|Row 1: Isambard Kingdom Brunel • Gordon Brown • Keira Knightley • Winston Churchill • Chris Hoy • William Wilberforce • J. K. Rowling
Row 2: David Lloyd George • Kelly Holmes • Adam Smith • Horatio Nelson • Margaret Thatcher • George Stephenson • Lewis Hamilton
|Regions with significant populations|
| United Kingdom
61,000,000 (British-born of any race or ethnicity)
|1. People who identify of full or partial British ancestry born in to that country.British American
2. British-born people who identify of British ancestry only.
The British (also known as Britons, informally Brits, or archaically Britishers) are citizens of the United Kingdom, of the Isle of Man, one of the Channel Islands, or of one of the British overseas territories, and their descendants. In a historical context, the term refers to the ancient Britons, the indigenous inhabitants of Great Britain south of the Forth. British nationality law governs modern British citizenship and nationality, which are acquired, for instance, by birth in the UK or by descent from British nationals.
Although early assertions of being British date from the Late Middle Ages, a developed British national identity emerged following the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. The notion of Britishness—initially closely linked with Protestantism—was forged during the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and the First French Empire, and developed further during the Victorian era. The complex history of the formation of the United Kingdom created a "particular sense of nationhood and belonging" in Britain; Britishness came to be "superimposed on to much older identities", and the English, Scottish and Welsh "remain in many ways distinct peoples in cultural terms", giving rise to resistance to British identity. Because of longstanding ethno-sectarian divisions, British identity in Northern Ireland is controversial, but it is held with strong conviction by unionists.
Contemporary Britons are descended mainly from the varied ethnic stocks that settled in Great Britain before the 11th century. Prehistoric, Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse influences were blended in Britain under the Normans, Scandinavian Vikings from northern France. Conquest and union facilitated migration, cultural and linguistic exchange, and intermarriage between the people of England, Scotland and Wales during the Middle Ages, Early Modern period and beyond. Since the 19th century, and particularly since the mid-20th century, there has been immigration to the United Kingdom by people from Ireland, the Commonwealth, other parts of Europe and elsewhere; they and their descendants are mostly British citizens with some assuming a British, dual or hyphenated identity.
The British are a diverse, multicultural society, with "strong regional accents, expressions and identities". The social structure of Britain has changed radically since the 19th century, with the decline in religious observance, enlargement of the middle class, and increased ethnic diversity. The population of the United Kingdom stands at around 61 million, with a British diaspora concentrated in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.
Greek and Roman writers between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD name the inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland as the Priteni, the origin of the Latin word Britannic. Parthenius, a 1st century Ancient Greek grammarian, and the Etymologicum Genuinum, a 9th century lexical encyclopedia, describe Bretannus (the Latinised form of the Ancient Greek Βρεττανός) as the Celtic national forefather of the Britons. It has been suggested that this name derives from a Gaullish description translated as "people of the forms", referring to the custom of tattooing or painting their bodies with blue woad. By 50 BC Greek geographers were using equivalents of Prettanikē as a collective name for the British Isles. However, with the Roman conquest of Britain the Latin term Britannia was used for the island of Great Britain. The name became associated with the Roman province of Britannia and as the Romans failed to establish control of the Scottish Highlands the frontier was effectively drawn at the Antonine Wall, then around AD 200 at Hadrian's Wall. The post-Roman period brought a series of invasions, and in medieval Britain control of territory by Britons became confined to what would later be Wales, Cornwall and North West England. The term Britannia remained in use as the Latin name for the island, and Historia Brittonum claimed legendary origins as a prestigious genealogy for Brittonic kings, followed by the Historia Regum Britanniae which popularised this pseudo-history to support the claims of the Kings of England.
Traditional accounts of the ancestral roots of the British have taught that they are descended from diverse populations: the Scots, Welsh and Irish from the Celts, and the English from the Anglo-Saxons, who invaded from northern Europe and drove the Celts to Great Britain's western and northern fringes; each are also thought to have a small portion of Viking heritage. However, geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer suggests that DNA analysis attests that three quarters of Britons share a common ancestry with the hunter-gatherers who settled in Atlantic Europe during the Paleolithic era, "after the melting of the ice caps but before the land broke away from the mainland and divided into islands". Despite the separation of the British Isles from continental Europe as a consequence of the last ice age, the genetic record indicates the British broadly share a common ancestry with the Basque people who live in the Basque Country by the Pyrenees. Oppenheimer continues that the majority of the people of the British Isles share genetic commonalities with the Basques, ranging from highs of 90% in Wales to lows of 66% in East Anglia. The difference between western Britain and the East of England is thought to have its origins to two divergent prehistoric routes of immigration — one up the Atlantic coast, the other from continental Europe. Major immigrant settlement of the British Isles occurred during the Neolithic period, interpreted by Bryan Sykes—professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford—as the arrival of the Celts from the Iberian Peninsula, and the origin of Britain's and Ireland's Celtic tribes. Oppenheimer found that "by far the majority of male gene types in the British Isles derive from Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal), ranging from a low of 59% in Fakenham, Norfolk to highs of 96% in Llangefni, north Wales". The National Museum Wales state that "it is possible that future genetic studies of ancient and modern human DNA may help to inform our understanding of the subject" but "early studies have, so far, tended to produce implausible conclusions from very small numbers of people and using outdated assumptions about linguistics and archaeology."
Throughout classical antiquity the Celts formed a series of tribes, cultures and identities, notably the Picts and Gaels in the north and the Britons in the south. The Roman conquest of Britain introduced Romans to Britain, who upon their arrival recorded that in what is now southern England were people from Gallia Belgica, in west Britain were the Ordovices, the Demetae, the Silures and the Deceangli tribes. A Romano-British culture developed in central and southern Britain, until shortly after the Roman departure from Britain, completed in the early-5th century. The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain occurred thereafter in the 5th to 6th centuries, when the Angles, Jutes and Saxons established petty kingdoms over much of what was to become England, and parts of southern Scotland, pushing the Celtic languages and culture to the northern and western fringes of Great Britain. Archaeological evidence from Heinrich Härke supports that their invasion "added about 250,000 people to a British population of one to two million", an estimate that Oppenheimer "notes is larger than his but considerably less than the substantial replacement of the English population assumed by others".
Between the 8th and 11th centuries, "three major cultural divisions" had emerged in Britain; the English, Scottish and Welsh. The English had unified under a single nation state in 937 by King Athelstan of Wessex after the Battle of Brunanburh. Before then, the English (known then in Old English as the Anglecynn) were under the governance of independent Anglo-Saxon petty kingdoms which gradually coalesced into a Heptarchy of seven powerful states, the most powerful of which were Mercia and Wessex. Scottish historian and archaeologist Neil Oliver said that the Battle of Brunanburh would "define the shape of Britain into the modern era", it was a "showdown for two very different ethnic identities - a Norse Celtic alliance versus Anglo Saxon. It aimed to settle once and for all whether Britain would be controlled by a single imperial power or remain several separate independent kingdoms, a split in perceptions which is still very much with us today". However, historian Simon Schama suggested that it was King Edward I of England who was solely "responsible for provoking the peoples of Britain into an awareness of their nationhood" in the 13th century. Scottish national identity, "a complex amalgam" of Gael, Pict, Norsemen and Anglo-Norman, was not finally forged until the Wars of Scottish Independence against the Kingdom of England in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. After their unification in the 10th century, the English developed as an imperial people driven by their monarchs. The name Welsh is derived from the Germanic word walha meaning "stranger" or "foreigner", and was introduced by the Anglo-Saxons to describe the Celtic Britons.
During the Middle Ages, and particularly in the Tudor period, the term British was applied to the Welsh people. At this time, it was "the long held belief that the Welsh were descendants of the ancient Britons and that they spoke 'the British tongue'". This notion was supported by texts such as the Historia Regum Britanniae, a pseudohistorical account of ancient British history, written in the mid-12th century by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Historia Regum Britanniae chronicled the lives of legendary kings of the Britons in a narrative spanning a time of two thousand years, beginning with the Trojans founding the ancient British nation and continuing until the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the 7th century forced the Celtic Britons to the west coast, namely Wales and Cornwall. This legendary Celtic history of Great Britain is known as the Matter of Britain. The Matter of Britain, a national myth, was retold or reinterpreted in works by Gerald of Wales, a Cambro-Norman chronicler who in the 12th and 13th centuries used the term British to refer to what were later known as the Welsh.
Following the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, Wales in the Early Middle Ages was marked by a series of military conflicts with the Anglo-Saxons, and invasion by the English and the Normans. Despite the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 which annexed the legal system of Wales into that of the Kingdom of England, the Welsh people endured as a nation distinct from that of the English people. King Henry VII of England was the first monarch of the Tudor dynasty, a Welsh royal house that ruled the Kingdom of England and its realms from 1485 until 1603. Henry VII was descended paternally from the rulers of the Welsh principality of Deheubarth, and maternally from a legitimized branch of the English royal House of Lancaster. The Matter of Britain was used as propaganda by the Tudor dynasty to assert and reinforce their Deheubarthian lineage with the kings of the Britons to validate their reign over England and Wales. The English Reformation, which also affected Wales and the Kingdom of Ireland, was given Royal approval by Henry VII's grandson, the Tudor King Edward IV of England. Edward IV, under the council of Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, saw the Scottish Reformation gathering pace, and advocated the Kingdom of Scotland joining England and Wales in a united Protestant Britain. The Duke of Somerset supported the unification of the English, Welsh and Scottish people under the "indifferent old name of Britons" on the basis that their monarchies "both derived from a Pre-Roman British monarchy".
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1603, the throne of England was inherited by the Scottish House of Stuart, which resulted in the Union of the Crowns; the Kingdom of England and Kingdom of Scotland were united by a personal union under King James I of England and VI of Scotland. Like the Tudors, King James was an advocate of full political union between England and Scotland, and on 20 October 1604 proclaimed his assumption of the style "King of Great Britain". The proclamation stated that the name Great Britain was not "new-affected" but rather "the true and ancient name which God and time have imposed upon this Isle, extant and received in histories, in all maps and cartes wherein this Isle is described, and in ordinary letters to ourselves from divers foreign princes". It was further proclaimed that the title was "warranted also by authentical charters, exemplifications under seals, and other records of great antiquity giving us precedent for our doing, not borrowed out of foreign nations but from the acts of our progenitors, Kings of this Realm of England, both before and since the conquest". However, although James used the style of "King of Great Britain" until his death, the title was rejected by both the Parliament of England and the Parliament of Scotland and so had no basis in either English law or Scots law.
Despite centuries of military and religious conflict, commercially England, Wales and Scotland had a "long history of interdependence" and had been "drawing increasingly together" since the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and the Union of the Crowns in 1603. A broadly shared language, island, monarch, religion and Bible (the Authorized King James Version) further contributed to a cultural alliance between the two sovereign realms and their people. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 resulted in a pair of Acts of Parliament by the English and Scottish legislatures—the Bill of Rights 1689 and Claim of Right Act 1689 respectively—which ensured that the shared constitutional monarchy of England and Scotland was held only by Protestants. Despite this, although popular with the monarchy and much of the aristocracy, attempts to unite the two states by Acts of Parliament, in 1606, 1667, and 1689 were unsuccessful; increased political management of Scottish affairs by England had led to "criticism", and strained Anglo-Scottish relations.
English and Dutch maritime explorations during the Age of Discovery contributed to the European colonialism of Africa, Asia and the Americas, and provided newfound imperial power and wealth for the English and Welsh at the end of the 17th century. In contrast, the Jacobite rising, crop-failure and famine exacerbated a long-standing weak economy for Scotland. In response, the Scottish kingdom, in opposition to King William II of Scotland and III of England, commenced the Darien Scheme, an attempt to establish a Scottish imperial outlet—the colony of New Caledonia—on the isthmus of Panama. However, through a combination of Scottish mismanagement and English sabotage, this imperial venture ended in "catastrophic failure" with an estimated "25% of Scotland's total liquid capital" lost.
The events of the Darien Scheme coupled with the English Parliament passing the Act of Settlement 1701 giving them the right to chose the order of succession for English, Scottish and Irish thrones escalated political hostilities between England and Scotland, and neutralised calls for a united British people. The Parliament of Scotland passed the Act of Security 1704, allowing it to appoint a different monarch to succeed to the Scottish crown from that of England, if it so wished. The English political perspective was that the appointment of a Jacobite monarchy in Scotland opened up the possibility of a Franco-Scottish military conquest of England during the Second Hundred Years' War and War of the Spanish Succession. The Alien Act 1705 was passed by the Parliament of England which provided that Scottish nationals in England were to be treated as aliens and estates held by Scots would be treated as alien property, whilst also restricting the import of Scottish products into England and its colonies (about half of Scotland's trade). However, the act contained a provision that it would be suspended if the Parliament of Scotland entered into negotiations regarding the creation of a unified Parliament of Great Britain, which in turn would refund Scottish financial losses on the Darien Scheme. Despite opposition from much of the Scottish, and English populations, a Treaty of Union was agreed by their parliaments; England and Scotland passed the Acts of Union 1707 uniting the two states as the Kingdom of Great Britain on 1 May 1707. This kingdom "began as a hostile merger", but led to a "full partnership in the most powerful going concern in the world"; historian Simon Schama stated "it was one of the most astonishing transformations in European history."
At this time the notion of British national identity was gathering pace as "a pragmatic creation designed to exploit and develop new economic and militaristic opportunities of expanding trade and industrial and technological and scientific revolution". Although initially resisted—particularly by the English—the people of Great Britain had by the 1750s begun to assume a "layered identity", to think of themselves as simultaneously British and also Scottish, English, or Welsh.
After the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, British national identity was explored and developed. The terms North Briton and South Briton were devised for the Scottish and English, with the former gaining some preference in Scotland, particularly by the economists and philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Indeed, it was the "Scots [who] played key roles in shaping the contours of British identity"; "their scepticism about the Union allowed the Scots the space and time in which to dominate the construction of Britishness in its early crucial years", drawing upon the notion of a shared "spirit of liberty common to both Saxon and Celt ... against the usurpation of the Church of Rome". James Thomson was a poet and playwright born to a Church of Scotland minister in the Scottish Lowlands in 1700 who was interested in forging a common British culture and national identity in this way. In collaboration with Thomas Arne, they wrote Alfred, an opera about Alfred the Great's victory against the Vikings performed to Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1740 to commemorate the accession of King George I of Great Britain and the birthday of Princess Augusta. "Rule, Britannia!" was the climatic piece of the opera and quickly became a "jingoistic" British patriotic song celebrating "Britain's supremacy offshore". An island country with a series of victories for the Royal Navy associated empire and naval warfare "inextricably with ideals of Britishness and Britain's place in the world".
Britannia, the new national personification of Great Britain, was established in the 1750s as a representation of "nation and empire rather than any single national hero". On Britannia and British identity, historian Peter Borsay wrote:
Up until 1797 Britannia was conventionally depicted holding a spear, but as a consequence of the increasingly prominent role of the Royal Navy in the war against the French, and of several spectacular victories, the spear was replaced by a trident... The navy had come to be seen...as the very bulwark of British liberty and the essence of what it was to be British.
From the Acts of Union 1707 through to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the Kingdom of Great Britain was "involved in successive, very dangerous wars with Catholic France", but which "all brought enough military and naval victories ... to flatter British pride". As the Napoleonic Wars with the First French Empire advanced, "the English and Scottish learned to define themselves as similar primarily by virtue of not being French or Catholic". In combination with sea power and empire, the notion of Britishness became more "closely bound up with Protestantism", a cultural commonality through which the English, Scots and Welsh became "fused together, and remain[ed] so, despite their many cultural divergences".
The proliferation of neo-classical monuments at the end of the 18th century and start of the 19th, such as The Kymin at Monmouth, were attempts to meld the concepts of Britishness with the Greco-Roman empires of classical antiquity. The new and expanding British Empire provided "unprecedented opportunities for upward mobility and the accumulations of wealth", and so the "Scottish, Welsh and Irish populations were prepared to suppress nationalist issues on pragmatic grounds". The British Empire was "crucial to the idea of a British identity and to the self-image of Britishness". Indeed, the Scottish welcomed Britishness during the 19th century "for it offered a context within which they could hold on to their own identity whilst participating in, and benefiting from, the expansion of the British Empire". Similarly, the "new emphasis of Britishness was broadly welcomed by the Welsh who considered themselves to be the lineal descendants of the ancient Britons - a word that was still used to refer exclusively to the Welsh". For the English however, by the Victorian era their enthusiastic adoption of Britishness meant that for them it "meant the same as 'Englishness'", so much so that "Englishness and Britishness" and "'England' and 'Britain' were used interchangably in a variety of contexts". Britishness came to borrow heavily upon English political history because England had "always been the dominant component of the British Isles in terms of size, population and power"; Magna Carta, common law and hostility to continental Europe were English factors that influenced British sensibilities.
The political union of the predominantly Catholic Kingdom of Ireland with Great Britain in 1800 coupled with outbreak of peace with France in the early 19th century, challenged the previous century's concept of militant Protestant Britishness. The new, expanded United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland meant that the state had to re-evaulate its position on the civil rights of Catholics, and extend its definition of Britishness to the Irish people. Like terms that had been invented around the of the Acts of Union 1707, West Briton was introduced for the Irish after 1800. In 1832 Daniel O'Connell, an Irish politician who campaigned for Catholic Emancipation, stated in Britain's House of Commons:
Ireland 1801–1922 was marked by a succession of economic and political mismanagement and neglect, which marginalised the Irish, and advanced Irish nationalism. In the forty years that followed the union, successive British governments grappled with the problems of governing a country which had, as Benjamin Disraeli put it in 1844, "a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien Church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world". Although the vast majority of Unionists in Ireland proclaimed themselves "simultaneously Irish and British", even for them there was a strain upon the adoption of Britishness after the Great Famine.
War continued to be a unifying factor for the people of Great Britain; British jingoism re-emerged during the Boer Wars in southern Africa. The experience of military, political and economic power from the rise of the British Empire led to a very specific drive in artistic technique, taste and sensibility for Britishness. In 1887, Frederic Harrison wrote:
Morally, we Britons plant the British flag on every peak and pass; and wherever the Union Jack floats there we place the cardinal British institutions—tea, tubs, sanitary appliances, lawn tennis, and churches.
The Catholic Relief Act 1829 reflected a "marked change in attitudes" in Great Britain towards Catholics and Catholicism. A "significant" example of this was the collaboration between Augustus Welby Pugin, an "ardent Roman Catholic" and son of a Frenchman, and Sir Charles Barry, "a confirmed Protestant", in redesigning the Palace of Westminster—"the building that most enshrines ... Britain's national and imperial pre-tensions". Protestantism gave way to imperialism as the leading element of British national identity during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and as such, a series of Royal, imperial and national celebrations were introduced to the British people to assert imperial British culture and give themselves a sense of uniqueness, superiority and national consciousness. Empire Day and jubilees of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom were introduced to the British middle class, but quickly "merged into a national 'tradition'".
The First World War "reinforced the sense of Britishness" and patriotism in the early 20th century. Through war service (including conscription in Great Britain), "the English, Welsh, Scots and Irish fought as British". The aftermath of the war institutionalised British national commemoration through Remembrance Sunday and the Poppy Appeal. The Second World War had a similar unifying effect upon the British people, however, its outcome was to recondition Britishness on a basis of democratic values and its marked contrast to Europeanism. Notions that the British "constituted an Island race, and that it stood for democracy were reinforced during the war and they were circulated in the country through Winston Churchill's speeches, history books and newspapers".
At its international zenith, "Britishness joined peoples around the world in shared traditions and common loyalities that were strenuously maintained". But following the two world wars, the British Empire experienced rapid decolonisation. The secession of the Irish Free State from the United Kingdom meant that Britishness had lost "its Irish dimension" in 1922, and the shrinking empire supplanted by independence movements dwindled the appeal of British identity in the Commonwealth of Nations during the mid-20th century. Since the mass immigration to the United Kingdom since 1922 from the Commonwealth and elsewhere in the world, and the British Nationality Act 1948, "the expression and experience of cultural life in Britain has become fragmented and reshaped by the influences of gender, ethnicity, class and region". Furthermore, the effect of the United Kingdom's membership of the European Economic Community in 1973 eroded the concept of Britishness as distinct from continental Europe. As such, since the 1970s "there has been a sense of crisis about what it has meant to be British", exacerbated by growing demands for greater political autonomy for Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
The late-20th century saw major changes to the politics of the United Kingdom with the establishment of devolved national administrations for Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales following pre-legislative referenda. Calls for greater autonomy for the four countries of the United Kingdom had existed since their original union with each other, but gathered pace in the 1960s and 1970s. Devolution has led to "increasingly assertive Scottish, Welsh and Irish national identities", resulting in more diverse cultural expressions of Britishness.
Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, initiated a debate on British identity in 2006. 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. One of the central issues identified at the Fabian Society conference was how the English identity fits within the framework of a devolved United Kingdom. An expression of Her Majesty's Government's initiative to promote Britishness was the inaugural Veterans' Day which was first held on 27 June 2006. As well as celebrating the achievements of armed forces veterans, Brown's speech at the first event for the celebration 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.
After the Age of Discovery the British were one of the earliest and largest communities to emigrate out of Europe, and the British Empire's expansion during the first half of the 19th century triggered an "extraordinary dispersion of the British people", resulting in particular concentrations "in Australasia and North America". The British Empire was "built on waves of migration overseas by British people", who left the United Kingdom and "reached across the globe and permanently affected population structures in three continents". As a result of the British colonization of the Americas, what became the United States was "easily the greatest single destination of emigrant British", but in Australia the British experienced a birth rate higher than "anything seen before" resulting in the displacement of indigenous Australians. In colonies such as Southern Rhodesia, British East Africa and Cape Colony, permanently resident British communities were established and whilst never more than a numerical minority these Britons "exercised a dominant influence" upon the culture and politics of those lands. In Australia, Canada and New Zealand "people of British origin came to constitute the majority of the population" contributing to these states becoming integral to the Anglosphere.
The United Kingdom Census 1861 estimated the size of the overseas British to be around 2.5 million, but concluded that most of these were "not conventional settlers" but rather "travellers, merchants, professionals, and military personnel". By 1890, there were over 1.5 million further British-born people living in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. A 2006 publication from the Institute for Public Policy Research estimated 5.6 million Britons lived outside of the United Kingdom.
From the beginning of Australia's colonial period until after the Second World War, people from the United Kingdom made up a large majority of people coming to Australia, meaning that many Australian-born people can trace their origins to Britain. The colony of New South Wales, founded on 26 January 1788, was part of the eastern half of Australia claimed by the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1770, and initially settled by Britons through penal transportation. Together with another five largely self-governing Crown Colonies, the federation of Australia was achieved on 1 January 1901. Its history of British dominance, meant that Australia was "grounded in British culture and political traditions that had been transported to the Australian colonies in the nineteenth century and become part of colonial culture and politics". Britons continue to make up a substantial proportion of immigrants.
The people of the British overseas territories are British by citizenship, via origins or naturalisation. Along with aspects of common British identity, each of them has their own distinct identity shaped in the respective particular circumstances of political, economic, ethnic, social and cultural history. For instance, in the case of the Falkland Islanders, Lewis Clifton the Speaker of the Legislative Council of the Falkland Islands, explains:
British cultural, economic, social, political and educational values create a unique British-like, Falkland Islands. Yet Islanders feel distinctly different from their fellow citizens who reside in the United Kingdom. This might have something to do with geographical isolation or with living on a smaller island—perhaps akin to those British people not feeling European.
In contrast, for the majority of the Gibraltarian people, who live in Gibraltar, there is an "insistence on their Britishness" which "carries excessive loyalty" to Britain. The sovereignty of Gibraltar has been a point of contention in Spain–United Kingdom relations, but an overwhelming number of Gibraltarians embrace Britishness with strong conviction, in direct opposition to Spanish territorial claims.
Canada traces its statehood to the British and French expeditions of North America in the late-15th century. France ceded nearly all of New France in 1763 after the Seven Years' War, and so after the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776, Quebec and Nova Scotia formed "the nucleus of the colonies that constituted Britain's remaining stake on the North American continent". British North America attracted the United Empire Loyalists, British people who migrated out of what they considered the "rebellious" United States, increasing the size of British communities in what was to become Canada. In 1867 there was a union of three colonies with British North America which together formed the Canadian Confederation, a federal dominion. This began an accretion of additional provinces and territories and a process of increasing autonomy from the United Kingdom, highlighted by the Statute of Westminster 1931 and culminating in the Canada Act 1982, which severed the vestiges of legal dependence on the parliament of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, it is recognised that there is a "continuing importance of Canada's long and close relationship with Britain"; large parts of Canada's modern population claim "British origins" and the cultural impact of the British upon Canada's institutions is profound. The politics of Canada are strongly influenced by British political culture. Although significant modifications have been made, Canada is governed by a democratic parliamentary framework comparible to the Westminster system, and retains Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom as the head (or Queen in Right) of the monarchy of Canada. English is an official language used in Canada.
Plantations of Ireland introduced large numbers of English, Scottish and Welsh people to Ireland throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period. The resulting Protestant Ascendancy, the aristocratic class of the Lordship of Ireland, broadly identified themselves as Anglo-Irish. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestant British settlers subjugated Catholic, Gaelic inhabitants in the north of Ireland during the Plantation of Ulster and the Williamite War in Ireland; it was "an explicit attempt to control Ireland strategically by introducing ethnic and religious elements loyal to the British interest in Ireland". The Ulster Scots people are an ethnic group in Ireland, broadly descended from Lowland Scots who settled in large numbers in the Province of Ulster during the planned process of colonisations of Ireland which took place in the reign of King James I of England and VI of Scotland. Together with English and Welsh settlers, these Scots introduced Protestantism (particularly the Presbyterianism of the Church of Scotland) and the Ulster Scots and English languages to northeastern Ireland.
The schism between the Protestant majority and the Roman Catholic minority extends deep into Northern Ireland's past and has strongly influenced its culture, settlement patterns, and politics. Northern Ireland was for many years the site of a violent and bitter ethno-sectarian conflict—The Troubles—between those claiming to represent Irish nationalism, who are predominantly Roman Catholic, and those claiming to represent British unionism, who are predominantly Protestant. Unionists want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, while nationalists desire a united Ireland. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, most of the paramilitary groups involved in the Troubles have ceased their armed campaigns, and constitutionally, the people of Northern Ireland have been recognised as "all persons born in Northern Ireland and having, at the time of their birth, at least one parent who is a British citizen, an Irish citizen or is otherwise entitled to reside in Northern Ireland without any restriction on their period of residence". The Good Friday Agreement guarantees the "recognition of the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose". Nevertheless, community divisions are still strong, and the unique situation of Britons in Northern Ireland has produced a strong and distinctive British identity which at the extreme is linked with Ulster loyalism and the Orange Institution, but more commonly is "civic in nature", tied with the Protestant work ethic of an "industrious, assertive, self-reliant" people.
A long-term result of James Cook's voyage of 1768–71, a significant number of New Zealanders are of British descent, whom a sense of Britishness has contributed to their identity. As late as the 1950s, it was common for British New Zealanders to refer to themselves as British, such as when Prime Minister Keith Holyoake described Sir Edmund Hillary's successful ascent of Mount Everest as putting "the British race and New Zealand on top of the world". New Zealand passports described nationals as "British Subject and New Zealand Citizen" until 1974, when this was changed to "New Zealand citizen".
British immigrants fit in here very well. My own ancestry is all British. New Zealand values are British values, derived from centuries of struggle since Magna Carta. Those things make New Zealand the society it is.
The politics of New Zealand are strongly influenced by British political culture. Although significant modifications have been made, New Zealand is governed by a democratic parliamentary framework comparible to the Westminster system, and retains Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom as the head of the monarchy of New Zealand. English is the dominant official language used in New Zealand.
An English presence in North America began with the Roanoke Colony and Colony of Virginia in the late-16th century, but the first successful English settlement was established in 1607, on the James River at Jamestown. By the 1610s an estimated 1,300 English people had travelled to North America, the "first of many millions from the British Isles". In 1620 the Pilgrims established the English imperial venture of Plymouth Colony, beginning "a remarkable acceleration of permanent emigration from England" with over 60% of trans-Atlantic English migrants settling in the New England Colonies. During the 17th century an estimated 350,000 English and Welsh migrants arrived in North America, which in the century after the Acts of Union 1707 was surpassed in rate and number by Scottish and Irish migrants.
The British policy of salutary neglect for its North American colonies intended to minimize trade restrictions as a way of ensuring they stayed loyal to British interests. This permitted the development of the American Dream, a cultural spirit distinct from that of its European founders. The Thirteen Colonies of British America began an armed rebellion against British rule in 1775 when they rejected the right of the Parliament of Great Britain to govern them without representation; they proclaimed their independence in 1776, and subsequently constituted the first thirteen states of the United States of America, which became a sovereign state in 1781 with the ratification of the Articles of Confederation. The 1783 Treaty of Paris represented Great Britain's formal acknowledgement of the United States' sovereignty at the end of the American Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, longstanding cultural and historical ties have, in more modern times, resulted in the Special Relationship, a term used to describe the exceptionally close political, diplomatic and military co-operation of United Kingdom – United States relations. Linda Colley, a professor of history at Princeton University and specialist in Britishness, suggested that because of their colonial influence on the United States, the British find Americans a "mysterious and paradoxical people, physically distant but culturally close, engagingly similar yet irritatingly different".
Historically, British cuisine has meant "unfussy dishes made with quality local ingredients, matched with simple sauces to accentuate flavour, rather than disguise it". It has been "vilified as unimaginative and heavy", and traditionally been limited in its international recognition to the full breakfast and the Christmas dinner. This is despite British cuisine having absorbed the culinary influences of those who have settled in Britain, resulting in hybrid dishes such as the British Asian Chicken tikka masala, hailed as "Britain's true national dish".
Celtic agriculture and animal breeding produced a wide variety of foodstuffs for Celts and Britons. The Anglo-Saxons developed meat and savory herb stewing techniques before the practice became common in Europe. The Norman conquest of England introduced exotic spices into Britain in the Middle Ages. The British Empire facilitated a knowledge of India's food tradition of "strong, penetrating spices and herbs". Food rationing policies, imposed by the British government during wartime periods of the 20th century, are said to have been the stimulus for British cuisine's poor international reputation.
British dishes include fish and chips, the Sunday roast, and bangers and mash. British cuisine has several national and regional varieties, including English, Scottish and Welsh cuisine, each of which has developed its own regional or local dishes, many of which are geographically indicated foods such as Cheshire cheese, the Yorkshire pudding, Arbroath Smokie, and Welsh cakes.
The British are the second largest per capita tea consumers in the world, consuming an average of 2.1 kilograms (4.6 lb) per person each year. British tea culture dates back to the 19th century, when India was part of the British Empire and British interests controlled tea production in the subcontinent.
British literature is "one of the leading literatures in the world". The overwhelming part is written in the English language, but there are also literatures written in Scots, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh languages amongst others.
The United Kingdom does not have a constitutionally defined official language. English is the main language, being spoken monolingually by more than 70% of the UK population, and is thus the de facto official language. However, under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, Irish, Ulster Scots and Scots (or Lowland Scots) languages are officially recognised as Regional or Minority languages by the UK Government. As indigenous languages which continue to be spoken as a first language by native inhabitants, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic have a different legal status to other minority languages. In some parts of the UK, some of these languages are commonly spoken as a first language; in wider areas, their use in a bilingual context is sometimes supported and/or promoted by central and/or local government policy. For naturalisation purposes, a competence standard of English, Scottish Gaelic or Welsh is required to pass the life in the United Kingdom test. However, English is used routinely, and although considered culturally important, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh are seldom used and are effectively restricted in practice to remote rural areas.
Throughout the United Kingdom there are strong and distinctive spoken expressions and regional accents of English, which are seen to be symptomatic of a locality's culture and identity. An awareness and knowledge of accents in the United Kingdom can "place, within a few miles, the locality in which a man or woman has grown up".
Although cinema, theatre, dance and live music are popular, the favourite pastime of the British is watching television. Public broadcast television in the United Kingdom began in 1936, with the launch of the BBC Television Service (now BBC One). In the United Kingdom and the Crown dependencies, one must have a television licence to legally receive any broadcast television service, from any source. This includes the commercial channels, cable and satellite transmissions, and the Internet. Revenue generated from the television licence is used to provide radio, television and Internet content for the British Broadcasting Corporation, and Welsh language television programmes for S4C. The BBC, the common abbreviation of the British Broadcasting Corporation, is the world's largest broadcaster. Unlike other broadcasters in the UK, it is a public service based, quasi-autonomous, statutory corporation run by the BBC Trust. Free-to-air terrestrial television channels available on a national basis are BBC One, BBC Two, ITV, Channel 4 (S4C in Wales), and Five.
100 Greatest British Television Programmes was a list compiled by the British Film Institute in 2000, chosen by a poll of industry professionals, to determine what were the greatest British television programmes of any genre ever to have been screened. Topping the list was Fawlty Towers, a British sitcom set in a fictional Torquay hotel starring John Cleese. Cathy Come Home, a play written by Jeremy Sandford was second; it was filmed for television as a drama documentary and its subject matter was social injustice. Doctor Who a British science fiction television programme produced by the BBC, was third. The programme depicts the adventures of a mysterious alien time-traveller known as "the Doctor" who travels through space and time.
"British musical tradition is essentially vocal", dominated by the music of England and Germanic culture, most greatly influenced by hymns and Anglican church music. However, the specific, traditional music of Wales and music of Scotland is distinct, and of the Celtic musical tradition. In the United Kingdom, more people attend live music performances than football matches. British rock was born in the mid-20th century out of the influence of rock and roll and rhythm and blues from the United States. Major early exports were The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks. Together with other bands from the United Kingdom, these constituted the British Invasion, a popularisation of British pop and rock music in the United States. Into the 1970s and 1980s there was a diversification of British musical genres; Progressive rock, Glam rock, Heavy Metal, New Wave, and 2 Tone. Britpop is a subgenre of alternative rock that emerged from the British independent music scene of the early 1990s and was characterised by bands reviving British guitar pop music of the 1960s and 1970s. Leading exponents of Britpop were Blur, Oasis and Pulp. Also popularised in the United Kingdom during the 1990s were several domestically produced varieties of electronic dance music; Acid house, UK hard house, Jungle, UK garage which in turn have influenced Grime and British hip hop in the 2000s. The BRIT Awards are the British Phonographic Industry's annual awards for both international and British popular music.
Historically, Christianity "has been the most influential and important religion in Britain", and it remains the declared faith of the majority of the British people. The influence of Christianity on British culture has been "widespread, extending beyond the spheres of prayer and worship. Churches and cathedrals make a significant contribution to the architectural landscape of the nation's cities and towns" whilst "many schools and hospitals were founded by men and women who were strongly influenced by Christian motives". In the United Kingdom, Easter and Christmas, the "two most important events in the Christian calendar", are recognised as public holidays. Christianity remains the major religion of the population of the United Kingdom in the 21st century, followed by Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and then Judaism in terms of number of adherents. The 2007 Tearfund Survey revealed 53% identified themselves as Christian which was similar to the 2004 British Social Attitudes Survey, and to the United Kingdom Census 2001 in which 71.6% said that Christianity was their religion, However, the Tearfund Survey showed only one in ten Britons attend church weekly. Secularism was advanced in Britain during the Age of Enlightenment, and modern British organisations such as the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society offer the opportunity for their members to "debate and explore the moral and philosophical issues in a non-religious setting".
The Treaty of Union that led to the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain ensured that there would be a protestant succession as well as a link between church and state that still remains. The Church of England (Anglican) is legally recognised as the established church, and so retains representation in the parliament of the United Kingdom through the Lords Spiritual, whilst the British monarch is a member of the church as well as its Supreme Governor. The Church of England also retains the right to draft legislative measures (related to religious administration) through the General Synod that can then be passed into law by Parliament. The Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales is the second largest Christian church with around five million members, mainly in England. There are also growing Orthodox, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, with Pentecostal churches in England now third after the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in terms of church attendance. Other large Christian groups include Methodists and Baptists.
The presbyterian Church of Scotland (known informally as The Kirk), is recognised as the national church of Scotland and not subject to state control. The British monarch is an ordinary member and is required to swear an oath to "defend the security" of the church upon his or her accession. The Roman Catholic Church in Scotland is Scotland's second largest Christian church, representing a sixth of the population. The Scottish Episcopal Church, which is part of the Anglican Communion, dates from the final establishment of Presbyterianism in Scotland in 1690, when it split from the Church of Scotland and is not a 'daughter church' of the Church of England. Further splits in the Church of Scotland, especially in the 19th century, led to the creation of various other Presbyterian churches in Scotland, including the Free Church of Scotland. In the 1920s, the Church in Wales became independent from the Church of England and became 'disestablished' but remains in the Anglican Communion. Methodism and other more independent churches are traditionally strong in Wales. The main religious groups in Northern Ireland are organised on an all-Ireland basis. Though Protestants and Anglicans are in the overall majority, the Roman Catholic Church of Ireland is the largest single church. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland, closely linked to the Church of Scotland in terms of theology and history, is the second largest church followed by the Church of Ireland (Anglican) which was disestablished in the 19th century.
Sport in the United Kingdom is an important element of British culture, and one of the nation's most popular leisure activities, with nearly half of all British adults partaking in one or more sporting activity each week. British sportsmen and sportswomen "hold over 50 world titles in a variety of sports, such as professional boxing, rowing, snooker, squash and motorcycle sports". Some of the major sports in the United Kingdom "were invented by the British", but in most disciplines, separate organisations, teams and clubs represent England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland at international level. At the 2008 Summer Olympics, the Great Britain team won 47 medals: 19 gold (the most since the 1908 Summer Olympics), 13 silver and 15 bronze, ranking them 4th.
The British "invented football, rugby and cricket", and "exported various other games" including badminton, boxing, golf, snooker and squash. A 2006 poll found that association football is the most popular sport in the United Kingdom. In England 320 football clubs are affiliated to The Football Association (FA) and more than 42,000 clubs to regional or district associations. The FA, founded in 1863, and the Football League, founded in 1888, were both the first of their kind in the world. In Scotland there are 78 full and associate clubs and nearly 6,000 registered clubs under the jurisdiction of the Scottish Football Association. Two Welsh clubs play in England's Football League, whilst the Welsh Football League contains 20 semi-professional clubs. In Northern Ireland, 12 semi-professional clubs play in the IFA Premiership, the second oldest league in the world.
Recreational fishing, particularly angling, is one of the most popular participation activities in the United Kingdom, with an estimated 3—4 million anglers in the country. In England and Wales the most widely practised form of angling is for coarse fish. In Scotland angling is usually for salmon and trout.
For centuries, artists and architects in Britain were overwhelmingly influenced by Western art history. Amongst the first visual artists credited for developing a distinctly British aesthetic and artistic style is William Hogarth. The experience of military, political and economic power from the rise of the British Empire, led to a very specific drive in artistic technique, taste and sensibility in the United Kingdom. Britons used their art "to illustrate their knowledge and command of the natural world", whilst the permanent settlers in British North America, Australasia, and South Africa "embarked upon a search for distinctive artistic expression appropriate to their sense of national identity". The empire has been "at the centre, rather than in the margins, of the history of British art", and imperial British visual arts have been fundamental to the construction, celebration and expression of Britishness.
British attitudes to modern art were "polarized" at the end of the 19th century. Modernist movements were both cherished and vilified by artists and critics; Impressionism was initially regarded by "many conservative critics" as a "subversive foreign influence", but became "fully assimilated" into British art during the early-20th century. Representational art was described by Herbert Read during the interwar period as "necessarily... revolutionary", and was studied and produced to such an extent that by the 1950s, Classicism was effectively void in British visual art. Post-modern, contemporary British art, particularly that of the Young British Artists, has been pre-occupied with postcolonialism, and "characterised by a fundamental concern with material culture ... perceived as a post-imperial cultural anxiety".
The architecture of the United Kingdom is diverse; most influential developments have usually taken place in England, but Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have at various times played leading roles in architectural history. Although there are prehistoric and classical structures in the British Isles, British architecture effectively begins with the first Anglo-Saxon Christian churches, built soon after Augustine of Canterbury arrived in Great Britain in 597. Norman architecture was built on a vast scale from the 11th century onwards in the form of castles and churches to help impose Norman authority upon their dominion. English Gothic architecture, which flourished between 1180 until around 1520, was initially imported from France, but quickly developed its own unique qualities. Secular medieval architecture throughout Britain has left a legacy of large stone castles, with the "finest examples" being found lining both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border, dating from the Wars of Scottish Independence of the 14th century. The invention of gunpowder and canons made castles redundant, and the English Renaissance which followed facilitiated the development of new artistic styles for domestic architecture: Tudor style, English Baroque, Queen Anne Style and Palladian. Georgian and Neoclassical architecture advanced after the Scottish Enlightenment. Outwith the United Kingdom, the influence of British architecture is particularly strong in South India, the result of British rule in India in the 19th century. The Indian cities of Bangalore, Chennai, and Mumbai each have courts, hotels and train stations designed in British architectural styles of Gothic Revivalism and neoclassicism.
British culture is tied closely with its institutions and civics, and a "subtle fusion of new and old values". The principle of constitutional monarchy, with its notions of stable parliamentary government and political liberalism, "have come to dominate British culture". These views have been reinforced by Sir Bernard Crick who said:
To be British seems to us to mean that we respect the laws, the elected parliamentary and democratic political structures, traditional values of mutual tolerance, respect for equal rights and mutual concern; that we give our allegiance to the state (as commonly symbolized by the Crown) in return for its protection.
The Parliament of the United Kingdom is the supreme legislative body in the United Kingdom and British overseas territories. It alone has parliamentary sovereignty, conferring upon it ultimate power over all other political bodies in the UK and its territories. At its head is the Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. The parliament is bicameral, with an upper house, the House of Lords, and a lower house, the House of Commons. The Queen is the third component of Parliament. The House of Lords includes three different types of members: the Lords Spiritual (the senior bishops of the Church of England), the Lords Temporal (members of the Peerage), and Law Lords (judges that carry out the House of Lords' judicial responsibilities); its members are not elected by the population at large, but are appointed by the Queen on advice of the Prime Minister. The House of Commons is a democratically elected chamber with elections to it held at least every 5 years. The two Houses meet in separate chambers of parliament in the Palace of Westminster, in central London. By constitutional convention, all government ministers, including the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, are members of the House of Commons or, less often, the House of Lords, and are thereby technically accountable to the respective branches of the legislature.
The authority of the elected House of Commons came through centuries of political battle against the Crown. Universal suffrage for all adult males was granted in 1918 and for adult women in 1930 after the Suffragette movement. Dominated by the political factions of the Whigs or Tories during the 18th century, the United Kingdom now has a multi-party system, and since the 1920s the two dominant political parties have been the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. The social structure of Britain, specifically social class, has "long been pre-eminent among the factors used to explain party allegiance", and still persists as "the dominant basis" of party political allegiance for British people. The Conservative Party is descended from the historic Tory Party (founded in 1678), and is a centre-right conservative political party, which traditionally draws support from the middle classes. The Labour Party grew out of the trade union movement and socialist political parties of the 19th century, and continues to describe itself as a "democratic socialist party". Labour states that it stands for the representation of the low-paid working class, whom have traditionally been its members and voters. The Liberal Democrats are a liberalist political party, and third largest in the United Kingdom. It is descended from the Liberal Party, a major ruling party of late-19th century Britain through to the First World War, when it was supplanted by the Labour Party. The Liberal Democrats have historically drawn support from wide and "differing social backgrounds". There are over 300 other, smaller political parties in the United Kingdom registered to the Electoral Commission.
British political institutions include the Westminster system, the Commonwealth of Nations and Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council. Although the Privy Council is primarily a British institution, officials from other Commonwealth realms are also appointed to the body. The most notable continuing instance is the Prime Minister of New Zealand, its senior politicians, Chief Justice and Court of Appeal judges are conventionally made Privy Counsellors, as formerly were the prime ministers and chief justices of Canada and Australia. Prime Ministers of Commonwealth countries which retain the British monarch as their sovereign continue to be sworn as Privy Counsellors.
According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, there are broadly two interpretations of British identity, with ethnic and civic dimensions:
The first group, which we term the ethnic dimension, contained the items about birthplace, ancestry, living in Britain, and sharing British customs and traditions. The second, or civic group, contained the items about feeling British, respecting laws and institutions, speaking English, and having British citizenship.
Of the two perspectives of British identity, the civic definition has become "the dominant idea ... by far", and in this capacity, Britishness is sometimes considered an institutional or overarching state identity. This has been used to explain why first-, second- and third-generation immigrants are more likely to describe themselves as British, rather than English, Scottish or Welsh, because it is an "institutional, inclusive" identity, that can be acquired through naturalisation and British nationality law; the vast majority of people in the United Kingdom who are from an ethnic minority feel British. However, this attitude is more common in England than in Scotland or Wales; "white English people perceived themselves as English first and as British second, and most people from ethnic minority backgrounds perceived themselves as British, but none identified as English, a label they associated exclusively with white people". Contrawise, in Scotland and Wales, White British and ethnic minority people both identified more strongly with Scotland and Wales than with Britain.
Studies and surveys have "reported that the majority of the Scots and Welsh see themselves as both Scottish/Welsh and British though with some differences in emphasis". The Commission for Racial Equality found that with respect to notions of nationality in Britain, "the most basic, objective and uncontroversial conception of the British people is one that includes the English, the Scots and the Welsh". However, "English participants tended to think of themselves as indistinguishably English or British, while both Scottish and Welsh participants identified themselves much more readily as Scottish or Welsh than as British". Some persons opted "to combine both identities" as "they felt Scottish or Welsh, but held a British passport and were therefore British", whereas others saw themselves as exclusively Scottish or exclusively Welsh and "felt quite divorced from the British, whom they saw as the English". Commentators have described this latter phenomenon as "nationalism", a rejection of British identity because some Scots and Welsh interpret it as "cultural imperialism imposed" upon the United Kingdom by "English ruling elites", or else a response to a historical misappropriation of equating the word "English" with "British", which has "brought about a desire among Scots, Welsh and Irish to learn more about their heritage and distinguish themselves from the broader British identity".
British, brit'ish, adj. of Britain or the Commonwealth.
Briton, brit'ὁn, n. one of the early inhabitants of Britain: a native of Great Britain.
Brit·ish (brĭt'ĭsh) adj.
n. (used with a pl. verb)
- Of or relating to Great Britain or its people, language, or culture.
- Of or relating to the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth of Nations.
- Of or relating to the ancient Britons.
- The people of Great Britain.
British people, or Britons, are the people who live in Great Britain or citizens of the United Kingdom, of the Isle of Man, one of the Channel Islands, or of one of the British overseas territories.