Am I English, British, or a combination of the two? And what do these labels mean, anyway? Attempting a definition of either is like trying to define gravity: it is comparatively easy to describe the effects of gravity at ground level, but not at a certain height above the ground, where objects float in the atmosphere rather than falling to earth. Likewise, an authoritative answer to the question "Who are the English and who are the British?" cannot be provided by stating that the English are the people who live in England and the British are the people who live in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This is partly because many English and British people do not live in the isles, but in other parts of the world. We may discover, in fact, that being English or British is as much about state of mind as it is about geographical location. When I hear Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, I feel a stiff upper lip coming on, my spine becomes ramrod-straight and tingles with pride, and I am unequivocally British. By contrast, when I hear Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on Greensleeves, I see green rolling countryside, I smell the freshness of spring in the air, and I gently and peacefully feel English. Why are these two feelings not the same? Is it simply the music which alters my mood, or is being English not the same as being British?
Various factors make it difficult to distinguish between Englishness and Britishness. Take the notion of England's island status, for example: while mainland Britain is completely surrounded by water, England itself is actually joined to both Wales and Scotland. Assuming that the south-west peninsula is a part of England (which some Cornish might dispute), England faces water on three sides and land --or borders—on two sides, so, technically, while it is on an island, it is not itself an island.
Even the name "Albion" is ambiguous. To many people, it is synonymous with "England"; indeed, artists and writers down the centuries have used the term in precisely this way. However, there is another school of usage which takes Albion to mean "Britain." The reasoning behind this is interesting. It is generally accepted that for some time before and during the last Ice Age, the British Isles were part of the Continent of Europe. When the ice thawed and the vast ice sheets receded, the English Channel appeared, cutting off the isles from the rest of the continent. It is said that when those on the Continent looked across the English Channel, they saw the White Cliffs of Dover, so they described the British mainland as "Albion" or a word similar to it (the Latin root word "albus" means "white"). If this theory is correct, the whole of England, Wales and Scotland was named after the chalk cliffs. (However, there is also a possible Celtic or Gaelic origin for the name "Albion": an exact cognate in Welsh derives from a root which denotes both "white" and "mountain.")
In the same way, history, and the composition of various institutions, have sometimes made it hard for individuals to sort out their loyalties. For example, the British Empire was a product of the efforts of many people, from all over the isles. Then there is the British Army, the Royal Navy, and the Royal Air Force. All three armed services contain regiments drawn from specific regions of the individual nations, and even now these regiments are fiercely proud of their local roots, often defining themselves by county rather than country. The fact that the English language -originally the possession of the English alone— was spread around the world by the British has produced the strange appellation "British English" (as opposed to, say, American or South African English), although there is not, and never was, a British accent, only regional English, Welsh, Scots or Irish accents. Furthermore, regional forms of English in the United Kingdom have always varied wildly, producing vibrant and colourful dialects rather than a homogenous tongue. An examination of the respective English and British symbols might be helpful. Representing Britain there is Britannia, a female figure with a trident and shield; the trident, a nautical symbol, underlines the fact that she surveys the oceans. England is represented by St. George, a male figure with lance and shield, who, in contrast to Britannia, surveys the land: he is often depicted on horseback, thrusting the lance through the dragon's head and into the earth. As for the ancient personification of Albion (whose nationality, as noted above, is unclear), he is usually depicted as a male giant, sometimes armed with various weapons, bestriding the land.
While the rose is associated with England, heather and the thistle with Scotland, the daffodil and leek with Wales, and the shamrock with Ireland, it is difficult to find a floral emblem for Britain -some might suggest the oak leaf or acorn, though the oak is also a symbol of England. The lion is the national animal of England, and, confusingly, also of Scotland, while Wales is represented by the red dragon (Ireland does not appear to have a national animal). Britain as a whole is represented by the bulldog, and also by the lion. It is clear, therefore, that there are some overlaps of national symbols between the nations.
Whatever a nation's official characterisations and symbols, national identity remains a highly personal and individual matter. I was born in Paddington, London, in the late 1950s. When I was still a baby, my family moved to Brixton in south London, where we lived until I was eleven. Then we moved again, to a part of Bayswater, next to Paddington. At the age of twenty-seven I moved to Merton Abbey in south London, almost at Wimbledon, and then finally moved again at thirty-one to Loughton in Essex, on the edges of both Epping Forest and east London, where I currently reside. I still work in London, and regard myself as a Londoner (primarily a south Londoner, because of my first ten years in Brixton). My mother also saw herself as a Londoner, but further back, my family background is more complex. My maternal grandmother had come to London from Wales, and always felt Welsh. My maternal grandfather, her second husband, was an Irishman who had come to England in search of work. After a long day spent working as a navvy on the London building sites, he would go to the local pub and drink Guinness. He and my grandmother were married in the local Catholic church, despite the fact that she was a staunch Welsh Methodist. My father came from Somerset in England, but his family had moved there from the Black Country (the Midlands around Wolverhampton) when he was a boy. My father did not regard himself as "Real Somerset," because although he spoke with a West Country accent at will, he could not forget the Wolverhampton way of speaking.
My understanding of my national identity became even more complicated when I learned that, some generations back, I had also had an ancestor from Edinburgh. In terms of nationality, who or what was I? This question has exercised and fascinated me ever since childhood. And in 2006, now that I am in my forties, am I any closer to knowing whether I am British or English -- or both? What relationship did my London forebears see between their city and the rest of the country? When my Irish grandfather left Ireland for London, did he think that he was going to England, or Britain, or did he perhaps think that London was a kind of self-contained city-state, geographically located within England and Britain, but in a way separate from them? My education did not dispel any of this confusion for me. When I was at secondary school in the seventies, the history teacher, although a very enlightened, forward-thinking man, explained that we should assume that the authors of our text-books used the terms 'Britain' and 'England' interchangeably, which puzzled me. Then, in the late seventies and early eighties, I studied law at the London School of Economics. Constitutional law was on the syllabus, and inevitably we covered the (then) semi-dormant topic of devolution. In a nutshell, it was recognised at the time that there were nascent nationalist movements in Britain, but discussion of these centred upon the activities of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the IRA. No-one in my study group imagined that England might want to separate from the other countries: again, England was seen as effectively synonymous with Britain, at least by the English law students. In the eighties, I was unaware of moves towards devolution on the part of any of Britain's nations. Save for the continuing problems in Northern Ireland, there seemed to be considerable national cohesion, particularly at the time of the Falklands War in 1982 and after it. In the nineties, the focal point became the handing-back of Hong Kong to China, which appeared to fuel the discussion of devolution in Britain. However, the debate still largely concerned allowing more regional control to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; it was assumed that England would remain firmly at the heart of Britain. What, in terms of feelings of belonging, will be the result of devolution, which has been partly propelled by strengthened Celtic national identities?
The present constitutional situation inevitably encourages people to think about and choose their national allegiances for themselves. When I was at a party in London fairly recently, I heard a recognisably Scottish accent -- though I could not make out to what region of Scotland it belonged- and I asked the speaker, a man in his late sixties, if he came from Scotland. He replied: "Glasgow." I said: "That's right, from Scotland." His riposte was sharp: "No, from Glasgow." Although he has lived and worked in England for many years, and is now retired here, he still sees himself as Glaswegian. I asked his son, just turned forty, how he felt about his own national identity, and he replied that he is British first, then Scottish, but definitely not English, although he acknowledged the English contribution to Britain. I asked the same question of the older man's daughter, in her thirties, and she replied that she is Scottish first, then British, but definitely not English. Are you English?
After giving the question much thought, I have developed a simple, non-exhaustive test to determine Englishness.
1. Do you speak English with a sufficient command of the rudiments of the language to: (a) buy a return train-ticket to Saffron Walden; (b) explain to the doctor that you have a cough; (c) say that you do not believe in Father Christmas (unless you do); or (d) protest that the figures on the cheque which has just been handed to you are Ł3,452.51 out?
2. Do you possess a real sense of fair play?
3. Do you have a well-developed, if quirky, sense of humour?
4. Do you believe that you should only complain if there are genuine grounds for complaint, and when you decide to do so, do you complain with firmness and persistence until there is a result?
5. Would you fight an enemy to the death if he tries to take over your country, but only make war on him when every other reasonable avenue has been exhausted?
6. Do you believe that you should do a good job for the sake of it?
7. Do you relish your freedoms, as they broaden down slowly from precedent to precedent?
8. Do you enjoy sex, but try not to let on to our Continental neighbours that you do?
9. Do you have manners: do you ask politely for the salt to be passed to you at the dinner table, and thank the person who passes it to you?
10. Do you mistrust all politicians?
11. Do you have blind faith that it will all come right in the end, and are you willing to move heaven and earth to ensure that it does?
12. Do you love a good story?
13. Do you like machines?
14. Do you love the countryside, including the coast?
15. Do you adore the sea?
16. Do you tolerate everyone and their views, save on the odd occasion when you are confronted by an axe-wielding madman? If you were able to answer "Yes" truthfully to all or almost all of the above, then if you were a stick of seaside rock, the words "Made by England" would run right through you. If you were born in England and answered "Yes," your legend would be "Made in England."
You will have noticed a complete absence of any questions in my test concerning the colour of your skin, hair, or eyes, the accent with which you speak English, or your family background. Nor does it ask about your religion. Being English is as much a state of mind as it is a way of life: if I think and behave like an English person, then I am one. Everyone should love their country and feel passionate about their nationality, whether it is their nationality of origin or of choice. But loving your country does not involve hating everyone else's countries. Being patriotic does involve showing your best behaviour to everyone else. Unless, that is, they mean to harm you.
It seems to me that many of the questions above could also be used in a test to determine Britishness, which shows that from my perspective, English and British qualities overlap. I am English and British, not English or British. For me it is an inclusive, not an exclusive, arrangement. Since I am English, I am also British, but being British does not mean that I must also be English, for I could just as easily be Scots, Welsh, or Northern Irish.
Definitive answers to my questions about English identity therefore prove elusive. How do we distinguish between the traits that are common to all of us in Britain, and those that are exclusive to England? I can only assess an individual's Englishness as opposed to their Britishness instinctively, through interacting with him or her, and would be hard-pressed to define it in words. Others might yet come up with such a definition, however; so if all this has left you none the wiser, you can do no better than to lie back and think of England.--Alexander J. Betts
We are very pleased to welcome Alex Betts to the Albion team. Alex comes from London and has a background in law. He is presently starting up a shop to sell delicacies from all over the British Isles.--The Editor