do they.
As for me, I'm just happy the words "European Union" will vanish from my passport in due course. That's because I'm not far from fifty years of age, and 2016 was the first and only time I've ever been offered a real choice on these important issues of sovereignty and identity. There's something to be said for returning to the "original" blue design, as that was the colour of UK passports before this nation was ordered to change it…just let that thought sink in for a minute. In time, the design will doubtless change again, but have a care, because a passport is a symbol, not just a little piece of paper.
We've all known it all along, and that's why people get upset.
Image courtesy of Photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net