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February 06, 2005

British or English?

In comments on an earlier post someone asked about the distinction between British and English.

It’s not a question I lose any sleep over, but it prompted me to make a few notes about national identity in the British Isles….

To begin with the basics, the British Isles consist of the islands of Britain, Ireland, and a lot of smaller islands. Within this archipelago there are three political units: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland [see notes 1 and 2]; the Republic of Ireland [note 3]; and the Isle of Man, which is a self-governing possession of the British Crown but not a part of the UK. The Channel Islands (Jersey, Guernsey, etc) off the coast of Normandy are also possessions of the British Crown (by inheritance from William the Conqueror as Duke of Normandy) but not part of the UK.

Citizens of the UK, by birth or naturalisation, are entitled to be called British citizens [note 4]. There is no distinction of territorial nationality within the UK, so there is no legal basis for describing someone as ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, etc., rather than British. But as a matter of history, the island of Britain contains three traditional countries or nations: England, Scotland, and Wales [note 5], which for many purposes have different laws and institutions, and to some extent have different languages [note 6]. Individuals with specific connections to those countries may be called, or call themselves, English, Scottish or Welsh. As there is no legal basis for these distinctions, it is to some extent a matter of taste how people are classified. The obvious criteria are place of birth, place of residence, ancestry, and language. If all the criteria coincide, there is no real uncertainty, but they often conflict. Take Tony Blair: born in Scotland, to a Scottish father and an Ulster Protestant mother; moved to England in early childhood; educated in England and Scotland; speaks with an English accent; currently lives in England. Is he English or Scottish?

Ambiguities of this kind are common. There has been freedom of movement and intermarriage between different parts of the British Isles for centuries, and a large proportion of the population of Britain have connections of blood or residence to more than one of the component countries of the Isles. Given such ambiguities, it is generally easiest to use the more inclusive term ‘British’. Few people born and raised in Britain (as distinct from Ireland) are likely to be strongly offended by being called British, but an English person (by birth) may be offended to be called Welsh just because he happens to live in Wales, and a Scot will certainly be offended to be called English. Within England, some people in Cornwall would describe themselves as Cornish rather than English [note 7].

There remains the problem of Ireland. Citizens of the Republic of Ireland can only properly be called Irish. People born in Northern Ireland are British citizens, but Northern Ireland Catholics will usually prefer to be called Irish, and Protestants will prefer to be called British. ’Northern Irish’ is probably the safest designation for both groups.

Even where individuals meet all the obvious criteria to be described as English, Scottish, or Welsh, they may prefer to be called British. A recent official survey of households in Britain included questions on this subject. (The full report is available here as a 2Mb pdf file.) The survey was conducted in England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland. Respondents were asked to select their national identity from a list comprising: English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, British and Other. They were allowed to choose more than one. Some of the key results are:

In all three countries a majority chose the national identity appropriate to the place of interview: 80% chose Scottish in Scotland, 62% Welsh in Wales, and 57% English in England.

People living in England are more likely to describe themselves as British (48%) than those in Scotland (27%) or Wales (35%).

31% described themselves only as British, with 13% choosing a combination of British and either English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. 4% gave an 'other' identity; 1% gave other combinations.

Older people were less likely to describe themselves as British; 36% of those aged 65 and over described themselves as British, compared with 47-52% of people aged less than 55.

People in London were the most likely to describe themselves as having an 'other' national identity; 19% compared with 2-5% in other areas of England, Scotland or Wales.

I’m not sure how much significance can be attached to these results. According to the detailed notes in the report, the first option was ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, etc, according to the place of the interview. The results might have been different if ’British’ were the first option. That being said, I am not surprised that the Scots and Welsh are more likely to choose Scottish or Welsh as their sole national identity than the English are to choose English. This is partly due to the existence of strong Scottish and Welsh nationalist movements, but more fundamentally to the fact that the Scots and Welsh define themselves by contrast to England, while the English define themselves by contrast to the other large nations of Europe (France, Germany, etc), and for this purpose it is natural for them to identify themselves with Britain at least as much as with England. It is perhaps significant that the only strongly nationalist parties in England are the British National Party and the UK Independence Party.

The ‘national identity’ question was also put to non-white ethnic minorities. The main results were:

Of ethnic minority respondents 57% identified themselves as British, 11% as English, 1% each as Scottish, Welsh or Irish, and 37% as ‘other’.

Most of those identifying themselves as British chose this as their sole identity. Only 2% identified themselves as British and English, etc. However, 5% identified themselves as some other combination, e.g. British and some other nationality.

Again, I hesitate to put much weight on these findings. It is not clear how many of those interviewed were actually born in Britain, or were British citizens, which would surely affect their choice of national identity. However, for immigrants to England and their offspring, there is evidently a preference to classify themselves as British rather than English. This may be partly because they associate nationality primarily with legal British citizenship, the British passport, etc. People from the former British Empire and Commonwealth will also be more accustomed to the terminology ‘British’ than ‘English’. In this context it is perhaps surprising that as many as 11% of non-whites do identify themselves solely as English - but note that these may include mixed-race offspring of white English parents.

The survey only asks people how they classify themselves, and not how they classify other people. My impression is that in England (like France but unlike, say, Germany), the most important criterion of nationality is not ancestry but place of birth and education. If someone is born in England there is a presumption that they are English, unless they move away in childhood and become assimilated into another nationality. This is not to say that ancestry is irrelevant. It can affect entitlement to British citizenship [note 4]. If someone’s ancestry within the British Isles is mixed or doubtful, British is a safer description than English. In doubtful cases language and accent could be deciding factors. Someone who speaks with an English accent will be accepted as English even if otherwise their connections with England are weak, whereas someone with a non-English accent will always be doubtful. The reason is probably that accent is a good indicator of where someone spent their early childhood.


Note 1: The United Kingdom consists of the four territories of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland comprises six of the nine counties of the ancient kingdom of Ulster.

Note 2: ‘Great Britain’ is the standard legal expression for the combined territories of England, Scotland and Wales, i.e. the UK except for Northern Ireland. The term Great Britain (with various spellings) seems to have come into use in the 15th or 16th century. In origin it was simply a way of distinguishing the island of Britain from the French province with the same name. The significance of this distinction has been lost in English, as the French province is now called Brittany, but it is retained in French, where it is still necessary to distinguish Bretagne from Grande Bretagne.

Note 3: Until recently, the Republic of Ireland claimed sovereignty over the whole of Ireland, but it has now amended its Constitution (here - an interesting document in several respects) to defer its claim to Northern Ireland until a majority of that territory’s people wish to unite with the Republic. Unification remains an objective. The Republic offers Irish citizenship, passports, etc, to anyone born in Northern Ireland, and the Constitution of the Republic states that its official name is ’Eire, or in the English language, Ireland’. The term ’Republic of Ireland’ is used in the (Irish) Republic of Ireland Act 1948 and is commonly used both by the Irish government and others as a neutral description, to avoid implying a territorial claim to Northern Ireland.

Note 4: Citizenship law is complex, but, roughly, anyone born in the UK, to parents who are themselves British citizens or who are normally resident in the UK, is automatically a British citizen. People born outside the UK to parents who are British citizens are also in some circumstances automatically British citizens. There are special provisions relating to citizens of Britain’s few remaining colonies.

Note 5: the boundaries between the three countries are generally well-defined, except for some antiquarian disputes about whether the county of Monmouthshire is part of England or Wales, and whether the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed is part of England, Scotland, or neither. When Berwick was ceded to England by Scotland in the 15th century the treaty stated that Berwick was ‘of’ but not ‘in’ the Kingdom of England, and many later documents mention it separately from England and Scotland. These include the British declaration of war on Russia in 1853 (the Crimean War). The subsequent peace treaty failed to mention Berwick, leading to the pedantic claim that Berwick was still technically at war with Russia. In 1966 the Mayor of Berwick and a Soviet diplomat signed an unofficial peace treaty, accompanied by much vodka.

Note 6: about half of the population of Wales speak Welsh. Only a tiny minority of Scots speak Gaelic. People from the different parts of the British Isles all have distinctive accents or dialects of spoken English. The strong dialect of Lowland Scotland (Scots, Broad Scots, or Lallans) arguably amounts to a distinct language cognate with English, and is recognised as a minority language by the European Union.

Note 7: the Celtic region of Cornwall was incorporated into the Saxon kingdom of Wessex by the 9th century, and subsequently into the kingdom of England. The Cornish language persisted until the 18th century. Cornish nationalists in the 20th century have tried to revive both the language and a sense of distinct Cornish identity.


Since writing the above, I checked a few points and found useful web pages here and here.

Posted by David B at 03:47 AM