262. What is Britishness? (Part 2)

Welcome back to part 2 of this episode in which we are exploring the subject of Britishness. In this one we are looking at how the Brits define and understand their own national identity. [Download]

Image: Gene Bible www.genebible.co.uk
Small Donate ButtonHow do British People define “Britishness”?
When you ask the average British person to define “Britishness” I find that they always give certain ‘stock answers’ to this question too. As we know, it’s hard to truly define this concept, so you end up listing various associations, which don’t fully deal with the whole subject in a satisfyingly complete way.

I found a video on YouTube called “What is Britishness?” by Rebecca Devaraj. It’s a short video exploring Britishness for her final-year university project.
It looks like she spent the morning in a local park, asking passers-by the question “What is Britishness?”
Listen to the audio. Can you guess which answer I think is the best?

Some vocab from the video
Having a stiff upper lip and getting on with things
Being accepting and just getting on with it
Bulldog – it has connotations with Churchill, and the advert… www.youtube.com/watch?v=wbz-IsEOCKo
Bad weather – torrents (torrents of rain) ***I’ve just realised that they said “tolerance” not torrents! Did you notice that?***
We get behind our sports teams
You just are British – that’s it really. If you’re British – you enter the mix.

The best comment?
For me it’s the guy (Professor Jeremy Black, author of “A Short History of Britain”) who says this:
“I would have thought that Britishness defines the characteristics of whoever are the citizens of Britain, whatever their origins at any one time. Ordinarily, we would argue that Britishness is linked to notions of liberty and freedom and in fact the very diversity that makes it difficult to define what Britishness means”.

Wikipedia Definition

Britishness is the state or quality of being British,[2][3] or of embodying British characteristics,[3] and is used to refer to that which binds and distinguishes the British people and forms the basis of their unity and identity,[4] or else to explain expressions of British culture—such as habits, behaviours or symbols—that have a common, familiar or iconic quality readily identifiable with the United Kingdom.[5] Dialogue about the legitimacy and authenticity of Britishness is intrinsically tied with power relations and politics;[6] in terms of nationhood and belonging, expressing or recognising one’s Britishness provokes a range of responses and attitudes, such as advocacy, indifference or rejection.[6] Macphee and Poddar state that although the designation of the two differing terms, Britishness and Englishness, is not simple as they are invariably conflated, they are both tied into the identity of the British Empire and nation, since these last two are altering considerably as Englishness and Britishness do too. Thus the slippage between the two words can be seen as a play between these changing dynamics.[7]

That’s interesting.

So, in summary that means it’s:
– Whatever distinguishes British people and culture from other nations, whatever is unique to the UK.
– It includes habits, behaviours, or symbols that are specific or familiar to the UK
– This conversation usually ends up with references to the power structure of the UK – politics and monarchy.
– Expressing Britishness provokes a range of feelings. For example, waving a British flag might cause people (in the UK) to go “Yey!” or “whatever” or “I find that offensive”.
– “Britishness” and “Englishness” are different things, but they are often used to mean the same thing – Britain from an international point of view, especially as an empire.

So, what’s the difference between Britain, and England? (and indeed Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland)
Why would it be offensive to wave a British flag?

Generally in England it’s less offensive, but in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland you might meet people who put their countries before the union of the UK, and in fact feel that the UK was forced on them in some way.
What about waving an English flag?
In England, the UK flag is associated with unity, inclusion, multiculturalism and so on. The English flag on its own is more associated with English nationalism, which in turn is associated with empire building, colonialisation and also football hooligans. Generally, the English flag is displayed when there’s a football match, and the behaviour that goes along with that.

In terms of how Brits define Britishness… This Guardian Article Sums It Up Rather Well

What about the Scots, the Welsh & the Northern Irish?
I’m English, and British, so when I talk about Britishness, I’m also talking about Englishness to a certain extent, but Britain also includes Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland. Do they feel included in all this talk of Britishness?
Not necessarily. Some people in those countries feel strongly about independence and resent being ‘lumped in with England’. They believe their countries have unique identities too, which are not always represented when people talk about Britishness. Some would rather not be part of Britain at all, as we say recently in Scotland with the strong independence movement.
Personally, I think Britishness is quite a flexible term, and it does include Scottishness, Welshness and Northern Irishness, but I can understand they get pissed off that their culture is not always represented in this kind of discussion. Personally, I was born and raised in England, and so many of my British associations are also English. I’d like to get more Scottish, Welsh and Irish people on my podcast.
Also, it’s worth remembering that most people don’t feel all that strongly about it. I reckon most people just want to get on and don’t want too much fuss. I’m proud of that too – usually resentment between countries in the UK does not result in violence these days, although that’s not to say violence has not occurred in the past, particularly regarding terrorist attacks related to the troubles in Northern Ireland, which is a subject that deserves to be covered fully in a podcast in the future.

What I think / What I’m proud of
When my students were brainstorming their British associations, I did too. Here’s my list, of personal British associations (in no particular order).

Tolerance and acceptance (although there seems to be a
Freedom (although this is a growing movement against immigration and about taking back the country from unwelcome foreign visitors – that British identity is being lost due to too many foreigners, and the fact we’re run by the EU. Those are views held by a fairly marginal political party called UKIP, who are having a big effect on voting patterns and the political landscape in the UK)
Fairness -“It’s just not cricket” (but are we really fair?)
Pragmatism – getting things done
The land itself
Cricket, Rugby (football too?)
The diverse accents
Diversity & Acceptance of Diversity
Certain inventions
Sherlock Holmes & Dr Watson
Drinking Tea with milk, the proper way
Pretending to be proudly British!
Taking the piss
Liverpool, Birmingham, London
A slight sense of guilt about Scotland, Wales, Ireland etc – but knowing that is also nonsense, but it’s there a bit.
Monty Python
Ali G
I could go on…

When I came back from Japan, I saw the UK with fairly fresh and objective eyes. I remember the greenness of the place, the relaxedness, the small mindedness. It was very Tolkienesque.

Some things I’m not proud of, like certain racist or small-minded people, poor public services, corruption and elitism, blind national pride, etc…

All in all, I hope that Brits, and English people too, remember that our countries are diverse places and that is what makes us strong.

Billy Bragg – England, Half English (Live)


My mother was half English and I’m half English too
I’m a great big bundle of culture, tied up in the red white and blue
I’m a fine example of your Essex man
And I’m well familiar with the Hindustan (This is an Indian English-language daily newspaper)
‘Cause my neighbors are half English and I’m half English too

My breakfast was half English and so am I, you know
I had a plate of Marmite soldiers, washed down with a cappuccino
And I have a veggie curry about once a week
The next day I fry it up as bubble and squeak
‘Cause my appetites, half English and I’m half English too

Dance with me to this very English melody
From morris dancing to Morrissey
All that stuff came from across the sea

Britannia, she’s half English, she speaks Latin at home
St. George was born in the Lebanon, how he got here I don’t know
And those three lions on your shirt
They never sprang from England’s dirt
Them lions are half English and I’m half English too

Le-li, umma le-li-ya, le-li Umma le-li-ya
Le-li, umma le-li-ya, bledi g’desh akh! Le-li-ya

Oh, my country, what a beautiful country you are.

The conclusion (of sorts)
Britishness, like any cultural identity, is always changing. These things never stay the same. There is always a sense that the culture is being lost. That’s just the sense of the present order slipping away and being replaced by the new one, at every moment of every minute – things are changing and nothing will stay the same. That brings some sense of fear and panic – the idea that we’re going to lose the good things we have.

People also need a clearly defined culture in order to feel secure, so they know where they are and they can trust the people around them. People tend to prefer the things they know and distrust things they don’t know. It’s quite easy to blame others for that frightening sense that things are changing for the worse.

I think this is why a lot of people have fear and hatred of immigrants and foreigners. They’re scared of the unknown agents of change who look and behave differently. I suppose it’s human nature, but it’s sad and unnecessary when it ends up in violence and suffering. Obviously, we shouldn’t tolerate certain behaviour.

Where am I going with this?

What I mean is – there is no such thing as true “Britishness” unless it is just a snapshot of what is happening right at this moment in Britain. What is going on? What are most people thinking and doing? It’s almost impossible to comprehend the subtlety of what Britishness really is at any moment, because it’s so complex. That’s why the question invites the standard mind-numbing responses, like “It’s The Queen, tea, strawberry jam, Monty Python, a game of cricket, 9 pints of lager and a fight outside the chip shop” – people just list things they associate with the UK because there’s no other way of explaining it. Just a bunch of associations.

Britishness is negotiated
Also, I believe that Britishness is not an absolute concept, it’s something which is negotiated. Everyone has their own version of Britishness, and in fact Britishness changes depending on who is in power, who’s got the money, the influence and the cultural capital. In the end, it doesn’t matter how much you say that Britishness is all about cricket, when hardly anyone plays cricket any more because there’s no money in it.

Britishness is a blanket term which is supposed to incorporate all the diverse elements of multiculturalism.
Britishness means diversity, inclusivity and a celebration of the success and positivity of multiculturalism. So, in that sense, Britishness is something which is supposed to unify us, provide us with a sense of pride and therefore duty and obligation to the country we belong to. We’re less likely to smash the system if we believe in it.

Britishness is a unifying force which just keeps everything together
After the 2005 terror attacks, the government were keen to reinforce national pride, to promote the British brand to its own people, in an effort to fight back against the destructive forces behind the attacks. The idea of a Britishness day was suggested, but it didn’t really go anywhere. What could that be? A day when we argue about what Britishness is? Also, it’s all a bit close to nationalism, and we don’t like that in the UK. Nobody wants to be associated with facism, so often people have a defensive attitude to national pride, usually along the lines of “I think it’s fine to be proud of Britain” or “I AM proud of Britain and there’s nothing wrong with that.” It’s usually that sort of thing.

What about all the bad things done in the name of Britain? Are you proud of them too?
Most people seem quite happy to pick and choose which aspects they are proud of. They usually will ignore the atrocities in our colonial past, proudly declaring their pride in English tea – despite the treatment of India during the colonial era.
I’m wary of being too proud of my country because I know that we’ve done some pretty bad things in the past. Also, I think national pride can be blinding, and ultimately quite destructive. It’s good to be proud of your roots, but there is a more important thing to remember – that there is a bigger picture – and that is that it’s stupid to think that one nationality is intrinsically better than others.

You can be whoever the hell you want to be
It doesn’t matter where you pay your taxes you can just define your own identity as you see fit. Just as long as you don’t go out of your way to hurt others, go ahead and be whatever you like. That’s the main thing. Just try to be a good person. The rest is just fluff.

LEPSTERS – What’s it all about?
Leave your comments, thoughts and opinions in the comments section, and practice your English!

Related Episodes
If you found this episode interesting, check out these ones too:
261. What is Britishness? (Part 1)
128. Luke’s Stand Up Comedy Show – Featuring jokes about British food, weather and our Royal family – Now fully transcribed
131. Rickipedia – Conversation with my Dad, in which we answer various questions from listeners, including some things about British culture.
British Slang (A-C)
British Slang (D-G)
British Slang (H-M)
British Slang (N-Z)
156. British Comedy: Ali G
172. British Comedy: Peter Cook & Dudley Moore
177. What Londoners Say vs What They Mean
192. Culture Shock: Life in London (Part 1)
192. Culture Shock: Life in London (Part 2)
195. British Comedy: Monty Python’s Flying Circus
199. The UK/USA Quiz
202. British Comedy: Monty Python & The Holy Grail
219. Scottish Independence – Key notions of national identity

  • P S

    am Northern Irish and i say am British (and Northern Irish and also geographically Irish ) but am British first!

  • Hi Luke, not sure where I listed to it but either in this episode or in the Kingsman: The Secret Service you spoke about the Monthy Python sketch which is connected with the phrase “make a fuss”. At least I remember something like that. Where was it? A which sketch did you have in mind? Thank you

  • Many thanks for this podcast, and especially the music : I love it !! I’m also looking for your funk favorites : I remember in an “old”podcast, you were listening to a so good funk music. I’ve searched on your website but didn’t manage to find it, and asked to the LEPsters forum, but no one know about it. If you remember the name of the music you used…Thanks in advance !

    Now, some worldwide “clichés” about french identity : the country of stinky cheese, good wine, and the sunshine in the south. Stupid and unfriendly parisians (that’s a little bit true, so I prefer Britany !).
    What is really true, and that I definitely dislike, is the french inability to accept reforms. I would love living in a country where people accept to change the bad systems, and to engage themselves in a way to implement the situation. People just think to their daily comfort, and not about the global well-being of the society. It’s a pity…

  • Mehmet

    Hi Luke. Just an idea, while listening your episode about Britishness I remember the book “Watching the English” by Kate Fox that it might be a fun mentioning about a couple of chapters from this book. I do not know if you need to get a permission from the author but I do not think it will be an issue. At the end of the day it will be an ad for their book. Do not get me wrong you do not need any extra text for better podcast, I am already enjoying a lot just thought it would be interesting.

    Best regards

  • Marcos

    I’ve found this episode very interesting, all the identity stuff, nationalism, cultural references is a really amazing area of study.

    Something in your episode attracted my attention, you clearly separate Ireland (obviously the Republic of Ireland) from the Britishness concept, feeling or whatever you want to call it. Politically speaking I can understand it, because Ireland is another country that fought for its independence from UK, but socially speaking I can’t see a clear difference. I’ve been several times in both countries and if I have to be sincere I can not see a clear difference.

    You could say that Irish people is opener than English one, but you also could say that Scottish people are different from Welsh people. But what I see in Ireland and UK is people physically very similar that speak the same language, eat very similar, with identical kind of houses and architectonic style, the same electrical plugs that make continental Europeans go crazy….

    I’ve been also in the States and in this case I could say without any doubt that they are absolutely different from the British, you can notice them by their physical appearance and behavior: they look “American”, but I can’t make this clear distinction between an Irish and a British.

    Well, I don’t know if you can see what I’m trying to say, perhaps British people have the same problem when they try to distinguish a Portuguese from a Spaniard or an Italian.

  • riddle

    Thank you for the great insight into Britishness! The podcast was very informative; I’ve found it quite challenging too in terms of the vocabulary. These comments made in the Guardian article were quite sophisticated so I had a bit of a problem to get the gist of it.
    When I think about the UK the very first thing that comes to my mind is England. It’s true that people very often associate the UK only with England, which is not so fair for other members of the UK. Luke, I’m gonna tell you about my thoughts associated with the UK, although mostly with England. These are: the bad weather, London, The English Army, The Queen, all the fantastic rock bands, a lot of beer, kilt, Winston Churchill, Colonialism, Shakespeare ( I’ve had plenty of it at school), WWII, multiculturalism, the beatiful language, amazing football teams and so on.. The UK embodies so many things that I think it would be impossible to name them all. Anyway, in Poland we really thing big of the UK. OF course we do, we emigrate there! One more : Polish plumber; there are so many jokes about it. What else? I don’t especially know your food, that’s a pity I know. I hope I get a chance to go there and taste it.
    I’ll listen to these two podcacts tomorrow two. One time isn’t enough for such a complex subject like Britishness.

  • You know what I was thinking to do on my podcast? play a beatle song and I thought
    that I would love to listen Blackbird played by you Luke, that would be nice.

    And I would say Britishness is the whole sentence you said at the first part at the beginning lol xD


  • Sabine

    WOW, Luke! These two episodes are so crammed with awfully interesting facts, opinions, and other things, that I’ll have to listen to them again right away and probably another two or three times. And as if that were not enough, there’s even some Billy Bragg on top! Thank you so much!

    It seems to be the right time to pull out the 7 Bs:

    It’s such a pity, that I’m so snowed under with work at the moment, that I can’t afford the time to write down all the thoughts that have been triggered by these two episodes.

    In short: national identity is also a pretty complicated issue when you’re German. Historically anyway, as everybody knows, but at least geographically it’s quite challenging as well. All the Sauerkraut and Lederhosen stereotypes come from Bavaria, deep down south of Germany, but I’m from the north and up here we’ve got nothing – nothing – to do with neither Sauerkraut nor Lederhosen and we never had. So the world out there doesn’t even recognise me at all when they think of Germany. Personally, my national identity is rather north European than explicitly German.

    But there are of course political issues for it as well. When I see the anti-Muslim demonstrations these days I always think many people here in Germany haven’t learned a bit, especially from our own history. How can they do this? How can they try and take the people by their fears and concerns to promote hatred, fascism and racism? This must not happen ever again. But the mere thought that it might happen, makes it very, very hard, if not impossible for me, to be proud of my country. I’m so thankful that there are by far more people marching in counter-rallies, but still the thought that there are thousands and thousands of people demonstrating against immigration from a certain religion gives me the shivers.

    Another important thing I want to say is: British food is delicious and totally underestimated. It always depends on the story you want to tell. You can find disgusting food in every country. I was always wondering why the French cuisine has such a good reputation. Snails and frogs and rotten cheese? That’s really disgusting, contrary to roast beef and yorkshire pudding, beans on toast, fish and chips, vinegar on crisps, tea with milk, marmite, cider, corned beef, gravy, porridge, maltesers, cadbury flake, mince pie, crumble – I could go on for hours and it would get more and more delicious…

    good night :)

  • In this kind of episode, it really feels like you try to make the world better. Well done.

    By the way, I’ve one correction, the Balfour declaration were after WW1 and not after the WW2… however, I don’t think that the UK should take any blame on to the situation in my area (the middle east). I think that the blame should be on people (from both sides of the conflict) who throughout history didn’t agreed that we can share this land. Together we stand divided we fall…. But more in comprehensive term then the nationality term… at least, this is my opinion.

    Per my nationality, an Israeli… well, I think that most of the world looks on Israel and on Israelis just from the Israel-Arab conflict point of view and therefore think that we are all militant, aggressive, don’t give a F***, etc… but this is not the true in my opinion. Of course, that there are some politics wings in Israel which are radical, but, I can say for sure that most of the Israelis just would like to live in peace and quiet.

    I do have criticism on the Israeli’s government in the last 2 decade… which, in my opinion not doing much brave actions toward promoting the peace process (but I can say that it is the case also the Palestinian side – especially in Gaza strip which role by Hamas)… But, this is election period here in Israel, so I can only hope that it will change soon.

    …. Well I end up writing on politics… I’m not sure that this is the right stage for that… never mind, at least I’m practicing in my writing skill….

    I’ll do my best in order to be a good person.


    • As Bill & Ted said: “Be excellent to each other”

  • I am very PROUD of having a British English teacher like you ! All the best !