What it means to be British


With Kate and Will’s wedding last year and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations just round the corner, it seems the people of Britain have been riding a wave of newfound pride in their nation. From socks to M&S’ caterpillar cakes (I wish I was joking), anything that is anything has been refashioned in the colours red, white and blue. Rule Britannia indeed! – But what does being ‘British’ actually mean?

According to our old love the Home Office, which sets the Life in the UK citizenship test, to be British means you should ‘respect laws, the elected political structures, traditional values of mutual tolerance and respect for rights and mutual concern’. Forgive me for seeming unpatriotic but surely we cannot claim a global patent on tolerance?

Instead, the Life in the UK book, a compulsory read for those seeking permanent settlement in our island, also sets out what a true Brit would do upon spilling someone’s pint in the pub (again, I’m not making this up!) According to the book, a true citizen of Britain would allow his/her (I wouldn’t wish my British credentials to be undermined by appearing sexist) manners to prevail and ‘prudently’ buy a replacement. This could be deemed a frivolous attempt at defining ‘Britishness’ but perhaps it reveals a greater degree of truth than any bland utterance of a shared belief in freedom and democracy. True, freedom and democracy are incredibly important but let’s not delude ourselves; such principles are hardly exclusive to Britain.

A survey released by a global research company has sought to put this ‘Britishness’ debate to bed by listing those characteristics, including buying a replacement for a spilt pint, which makes us quintessentially British. Warning – stereotypes galore!

I hate to say it but yes, out on top, as the British public’s most defining feature, is talking about the weather. In a land of, let’s face it, pretty uneventful meteorological happenings, it is possible to begin any conversation with a little allusion to the skies above. Yet, before we laugh at ourselves (another defining British trait), it is important to note that the weather is also what those foreign outsiders primarily associate with us. No matter how many times I explain to my Italian relatives that it statistically rains more in Milan than in London, I still get asked, without fail, how I cope with constantly needing an umbrella – I blame Mary Poppins.

Also making it into the top ten things, which makes us British is a love of queuing (no. 2) and moaning (no. 10). In fact, I would suggest that the two often go hand-in-hand. However, more crucially is that no matter how long the queue or how much we might moan, we Brits will grin and bear it. Yes, the infamous British stiff upper lip makes an appearance at no. 8. Those weaklings on the continent might allow their lips to tremble but the British can always keep control over their emotions.

Nevertheless, perhaps us calling ourselves British is in itself a deception. 67% of adults in the UK may describe themselves as British but national identity still prevails – 83% of Scots identify themselves as more Scottish and 70% of Welsh feel more, well, Welsh. Taking this argument yet one stage further and a recent survey revealed that half of the UK population has migrant ancestry.

So, to sum up – even if we think we’re British, we’re not. Or at least half of us aren’t. Perhaps I have just proven my Britishness – no. 29: being unable to say what we mean.

-Amedea Kelly-Tagliani

PHOTO/Stefano Brivio


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