How valid is it to say that Englishness is contained within Britishness?
When in 1997 a majority of the Scottish public voted in favour of forming a Scottish Parliament endowed with its own (limited) legislative competence, it became increasingly clear that Britain would undergo a process of national transformation in the years to come that would change the country irrevocably. The shadow of devolution had fallen over what has always been the political and economic pivot of the Union: Looming in a distance could be discerned the first harrowing signs of a disintegration that would gradually weaken national cohesion within Britain and sever the bonds that had held the nation together for more than three centuries. In 1707 the Kingdom of Scotland had been married to the Kingdom of England by parliamentary acts that came to be known as the Acts of Union; historically, however, both countries had been ruled by a single monarch ever since the Union of the Crowns, dating back to 1603. Nowadays, the debate about national sovereignty is being rehashed; to many people, especially those living in the English regions, and among them a considerable number of politicians, the drastic developments are more than just a nuisance. While Scotland and Wales slowly dissociate from a community that had served its purpose in times of crisis (among them World War I and II, and, more recently, the Falkland War of 1982) as well as in the global context of the British Empire, England is left with a dilemma: Before the backdrop of a potential division of Britain, how can the English reinvent themselves and find their own specific identity? This paper will be concerned with English identity and shed some light on the question of whether or not we can speak of Britishness as incorporating a specific notion of Englishness. Before elaborating on the most prominent aspects of a potential English colouring of Britishness I deem it indispensable to briefly draft the cultural concept of national identity itself, in order to provide a safe starting point for a debate that is still raging in the British media today.
In his otherwise well-informed work on the English people, entitled The English, Jeremy Paxman, a BBC journalist, attempts to identify the idea of nationality by contrasting German and English views on aspects that might constitute nationality. Paxman points out that even today “German officialdom […] clings to the belief that it acts on behalf of a Volk, whose nationality is a question of blood” and would therefore tend to blindly confer citizenship on the grounds of racial considerations. In Paxman’s words: “Your family may have been living in Kazakhstan for generations, but if you have the name Schmidt or Müller, you can acquire a German passport at once”. Apart from the fact that such a practice of naturalization does not factually exist in Germany today, this allegation illustrates one component on which a sense of belonging can be established: Race. However, in our time most European nations, including Britain, are made up of people from many different cultural backgrounds. For this reason it seems inadequate to moor national identity to a criterion like race: In our time only extremist right-wing parties like the British National Party (BNP) would claim that nationality is inevitably associated with a person’s genes. It is more illuminating to think of a nation as a Schicksalsgemeinschaft, a community that shares a common destiny and history. By this definition, however, not only the Scots, Welsh or Irish could be seen as national communities that have grown over time, but the British community also. Only if three centuries of British government were discarded as a time of sheer interregnum could the integrative element of Britishness be disavowed.
Nowadays, however, under the impression of faded glory and in times of devolution, comprehensive polls speak a different language: According to a Ipsos Mori survey delivered in 1999, only 19% of Scots and 27% of the Welsh identify with Britain, whereas 43% of the English say they feel British. This blatant disparity demonstrates that Britishness and British national identity are still cherished in England, while persons living in other regions of Great Britain are more reticent to accept Britishness as their (sole) national identity. If we put these findings into perspective, it seems rather obvious that for Welsh or Scottish people “Britishness” carries quite another meaning than it does for the English population.
English citizens often consider the terms Britishness and Englishness to be coextensive and synonymous, believing that they convey more or less the same meaning. It might be true that Britishness to a certain extent still smacks of the splendour of the British Empire with its many dominions overseas, as well as its military and financial clout as a seafaring nation
(in 1900, the country controlled roughly one third of the total world trade; at the time, 50% of all deep-sea ships worldwide sailed under the British flag). However, notwithstanding the fact that Englishness was often associated with dominance and exploitation by Scots and Welsh alike, it is deemed the more acceptable term today. Englishness, although a rather vague concept that people find hard to define, has often been associated with freedom and justice. From an outside (i.e. European) perspective, the different perceptions of British national identity are less obvious, as Britishness more often than not is reduced to typically English stereotypes. One reason for the tremendous influence Englishness had on the concept of Britishness can be seen in its unequal share of the population: England has a total population of about 50.4 million ; by contrast, Scotland and Wales together are home to only 8.1 million people. In this way, the English portion contained within the conglomerate of Britishness must necessarily be expected to outweigh the other influences. Additionally, political power, the media, as well as international trade and commerce were traditionally concentrated in England, i.e. its capital London.
 Cf. Nünning, Vera: “The Importance of Being English. European Perspectives on Englishness”, in:
Vera Nünning, Jürgen Schlaeger (eds.): European Views on Englishness, European Journal of
English Studies 8/2, 2004, pp. 148, 149
 Cf. Paxman, Jeremy: The English. A Portrait of a People . London 1998., p. 73
 Cf. Paxman, Jeremy: The English. A Portrait of a People. London 1998, p. 73
 Cp. the somewhat disturbing essay by John Tyndall (BNP), published at
http://www.spearhead.com/0005-jt1.html (date of access 11 January 2008)
 Cp. Ipsos MORI, 1999: The Economist – British Identity,
http://www.ipsos-mori.com/polls/1999/ec990927.shtml (date of access 27 December 2007)
 Cp. The Herald, 2008: Different Meanings of Britishness,
(date of access 19 January 2008)
 Cf. Paxman, Jeremy: The English. A Portrait of a People, Michael Joseph, London (1998), p. 62
 Cf. Nünning, Vera: “The Importance of Being English. European Perspectives on Englishness”, in: Vera Nünning, Jürgen Schlaeger (eds.): European Views on Englishness, European Journal of English Studies 8/2 (2004), 145–158., p. 148
 Cp. The Herald, 2007: Proud To Be a True Brit, http://www.theherald.co.uk/search/display.var.1139793.0.proud_to_be_a_true_brit.php (date of access 19 January 2008)
- Quote paper
- Tobias Rösch (Author), 2007, How valid is it to say that Englishness is contained within Britishness?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/94326