How do British people identify themselves? Who do they feel they are? Every-body has an image of themselves, but the things that make up this image can vary.
Ethnic identity: the native British
National (‘ethnic’) loyalties can be strong among the people in Britain whose ancestors were not English. For some people living in England who call themselves Scottish, Welsh or Irish, this loyalty is little more than a matter of emo-tional attachment. For people living in Scotland. Wales and Northern Ireland, the way that ethnic identity commonly expresses itself varies. People in Scotland have constant reminders of their distinctiveness. First, several important aspects of pub-lic life are organized separately, and differently, from the rest of Britain – notably, education, law and religion. Second, the Scottish way of speaking English is very distinctive. A modern form of the dialect known as Scots is spoken in everyday life by most of the working classes in the lowlands. It has many features which are different from other forms of English and cannot usually be understood by people who are not Scottish. Third, there are many symbols of Scottishness winch are well-known throughout Britain.
The people of Wales do not have as many reminders of their Welshness in everyday life. The organization of public life is similar to that in England. A large minority of the people in Wales probably do not consider themselves to be especially Welsh at all. In the nineteenth century large numbers of Scottish, Irish and English people went to find work there, and today many English people still make their homes in Wales or have holiday houses there.
However, there is one single highly-important symbol of Welsh identity – the Welsh language. Everybody in Wales can speak English, but it is not every-body’s first language. For about 20% of the population (that’s more than half a million people), the mother-tongue is Welsh. In comparison to the other small mi-nority languages of Europe, Welsh shows signs of continued vitality. Thanks to successive campaigns, the language receives a lot of public support.
The question of identity in Northern Ireland is a much more complex is-sue and is dealt with at the end of this chapter.
As for English identity, most people who describe themselves as English usually make no distinction in their minds between ‘English’ and ‘British’. There is plenty
of evidence of this. For example, at international football or rugby matches, when the players stand to attention to hear their national anthems, the Scottish, Irish and Welsh have their own songs, while the English one is just ‘God Save the Queen’ – the same as the British national anthem.
In comparison with most other places in the world, family identity is rather weak in Britain, especially in England. Of course, the family unit is still the basic living arrangement for most people. But in Britain this definitely means the nuclear family. There is little sense of extended family identity, except among some racial minorities. This is reflected in the size and composition of households. It is unusual for adults of different generations within the family to live together.
Significant family events such as weddings, births and funerals are not automatically accompanied by large gatherings of people. It is still common to appoint people to certain roles on such occasions, such as ‘best man’ at a wedding, or godmother and godfather when a child is born.
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