Some thoughts on “Britishness”

I miss being British. There, I’ve said it.

I miss being British. We in my family never really described ourselves as English. Although I was born in Lancashire I never felt particularly Lancastrian either. My family’s from all over so I didn’t grow up with the local traditions and dialect that I’m envious of in others.

I grew up believing that to be British meant to identify with and belong to the British Isles. I was brought up near Liverpool, with its large Irish community, and not far from the Welsh border. The place I grew up couldn’t have felt more different from Anglo-Saxon middle and southern England. My part of the world had influences from all over the UK, hence we were “British”.

But outside of England, I now know being “British” means something quite different. Almost everyone I know in Scotland sees the term “British” as suggesting a recognition and identification with the political construct of the British State. Since moving out of England I’ve also realised that many English people have an infuriating tendency to use the terms British and English interchangeably. This will not be news to my Scottish friends, but discussing this just now with my southern English husband has brought us close to falling out!

The conflation of these two concepts of Britishness and Englishness, which has become de rigeur among most UK politicians, has the effect of trampling over the rich diversity of these islands. We were told yesterday by Theresa May, channelling Margaret Thatcher, that we are “four nations, but one people”, but that’s simply not true. We are four nations and many more groups of people. Within England, regions like Cornwall and Yorkshire increasingly recognise their distinctiveness, and in Scotland we have huge variations between the cultural and linguistic heritage of different parts of the country.

Instead of celebrating this diversity, the British establishment increasingly seeks to suppress it. The largest group – the English – has fully adopted the label “British” and anyone from elsewhere in the UK who doesn’t identify with this anglicised view of Britishness is labelled a “nationalist”. I find this deeply depressing and as a result I’ve resolved to call myself “English”, although truth be told I still don’t feel it.

I want to see all the nations of these islands working together as equals. Even with all our differences, we do collectively have a different psyche from many of our European neighbours. Lots of people feel the same way, and many of them believe this means that the 300 year old political union (with its 100 year old addition) must continue in its current form or close to it. I disagree.

Sometimes a thing has to be dismantled in order to be repaired. I want to reclaim my British identity, but first the concept has to be separated from the stranglehold of the British State.  Left to its own devices the British establishment will never move out of its comfort zone so we have to make it change. Each nation of these islands must regain its sovereignty. Borders must be redefined where they naturally fall, and the locations of those natural borders are becoming clearer by the day.

Once that has happened, we can then build a new relationship between the peoples of these islands. And those of us who wish to be can be unapologetically British again.

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10 thoughts on “Some thoughts on “Britishness”

  1. I empathise so much which your posts

    When we lived in England I would describe myself as British; I think because it felt more inclusive and as a response to the rise of English nationalism.

    Since moving to Scotland I class myself as an English Scot.

    I am English – I was born there and it’s not something I could hide even if I wanted to – but Scotland is my home, my community.
    It’s bit like the old saying “you can’t choose your family but you can chose your friends.”

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  2. I can relate to this. My situation is that I was born in England to an English father and a Manx mother (people from IOM are Manx and hold a British passport), so I grew up calling myself British.. and actually, I’m not really English in the true sense. I moved to Glasgow 16 years ago when I was 19. I cant quite call myself Scottish, but I dislike the word British as much as I dislike the word English at the moment. I don’t know what to call myself, but I do know that I identify as Scottish more than English or British. As for my children (6 and 8, Scottish father, born in Scotland), I suspect that they will always identify as Scottish, unquestioningly.

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  3. My wife, from Newcastle, has lived in Scotland for 45 years, and still has problems with defining her nationality. However, she identifies totally with Scotland, supports independence and votes SNP. So, asked to define, English Scot fits best.

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    1. Yes, that’s how I describe myself too Ian. Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to tie ourselves in knots over this though?

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  4. We’re all free to describe ourselves as we wish but countries are political constructs. Britain was a name coined by the Romans. It covered England and Wales. Ireland was termed hibernia, Scotland Caledonia.

    Extending Britain to cover Scotland was a political decision by James VI when he invented Greater Britain.

    So by all means call yourself whatever you feel is most appropriate. But it’s not right to suggest this is divorced from politics. Even if the individual isn’t making a political point, politics shapes the options you’re choosing from.

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  5. A further thought, my wife is from Northern Ireland so not from Britain at all. Yet her family are ardently “British” like so many in Northern Ireland. I’ve seen this justified recently on the basis that their ancestors moved from Britain in the 17th century. Definitely a political thing to call yourself British in that part of the world.

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    1. A very fair point domhnall dods, and it is very clearly a political thing for many Scots too. In fact this article has met with quite a degree of incredulity from some and I haven’t always managed to explain myself well enough to get past this. However some people don’t see their British identity as political and my point is really that they should not feel excluded from being part of an independent Scotland.

      I think Willie Rennie’s speech today about the emotional importance of the Union underlines the very reason why I wrote this article to begin with. The Unionists, British nationalists, whatever you want to call them, cannot be allowed to exclusively occupy this emotional ground. Nobody is being forced to feel British, but equally nobody should be made to feel they have to choose if they don’t wish to.

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  6. Makes a lot of sense to me. And something that keeps coming to mind these days is the fact that, after Norway became independent, nobody claimed they had stopped being Scandinavian or that Scandinavia had been “broken up”. “Scandinavian” is a geographical and cultural description, and it does not need to be validated by a certain governmental arrangement.

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