Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

30 August 2008

Great Britain is England yet awhile

I was quite surprised recently at the reaction to a post of mine that was published on OurKingdom. In the piece, I explored some different scenarios for a referendum on Scottish independence. One of them was that, as a vote for Scottish independence would effectively break up Great Britain (the product of the 1707 Union between England and Scotland), then all of the people of Great Britain should be given a say. This proposal was intended only as an exercise in logical reasoning: if you regard Great Britain as a nation, then surely the whole of that nation should be allowed to choose whether it should be broken up. In the event, none of those commenting on the post took up this line of argument: there was not even a solitary unionist to defend the idea of Great Britain’s integrity as a nation. Scottish commenters, for their part, significantly seemed to regard any idea that the whole of Great Britain – or, indeed, the whole of the UK – should be allowed to give its assent to the departure of Scotland from the Union, and to the proposed shape of the continuing Union post-Scotland, as an (English) attempt to block the sovereign will of the Scottish people.

I was left with an impression that to argue that Great Britain is a nation – which is not, by the way, what I believe – meets with incomprehension in serious political debate. This is despite the fact that ‘the country’ and the state as a whole are almost always referred to in national political discourse as ‘Britain’; and the New Labour government has expended vast amounts of time, effort and money trying to invent and inculcate concepts such as ‘British values’, ‘Britishness’ and, indeed, British national identity that are supposed to unite all the peoples of the kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

And this is also despite the fact that Team GB – the ‘Great Britain’ Olympic team – returned home earlier this week to the rapturous acclaim of what was referred to by the media as ‘the nation’, Union Flags draped all over them; to be followed in subsequent days by patriotic receptions of their athletes from the peoples of Scotland and Wales with not a Union Flag in sight but only Saltires and Red Dragons. No proposals yet for a victory parade for the triumphant English athletes, although we have been promised a parade in London in October for all of Team GB. Understandably, this absence of an English parade, along with the handing out of Union Jacks to people attending receptions of English athletes in their local areas, has been greeted with howls of ‘foul play’.

But it’s clear that the Great Britain celebrations are meant to do double duty as the English celebrations. There’s something rather unrealistic about demanding or hoping that we might be allowed to fête our triumphant English athletes as English when they’re supposed to be representing Great Britain. This would be an ‘unnecessary’ duplication – precisely because Great Britain is already the double of England; and because the patriotic pride we take in Team GB is the publicly acceptable expression of English pride in her athletes. Look at the kit those athletes are wearing: it’s the England football kit – white tops with red trim; blue trousers. (Or is England’s football kit really in the British colours? But don’t get me on to the subject of the football team GB again!)

How can we unpack all of this? The UK (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is not a nation: to advocate this idea would meet with even more derision or incomprehension than to suggest that Great Britain as such is a nation. Depending on whether you regard Great Britain as a unitary nation, as a political union of two nations (England and Scotland), or indeed of three (England, Scotland and Wales), then the UK is a political union between – a state composed of – from one to three nations plus part of another (Ireland).

Hardly surprising, then, that ‘the UK’ is not used as the name for the Olympic team: it’s not a nation and, therefore, cannot be a channel of national pride. ‘Britain’, on the other hand (as opposed to ‘Great Britain’), is used informally as a synonym for the UK, while taking on the connotations of nationhood associated with ‘Great Britain’. This is why it is also a synonym for what national politicians refer to as ‘the country’: a term which, in its very imprecision, also encompasses and binds together the concepts of the UK state and of nationhood but avoids officially using the term ‘nation’ for the UK. Similarly, ‘Britain’, informally, is described as ‘the nation’ even when it refers to the UK.

So why isn’t ‘Britain’, rather than ‘Great Britain’, the name of the Olympic team, as this would at least imply the inclusion of athletes from Northern Ireland, as well as from other parts of the so-called ‘British Isles’ that are not formally part of the UK, such as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man? Well, I suppose it’s because – formally – ‘Britain’ is the name neither of a state nor of a nation; whereas Great Britain appears to be a bit of both: literally a bit of – part of – the official name of the UK state, and (to judge from its name at least) an integral nation; that is, one of the two nations that joined together to form the UK.

But Great Britain is also, as I said above, the double of England. It’s the place within which the ‘subjective’ national identity of the English (how they see themselves and what they call themselves as a ‘great’ nation), the ‘objective’ identity of the state (a Union of two to four nations greater than England, but of which England is the greater part) and the physical territory of the ‘country’ (Britain) converge. But that place, increasingly, exists only in the subjectivity – in the minds – of the English (or at least some of them), not in objective reality.

Great Britain is the name that England gave to itself when it took over Scotland in the 1707 Union: it’s the name of the ‘dominion’ of England (its territory and power) expanded to encompass the whole of Britain – ‘Great’ because it is ‘Greater England’; a Union that consolidated the greatness of England as Britain. In the popular imagination of the English, from 1707 till recent times, Great Britain was a nation – was the nation – because it was synonymous with the nation of England; the Union being imagined as an incorporation of Scotland into the English state, which is what it effectively was if you consider only aspects such as parliament, the executive and sovereignty – although Scotland retained many other aspects of separate civic nationhood, such as its own legal and education systems, and established church.

So, for England, Great Britain became the (English) nation: an imaginative fusion – union – of the English national identity, the political state, and the territory of Britain. But the point is the English did invest their sense of national identity into Great Britain to the extent that ‘England’ and ‘Great Britain’ became indistinguishable and interchangeable. For the Scots, this meant that ‘Great Britain’ always really meant just England, and its domination and subordination of Scotland through the apparatus of the ‘British’ state. However, for the English, this genuinely implied a blending of national identities – a pouring and offering out of Englishness into and for Britain – creating something new: a British nation and nationhood within which the Scots and the Welsh were also taken up; but which, subjectively, was of necessity the extension of Englishness to ‘Britain as a whole’ (Great Britain), because that imagined common Britishness was imagined through the minds of the English – the controllers of the narrative of British identity.

Nothing essentially changed in this dynamic when Ireland was added to the Union in 1801. The name of the state may have changed but it remained ‘Great Britain’ in its core identity: the national identity of the English as subjectively extended and merged into ‘Britain as a whole’, making Ireland, too (and now Northern Ireland), ‘really’ part of Great Britain: British; British Ireland. ‘Really’ in the sense that, insofar as it lived as a nation at all, this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (this union of Ireland with Great Britain, which was an incorporation of Ireland into the Union that was Great Britain) fully had the character of nationhood only in the minds of the English, for whom Great Britain was the objective reflection – the image, the double – of their own nation and the greatness of England.

The British ‘project’ – the realisation of Britain as a ‘great nation’ through Great Britain, the Empire and now the attempt to encapsulate the philosophical and political ‘greatness’ that is Britishness – has, therefore, always been essentially an English project. Not only in the objective sense that the English ‘as a nation’ somehow owned, drove and dominated the British adventure; but because the very Britishness of that project was a projection of the English: a creation of something, in their eyes, greater than themselves but of themselves, which in turn conferred greatness (the greatness of Britain) upon them.

And so now, too, our Olympians have gone out to the world and returned home in greatness, battles won. ‘Our’ Olympians, I say? Those of England or those of Great Britain?

For now, they are those of England and those of Great Britain; and our celebrations must do double duty for our athletes’ Englishness and Britishness – including the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish among them in whom, as Great Britons, we English also take national pride.

But the objective political reality which, for 300 years, has sustained the Great British dream is rapidly unravelling. As those displays of Scottish and Welsh patriotic pride revealed, it’s increasingly only the English who see themselves as British and their country as Great Britain. And then again, fewer and fewer of them. When that objective political union that binds England to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland fully dissolves, then maybe we can have our celebration of great English achievements. Or maybe, our celebrating English glories as English, not British, will be the thing that finally puts an end to the British project: the projection of our English ambitions and identity onto Great Britain.

It’s the desire to be greater than ourselves that led to Great Britain. Maybe England‘s finest hour will be when we accept that true greatness is just to be ourselves. And to achieve all that we are capable of – for ourselves and our country – in a spirit of friendship to others and personal striving that has its meaning in itself.



  1. Great post David, I want you to be in an English Parliament. If you do we’ll arrange the fighting funds on the witanagemot.

    Comment by tally — 30 August 2008 @ 5.43 am | Reply

  2. Thanks, Tally; so long as I can have a former Miss Great Britain as my ‘running mate’! Oops, sorry, my thinking slipped along ‘Republican’ lines there!

    Comment by David — 30 August 2008 @ 9.20 am | Reply

  3. Personally, I believe that England has been submerged and then dismantled by the British Project since 1707 – which took place at the behest of an elite few in England and Scotland.

    The notion that England “took over” Scotland does not hold water in my view and simply feeds the self loathing type of English mindset which contributes to making the establishment of an English Parliament so difficult.

    Comment by Maria — 30 August 2008 @ 10.26 am | Reply

  4. Also, the Scots proportionally contributed more to the running of the Empire. I really do think this post is very unhelpful to the English cause. Indeed, I remember a BBC programme in recent years called “Scotland’s Empire” and David Cameron referred recently to his ancestors and “The Scottish Empire”.

    The reason that people think “England = Britain” in the current day is that the Government and media do their level best to submerge the existence of England. Looking at various patterns since 1707, that would always seem to have been the case.

    Comment by Maria — 30 August 2008 @ 10.34 am | Reply

  5. Good post, however you seem to be mixing up geographic terms with political ones.

    British Isles – Geographic – England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland (complete)
    Great Britain – Geographic – England, Scotland, Wales (Geographic term for main Island)
    United Kingdom – Political – England, Wales, Scotland, N.Ireland (Acts of Union 1701 & 1707)

    There is no such thing as Great Britain as a political entity.

    Comment by IanPJ — 30 August 2008 @ 10.48 am | Reply

  6. I agree with you, Maria, that England’s identity has been sub-merged in that of Great Britain / Britain since 1707. And I’m also very aware of the way the British government suppresses any mention of England even – especially – when referring to its England-only areas of responsibility. It serves that particular government agenda very nicely to have something ‘British’ for the English to cheer about and, once again, to muddle up any distinction between England and Britain.

    The effect and purpose of the government’s tactics are to prevent the English people from coming to the realisation that ‘Great Britain’ doesn’t exist any more as a unitary nation, if indeed it ever did: the point I’m making here is that Great Britain never succeeded in establishing itself as a true nation in either the sense of the national identity and loyalties of all its citizens, or the objective political and institutional sense. I could have elaborated more about the dual national identity of the English (English and British). Had I done so, I think you would have got a stronger feel for how I see English identity and nationhood as having continued to be a distinct phenomenon, and as reasserting its difference from Britishness in the present day. But I’ve written on such topics extensively before, and I was interested in focusing on something slightly different: the role of ‘Great Britain’ (as opposed to ‘Britain’) as a sort of apparently grander alter ego or double of England itself: as an (in part, alienated) expression, primarily, of English national identity and pride.

    Of course, I’m very familiar with the arguments – which I’ve expressed on numerous occasions myself – about how the government continues literally to talk up Britishness to conceal the fact that Great Britain / the UK / Britain exists as an objective political reality even less now than it has done since 1707: the fact that England is governed as the only part of the old UK – by a UK government that has no electoral mandate – as if nothing had changed about the governance of the other nations of the UK.

    But actually, I’m not sure that all their efforts to hype up ‘Great Britain’ around the Olympics aren’t going to backfire massively, especially if they try to push a football team GB (see my previous post). I think people are beginning to see through it; are experiencing a sort of ‘double take’ when they see Great Britain but not England celebrated / Great Britain celebrated as if it were the same as England. Come the October parade through London, I wonder how many flags of St. George will be in evidence. I hope it’s a lot, and I expect people will bring them and drape them from windows along the route; although I’m sure the organisers will try to swamp the place with Union Flags. But the English are not fools and won’t be taken for such much longer.

    Comment by David — 30 August 2008 @ 11.11 am | Reply

  7. Re Ian P comment above. My point is that the geographical and political terms are a bit more muddled up than you say.

    British Isles: geographical, I agree; but also include territories outside England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland such as Isle of Man and Channel Islands; and I was questioning the appropriateness of the adjective ‘British’, which implies political affiliation to Great Britain / UK

    Great Britain: not geographical in my view; the geographical term is ‘Britain’. Great Britain was the name of the nation formed from the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland, Wales being subsumed politically into England at the time. ‘Britain’, as I argued, is also as a synonym alternately for the political entities UK and Great Britain.

    United Kingdom: political, agreed. But again, I was arguing that the UK could be viewed (in terms of real power relations and the bestowing on this greater Union of the qualities of nationhood invested in Great Britain) as an extension of Great Britain (i.e. English power and national identity) to Ireland.

    The centre of the set of concentric circles is England; and English identification with the UK, via Great Britain, is what holds the whole fragile Union together. So I agree with you that Great Britain has never really existed in a political sense; but it has existed in a subjective sense as the (imagined) national identity of the Union – but only for the English. Strip away this identification of the English with Great Britain, and there will no longer be either any will or any purpose in maintaining the illusion that Great Britain / Britain is a nation.

    Comment by David — 30 August 2008 @ 11.28 am | Reply

  8. ‘Come the October parade through London, I wonder how many flags of St. George will be in evidence’

    Probably not many if the Olympic coverage is anything to go by! As you point out yourself nothing but Welsh dragons in Wales and Saltires in Scotland and nothing but Union flags in England. English people really do seem to be extremely slow on the uptake. It is only on blogs like this (thank god for them) that anybody seems to have noticed anything wrong with the ‘Team GB’ olympic coverage.

    Comment by kevin — 8 September 2008 @ 4.43 pm | Reply

  9. I have to also agree with Maria that it has been the imposition of the idea of Great Britain on the English people by an elite rather than any real desire within the people themselves to be ‘Great’. The people may well have gone along with it as they so often do led by the nose. We need to get rid of the ring and refuse to be pulled through the gate of Britishness where we will find ourselves standing alone in a field wondering where all the others are!

    You might find this of interest David (apologies if you are aware of it). It is a quote from an Irish academic Declan Kilberd who writes in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Ulysses regarding Irish attitudes to the empire ‘Sensing that England might be the last, most deeply occupied, British colony they sought in saving Ireland to save their former colonial masters from themselves, with parables of affiliation and self-inventing sons.’

    IMO this is key. English people have to realise that the imposition of Britishness will not go away even were Scotland and Wales to become independent. However absurd it might seem. In fact I don’t want to get all left wing and republican about it but the evidence is already there. What better illustration of this intent is the determination to make English people accept being British on their own?

    The coverage of the returning GB olympians was depressing. How depressing to see all those English people waving Union flags and then cut to Scotland and Wales with all the dragons and saltires…

    The feeling I had was that the English bull was already half way through the gate and that the English people were sleepwalking their way out of existence.

    Comment by kevin — 8 September 2008 @ 6.08 pm | Reply

  10. Absolutely right kevin, now another nail in our coffin is the futile, and probably very expensive idea..copied from Alex Salmond by the way..of itinerant cabinet meetings, I have no doubt that it will just be round the “English regions”(sic)to emphasize the non existance of England as a fact, and in my opinion to show two fingers to Boris Johnson and the now Conservative run London region,(god that word sticks in my gullet),that they don’t consider London that important anyway.
    It will be interesting to see if Scotland,Wales & Northern Ireland are included in this charade, somehow I doubt it especially Scotland.
    I know it’s off comment but your thoughts on this would be appreciated David.

    Comment by Big Englander — 8 September 2008 @ 7.17 pm | Reply

  11. Thanks for your comments, Kevin and Big Englander. Yes, I thought the cabinet meeting in Birmingham was a waste of time and money. How does that bring government closer to the people? (That’s confusing geographical proximity with actual popular involvement in government.) I noticed that the Birmingham people interviewed on the TV report were none too impressed. And yes, they (GB, in particular) had to go and refer to it as taking government to the ‘regions’. As you say, I can’t see the Cabinet Roadshow performing in a venue near Edinburgh or Cardiff! Mind you, as most of what they deliberate on relates to England only, I suppose that’s fitting – except it would be handy if they actually referred to England once in a while.

    I do think there is a distinct danger that the people of England will be sleepwalked into a continuing ‘Britain’ even if Scotland and Wales say ‘GB – goodbye – to GB’! As I analyse elsewhere, England already no longer exists in any meaningful constitutional, administrative or political sense; and clearly, most English people aren’t aware of this fact.

    I do, however, have faith (and, in part, this is also of a religious nature) that the English people won’t tolerate their English identity and nationhood being replaced by Britain and Britishness, especially when Scotland does leave. It’s at that point that the madness of a ‘Britain’ that is England-only will dawn on people, and it’s my hope that the people of this great country will then reveal themselves to be a sleeping giant not a dozy mass.

    Comment by David — 8 September 2008 @ 8.00 pm | Reply

  12. I’m British and proud of it and no traitors like yourselves will take my country away from me!

    Comment by Jason — 9 September 2008 @ 8.24 pm | Reply

  13. […] the question as to whether England should have had its own Olympics victory parade? I myself went on record at the time to say that I didn’t think it was realistic or sensible to demand one, even if I […]

    Pingback by The Olympics and That English Britishness Again « Britology Watch: Deconstructing ‘British Values’ — 27 October 2008 @ 11.41 am | Reply

  14. Great Article

    Comment by benjtaylor13 — 10 May 2015 @ 6.53 pm | Reply

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