LONDON — “What are we coming to” cried one of the grannies at my Christmas dinner, meaning we, the English. Her small anguish was prompted by the thought of the bank holidays and festive refusal of work that wraps everyone in a haze of food and alcohol, gifts and family, and lets the outer world fend for itself for the week.

To her, the collective time off means a collective abandonment of seriousness and responsibility. She does not really have a Scrooge-like character (“Bah, Christmas”). Instead, she has an old person’s deep nostalgia for a time when being English gave her the comfort of superiority, of her place in a hierarchy of nations. Hers is a very Protestant England, in which the virtues of sobriety, hard work and public spirit explained the world leadership of the British Empire, and should have been sufficient to perpetuate that leadership. She cannot find her place in today’s free market.

What she had not noticed was that throughout Christmas many shops in Britain have been trading as usual. These are all run by non-Christians — not the sort of non-Christians gathered round our Christmas table, nonbelievers in any religion, but happy to observe the rites of tradition — but believers in other religions. Commercial life in Britain is sustained throughout the year by Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs using the entrepreneurial energy that characterizes immigrants. It is they who sustain Granny’s English way of life.

This is the uneasy compromise of European capitalism in which Britain leads the way. Britain is more liberal than most other European Union countries in admitting immigrants for their labor, a practice that brings buoyancy to the economy and sustains the public services. Their youth also mitigates the pension crisis that threatens to overwhelm the established social democracies of Western Europe. Government economists know this; hence the relaxed approach to visas for people from Eastern Europe the past few years.

The other side of the compromise is public insistence that Britain be very tough on immigration rules and preserve its traditions against a tide of foreignness. Hence the forced resignation of the government minister responsible for immigration last year and, indirectly, the resignation of the home secretary himself just before Christmas.

If economists know that a key to economic vitality in Europe is an open labor market, politicians know that immigration is unpopular. Are we welcoming them in as an essential transfusion of new blood, or keeping them out as opportunistic scavengers? It’s not just grannies who are bewildered by the state of the nation.

The immediate cause of the resignation of David Blunkett, Britain’s hardline home secretary, was an immigration matter: the speedy issuance of a visa for the nanny of a married woman with whom he had been enjoying a secret affair for the last three years.

Whether he personally asked his officials to make sure his mistress’s nanny had her visa is still not clear. And it wasn’t the point. The officials anticipated his desire and acted on it, much as intelligence officials did in producing “evidence” of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

So far so clear. The murky part is why such an important government minister as Blunkett — the man who was in charge of the entire British effort to stamp law and order on a chaotic world — should lose his post because of his mistress’s nanny.

Perhaps the only certain thing in Blunkett’s world has been his love for Quinn (the mistress). What for her was a brief, glamorous affair — power being so erotic for women and one’s own power to attract powerful men multiplying the attraction — was for him his little empire, which was so much more rewarding than his domain of the Home Office.

She, I am told, had wanted to end the affair a long time ago. He would not let go, and even if he could not hang on to her against her will, he would at least hang on to the child they had produced.

She, fearful of his powers — he had, evidently, the whole of the Home Office at his command — wanted him out of her life. He was damned if he would let her slip away so easily. So he pursued her through the courts to establish his paternity rights over the child already born, and one who will be born in a couple of months.

This was his undoing. In an attempt to fend him off, Quinn released into the public domain the charge that he had abused his Home Office powers to get her nanny’s visa, and set in motion inquiries, claims and counterclaims, and a scandal that spun out of everyone’s control.

“I don’t believe it,” said another granny, who had initially told us off for talking politics at Christmas dinner — “not this visa nonsense, but he’s so shameless about having a mistress!” — then promptly fell silent in shock at hearing her own words. She was now well away on the rum-soaked Christmas pudding.

Not that, in the grannies’ day, politicians — government ministers even — did not have mistresses, or lovers as we call them in a more egalitarian age. But then discretion ruled, and the privileges of powerful men, to hire servants where they wished and take on lovers as and where they could, was simply not open to public question.

It may seem to the elderly, meeting up with children and grandchildren over holiday dinners, that we live in a much more democratic age where foreigners can come and go, even the wealthy have to apply for visas for their servants, and the mass media hold even the most privileged to account for their private lives.

But maybe most disturbing for the elderly in Britain is not this spurious democracy but simply that power has shifted out of the control of English social hierarchy and is now in the monopolistic but footloose grasp of the super-rich and super-powerful, a few of them politicians (American) but most of them controllers of the trade in capital, guns and labor.

In the Christmas described by Charles Dickens in “A Christmas Carol,” the point of lambasting the mean and joyless Scrooge was that one wealthy English businessmen could affect the happiness of many. To the grannies’ dismay, the doings of a Scrooge in London seem to have no effect at all on the tides of misery washing in and out of England.

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