Britishness- What Is It?

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    Jan 07, 2013
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Many authors point out that:

                        Britain is an island, and Britain`s history has been closely connected with

                        the sea. Until modern times it was as easy to travel across water as it was

                        across land, where roads were frequently unusable. At moments of great

                        danger Britain has been saved from danger by its surrounding seas.

                        Britain`s history and its strong national sense has been shaped by the sea.

                        (McDowal, 2006: 3).

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland consists of four countries: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with another sovereign state- The Republic of Ireland. Ever since its foundation in 1707, the United Kingdom has been a powerful union of many different nations and identities. From the Middle Ages until the Second World War this union has expanded its reign across the entire world, resulting in the world`s largest and mightiest empire, the British Empire. Britishness extended far beyond the nation. The colonized people of British colonies also have claims on Britishness. The exchange of ideas lead to the development of British identity among the colonized. The exchange was not one-sided as this interaction lead to the British discovering, understanding and sometimes adopting the ideas of the people in their colony.

By the end of the Second World War, many foreign colonies of the Empire seized their independence. After the Second World War, Britain has been forced into a reluctant search for a new identity both internationally and nationally. A relative economic decline was joined to a political system and national mentality which could not cope with the reality or needs of culturally-diverse society that Britain had become.   In recent centuries, Britain rarely saw itself as an integral part of mainland Europe. Today this psychological and physical isolation from Europe is slowly changing.

 Great Britain has always attracted settlers and immigrants from all over the world. That`s why contemporary British are composed of people from worldwide origins. Britain`s national identity has evolved and transformed over the years. Modern Britain is a multinational and a multi-ethnic society. However, assimilation and integration are not always successful.  Because of that, there are many controversial questions about the meaning of `Britishness`. The term `British` is also disputable. Many authors point out that:

No single mould fits British people. The population is diverse in all sorts of ways and that this is one of the strengths of the culture which has evolved over past two thousand years. Many races and continents have contributed to its development. (Storry and Childs, 2002:5).

A person may have a mixed ethnic family background resulting from intermarriage between English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish people. On the other hand, there are immigrant minorities with their own ethnic identities who have inhabited Britain. However, some experts emphasize one constant, which is `the fact that people who live on the islands are the way they are, partly because they live there.` (Storry and Childs, 2002:8).

The English language, which joins most of these people linguistically, belongs to the Germanic languages branch of the Indo-European languages. It was hugely influenced by other languages:  Dutch, German, Norman French and Latin. Consequently, it seems quite possible that English has more words than most comparable world languages. Many authors think that language appears to be the most important of concepts ``either in its own right or through being appropriated as a model for understanding other cultural systems.`` (Graeme, 2003:10).   This rich and adaptable language is constantly changing. However, English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish people have different opinions about which language is the dominant one. It may not seem obvious at first glance, but national prejudice is concealed in the language. When talking about national identity or politics, one should choose words very carefully. The choice of words tells us a lot about speaker`s hidden points of view.

The diversity of life in modern Britain is reflected in the ways the British organize their leisure, sporting and artistic interests. Yet there are frequent complaints about deliberate diminishment of intellectual and artistic level of content of British cultural life in television programs, films, the arts, literature, popular music and education. 

The most dynamic and vital cultural development in Great Britain comes from popular culture (music, television, magazines, fashion and literature).   Then again, high culture (opera, theatre), consciously and resolutely fails to notice modern social trends. Home has become the chief place for family and individual entertainment. The most popular leisure activity for all people aged four and over is watching television. Reality television as a genre and staple of British pop culture is increasing rapidly.  Nowadays, it is on almost every station, every day, everywhere. But, many people are dissatisfied with the quality of the programs shown on British television.  Editorials claim that this is happening because of decrease of educational quality in Britain. They think that uneducated young people generally choose easy modern courses and that they are not interested in search for knowledge.

Many sports have contributed to institutionalized characteristics of British life and they provide a certain degree of national identity. For instance, Wimbledon is tennis, the British Grand Prix is formula, Ascot is horse racing and the Football Association Cup Final is football in England. There is a wide variety of sports in Britain today which reflect the diversity of interest in British life. Among these are cricket, golf, horse racing, hunting, riding, fishing, shooting, tennis, hockey, bowls, darts, snooker, athletics, swimming, sailing, mountaineering, ice sports, motor-car and motor-cycle racing and rally driving. However, soccer is the most popular and the most watched sport in Great Britain. It is supported by men and women all over the United Kingdom, who come from different types of social classes. They pride themselves on their nation`s sporting accomplishments and it is obviously an important sign of their love towards their country.

The sporting notion of `a healthy mind in a healthy body` has long been a principle of British education. All schools are supposed to provide physical recreation for schoolchildren. British education operates on three levels: schools, higher education and further /adult education. Schools are divided into state (maintained from public funds) and independent (privately financed) sectors. Independent, private schools have always been dominant over state schools. They have played an important role in British education and many leading figures have been educated at them. Rich and powerful members of ethnic minorities sent their children to British private schools because of their quality and because such schools gave social advantage in later life. But nowadays, British private schools consist mainly of domestic students. The independent sector is often criticized for being elitist and based on the ability to pay for education.

The UK government serves the whole of Britain and normally comprises individuals who are members of successful majority party at general elections. The Prime Minister is appointed by the monarch and he or she has great power within the British system of government. The current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party. However, professional politicians do not rate highly in people`s esteem. British people are very cautious of having their lives controlled by professional politicians.

Some authors think that in the past ``people have preferred to be governed by the gifted amateur or the aristocrat whose inherited wealth made him (rarely her) less likely to be corruptible.`` (Story and Childs, 2002: 11).  At this time, political professionalism is more acknowledged.Nowadays, politicians are being subjects to public scrutiny. Television has become a dominant force in modern Britain. For instance, every politician must announce his (her) decision to resign in time for The Six O`clock News. Ministers are often interviewed on television news and they have to act and speak quickly, and they have no time to think about their statements. Nevertheless, British people receive enough information from all sides of the political spectrum. In practice, many people make up their own minds and a lot of them take a skeptical attitude to such matters.

There are many different newspapers, periodicals and magazines in Britain, which are of a daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly nature and are dependent upon sales and advertising. They are aimed at different markets and levels of sophistication and either cover trade, professions and business or are consumer titles dealing with sports, hobbies and various interests. However, a lot of people learn to read between the lines of newspapers, periodicals and magazines and are conditioned early in life not to believe everything they read in the papers.

According to The Sunday Times, monetary status is evidently one important element of cultural aspect. Wealth is closely related to culture. Despite the fact that they can be sometimes vulgar and unrefined, the rich are inclined to help the artists. Ordinary, hard-working people contribute to Britain`s prosperity and well-being. On the other hand, the main aim of the rich is to enlarge their wealth. Nevertheless, The Sunday Times`s dominant motivation is financial. Unlike The Sunday Times, The Observer`s supplement `Britain Uncovered`, examines various spheres of British society. It is a lens through which you can look at everything: politics, culture, entertainment, education, healthcare and you can see people`s attitudes to all kinds of important issues.

The main feature of British society is British individualism. People want freedom and they cherish their personal liberty, that fundamental desire to have your own opinion.   Because of that, British people dislike all forms of manipulation and controlling their personal views. Important characteristics of British people are also their eccentricity and unpredictability. These characteristics keep the culture dynamic and colorful and make Great Britain so exciting and fascinating.

Among older generations of Britons, xenophobia has always been widespread. Dislike or fear of people from other countries can always start to develop in some parts of British public. On the other hand young and educated people respect European and American values. Generally speaking, Britain is an extremely complicated country. It is a mixture of paradoxes. It is ruled by Parliament, but people often reject its authority. It is a constitutional monarchy, but a lot of people are republicans. It produces a lot of culture, but also hooliganism. British people are very proud of their Queen and the Royal Family, but they often criticize them. Many Britons do not like foreigners, but there are many immigrants from all over the world in the country. That`s why it is very hard to understand such contraventions and pressures.  

Britain today is a complex society in which significant diversity and change have created problems as well as advantages. It may give an impression of homogeneous or uniform behavior in some respects. Most British people now enjoy greater prosperity and opportunities than in the past, so that poverty today is relative, rather than absolute concept. Consumerism, multi-ethnic growth, technological advances, new economic policies, greater individual freedom and more tolerance for alternative lifestyles have helped to transform Britain sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Nevertheless, despite all these changes, there is still conservatism in British life which regards change with suspicion. This may lead to tension between often enforced need for reform and nostalgia for an assumed ideal past, causing difficulties for progress.

Historical facts show that the past in Britain was not always idyllic and that there were periods when the levels of social violence, poverty and deprivation were much greater than they are now. However, the myth and older patterns of behavior still hold considerable attraction to many people. There is consequently a tension between presumed tradition and attempts at modernization. The British today are confronting more various cultural and economic realities than in the imperial past when they had a more defined world role.  Their behavior on both national and local levels emphasizes the strong individualistic streak in the British mentality, which views authority with suspicion and has historically often led to alienation and nonconformity in many areas of society.


  1. McDowal, David. (2006). An Illustrated History of Britain. Edinburgh:Pearson Education Limited.
  2. Story, Mike and Childs, Peter. (2002). British Cultural Identities. London: Routledge.
  3. Turner, Graeme. (2003). British Cultural Studies. London: Routledge.

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