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Title: Britishness  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Scottish national identity, British literature, Ethnic groups in the United Kingdom, Unionism in Scotland, Countries of the United Kingdom
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The Union Flag is one of the most potent symbols of Britishness.[1]

Britishness is the state or quality of being British,[2][3] or of embodying British characteristics,[3] and is used to refer to that which binds and distinguishes the British people and forms the basis of their unity and identity,[4] or else to explain expressions of British culture—such as habits, behaviours, or symbols—that have a common, familiar or iconic quality readily identifiable with the United Kingdom.[5] 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]

Britishness "sprung into political and academic prominence" in the late 20th century,[7] but its origins lie with the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. Although Britishness was used to refer to Britons collectively as early as 1682,[3] historian Linda Colley asserts that it was after the Acts of Union 1707 that the citizens 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".[8] 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.[3]

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.[9] The UK Independence Party have asserted that Britishness is tied with inclusive civic nationalism,[10] whereas the Commission for Racial Equality reported that Scots, Welsh, Irish and ethnic minorities may feel quite divorced from Britishness because of white 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".[11] 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.[12] 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".[13][14]

Government perspective

Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, made a speech in 2006 to promote 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]

Her Majesty's 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]

Ethnicity and social trends

Not all people residing in England and the United Kingdom are white due to recent immigration from foreign countries. 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 ethnic minority population in large cities such as London.

A survey conducted in 2007 found that the majority of people in many non-white ethnic groups living in Great Britain described their national identity as British. This included almost nine in ten (87%) of people with mixed heritage, 85% of Black Caribbean people, and 80% of Pakistanis and 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 third of respondents identified themselves as English, Welsh, or Scottish.[21]

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 white 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.[22] 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.[22]

Within the United Kingdom



Identity National Identity in Scotland from 1997–2003[23]
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.[24][25]

In the 2011 Census in Scotland:[26]

  • 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.[27]

Identity and politics

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%).[28] This conclusion was again put forward in 2002, with similar figures cited.[29] 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.[30] The report concluded that 73% of respondents saw themselves as 'only' or 'mainly' Scottish.[30]

See also



  1. ^ Commission for Racial Equality 2005, p. 21
  2. ^ (subscription required)
  3. ^ a b c d
  4. ^ Wright & Gamble 2009, p. 32.
  5. ^ Commission for Racial Equality 2005, pp. 6–7
  6. ^ a b Commission for Racial Equality 2005, pp. 11–12
  7. ^ Wright & Gamble 2009, p. 149.
  8. ^ a b Colley 1992, pp. 12–13.
  9. ^ What is Britishness anyway? BBC News, 10 September 2002
  10. ^ [1]
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Can pupils learn 'Britishness'? BBC News, 12 October 2007
  14. ^
  15. ^ Brown speech promotes Britishness BBC News, 14 January 2006.
  16. ^ The future of Britishness Fabian Society, 14 January 2006
  17. ^ New Britishness must resolve the English question Fabian Society, 14 January 2006
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ No.39, 2009.Social TrendsOffice for National Statistics,
  22. ^ a b
  23. ^ Devolution, Public Attitudes and National Identity
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ Joint Committee on Human Rights, A Bill of Rights for the UK?, Twenty – ninth Report of Session 2007–08, Ev. 61, Q290
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^ a b


External links

  • Academy for the Study of Britishness
  • Who Do We Think We Are – Exploring Britishness diversity and identity
  • Being British
  • , BBC report on 2011 census results, 30 September 2013How British is Britain?Mark Easton,
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