The genealogy of the term British reveals a fragile and contested historical identity – something Brexit has thrown into stark relief.
In the 17th century, being British only had meaning as a colonial identity, when it was used to denote the projection of English and Scottish interests overseas. When the term was used within the geographical confines of Great Britain – and later in Great Britain and Ireland – its common use was in reference to the British government or the British constitution.
Understanding the genealogy of the term British can help make sense of the lack of consensus which has emerged over Brexit. After all, the British empire no longer exists and the British government is instead managing a declining British presence worldwide. Alongside the devolution of powers within the UK, it’s unclear what the term British is now meant to describe.
The Irish context
While the term British had a medieval heritage, a modern genealogy of the term British began in the early 17th century. With the accession of James I of England (who was James VI of Scotland) to the English throne in 1603, the crowns of Scotland and England were united in one person. This recalled the ancient idea of a British monarchy, recounted by the 12th-century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, who had described a distant past when there had been kings of Britain.
Scotland and England, however, remained separate kingdoms until the Act of Union of 1707 and so the idea of a united “British identity” had little traction within the geographical confines of Great Britain in this period.
Instead, in those records which still exist of material published in Great Britain and its dependencies up to 1800, the term British was mostly used in relation to Ireland in the first half of the 17th century.
It was with the flight of the Gaelic earls from Ulster in 1607, which opened the way for plantation by Scottish and English settlers in the north of Ireland, that the first truly British policy emerged. The Scots were co-opted into the long-running English involvement with Ireland, justified by the idea of “civilising” the Irish. Crucially, it was the collective actions of the English and the Scots outside their home nations which gave meaning to the term “British”.
A 1610 pamphlet listed the “Conditions to be observed by the Brittish Undertakers of the Escheated Lands in Ulster”, while a 1618 pamphlet restated the terms under which “Brittish undertakers” had received land.
Even with the English Civil Wars in the 1640s, British continued to be used in relation to Ireland, rather than in reference to the internal dynamics of Great Britain. A massacre of Protestants in Ireland, for example, was reported on in 1646 as “Cruelties exercised in Ireland upon the Brittish Protestants.”
An imperial project
A similar pattern can be found from the late 17th century well into the 19th. The 1707 Act of Union of England and Scotland created the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The debates which surrounded the union were complex, but an important strand concerned the need to project British imperial power in order to counterbalance other European trading nations.
From the 1690s onwards, different pamphlets referred to “British plantations” overseas and later “British seamen”, which suggests that a growing imperial identity helped underpin political union at home.
Figures such as Edmund Burke (1729-97), an Irishman embedded in English domestic politics, expressed the growing complexity of the term British. Burke wrote about “British navigation” and “British trade”, which he argued could, under the right circumstances, benefit the sister Kingdom of Ireland. He also wrote famously about the benefits of the “British constitution”. There were also references from Burke by this stage of the 18th century to the “British nation”. Nevertheless, the propensity remained for the term British to denote imperial expansion – as well as the shared institutional structures of the United Kingdom.
The imperial logic of the term British can also be found in the circumstances which underlay the 1801 Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland, and more importantly Catholic emancipation in 1829, which gave Catholics the right to sit in the British parliament and hold most public offices. Even after 1829, within the confines of Great Britain and Ireland, Irish Catholics continued to be viewed with suspicion – as “disloyal” to the crown – and they were very aware of their separate identity. But the crucial role played by Irish Catholics in the British army overseas, where they embraced a British identity outside Ireland, made increasingly untenable those arguments which had continued against Catholic emancipation.
Searching for a British identity
With the decline of empire, and the rise of nationalism in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century, the imperial traction of the term British began, slowly, to diminish. The awkward emptiness of the term British is neatly expressed in the “Order of the British Empire”, which was created to honour those who had acted in service and defence of the British empire during World War I, but now somehow honours those who have contributed to the life of the United Kingdom. The disappearance of the British empire after World War II underlines the strangeness in talking about an OBE.
The genealogy of the term British therefore points to an inherent problem with the Brexit project. British, by its very definition, is an imperial term, not a national one – but there is no longer an empire. Speaking of a British outlook invokes a demand for a global presence. British was also meant to refer to a functional constitutional settlement which, in its idealised form, protected the interests of the different nations of the UK. Devolution, and a divergence in those interests, has placed the constitutional settlement under severe strain.
With Brexit, despite an empty imperial nostalgia so neatly encapsulated by the promise of an “Empire 2.0” after the UK leaves the EU, the term British has lost even more of its meaning. Now, more than ever, the country needs to decide what it wants the term British to mean.