No one wants to look like their passport photo. The tube-station photobooth is actually designed to make you look as terrible as possible so you’ll waste your money at least three or four times before you realise that every photo is going to be heinous; there’s never going to be a shot that wouldn’t be improved by the use of a bullet. The document that represents you clearly demands a photo that displays your inner psychopath.
Of course your documents aren’t your actual identity, but as we head into our Brexit “Freedom Of Removement” you and I will need to be producing them far more often. As we set to isolate and differentiate ourselves from the continent and those who would immigrate here, identifying ourselves will become more integral to our lives. Never having to show “your papers” was once a proof of the superiority of British society. Now it’ll be: “You say you’re British… prove it!” As if the bad teeth, sallow skin, beer belly, aggressive demeanour and die-hard stubbornness to never admit a mistake wasn’t proof enough anymore.
Unaccustomed to having to identify myself, like many I’m struggling to work out who, or even what, I am. It’s no wonder that Britain’s favourite Christmas present this year was a DNA testing kit from the likes of Ancestry.com. We’ve seen the way the world is going and we’ve got questions: Where are we from? Where can we call home? Who are OUR people? Who’s that nutter in my passport photo?
So called “Identity Politics” and the populist backlash that is taking the West by storm, is forcing us all to take sides, imposing a collectivism we would never have imagined even five years ago. In the back of my mind I was always a European, despite being born in the UK, but now I have to stand up and fight for it as fiercely as any Leaver believes they’re standing up for being “British” or “English” or “A Kentish Man” or “Man of Kent” or some poor sod with a semi in Gillingham. I’ve had to nail my colours to a mast I never wanted to, I’ve had to climb into bed with people that no one would do so willingly – Tony Blair, George Osborne, Peter Mandelson and the plumber with the bog-brush hairdo Charlie Mullins – in order to lie back and think of Europe.
And however dirty I feel, spare a thought for the poor Leavers. Not just because of how hideous their bedfellows are, but for all the contortions that they must now go through to justify the fallacies of their leaders’ retrospective groupthink. They’re forced to rewrite their past and say that they knew we were being lied to; they knew that there was never going to be £350 million for the NHS; they knew that there would be job losses; they knew that the car industry, the vacuum manufacturers, the banks and the other economic backbones would actually relocate. They knew all that and voted for it anyway because, as Nigel Farage, when faced with the facts of a tanking economy said, that is the “price for freedom”; as if it is better to starve as a sovereign Brit than break croissants with the Europeans. You may go hungry but it will be a democratic, free, British hunger. By far the best sort of hunger there is.
Our sense of identity is one of the world’s most powerful memes. In ancient times a rich mythology grew around the idea that simply telling someone your name meant giving them power over you. Unbaptised children were at risk of fairy kidnap leaving changelings in their place; Rumpelstiltskin was disempowered by his name being discovered; in Jewish tradition, after a series of infant deaths the next born is unnamed, believing that the Angel of Death cannot call a child who has no name; in Puccini’s opera, Princess Turandot must learn the name of her unwanted suitor to execute him, if she doesn’t, she must marry him; even Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, speaks in riddles to Smaug, the dragon, to keep him from learning his name. Now we give our name away at Starbucks for the privilege of buying overpriced coffee and sell it to Google for the price of a Kardashian butt shot.
Odysseus kept his name secret from Polyphemus in order to survive, only when the giant learnt it could he call on his father, the sea god Poseidon, to wreak vengeance upon him. In this age of internet giants, like Odysseus, we try to keep our identities secret, making fake spam-magnet email addresses or sock puppets, but the gods of Google, Amazon and YouTube, they know who we really are, what we really want, and they’ve got the cookies to prove it.
The history of Western civilisation has been a constant cycle between individualism and collectivism. In the Renaissance the individual was celebrated, artists, pioneers, adventurers, explorers. But then the Enlightenment’s discovery of scientific principles looked at unifying ideas, categorisation, one scientist’s results recreated exactly by another; to science humans, like animals, are all alike. This is the time the French and American Revolutions were fought as groups collected, identifying with their causes. Romanticism, a reaction to the Enlightenment, promoted the individual again. The artist and poet’s unique experience was elevated as a foil to the reach of science. As the Industrial Revolution spawned factories and mills, people proved more useful as groups. Organising principles like socialism and capitalism were born. By WWII fascism loomed as the ultimate subordination of individual free will to the faceless collective represented by one individual dictator. Wars are fought as collectives, and the mentality of “a ministry for everything” lasted until the 1960s when the hippy revolution started prioritising individual experience again. The Vietnam War failed to inspire an entire generation to fight together. By the 1970s individualism reached a zenith in punk when any conformity was social death. But now, with the internet, the things that we thought made us individual have allowed us to collect as groups again. So if you are an opinionated middle aged, middle class, white bloke with an interest in sleight of hand, good mystery fiction and liberal politics? There’s a Reddit group just for us stretching round the globe. The cycle of individualism is falling away again and we are being subsumed into collectives once more.
My 80s teenhood was devoted to trying to start my own unique style trends fusing charity shop tat, but now I watch my own children happily conforming to brands, following an urge to meld in with everyone else on SnapChat, Instagram and Twitter. The collective is coming but we must beware. It is in the collectivist periods of history when all the world’s bloodiest conflicts are fought and, as Bertrand Russell said, “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”
A version of this article first appeared in print in