Brexit: ‘My English-Spanish children will have a very different experience from the one I’ve had’

Brexit: 'My English-Spanish children will have a very different experience from the one I've had'
Photo: AFP
Alberto Letona, a Basque writer who spent decades living amongst the British and eventually married one, reflects with sadness on Britain's exit from the European Union.

The exit of the UK from the European Union is a charge against its young people who feel comfortable and at ease with their European partners and neighbours. It has been the vote of older people which has driven the Isles and the continent apart. My English-Spanish children will have a very different experience from the one I have had.

The summer of 1974 was rather wet, but sunny. It was that kind of pleasant English weather that people very often confess to like before going on holiday to Spain. I visited the country for the first time. London would be my home for the next two months. Enough time to gain some basic English, or so I thought.

I was a young student of 19 and the country and its capital, London, very soon struck me as a wonderful place. I almost immediately took to its people, to the atmosphere, to the parks, and above all to the culture: history, music, literature and sport. That summer in 1974 I breathed something that I had not experienced in the whole of my life up till then: freedom. I was amazed that policemen didn’t carry weapons.

This was a civilized country, I thought to myself. I was even more convinced when I discovered so many public libraries with all sorts of books. Books were scarce in Spain, and many were forbidden by the regime. Reading could be a dangerous occupation at that time.

I had left behind a country where the bloody dictatorship of Generalisimo Franco was still intact.

In London, as in Paris, there were many Spanish refugees who had fled the country after a ruthless civil war, and had established a new life in the UK.

I also got to know some English people and other Europeans from different countries and backgrounds through playing football. It was a truly good experience. My world was changed and so was my vision of it.  After the summer, I came back to my city, Bilbao, to resume my studies at university. Soon the old dictator died and the future of my country improved, although not without difficulties.

Ever since that short period in the UK, I have always considered myself an anglophile, though the term does not do justice to the different nations of the UK, which I equally love.

Sometime after finishing my studies I had the opportunity to go to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland as a Basque language reader. I spent two years there and met my wife, Kate. Scotland, in some ways very different from England, was a magnificent place where I enjoyed both the academic and the day-to-day life. 

This stay would not be our last time in the UK. Some years later in 1992 we went back to London for me to complete an M.A at City University. 

All through these years we have kept returning to Devon with our two children, who enjoy two different cultures.

I have learnt to understand the UK and take an interest in its history. It is the story of sea-faring people, explorers and inventors, who were happy to take other people on board, despite their differences.

The UK thrived when it had an outward vision, not an inward one. The same has happened in Spain. Now a new reactionary party wants to convince us that the influence of Arabs and Jews was a tragic disgrace in our history, when it was precisely the reverse. 

I respect the decision taken by a narrow majority of the British people to come out of the EU. I want to believe that they have their reasons, but I can’t help feeling that the UK is a smaller place now, more inward-looking and less tolerant than the country I admired in 1974 and thought of as a great place for the future of young generations. 

Alberto Letona is a Basque journalist living in Bilbao. He is the author of Hijos e Hijas de la Gran Bretaña – Sons and Daughters of Great Britain – in which he delves into the psyche of the British in an attempt to explain them to his own countrymen. 

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