Britain and the United Kingdom – A Brief Introduction

The writer of this blog, as is no doubt obvious, is situated in London. More precisely, his domicile is in the London Borough of Islington, one of the constituent parts of the administrative area known as Greater London.

So much is easy to explain but when we begin to widen the scope of our political-geographical interest, things become more complicated. London is, of course, the capital city of England and the seat of government of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom consists of two entities, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, while Great Britain is home to three nations, England, Scotland and Wales. The British Isles consist of the whole group of islands that include Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and other smaller islands.

If you are not British, you may find the above confusing but take heart: many British people also find it confusing! It is for that reason that I have written this Brief Introduction covering the British Isles, Great Britain, the British nations and languages and The United Kingdom (UK).

1. The British Isles

This is probably the easiest term to define but to make it easier, here is a map (click on it to see the Google Map):

The British Isles
The British Isles

Bottom right is a fragment of the continent of Europe to set the context. The British Isles consist of the two larger islands surrounded by a multiplicity of smaller ones.

2. Great Britain

Great Britain is so called in order to indicate that it is the physically largest island. The land of Great Britain is divided between three nations, England, Scotland and Wales. England forms the “body” with Scotland as the “head” in the north and Wales held in the “lap” to the west. The adjective is often left aside and the island simply referred to as Britain but as this word is also often used as a synonym for the UK or for the government, I think it is best to keep the adjective when referring to the land mass and to call it Great Britain.

3. Ireland

Ireland is the second largest island. The greater part of it comprises the independent nation state, the Republic of Ireland (Eire). A smaller section in the north-east does not belong to the Republic but forms part of the United Kingdom (see below). This part is called Northern Ireland and consists of six counties. It is sometimes referred to as the Province of Northern Ireland but I am not sure that the word “province” has official meaning.

4. The British nations and languages

I have already made mention of three of the nations that occupy the British Isles but there are at least two others. The largest in extent of territory is England. This was formed largely from the post-Roman invasion and occupation of the land by Germanic peoples normally referred to as Anglo-Saxons, though Nordic peoples such as the Vikings also had a role to play.

Scotland occupies the northern part of Great Britain and Wales lies in the west. The second largest island is Ireland which, sadly, is divided, as we have seen, between the independent Republic and the province of Northern Ireland which still forms part of the United Kingdom.

In addition to the above mentioned four nations, we have at least two others, the Manx of the Isle of Man and the Cornish in the south-west of England.

The Isle of Man, in the sea between Scotland, England and Ireland, is self-governed. Its form of government derives largely from the Vikings and differs in several respects from that of the United Kingdom.

In contrast to the relative independence of the Isle of Man, Cornwall is regarded politically as a county within England and subject to the government of the UK. Culturally and linguistically, however, its roots are Celtic and in earlier times the inhabitants were often referred to as the “Cornish Welsh” because of their cultural and linguistic differences from the English and similarity to their Celtic neighbours.

Ireland and Scotland share a Celtic language, called Irish in Ireland and Gaelic in Scotland. The two branches evince some local differences of vocabulary, pronunciation and spelling but are essentially dialects the same language.

The Welsh also have a Celtic language referred to as Welsh. This derives from a different branch of Celtic evolution from that of Irish/Gaelic and is quite distinct.

The Isle of Man also has its own Celtic language, Manx, similar to, but distinct from Gaelic, while Cornwall has the Cornish language, also Celtic in origin, similar to Welsh but particularly to the Breton language of France. These two languages were virtually wiped out as a result of the dominance of English and the hardline political philosophy of English educators who considered them “primitive” and worked for their demise. In recent times, attempts have been made in both communities to revive their languages.

The official language of the United Kingdom as a whole is British English. Now that Wales and Scotland have a measure of self-government, they are able to give greater emphasis to their own languages. In Wales, both Welsh and English are official languages. A project is in train in Scotland to raise Gaelic to the level of an official language on a par with English but for now the latter remains dominant. The Republic of Ireland recognizes both Irish and English as official languages but in Northern Ireland only English has that status.

5. The United Kingdom

Legally and politically there is no such thing as “English nationality”, nor are there separate nationalities for the Welsh, the Scots or the citizens of Northern Ireland. The political entity to which these four nations belong is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, often abbreviated for obvious reasons to The United Kingdom or UK. The Northern Irish, Welsh, Scots and English share a common nationality called British.

Geographically and politically, then, the United Kingdom consists of the Great Britain, the province of Northern Ireland and the plethora of smaller islands around our shores with the exception of the Isle of Man.

Conclusions and observations

History and local differences

The history of these islands is complex and I make no attempt the describe it. Much of it consists of more or less violent conflicts between the various peoples who inhabit them. These conflicts have left their mark politically and culturally. Sensibilities remain and are easily stirred to passion and anger. They continue to reverberate as shown by the recent referendum held on independence for Scotland.

Because of its size and power, England has traditionally dominated the other nations and “England” erroneously tends to be the name by which the whole is referred to abroad. That this is wrong has, I hope, been shown by the foregoing. Even England itself is a mosaic of different cultures and dialects.

The future of local languages

What does the future hold for languages other than English? Efforts are being made in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man to revive their native languages but with mixed results. The major problem is the inertia of the people. Those born and brought up as speakers of English tend to see little point in learning a completely different language and undergoing all the difficulties that this entails. On a visit to Ireland, Tigger and I discovered that in Dublin there was little enthusiasm for Irish whilst in the provinces, people paid lip service to Irish and often claimed to be better at it than they really were but, on the whole, stuck to English. For a language to thrive or even survive in a community, there needs to be a minimum number of regular, competent speakers of that language and, sadly, I am not convinced that sufficient numbers exist for this in the linguistic communities discussed.

What does it mean to be English?

Because Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have their own national assemblies, providing them with a measure of self government, and the Parliament at Westminster is the overarching governing body of the United Kingdom, England is left in the slightly anomalous position of having no governing body of its own, unlike the others. Proposals have been made for the creation of an “English Assembly” but successive UK governments have shown little enthusiasm for this.

While it is meaningful to describe yourself as Welsh, Irish or Scottish, it is uncertain what it means to call yourself “English”. This seems not to be a legally or politically meaningful term because there is no “English government” and no such thing as an English nationality or passport. So what does it mean to say you are English? Does it mean anything more than that you were born in England or now live there? That seems to be a question for which there are as many answers as there are people prepared to hazard an answer.

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