Life around the world

Tuesday, 9 October, 2012 - 20:16

Nationality in Britain

by Ellen Baston

UK, GB, British Isles – What’s in a name? Nationality, or national identity, can be a complex issue for those of us from Britain. Take me for example. I was born in England, but my Mum is Scottish and my Granny is from Northern Ireland. Now I live and study in Scotland. So what am I? I am both English and British. But can I claim my Scottish and (Northern) Irish nationalities as well? And why don’t we all just say we’re ‘British’?

When we Brits travel abroad we often confuse people as we try to explain why we have such muddled identities. So let me try to shed some light on the issue… The skinny island that contains England, Scotland and Wales is called Great Britain (GB). When you include Northern Ireland (the country in the north-eastern part of Ireland) we call it the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK). And the British Isles are both GB and Ireland as well as all the little places lying off the coast, like the Isle of Man.

But beyond these geographical terms, it’s impossible to separate nationality from national pride. Everyone’s passports describe them as ‘British citizens’ but many will choose to identify themselves as Welsh or Northern Irish, for example. Each of the ‘home nations’ (as we refer to the four countries – England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) has a unique culture and heritage that means they stand apart. There are even different languages such as Welch and Gaelic, as well as different patron saints and national holidays. And perhaps the most important separation of all: each nation has its own football team!

People tend to be passionate about their nationality and most Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish hate being labelled as English! Many feel that their countries are forgotten or overlooked by people abroad. I’ve met lots of people who have real difficulty convincing people that Scotland is a country and not an area of northern England! Of course there many other issues that play a part in determining your national identity. Many people have strong links to other countries, far from Britain. They might describe themselves as ‘British Asian’ or identify with the country that their parents or ancestors come from. And it is important to remember that Irish history makes the issue even more complicated and emotive.

Phew! So the next time you ask someone who speaks British English if they are indeed English, don’t be surprised if they say ‘no!’ At least now you’ll be able to understand why they’re able to be such a mix of nationalities!


Did you learn anything new by reading Ellen's post? If you want to find out more about the UK have a look at this video called Four Nations.

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