England and Britain – what is it to be British?

What is it to be British? A very pertinent question in the aftermath of Devolution. Britain is a blend of legal entity, geographical proximity, historical interaction and a degree of fellow feeling deriving from (by now) shared values and experiences. But it is a second order focus of loyalty, more legal construct than emotional reality. In Britain, a man  normally thinks of himself as English, Scots, Irish or Welsh. The man who answers British when asked his nationality by a fellow Briton is almost certainly not someone who understands Britain unless, of course, an Ulster Protestant is speaking. 

Confusing as the British/English dichotomy can be, it is nonetheless fitting and noteworthy that foreigners still  commonly talk of England when they mean Britain, for what is British culture but English culture? If we look at the major cultural features which are frequently associated with Britishness – such matters as elected representative government, political stability, the absence of institutionalised bureaucratic corruption, the propensity for the nonviolent resolution of disputes, the primacy of the individual, the attachment to personal freedom, the ideal of equality before the law – we find no distinctive Celtic facets cut into the cultural stone. This is scarcely surprising for unEnglished Celtic society was based on more primitive social systems, essentially tribal, in which loyalty, justice and power sprang primarily from blood and marital relationships rather than universal abstractions such  as equity.

Nor was such a distinction between England and the other home countries buried decently in the dark ages. The Scotland of the Act of Union (1707) was not merely churchmouse poor, but cleaved between the much Englished lowlands and a barbaric upland life which was still clearly evident (although passing) some seventy years later when Johnson and Boswell journeyed in the Highlands and Isles. Moreover, even in the Englished lowlands, pre-union Scotland lacked the broad political development of England, which perhaps more than any other aspect of English society has shaped our culture. Looked at coldly, all the Celtic fringe represents today are mythologised ancestral resentments, more imagined than real, and a few pseudo-historical gewgaws such as Eisteddfods and tartans.

The different nature of the indigenous political culture of the Celtic lands can be neatly displayed by imagining some of the differences between a Britain dominated not by England, but by the Calvinist Scotch or the Catholic Irish. In either case, religious tolerance would have been uncertain at best and nonexistent at worst and the King’s power either utterly constrained by a narrow oligarchy (Calvinists) or exalted over that of parliament (Catholics). Either way,  parliament would have been a poor thing. The absence of religious tolerance and parliamentary development alone would have massively altered Britain. Moreover, it is probable that the English and British response to the continental ambitions of Louis X1V and Napoleon would have been quite different. Had either achieved their ends, England’s (and Britain’s) history would have been very different.

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