December 11, 2006

Brits Abroad

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6210358.stm

A truly fascinating article on the BBC News website this morning – a report which puts a figure to the number of Brits living abroad. In an age when hysteria about immigration into this country seems to be drowning out any hope of a reasonable debate on the matter, it turns out that 10% of British citizens are living somewhere else in the world. In the main these are the supposed worst sort of migrants, economic migrants, who face no persecution or hardship in their home country (unless you count the weather which is absolutely horrible as I write this) and have merely chosen to go and live somewhere else, either taking a job or merely using the host nation’s health services and taking housing from natives. Well, that’s one way of looking at it anyway.

Buried amongst the stats on the subject is a common and reasonable pattern – most British move to English speaking countries. This is entirely understandable, it’s easier for the emigrants, and places like Australia, New Zealand and the USA hold a special fascination for many Brits. My own mother is a big fan of the idea of moving the New Zealand even if the likelihood of this happening is extremely low. It’s a not uncommon pattern of emigration, France absorbes immigrants from French speaking places like Algeria and various African countries. Perhaps if we hadn’t spread ourselves and our language so far around the world we wouldn’t have as many immigrants trying to enter Britain today?

But then there are the 761,000 Brits in Spain. The Brits in Spain have always fascinated and mildly appalled those of us who aren’t completely allergic to the thought of any foreigner entering Britain. The complaints of the anti-immigration brigades here are wel known – the immigrants come over, take job and homes, have a ghetto mentality, and don’t learn the language. Many immgrants in Britain don’t do this, they try to integrate and be useful members of society (it’s easier to do when you’re not being threatened with government approved torture, I guess) although some do fit this profile. But the majority of Brits in Spain fit this profile. The masses settled in English speaking communities, language extended as far as “dos cervezas por favor”, and interacting with locals only when they are bar staff or cleaners, are not a good reflection of Britishness abroad. The popularity of anti-immigrant rag The Sun amongst the ex-pats makes it hard not to think of blatant hypocrisy when you think about them.

Obviously this does not apply to the thousands of Brits who go to foreign countries and try their hardest to learn the language and integrate with the locals. These are the best examples of Brits abroad, and go a long way to dispelling many stereotypes. I know there are a few people who fit that category who read this blog. I am always impressed by anyone who can do that.

The two final things which caught my eye came from the BBC’s statistics on the subject. First was the 291,000 Brits who have essentially committed a historical reversal and settled in Ireland! Baring in mind the massive emigration fuelled depopulation of Ireland from 1850 to 1990 (a population drop from 7 to 3.5 million post famine is almost entirely due to emigration) and the fact there are hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens (and presumably a couple of million half Irish) living in Britain, this flow to the Republic will probably raise a smile for many Irish.

Also the BBC has a lovely map which shows where the British have settled. Apart from doing a cool flowing animation to show proportions (click the link above and play!) it shows there are a few countries which lack figures for the number of resident Brits. The map is not labelled but it seems to be countries like Eritrea and Western Sahara… and a little north Atlantic island… called Britain.

Good to see we have no idea who’s here.


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  1. Apparently there’s 44,000 living here permanently in the Netherlands! Interesting point though about learning the language, I met a family of English people on the train yesterday and they said they’d been living here for 8 years. I was like ‘oh you must be fluent by now’ and they replied ‘hells no’. It turned out I knew more Dutch than they did and I’ve been here 3 months! The moral of this story is, I am better than they are.

    11 Dec 2006, 10:36

  2. Hero

    I always thought that allowing the working class to emigrate was a bad idea.

    11 Dec 2006, 11:31

  3. Hero

    The most fun thing about this is that most people reading those stats will have in their head a picture of white british going overseas, when some of it will almost certainly be non-whites with a UK passport (eg from countries in Africa), coming to the UK and ‘going home’, and some will be the 2nd or 3rd generation of families who originally emigrated here, going ‘back’ to settle in the country of their parents/grandparents origin (or more cynically, people whose families came here poor some time ago are now able to send their children back a few pegs up the social/financial hierarchy due to them generating wealth in the UK.

    11 Dec 2006, 11:35

  4. True, there are probably a few who fall into that category, but the majority have gone to Anglophone countries or Spain, both of which have a traditional attraction to the white majority in this country. Your hypothesis probably explains a lot of the emigrants [back] to Ireland, as these are the original economic immgrants to Britain and therefore the ones most likely to have accrued a decent amount of money to return to Ireland (especially considering it is as expensive as living here in most areas there).

    I would be interested to see a better breakdown of who has emigrated, and if possible a survey of who is living in a foreign country and has the first language. Whilst I don’t doubt there are a lot of working class Britons out there with no grasp of the lingo, there will almost certainly be a fair few middle class Britons out there with the same superior attitude (it’s one thing I find which transcends class in this country).

    I would also be willing to bet that whilst most Britons in Spain cannot speak Spanish, most of the Britons in France have at least a basic grasp of French. Could be wrong but that’s my gut instinct.

    11 Dec 2006, 12:26

  5. Most of the people going to the richer countries will be “middle class”. The retirees will be exploiting the difference in house prices. Those moving for work will be highly skilled as no country is interested in importing unskilled labour these days.

    Even those going to poorer countries will be rather well off in comparison with the rest of the destination’s country’s population.

    As for propensity for learning another language? Patriotism is not the only block. Most people do find it very time consuming to learn a foreign language if their first experience with it is in adulthood. Having spent 5 years in Germany, I spent over a thousand hours in formal tuition, but am still pretty ropey – fluent but ropey.

    Of course a lot of people in Britain have a smattering of French from their schooldays and you won’t get very far in France without a smattering!

    11 Dec 2006, 13:10

  6. I know it’s hard to learn a new language in adulthood but I know that even my out-of-practice Spanish is treated as a good thing by Spaniards. It shows a good attitude. Even if you couldn’t hold a conversation about philosophy, a basic level of competence should be required (I hold the same view about immigrants coming to Britain, they must learn some English) and isn’t too hard to pick up (see Natalie, who is most definitely an adult).

    11 Dec 2006, 13:41

  7. Dave tCB

    An estimated 900,000 people born in Scotland live in England. That’s some emigration for a “country” of roughly 5 million. Not sure about their English language skills though.

    12 Dec 2006, 21:12

  8. An estimated 900,000 people born in Scotland live in England.

    Most of them work in Westminster, don’t they?

    13 Dec 2006, 13:16

  9. It’ll be interesting to know how far back the data goes (will have to read the Q&A on the data sources a bit later on).

    The reason I’m curious is that I know that in the case of Canada in the 1960s and 1970s it was very easy for Britons/other Commonweath nationals to immigrate to the country. The Canadian Government relaxed some rules (such as the amount of money it cost for a resident visa etc), to bring in more people and come they did! (including my Mum – two of her sibs chose Australia rather than Canada, and the other two stayed here). This pattern could account for the high numbers of British expats in Canada today.

    14 Dec 2006, 12:07

  10. My aunt and uncle emigrated to Spain a couple of years ago, and another uncle of mine owns a holiday villa out there. Why is it fascinating/appaling? Certainly in their case (and those in the British community around them), they left this country to retire somewhere with a nicer climate, more relaxed pace of life and generally avoiding all the crappy things about modern Britain.

    14 Dec 2006, 12:51

  11. So if there are over three quarters of a million Brits in Spain, then where do they hide? During my three months here in Barcelona I´ve met about 3 of them, and that includes two from Warwick university.

    Conclusion: also in Barca they maintain a ghetto mentality.

    14 Dec 2006, 18:14

  12. I suspect that a lot of expatriates have mixed feelings about both their home country and their new country. There’s features of their home country they like and features they don’t like. The same goes for their adopted country.

    E.g. things I liked about living in southern Germany (below the white sausage line!)

    • laid back attitude to work
    • clean, orderly. The trains always run on time!
    • loads of car free roads for me to cycle on
    • Hansel & Gretel forests

    On the other hand it’s a bit boring and I felt thwarted by my linguistic inabilities. I didn’t have much time for other British people, apart form my workmates. For me ethnicity is not an important factor.

    14 Dec 2006, 19:58

  13. Siggy I’m fascinated (and occasionally appalled) because the emigration of Brits often have loads of parallels to the immigration into Britain, yet some of those who leave do so complaining about immigrants doing exactly the things the emigrants themselves are doing. Obviously I am categorically not suggesting your relatives did this (I don’t know them, I won’t speak for them) but there are undeniably people out there in Spain (and elsewhere) who have walked out of this rainy little island (can’t blame them for that) complaining about people coming in – usually those people are only doing so because, like the emigrants, they dislike the country they come from!
    Maarten I have no evidence but I suspect most are in Andalucia, around the Costa del Sol. They wouldn’t go to the north, centre or Catalonia because there’s not many British communities there already.

    15 Dec 2006, 11:21

  14. Where my relatives are (near Alicante) there are a lot of ex-pats.

    15 Dec 2006, 19:55

  15. Strangely enough a long term British expat friend of mine’s long standing Spanish girlfriend was recently made redundant and was looking into becoming a “Spanish as a foreign language” teacher.
    Still if things in Spain are going the way they are going here, there won’t be much government support for teaching the national language to foreigners.

    A survey by the Association of Colleges found that the new funding strategy has caused both big fees increases for adult classes and outright course closures. Several colleges reported a doubling of fees, the closure of community learning centres, and the abandonment of courses including:[..] English-for-speakers-of-other-languages.

    BBC news

    The Flemish as a foreign language and the German as a foreign language courses I took back in the 1980’s attracted substantial subsidies from the respective states.

    16 Dec 2006, 13:32

  16. I think it all depends on how you go about living in a foreign country and why you’re there in the first place. If you’re there purely for retirement, because the way of life is more effective/cheaper/sunnier, then integration may not be so necessary/easy. Without wishing to generalise, the older we get the less adaptable we are, the harder we find it to learn new things such as languages, and the less willing we are to integrate with our new surroundings. In Rio I came across the British and Commonwealth society. Most people (majority over 60) could speak good portuguese, but this is because it is simply impossible to have a decent quality of life in Brazil if you can’t speak the language. Maybe in Spain they are simply more accepting/they put up with it. Having lived abroad myself, I understand how nice it is to have a taste of home, so despite having many Brazilian friends who spoke very good English, it was quite nice, now and then to have a good old fluent English conversation where you can pun and use irony to your heart’s content. I speak very good portuguese now, but I still found it hard to make jokes and truly be myself-you really do have to have a very high level of language to integrate fully, something that happens in second generation immigrants, but not so frequently in first generations.

    Nevertheless it pisses me off something rotten when people travel abroad and make not even the smallest attempt to try out foreign customs and languages. Since we expect so much from tourists/immigrants here (can you imagine how surprised you would be if a French person came up and asked, in French, the way to somewhere) it seems hypocritical of us as a nation not to make even the smallest attempt to return the favour. Yes, English is widely spoken, and it is arguably the primary language of the developed world, but why should the world always adapt to it?

    17 Dec 2006, 22:35

  17. Hero

    Personally I would love it if a french person asked me directions in French! I can understand french, just not speak it very well…..

    18 Dec 2006, 09:45

  18. anonymous

    Yes, I suppose you could just respond with arm actions.

    19 Dec 2006, 08:54


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