Are you British?

Native UK citizens (those born and brought up in the UK) have multiple national identities: British together with combinations of English, Scottish, Welsh and (Northern) Irish. However, which is their ‘primary’ identity? I would contend that most people identify in the first instance with one of the ‘constituent nations’ of the UK rather than with Britain or with a combination of British nations.

By ‘primary’ or ‘first-instance’ identity, I’m referring to the most basic, personal and emotional level of identification with a country: the place and the people where you feel you belong, and of whom you are a part; the country whose way of life you share and feel most comfortable with; your ‘home’. At this level, most lifelong UK citizens would say they were English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish – mainly – albeit that they might also wish to affirm their multiple national identities in various contexts. In my own case, despite having Welsh and Irish grandparentage alongside English, I consider myself to be English because I was born and brought up here, have personality traits that I can see are quite common among English people in general, and feel England is my home and where I belong.

On the other hand, in opinion polls, quite a high percentage of people I would categorise as English in the sense I’ve just defined state they consider themselves to be mainly British rather than mainly English – although in the latest such polls, the proportion of ‘mainly English’ people has tended to exceed the share of ‘mainly British’. However, I would say that the great majority of such people, if they were honest about declaring their real feelings, would have to admit that their subjective, emotional and personal identification is more with England and Englishness than with Britain. They declare their Britishness more out of a commitment to upholding the UK / Britain and its supposedly more universal, liberal values, and its openness to globalisation and cultural diversity, rather than affirming an England that is not endowed with any great national civic institutions or formal statehood, and which they might associate with ‘narrow’, ethnic nationalism and xenophobia. In the final analysis, this sort of ‘British’ identity is to be found mainly in English people, rather than, say, in unionist Scots and Welsh people who, however patriotic they may be about Britain, would almost always be proud to affirm themselves as Scottish and Welsh in the emotional sense. English people, on the other hand, have tended to merge England and Britain in their minds, seeing and feeling about them as one and the same thing. Hence, when they say they are ‘British’, this is an expression of a peculiarly English pride and dedication to Britain as the de facto English state.

Interestingly, no one with whom I’ve ever conducted a public argument (in comment threads or forums) on this subject has ever come clean about what they consider their profound, personal / emotional national identity to be. Usually, this is with people who repudiate Englishness or English nationalism, whether out of a unionist position or because they reject nationalism of any kind, even the British variety. An example of this is a running debate with someone called Anax I’ve been having on the OurKingdom blog over the past few days, in response to a post of mine in which I claimed that David Cameron’s ‘real’ identity (in my sense) was English – even though, ironically, many English nationalists like to think of him as Scottish because of his Scottish ancestry and political support for the Union over and above any notion of the English national interest or sovereign right. Up to now, Anax has declined to declare whether he feels English (or Scottish, Welsh or Irish, for all I know) or British; although I’ve seen his name crop up in other threads defending the Union.

The point is, if unionists (or regionalists or anti-nationalists) were forced to admit they feel more English – at the intimate, personal level – than British, this would rather cast into doubt the idea that Britain and Britishness is a true nation and national identity respectively, other than in the sense that it is just another name for Englishness in the traditional way I referred to above.

So basically, I’m throwing down the gauntlet here. If any native UK citizen (for the avoidance of doubt, not an ethnic term but meaning someone born and brought up in the UK) does genuinely feel British (associates the places and people (s)he loves about the UK as British more than as English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish), then I invite them to say so in a comment to this post. So long as they’re prepared to engage in a good old-fashioned English debate about it!

Alternatively, you could just have a go at the poll.


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