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Anti-Brexit protests NurPhoto/Getty Images

Little England and Not-so-Great Britain

If Brexit triggers a Europe-wide revolt against liberal elites, it would be the first time in history that Britain leads a wave of illiberalism in Europe. This would be a great tragedy – for Britain, for Europe, and for a world in which most of the major powers already are turning toward increasingly illiberal politics.

AMSTERDAM – As an Anglo-Dutchman – British mother, Dutch father – I cannot help but take Brexit rather personally. I’m not a wholehearted Euro-enthusiast, but a European Union without Britain feels like losing a limb in a terrible accident.

Not all my fellow citizens are unhappy. The Dutch anti-EU, anti-Muslim demagogue Geert Wilders tweeted: “Hurrah for the British! Now it is our turn.” This kind of sentiment is more alarming, and more ominous, than Brexit’s implications for the future of the British economy. The urge to destroy can be contagious.

The United Kingdom’s image has changed literally overnight. For more than 200 years, Britain represented a certain ideal of liberty and tolerance (at least for many Europeans; Indians might have taken a somewhat different view). Anglophiles admired Britain for many reasons, including its relative openness to refugees from illiberal continental regimes. It was a place where a man of Sephardic Jewish origin, Benjamin Disraeli, could become Prime Minister. And it stood up to Hitler virtually alone in 1940.

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