Being British: What Does it Mean?

No es posible definir la esencia de una sociedad o nación sin caer en tópicos peligrosos. Aun así, existen rasgos y tendencias que destacan entre la complejidad y que han de permitirnos comprender mejor la influencia de la cultura británica a lo largo de la historia pero también en la actualidad.

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Daniel Francis

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What does it mean, exactly, to be British? In strictly political terms, it means to be a member of one of the four constituent countries —or nations— of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For many years, the terms ‘English’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Welsh’ were virtually interchangeable with ‘British’. In recent years, however, there has been a move away, by some of the population in Great Britain, from the idea of an all-in-one cohesive identity as ‘British’ to a growing sense of nationalism —with a consequent separate identity— specific to each of the three countries. Even in Northern Ireland, where allegiances are more defined, a small minority envisage the country as independent from both the UK and the the Irish Republic. 


The two referendums —over independence for Scotland and membership of the European Union— have had a profound effect on just how British people see themselves, promoting feelings of both nationalism and Europeanism throughout the UK. The term ‘British’ is still very much in use, but if Scotland decides, in a future referendum, to leave the United Kingdom, it may be necessary to find another expression.

National Identity

So what does it mean, exactly, to be a Briton? Is it possible to define a national identity? It is certainly possible to talk about interests and priorities, and about ideas which unite much of the population, although these have changed over the years, and will continue to change in the future. A perfect example is the Royal Family. Are British people monarchists? For much of the last century, attachment to the monarchy, to a greater or lesser degree, was a defining characteristic of the British. Now it is possible to say that this feeling has been reduced, for many people, to respect for just the Queen.

Public respect

There has always, however, been respect for, and interest in, science and research and engineering —from the engineering genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel, pioneering designer of railway lines, bridges, tunnels and docks during the Industrial Revolution, to Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web—, from Concorde to AstraZeneca. Brits also share an interest in, often a passion for, sports of all kinds, especially rugby, cricket, athletics and football, and now even cycling. The English language is full of expressions taken from sport, such as ‘to hit below the belt’ (boxing), ‘to call the shots’ (snooker) and ‘It’s not cricket’. The latter expression is an indication of the importance given to the idea of fairness in British society. If the population had to choose four aspects of their society that they hold dear, many would opt for democracy, the rule of law, respect and tolerance, and individual liberty.

Pride in Institutions

Also famous around the world are the BBC and the National Health Service, and the British take great pride in these institutions, even giving the nicknamesAuntie’ and ‘the Beeb’ to the BBC. They are equally interested in valuing their traditions and conserving their heritage. The National Trust —an organisation dedicated to the heritage conservation of places of historic interest or natural beauty— has a membership of around six million, an incredible figure.

Identifying Traits

Identifying British people’s character traits —from both the domestic and the foreign point of view— has actually become a very popular business for survey companies in recent years. Interestingly, according to one survey in 2019, almost a third of British people thought the definition of ‘typically British’ had changed since the Brexit referendum, and another third thought it would change again after Britain left the EU. Surveys of foreigners about the British character normally emphasise that Brits are witty, care about tradition, and have a bulldog spirit. People are reserved and very class-conscious. Americans consider that dental hygiene is self-evidently not a priority, and Italians cannot believe how badly British people dress! 

Brits on Brits

British people also seem to have a very clear idea of who they are, and some of it is not pretty! Queue-jumping is considered the ultimate crime, and Brits will join a queue for anything. Wearing long white socks with shorts is considered acceptable, as is having a pint at the airport even if it is only 8.00 in the morning. Apologising automatically, without thinking, is in the genes, as is saying “Thank you” multiple times during any purchase in a shop —on the part of both the purchaser and the shop assistant.

Pub Culture

It would be impossible to finish any article about Britishness without talking about Britons’ love of pubs. The custom of drinking in pubs, inns or taverns goes back many hundreds of years. The Old Ferry Boat Inn, in Holywell, Cambridgeshire, claims to be the oldest pub in Britain, putting its beginnings back to 560. Britons have a reputation for drinking in excess (‘binge drinking’), and subsequently acting violently (the origin of the phrase ‘lager lout’). However, figures suggest that, after reaching a peak in the mid-2000s, consumption has been falling steadily, especially among young people.

Most Typical?

Finally, what is the most typical British characteristic of all? It will surprise no one to find out that it is talking, often at length, about the weather. The English language is full of idioms related to this most British of conversation topics. For instance, ‘to save up for a rainy day’, ‘to be on cloud nine’, ‘to be under the weather’, and then the perfect idiom, which combines the weather with another fundamental British trait, making a cup of tea in a crisis: ‘a storm in a teacup’.

top britons in history

A great way to capture the true essence of a nation is by getting to know its most distinguished figures. With this in mind, next month we’ll launch a new monthly section  in which we profile notable Britons from every period in history. Among them, powerful kings and queens, of course, but also scientists, authors and artists of all kinds, plus lesser-known men and women who have left their indelible mark on British culture and society.


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