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Saturday, 4 February 2023

From English to British: changing self-identification in the UK


Many people who live in Denmark think of themselves as Danish, in Norway Norwegian, in Sweden Swedish. But no one living in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland thinks of themselves a United Kingdomish. A few will say they are Northern Irish but only an ironist would think to identify as Great British. United Kingdom governments for over a decade (Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Unionist Scot, started it) have encouraged people to think of themselves as British with British passports, British nationality, a British government; they have been incredibly successful. In the 2021 UK censusmore than half of the usual resident population (54.8%, 32.7 million) chose a "British" only national identity in 2021, which is a rise of 35.8 percentage points from 19.1% (10.7 million) in 2011. The opposite trend was seen for the "English" only identity. This fell by 42.8 percentage points, from 57.7% (32.4 million) in 2011 to 14.9% (8.9 million) in 2021” (Quoted from Census online data). The 45% who did not claim British as a unique identity are spread out over those who combined it with English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Northern Irish, Cornish, Polish, Romanian….keep going…. or selected one of those categories as their unique identity. (And spare a thought for  the half million or so illegals who didn’t get a Census form having no names or addresses and so didn’t get a chance to self-identify as anything).

This recent success of “British” is in some ways surprising: there is no national language to go with “British” - we remain English-speakers - and no football team to encourage with a Come on Britain! A United Kingdom team, not a British team, appears at the Olympics and le Royaume Uni turns up at Eurovision to score the traditional nul points. The main advantages of “British” are that it is shorter than “United Kingdomish” and rather than tracking the recent merging of two kingdoms and the even more recent military conquest of Ireland (our Donetsk and Luhansk) it harks back to indigenous First Nations, the ancient Brits of one kind or another,

The remarkable instability in self-identification shown by the ten-year shift from “English” to “British” is interesting.  I guess that the Brexit campaign had something to do with it but it may also be the case that some English people wanting to escape the stigma of flag-of-St George English nationalism and football hooliganism, attached to the Brexit cause, switched their verbal allegiance from “English” to the hopefully less-tarnished “British”.

I didn’t: on the Census form I identified as “English” and “European” - the latter, if I recall correctly, was a write-in not tick-box choice. Since I’d be delighted to see a united EU member Ireland and an independent EU member Scotland it seemed more consistent to use “English” than “British”. Wales? Well, Wales voted for Brexit and so ruled itself out from becoming EU member Wales and its future fortunes will be linked to those of England, in other words, downhill all the way.

The remarkable instability in national  self-identification re-inforces my sense that some contemporary identities will lose their current allure within a decade. Some of those students who currently affect “they” will revert to “he” or “she” when it ceases to attract Facebook Likes and they have a conventional job and a steady girlfriend/boyfriend. Some wannabe “transgender” people will admit that they have no enthusiasm for hormones or the surgeon’s knife (who could blame them?) and will settle for being good old-fashioned transvestites and good luck to them.  More likely, of course, some new fashion will come along and sweep up all the Likes available.

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