British national identity

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The Union Jack, in addition to being the flag of the United Kingdom, also serves as one of the most potent symbols of Britishness.[1]

British national identity is a term referring to the sense of national identity, as embodied in the shared and characteristic culture, languages and traditions,[2] of the British people.[3][4] It comprises the claimed qualities that bind and distinguish the British people and form the basis of their unity and identity,[5] and the expressions of British culture—such as habits, behaviours, or symbols—that have a common, familiar or iconic quality readily identifiable with the United Kingdom. Dialogue about the legitimacy and authenticity of Britishness is intrinsically tied with power relations and politics;[6] in terms of nationhood and belonging, expressing or recognising one's Britishness provokes a range of responses and attitudes, such as advocacy, indifference, or rejection.[6]

Although the term 'Britishness' "[sprang] into political and academic prominence" only in the late 20th century,[7] its origins lie with the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. It was used with reference to Britons collectively as early as 1682,[4] and the historian Linda Colley asserts that it was after the Acts of Union 1707 that the ethnic groups of Great Britain began to assume a "layered" identity—to think of themselves as simultaneously British but also Scottish, English, and/or Welsh.[8] In this formative period, Britishness was "closely bound up with Protestantism".[9] The Oxford English Dictionary Online dates the first known use of the term Britishness to refer to the state of being British to a June 1857 issue of Putnam's Monthly Magazine.[4]

Since the late 20th century, the exploration and proliferation of Britishness became directly associated with a desire to define, sustain or restore a homogeneous British identity or allegiance to Britain, prompting debate. For instance, the Life in the United Kingdom test—reported as a test of one's Britishness—has been described as controversial.[10] The UK Independence Party have asserted that Britishness is tied with inclusive civic nationalism,[11] whereas the Commission for Racial Equality reported that Scots, Welsh, Irish and ethnic minorities may feel quite divorced from Britishness because of ethnic English dominance; Gwynfor Evans, a Welsh nationalist politician, said that "Britishness is a political synonym for Englishness which extends English culture over the Scots, Welsh, and the Irish."[12] Historians Graham Macphee and Prem Poddar state that Britishness and Englishness are invariably conflated as they are both tied to the identity of the British Empire and UK; slippage between the two words is common.[13] With regards to a proposed oath of allegiance for school leavers, historian David Starkey argued that it is impossible to teach Britishness because "a British nation doesn't exist".[14]

Government perspective[edit]

Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, made a speech in 2006 to promote the idea of Britishness.[15] Brown's speech to the Fabian Society's Britishness Conference proposed that British values demand a new constitutional settlement and symbols to represent a modern patriotism, including a new youth community service scheme and a 'British Day' to celebrate.[16]

One of the central issues identified at the Fabian Society conference was how the English identity fits within the framework of a devolved UK. Does England require a new constitutional settlement for instance?[17]

The British government has sought to promote Britishness with the inaugural Veterans' Day (now called Armed Forces Day), first held on 27 June 2006. As well as celebrating the achievements of members of the armed forces, at the first event for the celebration Brown said:

Scots and people from the rest of the UK share the purpose —that Britain has something to say to the rest of the world about the values of freedom, democracy, and the dignity of the people that you stand up for. So at a time when people can talk about football and devolution and money, it is important that we also remember the values that we share in common.[18]

Critics have argued that Brown's sudden interest in the subject had more to do with countering English opposition to a Scottish Member of Parliament becoming Prime Minister.[19]

In November 2007, The Times newspaper's Comment Central asked readers to define Britishness in five little words. The winning suggestion was "No motto please, we're British".[20]

A duty to promote democracy forms a key part of the "duty to actively promote fundamental British values in schools" in the United Kingdom in accordance with section 78 of the Education Act 2002. According to the Department for Education's advice for maintained schools in 2014, "Schools should promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs".[21] The Government's Prevent strategy of 2011 was cited as the source of this list of values, but that strategy also contained a slightly different list: "democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind."[22] The 2018 version of the CONTEST strategy codified the list as:

  • the rule of law
  • individual liberty
  • democracy
  • mutual respect, tolerance and understanding of different faiths and beliefs.[23]

The same advice stated that UK schools must:

  • encourage respect for democracy and support for participation in the democratic processes
  • [ensure pupils acquire] an understanding of how citizens can influence decision-making through the democratic process

for example by

  • [including] in suitable parts of the curriculum, as appropriate for the age of pupils, material on the strengths, advantages and disadvantages of democracy, and how democracy and the law works in Britain, in contrast to other forms of government in other countries;
  • [ensuring] that all pupils within the school have a voice that is listened to, and demonstrate how democracy works by actively promoting democratic processes, such as a school council whose members are voted for by the pupils.[21]

After the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom in 2020, Queen Elizabeth II delivered a special address that listed "the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling" as characteristic of Britain.[24]

Ethnicity and social trends[edit]

Due to immigration from other countries, not all people residing in England and the United Kingdom are White. According to the 2011 census in England, around 85.4% of residents are White (British, Irish, other European), 7.8% Asian (mainly South Asian), 3.5% Black, 2.3% are of mixed-race heritage, 0.4% Arab, and 0.6% identified as Other ethnicity, with a significantly higher non-white population in large cities such as London.

A survey conducted in 2007 found that the majority of people in many non-white ethnic minority groups living in Great Britain described their national identity as British, English, Scottish or Welsh. This included almost nine in ten (87%) of people with mixed heritage, 85% of Black Caribbean people, 80% of Pakistanis and 78% of Bangladeshis. Non-whites were more likely to describe themselves as British than whites. One-third of people from the White British group described themselves as British; the remaining two-thirds of respondents identified themselves as English, Welsh, or Scottish ethnic groups.[25]

A study conducted for the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in 2005 found that, in England, the majority of ethnic minority participants identified primarily as British, whereas ethnic English participants identified as English first and British second. In Wales and Scotland, the majority of both white and ethnic minority participants identified as Welsh or Scottish first and British second, although they saw no incompatibility between the two identities.[26] Other research conducted for the CRE found that white participants felt that there was a threat to Britishness from large-scale immigration, the "unfair" claims that they perceived ethnic minorities made on the welfare state, a rise in moral pluralism, and political correctness. Much of this frustration was found to be targeted at Muslims rather than minorities in general. Muslim participants in the study reported feeling victimised and stated that they felt that they were being asked to choose between Muslim and British identities, whereas they saw it possible to be both at the same time.[27]

Within the United Kingdom[edit]



National Identity in Scotland from 1997 to 2003 (in %)[28]
Identity 1997 1999 2001 2003
Scottish not British 23 32 36 31
More Scottish than British 38 35 30 34
Equally Scottish and British 27 22 24 22
More British than Scottish 4 3 3 4
British not Scottish 4 4 3 4

There is evidence that people in Scotland are increasingly likely to describe themselves as Scottish, and less likely to say they are British. A 2006 study by social scientists at the Universities of Edinburgh, Dundee, St Andrews and Lancaster shows that more than eight out of ten people in Scotland saw themselves as Scottish. At the same time, there has been a long-term decline in Scots defining themselves as British, although more than half of the people in the survey saw themselves as British.[29][30]

In the 2011 Census in Scotland:[31]

  • 62% identified themselves as Scottish only
  • 18% identified themselves as Scottish and British
  • 8% identified themselves as British only

The Scottish National Party MSP and Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill gave the following submission to the UK Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights in March 2008 discussing a British Bill of Rights:

What is meant by Britishness? Is there a concept of Britishness? Yes, just as there is a concept of being Scandinavian. We eat fish and chips, we eat chicken masala, we watch EastEnders. Are [the SNP] British? No, we are not. We consider ourselves Scottish.[32]


Similar to Scotland, results from the Annual Population Survey (APS) conducted by the Office for National Statistics, show that the majority of people residing in Wales describe themselves as Welsh.[33] Respondents were asked whether they considered their national identity to be 'Welsh', or 'Non-Welsh' (defined as: 'English', 'Scottish', 'Irish', 'British' or 'Other'). In June 2017, 63.2% of respondents in Wales defined their national identity as 'Welsh'.[33]

Identity and politics[edit]

In a 1998 poll, 37% of Scottish National Party voters stated themselves to be "Scottish, not British", the rest demonstrating some form of British identity, with the most popular choice being "More Scottish than British" (41%).[34] This conclusion was again put forward in 2002, with similar figures cited.[35] However, the British Social Attitudes Survey of 2007 found that only 21% of Scots saw themselves as 'Equally Scottish and British', with less than half choosing British as a secondary identity.[36] The report concluded that 73% of respondents saw themselves as 'only' or 'mainly' Scottish.[36]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Commission for Racial Equality 2005, p. 21.
  2. ^ "National identity | Definition of national identity in US English by Oxford Dictionaries". Archived from the original on 5 August 2017.
  3. ^ "British – Britishness". Brewer's Britain and Ireland. 2005. Retrieved 11 April 2010.(subscription required)
  4. ^ a b c "Britishness". Oxford English Dictionary Online. September 2008. Retrieved 14 September 2010.
  5. ^ Wright & Gamble 2009, p. 32.
  6. ^ a b Commission for Racial Equality 2005, pp. 11–12.
  7. ^ Wright & Gamble 2009, p. 149.
  8. ^ Colley 1992, pp. 12–13.
  9. ^ Colley 1992, pp. 8.
  10. ^ What is Britishness anyway? BBC News, 10 September 2002
  11. ^ Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 April 2010. {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  12. ^ "South East Wales Public Life – Dr Gwynfor Evans". BBC. Archived from the original on 30 July 2012. Retrieved 13 April 2010.
  13. ^ Macphee & Poddar (2007). Empire and After: Englishness in Postcolonial Perspective. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books. ISBN 978-1-84545-320-6.
  14. ^ Can pupils learn 'Britishness'? BBC News, 12 October 2007
  15. ^ Brown speech promotes Britishness BBC News, 14 January 2006.
  16. ^ The future of Britishness Archived 6 August 2006 at the Wayback Machine Fabian Society, 14 January 2006
  17. ^ New Britishness must resolve the English question Archived 25 September 2006 at the Wayback Machine Fabian Society, 14 January 2006
  18. ^ "Brown pinning his hopes on a new regiment". The Herald. 27 June 2006. Archived from the original on 17 September 2012. Retrieved 15 October 2006.
  19. ^ "Our Scottish PM in waiting goes British". The Daily Telegraph. 14 January 2006. Archived from the original on 9 January 2008. Retrieved 15 October 2006.
  20. ^ Hurst, Greg (22 November 2007). "Maverick streak makes mockery of hunt for a British motto". The Times. Retrieved 10 May 2010.
  21. ^ a b Department for Education, Promoting fundamental British values as part of SMSC in schools, November 2014
  22. ^ presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for the Home Department by Command of Her Majesty, June (2011). Prevent strategy. London: Stationery Office. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-10-180922-1. OCLC 730404225.
  23. ^ "Counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST) 2018". GOV.UK. 20 August 2018.
  24. ^ "The Queen's coronavirus speech transcript: 'We will succeed and better days will come'". The Telegraph. 5 April 2020. Retrieved 5 April 2020.
  25. ^ Office for National Statistics, Social Trends No.39, 2009.
  26. ^ Commission for Racial Equality 2005, p. 37.
  27. ^ Commission for Racial Equality 2005, p. 4.
  28. ^ Devolution, Public Attitudes and National Identity Archived 1 December 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  29. ^ "Study Shows Scottish sense of 'Britishness' in decline". University of Edinburgh. 2 June 2006. Archived from the original on 15 June 2006. Retrieved 11 April 2012.
  30. ^ Bond, Ross; Rosie, Michael (January 2006). "Feeling Scottish: its personal and political significance" (PDF). Institute of Governance, University of Edinburgh. Retrieved 11 April 2012.
  31. ^ "Scotland's Census 2011 - Analysis: National Identity". Retrieved 22 September 2014.
  32. ^ Joint Committee on Human Rights, A Bill of Rights for the UK?, Twenty-ninth Report of Session 2007–08, Ev. 61, Q290
  33. ^ a b "National identity by year and identity". Office for National Statistics. June 2017. Archived from the original on 15 August 2018. Retrieved 3 September 2018.
  34. ^ "Scottish Affairs, D.McCrone, Polls 1997–98 (online article)". Archived from the original on 21 December 2013. Retrieved 26 February 2014.
  35. ^ "Scottish Affairs, D.McCrone+L.Paterson, No.40, Summer 2002 (online article)". Archived from the original on 20 February 2012. Retrieved 26 February 2014.
  36. ^ a b "Home" (PDF). NatCen. Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 December 2009. Retrieved 13 April 2010.


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