Little England

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How Great Britain Turned Into Little England could easily be 2014's bestselling essay. Someone just needs to write it. All the ingredients are there: petty politics clothed in grandiose rhetoric; racial prejudice lurking behind the strident proclamation of principles; facile populism exercised in the name of a supposedly threatened identity; cheap demagogy passing for leadership; and the idealization of the past as a project for the future.

We are now in January 2014, a year in which - according to the agitators of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and eagerly seconded by several prominent members of David Cameron's Conservative Party - the UK will be stormed and overwhelmed by a horde of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants from the continent, knocking the bottom out of the labor market and overcrowding social services.

What is happening to our English friends, who used to be a political, economic and even moral beacon for Europe and the world? There was a time, remember, when the UK was not only the world's industrial hub, but also the factory of the ideas that made the modern world work: political and economic liberalism, the defense of democracy and liberty against tyranny and infamy.

What has happened to them to make them unable to see themselves in this Europe that they have helped create, and in this globalization in which they have played a role? What brings one of the world's most cosmopolitan countries to think that the world - this playing field upon which the British have time and again demonstrated their superior qualities - is a hostile place against which they have to armor and fortify themselves? What has become of the traditional British pragmatism, which has always offered them ways of understanding each new threat as a great opportunity to reinvent themselves without ever betraying their principles?

No doubt the regular customer who hefts a pint of beer in his local pub is fed up with the world, with the EU, and with its politicians. But not much more so than the Spanish working man who is lifting a glass of beer in the bar on his corner.

However, the contrast could hardly be more apparent. Spain is suffering from a potentially explosive combination of unemployment, wage devaluation and disaffection for the whole process of politics; but all of this has fortunately, and admirably, failed to translate into any apparent spread of xenophobic talk, or the proliferation of messages of this sort, or the rise of parties with a xenophobic line.

All this, in spite of the fact that in the last decade Spain took in another 3.7 million foreigners, raising their total number to 5.7 million (almost 12 percent of the population). Of these, according to the 2011 census, some 800,000 were Romanians; almost as many again were Moroccans, followed by Ecuadorians (more than 300,000) and, surprise surprise, British (312,000).

The fact that the United Kingdom and its citizens benefit, and benefit quite a lot, from the freedom of movement and residence within the European Union, is a fact as conspicuous as a rhinoceros on a soccer field; but why let an inconvenient truth spoil some good populist spiel?

The article first appeared in El Pais.

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