“The English, until relatively recently, seem to have imagined ‘English’ and ‘British’ to be interchangeable, as if Britain was just a bigger England.”
We hear this a lot, or a version of it, and no more than now, just when the Scots are voting on independence from the United Kingdom. To an Englishman and a Briton, this is immensely frustrating, because it is plain wrong. Others, no doubt, will agree with the statement, but I see no truth in it.
Let me clarify:
I do agree with the first part of the statement: that the English see English and British as being interchangeable (Not all of them, but as a general rule, and certainly those who feel no shame at being both English and British). But there is no sin in this. Englishness and Britishness should be almost interchangeable. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish should feel the same way, especially if they want the Union to survive and Britain to endure as a meaningful entity.
The problem comes form the second part of the statement: that Britain is just a bigger England. This really is not true. You will, of course, find examples where this seems true, from the uncouth and the ignorant, which, I’m sorry to say, inhabit parts of the Union outside England as much as they do England itself. But not the average person. That they are English also makes them British, but ask them if the Welsh and the Scots are also British and they will look at you as if you are a fool and say ‘Of course they are!’
It is sad we have this divide within the Union. It implies that the English are inherently arrogant, and dismiss everyone who is not like them. It also implies that the English think there are tiers of Britishness, the English sitting at the top, followed by the Scots, the Welsh and Irish.
But I’m afraid this is not the reality; it is a false impression that distorts how people think of the Union and of Britain; sometimes people benefit from enquiring into their own minds, and from challenging their own prejudices and misunderstandings.
It’s perfectly possible that what they are seeing is the consequence of England holding the vast majority of the British population. But no, Britain is not England, it is all of us, Scottish, Welsh and Irish. It just seems that not everyone likes that idea very much. And I say again, this is sad.