Who, what or where is “Britain”?
In recent months and with some irritation, I have noticed the increasingly frequent use of the word “Britain”‘ in place of the name United Kingdom. I am not sure how long this matter has impinged on my attention, but it goes back at least to the time of the London Olympic Games of 2012.
Readers may recall that the United Kingdom’s Olympic Games team was called “Team GB”. This was a contentious name and caused due controversy, chiefly because it failed to officially account for the place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom’s Olympic Games team. I can readily understand the offense caused as my grand-parents on my mother’s side were from Northern Ireland – and fiercely British for it. The name “United Kingdom” is indissolubly linked with Northern Ireland through the 1800 Act of Union, when Scotland, England and Wales joined with Ireland to form this new nation.
Incidentally, to compound the folly of naming the United Kingdom’s 2012 Summer Games team as “Team GB”, the United Kingdom team for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russian Federation, is to be called the same!
Of further interest at the time of the 2012 Olympic Games was the fact that, when any member of Team GB won a medal, the British flag (the Union flag – sometimes erroneously referred to as the Union Jack) was raised. This flag does not contain any representation of Wales, ostensibly because Wales had already been conquered by England when the Act of Union between Scotland and England was enacted in 1707. This obvious discrimination raises the distinct question as to whether the Union flag should be redesigned.
As a former secondary school teacher of Humanities, I occasionally taught Year 7 Geography. One of the first units of work was concerned with what it meant for the students to be “British” (a connotation that has no place in law but is a common title for those persons born in the United Kingdom or holding a United Kingdom Passport). I had no choice over the curriculum but I would give the students a project sheet with the several unnamed map drawings. The map drawings were those of 1) Great Britain, 2) the British Isles, and 3) the United Kingdom. The students were then required to identify, label and otherwise complete each of the map drawings.
Now, at the risk of insulting the geographical knowledge and expertise of my readers, let me remind you that, firstly, “Great Britain” refers to the main island of the British Isles, inclusive of Scotland, England and Wales (and their constituent island dependencies); secondly, the “British Isles” are all those islands inclusive of Great Britain and those of the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland; and, thirdly, the “United Kingdom” is inclusive of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
There is no country on any map named “Britain”, nor has there ever been at any time in which acts of union have been enacted between the countries comprising the British Isles or the United Kingdom. Indeed, the only evidence that could remotely be linked with the name “Britain” is to be found in the ancient and medieval histories of the British Isles. Such references have only vague geographical identities.
I have a British Passport. My passport states that I am a citizen (note: not a “subject” of a country or any monarch) of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; there is no mention of “Britain” per se (though, interestingly, at the top of the front cover of the passport are the words “European Union”). So, who, what or where is Britain?
As the holder of an Australian Resident Return Visa, when I visit Australia (a former British colony that, anachronistically, still retains the British monarch as the Head of State and, bewilderingly, resists becoming a republic) I am required to fill-in a form that states that I started my journey in the United Kingdom and am the holder of a British Passport. There is no mention of “Britain” in the Australian immigration and customs forms.
In an article that ran for only three half columns of a tabloid sheet, and under the heading “Britain can’t pick or choose – we’re either in, or we’re out” (the article referred to the European Union), a respected journalist of The Guardian newspaper used the word “Britain” as a synonym for the United Kingdom no less that sixteen times. Moreover, he used the word “Britain’s” three times and the word “Britons” once. What is wrong with calling the country its literary and geographically (not to mention journalistically) correct name – the United Kingdom (or just UK)? It is the United Kingdom, moreover, and not “Britain”, that is a member of the European Community!
Whether it is a consequence of living in England, reading English newspapers and primarily listening to or watching English produced radio and television programmes, it would appear to me that most of those persons who use “Britain” in place of the United Kingdom are English. Interestingly, I have never once heard Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party (the main proponent of those wanting Scotland’s separation from the United Kingdom), use the term “Britain” as a synonym for the United Kingdom. It is the latter and not the former from which Scotland may have independence. Of course, in the event of Scotland choosing independence from the UK, then it may well be that a new name for the remaining union of Northern Ireland, Wales and England will need to be found.
Perhaps this is why it is mostly English people (including the English born, Eton-educated British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who should know better but is, in fact, one of the worst abusers of the nomenclature) who are now using “Britain” in place of the United Kingdom – they are preparing for that day. Such persons may consider that, without Scotland, Great Britain can no longer be “great” (being a Scot by birth I duly register a bias)! Geographically speaking, without Scotland, the United Kingdom could no longer include the whole of the island(s) of Great Britain. Such implications have their own fascination.
It has also been my observation, supported by various written sources, that, generally speaking, the English find it difficult to separate England and English identity from that of “Britain” and being British. The two are regarded as one and indivisible and the concept of the United Kingdom is one that does not seem to rest easily with the English (and I do have some sympathy for this unease bearing in mind the preponderance of the English within the overall British/UK population). After all, it is only the English who sing the British national anthem (a demeaning “national” anthem if ever there was one – it lauds a monarch, irrespective of personal value or worth, rather than a nation and its people) when England are competing against other nations – including, paradoxically, those within the United Kingdom!
Furthermore, since the Act of Settlement in 1701 there has been a succession of English kings and queens (or those linked with an English lineage) as the British Head of State, occupiers of the royal household and Head of the Established Church (of England). But that, as they say, is a topic for another conversation, and one that is becoming increasingly necessary.
Several other icons would seem to support the above. The “British Bulldog” is very much to be identified with rural England and its peculiar practices. As a breed, the bulldog is very much an English dog and was associated with the essentially English and Churchillian wartime spirit of the British nation.
Originally an exhortation but later to become a statement of existing affairs, the national air “Rule Britannia”, co-written, interestingly, by an anglicised Scotsman in the 18th. century, has come to be chiefly identified with the English and (modern) British navies and, especially, maritime dominance during the Victorian period (when was the last time the British – apart, maybe, from the poor working classes of the Industrial Revolution – were ever slaves?). The music was, furthermore, first performed at an exclusive royal occasion – a private party to celebrate the accession of George II.
Supposedly a celebration of the development of the British tradition in classical music, and despite the waving of a number of Union flags, the music that climaxes the “Last Night at the Proms” is quintessentially English. If one were to add Jerusalem to Rule Britannia and the National Anthem (of England, as well as the UK – see above), one would find contemporary proof of this phenomenon – a veritable orgasm of English musicality!
Is the title of this piece merely an exercise in the semantics of the English language? I feel very strongly that it is not. Unless we, the British – and especially those of us, including myself, who reside in England – can accurately and meaningfully identify ourselves, then how can we expect others to do so (including the colleagiate countries of the European Community). It serves no good purpose to be confused or confounded by, exclusive of, or exaggerated about our national identity.
However, that still leaves me with the question: who, what and where is “Britain”?