Spain and Britain - two countries that are wrong (about themselves)

The British must wake up to the fact that Rule Britannia no longer applies just as Spaniards must stop knocking their own country.

Spanish fishermen wave Spanish flags during a protest in the bay of Algeciras on August 18, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Spain and Britain led the two greatest Empires of the modern era. Much of the inheritance from that is positive. English and Spanish, for example, are the two most widely spoken languages in the free world.  Both Empires unravelled. And the manner of their doing so has had an enduring effect on contemporary thinking in both countries. In both cases resulting in a mistaken self-image.

Spain's Empire, mainly centred on Latin America, came to an end through open and lengthy warfare - finally concluded in the battle of Ayacucho in 1825. She limped along during the 19th century with the remnants of Empire still just able to believe she was a major power. Then in 1898 Spain went to war with the newly emerging United States, and lost the remainder of her overseas imperial position overnight.  The spirit of national depression of the Generation of '98, as it is known, was captured by the poet Antonio Machado thus "Miserable Spain. Yesterday dominant Wrapped in rags. Despises all she is ignorant of. " As if this were not sufficient there followed in the 20th century two dictatorships, a Civil War and all the diplomatic isolation that flows from such events.

For Britain, by contrast, the unravelling of Empire and the terrible convulsions of the 20th century produced no Antonio Machado. Indeed Britain, far from declaring war on theUnited States, fought two wars alongside her. And, as a Rupert Brooke poignantly wrote, "There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England".   Many of the British colonies fought bravely alongside the mother country and their subsequent independence was (with a few minor scraps) negotiated. Today 53 independent states (mostly former colonies) are members of the Commonwealth and 16 of them retain The Queen as Head of State.  

Not surprisingly these very different experiences have had a substantial influence on the psyche of modern Spain and of modern Britain.  Having lived most of my life with a foot in both countries these differences come home to me almost daily.  In Spain conversations with friends frequently degenerate into a tirade about how awful Spain is. The shadow of '98 lingers on. In Britain, by contrast, whilst there is no hesitation in criticising individual aspects of life, it is all done from the unspoken certainty that English food is thebest, cricket is the most exciting game in the world and The Queen the finest woman on earth. Rule Britannia!

Today both of these ingrained attitudes are profoundly wrong. Spain is not the "desastre" many of its people seem to assume and Britain no longer rules the waves.   The European Union - and the contrasting approach of Spain and Britain to that organisation is a useful reflection of the error of our respective ways.  It is a commonplace nowadays to talk of the Global Village. And - yes - many of the decisions that affect our daily lives are no longer taken by individual sovereign states alone but in International Fora whether it be the UN, the WTO, the G7 or indeed the European Union itself.

The difficult challenge (and the European Union brings this into sharp focus) is to identify those areas where the pooling of sovereignty with others best enables us to defend our interests and our values without losing that sense of belonging and social cohesion which the Nation State provides.  And it is here that I enter into the dangerous territory of being critical of the two countries that matter the most to me.

When Spain voted to join the European Community (as it then was) in 1985 the vote in Spanish Parliament was unanimous. For Spain entry signified an end to almost a century of semi isolation. At last Spain was rejoining the international community as a full member. Ever since then it is not an exaggeration to say that membership has been almost an article of religious faith. The Maastricht Treaty was approved by the Spanish Parliament with only three votes against.

In Britain, by contrast, the whole exercise has been one of hesitation about all these foreigners bossing Blighty around.First, at Messina a rather haughty dismissal of the whole project. Then, the failed attempt to bring outsiders together in the EFTA. Finally entry - followed by the Wilson referendum.And now, Mr Farage assuring the British people that GREATBritain can go it alone and cease to be bossed around by all these damned foreigners.

And, says Farage, it will be easy. We would negotiate an agreement with our largest trading partner - the EU - from a position of strength.  Yeees...but. We would be sitting opposite 27 countries having just walked out of what they regard as a rather important Treaty. We would have nearly 50% of our total exports at stake.  The others single figures in percentage terms. So we are playing for our commercial lives. They are not.  We would no doubt end up with an agreement of sorts . Thereafter, any new Directives affecting trade would be sent to the British Parliament from Brussels, as is the case with Norway, and we would have 90 days to implement them. No discussion. Goodbye Parliamentary Sovereignty. In the trade this is called fax diplomacy.

One really asks how UKIP and other withdrawal advocates get away with it. The answer is rather touching. Britain's history really does mean that many of our fellow countrymen simply do not understand how (as the patriotic hymn Jerusalem has it) God could have been so careless as to build Jerusalem in a place called Israel. Much as I disagree with the advocates of withdrawal what underpins them – though misplaced – is good  old-fashioned patriotism.  Old-fashioned being the operative word.

It really is time the British woke up to the fact that Rule Britannia no longer applies just as Spaniards must stop knocking their own country, defend their language and cultural values more robustly, and take pride in the fact that since joining the EU 28 years ago Inditex (that's Zara) has emerged as the leading global fashion house, Santander is the strongest bank in the euro-zone, Scottish Power is a Spanish company, another Spanish company INDRA operates air traffic control systems in 140 countries, Spain leads the world in organ transplants - and there's a lot more. So Spain can't be quite as bad as the Spaniards say it is qiven that well over 2milllion European citizens have chosen to reside there – overa quarter of a million of them Brits.

David Cameron is quite right to be filling Britain's traditional role of being the country that asks the awkward questions inside the EU. And it's a useful role.  There are a number of areas where the "one size fits all" as directed from Brussels is simply not always the best way to get results. Spain (and others) need to speak up when centralisation reaches a point that not only fails to deliver results but threatens the very essence of the Nation State. Speaking up is not a mortal sin. Britain, for her part, must recognise that belonging to international organisations - all of which by definition involve a certain erosion of sovereignty - is not some sort of un-patriotic sell-out but an essential tool in coping with the challenges of the modern world.

The difference between Spain and Britain is best reflected in their respective national anthems.  We Brits sing God Save the Queen with pride (though we have allowed the verse which asks God to frustrate the "knavish tricks" of foreigners and to "confound their politics'" to fall into desuetude).  Spain, by contrast, has stirring music in their national anthem.  But no words!  - they have never been able to agree amongst themselves what the words might be.

So my final advice would be - Spaniards stop running down your own country.  It's time to say - Spain olé!  And Brits - stop dreaming about Rule Britannia and start taking pride in Cool Britannia!

Tristan Garel-Jones is a Conservative peer and former Europe minister