Leading article: The benefits of leaving home

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The Independent Online

We are told so often that Britons are "an island race" that it comes as something of a surprise to discover that there are 4.5 million of us living abroad. And more are apparently hoping to join them. According to a poll conducted for the BBC, 13 per cent of us are hoping to emigrate "in the near future". Common destinations for the tens of thousands of Britons leaving the UK each year are Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Many go to Spain and France. But there is also a considerable scattering of Britons in the most unlikely of places, from Bolivia to Mongolia.

What are the reasons for this? There are prosaic factors such as the yearning for a better climate or an inclination to cash in on high UK property prices. But there are also broader forces at work. According to the reactionary right wing, native Britons are leaving because the country has "turned its back on them", by encouraging "mass immigration", failing to send sufficient people to prison or "surrendering our sovereignty" to the European Union.

Certainly some Britons abroad do fit the stereotype of the resentful emigrant, complaining about Britain "going to the dogs" and the effects of immigration on the national character. The hypocrisy of their situation is glaring. How many such people would consider themselves as "immigrants"? How many of them make an effort to "integrate" with their host communities, the demand we hear so often made of those coming to our own country?

Yet such sour "little Englander" types are by no means representative of all emigrants. Many of those who go abroad are actively seeking change. It is notable that most of those who told the BBC that they are planning to emigrate are young people, eager to take advantage of the opportunities provided by an increasingly interconnected world.

It is much easier to live and work abroad now. The European Union has opened up a wealth of opportunities through freedom of movement and the single market. Similar opportunities are opening up in the rest of the world. We should remember too that not everyone who leaves Britain goes for good. It is common for someone to accept a work posting overseas for a few years and then to return.

Just as immigration to Britain is to be welcomed for bringing in new talent and energy, so too is emigration. It changes attitudes, broadens outlooks and boosts the global economy. Even those who end up living in British bubbles overseas will not be immune from the civilising effects of being exposed to more of the world than our familiar island in the north Atlantic.

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