Hub for the Study of British Identities

Research network, journal and blog

Charming Faces and the Problem of Identification in the 1920s

We begin the new academic year with a throwback to the last – a wonderful talk by Professor Matt Houlbrook at our Centre for History annual Postgraduate Research Event in June 2018.

Here, Matt talks about how individuals made sense of changing notions of personality and identity during the 1920s, using material from newspaper beauty, character and personality competitions.


The Difference of Englishness

We’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by MLitt students at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands as part of their coursework for the module ‘British Identities’. This week, Susan Church examines the complexities of Englishness.

On the Blackwater estuary, sits the small town of Maldon and its port, the Hythe. Here at the end of a promenade, looking seaward is the statue of Earl Brythnoth. Over a thousand years ago, Brythnoth with his small army and questionable tactics failed to repel a Viking invasion, resulting in occupation and payment of Danegeld.[1]

Brythnoth statue, Maldon
By Oxyman – Own work, CC BY 2.5,


Does this statue inform in any way about ‘Englishness’?  It certainly represents one of the key moments when two of the many ethnic strands of English identity were irretrievably joined.  But it also highlights how ethnicity hinders any attempt to define Englishness; the English are mixed, “the product of successive invasions from all over Europe”, not to mention immigration from empire. [2] Englishness cannot be tied to ethnicity because there is no English ‘race’.

The English language is no help either; it is synonymous with the whole British World and beyond; the English no longer have ownership. So, is Englishness, like Britishness, a convenient, overarching political construct?   Perhaps not; from 1537, the Book of Common Prayer, referred to ‘this Realm of England’ so England’s borders, although at times fluid and contested, are old.[3]

The unique ‘water land’ of East Anglia, Colley has suggested, exhibited a ‘peculiar separateness’ from the rest of Britain – at least until 1914. [4] It’s an interesting observation and highlights the challenge of compressing a multiplicity of identities into a single English national identity.

Englishness also puzzled the socialist author George Orwell who wrote, “Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos!” “How can one make a pattern out of this entire muddle?”  [5]

And how can the tension between rural and urban be reconciled?  In Essex, the Dengie peninsula, pinned on three sides by the Rivers Crouch and Blackwater and the North Sea, is characterized by winding creeks and water meadows,  isolated farms, small hamlets and lonely villages; it exhibits a remoteness alien to global and cosmopolitan London, the old Imperial centre, just one hour’s drive away. [6]

Kumar however sees no muddle or need to reconcile, but suggests that Empire caused the English to suppress any strong sense of national identity; Englishness was considered anti-imperial. [7] So perhaps Englishness is subtle, ‘a rather shy and reclusive bird’; rooted at regional and local levels, gelling into something that is felt and lived rather than constantly articulated – football matches excepted![8]  And could it, as Orwell implied, reside in ‘difference’?

Indeed, difference is naturally imposed by the sheer variety of geology, landscapes, towns and villages, crammed into a small country. It is visibly manifested in  traditional building materials; flint knap,  London Brick, Bath, Cotswold, York,  and Portland  stone are not just markers of place but of  difference. Pevsner acknowledged this as he sought to understand Englishness through architecture.

Some aspects of regional/local identity – Cockney cheerfulness, Mancunian work ethic, Lancashire reliability, Yorkshire stubbornness – have been projected as English characteristics.  So, despite being complex, ‘problematic and varied’, ‘difference’ embedded in local identities and regions, can provide ‘building blocks’ for Englishness.[9]

Although the English language no longer belongs solely to England, regional accents are deeply ingrained in Englishness. Also, regions fragment into divisions of place and sometimes produce very local dialects. In Maldon, a series of streets adjacent to the Hythe produced the ‘Dagger Lane’ dialect, spoken by the fishing families who ‘unknowingly protected Viking, Anglo-Saxon and Huguenot words and sayings’. [10]

Individualism and the toleration of eccentricity appear integral to ‘difference’. Young suggests that the English dare to be themselves rather than “conform to the uniform demands of a collective identity”.[11] This in part would help explain (but not excuse) some of the more peculiar English traditions; Norfolk dyke jumping, Gloucestershire cheese rolling, the Maldon Mud Race and playing cricket on Bramble bank in the middle of the Solent – at low tide of course!

But people relocate. Populations change in ethnicity. If ‘difference’ is the key to Englishness then it must accommodate change – after all the English are not a ‘race’ but a people.   How does Englishness cope with such changes in its ‘differences’?  Young posits the idea that Englishness has a sheer indifference to difference although those who have experienced racial discrimination might not agree.[12]

If national identity is about self-recognition, then the statue of Brythnoth is a reminder that perhaps Englishness includes an acceptance of the heavy baggage of history.   [13] It is as much about where a person resides as where they are from; ‘a feeling, a sentimental attachment to territory shared by like-minded people’.[14]    It’s also about acknowledging difference (or indifference) and being able to look ‘forwards and back in order to embody both the living and the dead’.[15]

Vive la difference!

[1] The Anglo Saxon Chronicle,  991 AD

[2]  Robert J.C Young,   ‘The Disappearance of the English: Why is there no ‘English Diaspora’ ?’ in Tanja Bueultmann, David T. Gleeson, Donald M. Macraild (Ed.) Locating the English Diaspora, 1500 – 2010  (, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2012) pp. 227-228

[3] Simon, Heffer.  Five Hundred Years of Englishness (Centre for English Identity and Politics, University of Winchester, 2017) pp13-23

[4] Linda Colley Britons Forging the Nation 1707-1837  (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2014)  p.298

[5] Ben Clarke  ‘Orwell and Englishness’ The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol57, No.228 (Feb., 2006), p.90

[6] Stephen Emms, ‘ Britain’s Wild East’ The Guardian, 24 March 2009

[7] Krishan Kumar, ‘Empire, Nations and National Identity’  in  Thompson Andrew (Ed) Britain’s Experience of Empire in the Twentieth Century  (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011)  pp.9-10

[8] Anthony D. Smith ‘The Master Ornithologist’,  in John Hutchinson, Susan Reynolds, Anthony D Smith., Robert Colls and Krishan Kumar ‘Debate on Krishan Kumar’s The Making of English National Identity’   Nations and Nationalism 13 (2), 2007, p. 188

[9] Paul Ward, Britishness since 1870, (Abingdon, Routledge, 2004) pp. 68-72

[10] Arthur and Michael Emmett, Blackwater Men, 1992, (Bishops Stortford, Seax Books,  1992)

[11] Young,    Locating the English Diaspora,  pp. 227-228

[12]  Ibid

[13] Heffer.  Five Hundred Years of Englishness ( 2017) pp13-23

[14] Edward Royal  in Paul Ward Britishness Since 1870 p. 67

[15] Robert Colls ‘The Making of English National Identity or Krishan’s Kasino’  in John Hutchinson, Susan Reynolds, Anthony D Smith., Robert Colls and Krishan Kumar ‘Debate on Krishan Kumar’s The Making of English National Identity’   Nations and Nationalism 13 (2), 2007, p.131

Nostalgia for the British empire and the Brexit vote

BI-2018We’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by MLitt students at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands as part of their coursework for the module ‘British Identities’. This week’s blog post comes from Liesbeth van Hulle and reflects on the recent

When radio presenter James O’Brien had one of his numerous discussions over Brexit with a listener and tore down every single argument of the Brexiteer concerning migration and the economy, the English caller at last resorted to his ultimate line of reasoning as to why Great Britain should disentangle itself from an increasingly unified Europe: ‘Well, we used to rule two thirds of the world.’[1] Peeling off the layers of Brexit arguments leaves at its core a nostalgia for an empire which a considerable part of the British population only grudgingly relinquished.

@Vector Open Stock

The British empire never was ‘two thirds of the world’, but at its maximum Great Britain still ruled over an impressive one fifth of the total world population.[2] The notion of once governing an empire in which the sun never set, is one Britons, and especially the English, like to hold on to, which is exactly what a poll in 1997 confirmed. Sixty per cent of the respondents admitted to feelings of wistfulness when it came to Britain’s lost empire.[3]  John M. MacKenzie wrote in 2008 that the English had found it hard to adjust their thoughts of ‘effortless cultural and imperial superiority’ in the post-imperial age.[4] The result of the 2016 EU Referendum – when 51.9 per cent of the British electorate voted to leave the European Union – seems to validate that statement.

Linda Colley – in her book Britons – argued that a common interest of Britons following the Union of 1707 was trade. But if investment and mercantile interests acted as a cohesive force binding the four nations together, it was the empire that was at the centre of Great Britain. When that empire started disintegrating, Britain turned to its closest neighbours, the previous ‘Other’, the European continent: a trade market of millions of people. But the European Economic Community was precisely only that: an economic community.

The 1975 EEC Referendum was won by a large margin. Nearly 70 per cent of the English population voted in favour of trade, or in the prophetic words of E. P. Thompson: for ‘freedom to travel, trade, and sell one’s own labour’.[5] What they did not vote for – as one Brexiteer wrote to the Independent – was ‘the Union’. The European process of integration and cooperation not only undermines an innate sense of distinctiveness, but acutely clashes with the thought of once again heading a wave of ‘Anglobalisation’.[6]

The economic aspect of the European Union, therefore, is inferior to the English dream of a return to its former glory. The European Union constitutes the second largest economy in the world, and within the EU, the United Kingdom was/is arguably one of the main economies. Great Britain is a major player within the EU. But the country is not the only one steering its course. For some this situation is untenable. The more the EU breaks down borders and creates a multi-cultural society, the more evocative memories of Britain’s past empire become.

This former glory, however, has changed and is now part of a world where trade is limited by strict rules, tariffs and quotas, and where every country guards its own interests. To secure beneficial deals with Commonwealth countries, more may be required than an eighteenth-century map of the world and/or recommissioning the Royal Yacht Britannia.



[1] The listener actually first said three thirds, before O’ Brien corrected him that this equalled the entire world. See:

[2] L. Colley, Britons – Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven, 2014), p. 329.

[3] K. Kumar, ‘Empire, Nation, and National Identities’, in A. Thompson (ed.), Britain’s Experience of Empire in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2012), p. 2.

[4] J. M. MacKenzie, ‘Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English Worlds? A Four-Nation Approach to the History of the British Empire’, History Compass, Vol. 6(5), p. 1255.

[5] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963), p. 79.

[6] Kumar, ‘Empire, Nation, and National Identities’, p. 9.

‘Identities are not like hats. Human beings can and do put on several at a time’

We’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by MLitt students at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands as part of their coursework for the module ‘British Identities’. First up, we have Irene Innes reflecting on her own sense of identity and how this has changed in intriguing ways over time.

Linda Colley’s analogy of identities and hats is so persuasive I decided to focus on my personal ‘history’ to see if her claim could apply to my life and identity. My intention was to consider the ‘hats’ I wore as a child and those I wear now in later life, my ‘academic’ hat, hopefully, assisting with the analysis of ‘me’.

Born and bred in Glasgow, with a Scottish accent, having a Scottish surname, belonging to a clan, occasionally wearing a kilt, and being allowed to stay up for ‘the bells’ at New Year, I certainly felt Scottish.

However other factors were at play such as schooling and education. A Glaswegian accent was discouraged, lessons were from a ‘British’ perspective and the schoolroom was adorned by a large map of the British Empire, later the British Commonwealth of Nations. It was satisfyingly pink. My affinity with the ‘pink’ nations never faltered in spite of the niggling question ‘What happened to the original people who lived in those lands?’ My Britishness experienced a slight wobble.

Map of the British Empire
Available at

The monarchy was a powerful symbol of ‘Britishness’, exemplified by the post-war wedding of Princess Elizabeth in 1947, the death and funeral of her father in 1952 and her subsequent coronation. The wedding dress, displayed at Glasgow Museum and Art Galleries, was embroidered with the rose, thistle, shamrock and daffodil, the symbolism evident and, to a child, effective.

Another factor in my ‘Britishness’ was the war, illustrated by Hobsbawm’s notion that ‘there is no more effective way of bonding together the disparate sections of restless peoples than to unite them against outsiders’[1] My restlessness occurred when bombs whistled down on Glasgow and Clydebank, and when the Nine O’Clock News, opening with the sonorous peals of Big Ben, announced they were also dropping on London, Cardiff and Belfast. We were all in it together!

The National Health Service, introduced in 1948, was another unifying force, this time, a beneficial one.

Another factor complicated matters. My mother was Irish, and pro-Unionist. Was I doubly British, half-Scottish, half-Irish? I decided on a ‘pick and mix’ approach, having the power to choose.

This power to choose identity came into question during the war as the father of an Italian friend was threatened with internment, despite having fought for Britain during the First World War. If being resident in a country, and having fought for it, did not bestow citizenship did that mean ‘identity’ was associated with blood-line? Alternatively, was it within the remit of politicians and dependent upon the expediency of the time?

These doubts, articulated in a more childish manner, strengthen Colley’s suggestion that ‘children are rarely as naïve and impressionable as adults would like to believe’[2]

My concept of identity changed in adulthood as the nuances of class, religion, politics and gender added to the mix.

I lived in Yorkshire, my Scottish husband being attached, ironically, to the Inniskilling Fusiliers based in York. Assimilation with Yorkshire people came easily and I felt I was accepted into their society.

Church of Scotland attendance became that of the Methodist Church and Christmas was celebrated more generally than New Year. Pubs abounded and not predominantly for a male clientele. Alas, cricket was the main sport. Assimilation however did not change my identity, which remained Scottish/Irish/British. Englishness was a step too far!

Back in Scotland factors that had reinforced my British identity altered over time.  Britain, loosening ties with the Commonwealth, joined the European Economic Community, later the European Union, and Germany, once the enemy, was now a fellow-member state. The Scottish National Party grew in strength and Devolution gave greater powers to Scotland, including those of Health. New universities came into being which, combined with the internet, increased access to knowledge, and the rigidity of class structures began to break down.

I felt I was open to change as my childhood identity became less pronounced. However, a seminal event revealed just how confused, and conflicted, my identity is, and that was the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. As the teams entered I identified with Scotland, Northern Ireland, England, Canada, (my Irish relatives emigrated), and the countries from my ‘pink’ map of long ago.

Freedom Come All Ye
© Norman Wilson

When ‘Freedom, Come All Ye’, from an anti-Imperialist song, was emblazoned on the vast screen and Alex Salmond gave the opening speech I was stirred by the former and gave due respect to the latter.[3] When the Queen arrived I sang the National Anthem with enthusiasm. My ‘hats’ were many and varied, some harking back to the little girl in Glasgow and some adjusting to the new reality of twenty-first-century Scotland.

A final irony. Colin Kidd, describing the British Constitution, used the analogy of  dark matter in the universe – ‘present but unseen’.[4] I recently researched the means to obtain an Irish passport, fearing the potential outcome of Brexit, and found, to my great surprise, that I have been an Irish citizen all my life! I must dust down that Irish hat!

[1] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 376.

[2] Colley, Britons, p. 231.

[3] Hamish Henderson, ‘Freedom Come All Ye’, in Raymond Ross (ed.), Collected Poems and Songs (Curly Snake Publishing, 2000) available at

[4] Colin Kidd, ‘The Union in British Constitutional Theory’, Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum lecture,  25 June 2013, available at


Journal of British Identities Issue 2 CFP

JBI CoverBorders, Boundaries and Brexit: Perspectives on British Identities in an Uncertain World

Following the successful publication of our debut issue in 2017, the Journal of British Identities seeks submissions for Issue 2, to be published in Autumn 2018.

JBI is a peer-reviewed, open access, interdisciplinary journal based here at the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Hub for the Study of British Identities. JBI draws together academics and the public, providing a forum for research on representations of British identities and the study of identities within the British Isles, the ‘Atlantic archipelago’, and the broader British world.

Issue 2 of JBI welcomes submissions on the theme ‘Borders, Boundaries and Brexit: Perspectives on British Identities in an Uncertain World’. Topics on this theme could include:

  • The changing nature of Britain’s relationship with Europe
  • Unions with Europe and within the UK
  • Perceptions of British identities at home and abroad
  • British-Irish relations
  • The Irish Border
  • Migration and boundary crossing
  • ‘Empire 2.0’
  • Legacies of Empire in British identities
  • Creative identities: how music, art and literature respond to Brexit
  • Brexit across the Atlantic archipelago: alignments and divergences that reveal, transgress or dissolve boundaries

JBI aims to encourage public conversations about Britishness and we welcome contributions from researchers of all backgrounds, including submissions from the public outwith academia, and from early career academics and students.

The journal consists of traditional academic articles, opinion pieces, reviews, interviews, ‘Notes and Queries’, photographic and video essays and other critical and creative responses to British identities. Scholarly articles should be 6,000-8,000 words in length; for all other items — reviews, opinion pieces, interviews, videos — please submit an abstract of c. 250 words.

Submit online:

Enquiries to the editor:

Deadline: 31st May 2018

‘What do British identities mean to me?’ – Part Four

This week, we’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by our new intake of MLitt British Studies students at the University of the Highlands and Islands. As part of their induction onto the programme, we wanted to get our students thinking about the nature of British identities, so we set them a blogging task: to answer the question ‘What do British identities mean to me?’

Our fourth and final blog post comes from Alex Dold, and Erasmus exchange student from the University of Bonn.

First things first: I am a German student who has been living in Scotland for a little over two weeks now. Prior to that I have only ever been to Great Britain on holidays and it was confined to England, mostly London. Now living in Scotland as a resident, this post shall present my personal experiences so far and describe what British identity means to me as a German. I will try to define what British identity is, though I am not sure if an exact definition is even possible. For this purpose, I would like to limit my descriptions to one particular place where I had to spend quite some time so far trying to get everything I need: the supermarket. Apart from the fact that some supermarkets are open 24/7, there are other factors that surprised me and that represent British identity to me.

First, the obviously very British habit of queuing. Apparently British people do not only queue perfectly at bus stops (as we were told in school), but also at the checkout counter. In contrast to Germany, no one is annoyed when it takes me a while to fit all my food into my backpack and they sometimes even flash me a reassuring smile. To me, it seems to be British is to be sophisticated and polite while waiting in line, not only in the supermarket but also at the bus stop even when a bus is already late and yet everyone has to buy a ticket.


Another observation I have made so far concerning British identity is patriotism. Coming back to the example of supermarkets, this can be found here as well: on blueberries, milk cartons, and spinach packages. No matter what I am looking for, there is always a locally produced alternative bearing the Scottish flag. It might not be British identity per se, but definitely Scottish. I am not used to that kind of patriotism since there are only few occasions at which we Germans present our flag: national holidays, to pay respects, and during the football world cup. This might be due to the historical background of Hitler’s Germany or because we simply are not as proud of our country, but either way, there is a striking difference to Great Britain.

Scottish Flag

Lastly, I would like to talk about the thing that appears as the most British to me: drinking tea. In the supermarkets, there is an enormous variety of different kinds of tea. Shockingly for me, I did not know any brand from Germany which made the decision about which one to buy quite difficult. Of course, there were also brands showing off the Scottish flag, but also the British one was presented. As per usual, I got the wrong brand of black tea, according to my Scottish flat mate. I let myself be guided by a British flag, thinking this was as British as it gets, and of course, the low price. However, the tea experience does not stop there. The same Scottish flat mate then showed me how to make the perfect ‘English’ tea, letting it steep just short enough and how much milk (from a carton bearing a Scottish flag) is needed. Quite confusing.

Glass of Tea

So far, I have learned some things about British identity: the rumours about the queuing are true, at least the Scottish marketing is quite proud of their country, and not even the locals know exactly when to differentiate Scottish, English, and British identity (as seen in the example of the perfect ‘English’ tea from a ‘British’ brand made by a ‘Scottish’ guy). British identity cannot be summarised in a short blog post like this one, but it can be presented roughly. In my opinion, there often is no clear distinction between Britishness and, for example, Scottish identity because no one can actually make out a difference, only point out similarities.

‘What do British identities mean to me?’ – Part Three

This week, we’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by our new intake of MLitt British Studies students at the University of the Highlands and Islands. As part of their induction onto the programme, we wanted to get our students thinking about the nature of British identities, so we set them a blogging task: to answer the question ‘What do British identities mean to me?’

Our third post comes from Grischa Dick, an Erasmus exchange student from the University of Bonn.

When I think of the term ‘British identities’, I try to approach the two words that constitute the term separately in order to come to a valid conclusion. Therefore, it is reasonable to begin with discussing British and to talk about the associations that are triggered by thinking about the term. In the first year of studying I figured out that I had been using the term ‘British’ in a misplaced sense since I had always associated Britishness with characteristics such as the Royal Family, James Bond, London’s and Manchester’s music culture, as well as an overall politeness and a propensity for drinking tea. When I realised that those factors do not primarily refer to the nation of Britain but rather to solely England, I was shocked and I felt somewhat ignorant. From that moment onwards, I have been trying not to mix characteristics up or even forget about non-‘English’ (in the sense of solely England-based) contributions. But on the other side, this mistake made me realise how England-centered mine and others’ notions of Britain actually are and how little, especially in the German school system, was being done to challenge those assumptions.

Talking about identity, it is reasonable to refer to it as a complex as well as a very dynamic phenomenon. Identities are constantly being constructed and re-constructed and therefore, there is no such thing as a static identity or the identity. Applying this approach to answering the actual question, it feels harder to find an adequate answer for the question ‘what does British identity mean to you’. In order to find a remedy, I furthermore think of factors that constitute identities in general, such as social surroundings, the society, (personal) conflicts and the (constructed) interest in specific fields. Considering the ‘pool’ of various hybrid sub-identities, I think I have gotten closer to a personal definition or rather understanding of an actual British identity.

Since Britain consists of different countries, one must not forget that each of those countries contribute to the understanding of Britishness and British identity, and this is basically the point. All those different countries (in this context one could as well call them factors) have their own important characteristics of which some are internationally known. However, since each of the British countries is ruled by one monarchical system, they do share one specific political system, which in a way connects them. The different states could be regarded as siblings and Britain is the institution that holds together, the family so to speak. Another aspect that is shared across Britain is they have the same supermarkets. This leads me to one specific point that I associate with British, namely the supermarket Tesco. Whenever I am in Britain, I look forward to going shopping at Tesco’s since there is the best that you can get as a vegan, as well as if you would like to have an inside into local food culture. Britain is known for its tasty food, whether it is simple fish and chips, salt-and-vinegar crisps, fudge or the infamous haggis. I believe that nearly every British citizen can tell a story about a specific dish and tell how to serve it best, and that is very special.

To sum up thus far, it has been stated out that identities are not something static and can be seen as hybrid phenomena. Finding a specific definition for British identities in this case is subjective and my associations are based on the experiences that I have made in Britain through the years and what I have taken from my studies so far. It is important to me that I have changed my original (and mostly false) notions of Britain during my undergraduate studies and I am curious to find out more about the important aspects that constitute a British identity.

‘What do British Identities mean to me?’ – Part Two

This week, we’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by our new intake of MLitt British Studies students at the University of the Highlands and Islands. As part of their induction onto the programme, we wanted to get our students thinking about the nature of British identities, so we set them a blogging task: to answer the question ‘What do British identities mean to me?’

Our second blog post comes from Sarah Christoph, an Erasmus exchange student from the University of Bonn.

Growing up in Germany with no British background whatsoever, my perception of Britishness must be quite different from how British people themselves understand facets of their identity. My early associations with Britain were solely based on media and pop culture and only later developed into something tangible when I started travelling and became a student of English Literatures and Cultures.

Possibly my first ever memory of Britain is footage from Royal celebrations at Buckingham Palace. As a young girl, I was particularly fond of Lady Diana and her two sons. I believe that the Royal Family influenced my perception of the British, who in my imagination, made up a society of posh people, drinking tea in their tweed clothes in grand mansions. This, of course, is a young girl’s generalisation but this stereotypical thinking is arguably still faintly present in outside accounts of British identity.

My highly-romanticised view of Britain changed when I was starting to learn the language in school and became more interested in music. Britpop was alive and kicking, and I immersed myself in the works of Oasis, Blur and Pulp. My perception of Britain arguably shifted from royalty to working class. It became a little more multi-dimensional but was still very partial.

As a teen, I also started to identify myself more with Britpop’s fashion in contrast to the traditionally-clad Royals or even trends within my own country. Thus, my own German identity was already influenced by another nation’s pop culture.

Oasis brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher performing in 2005 By Will Fresch – originally posted to Flickr as oasis.gallagher.bros.001, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The rise of the internet had a huge impact on my perception of British identity. Being able to research information on topics I liked, instead of relying on the school’s curriculum, enabled me to deepen my knowledge of the UK. Jane Austen’s novels, the Sherlock Holmes adventures as well as their corresponding TV/film adaptations created the ultimate wish to visit Britain myself. My frequent travels to London and the English-speaking friends I made by then shaped my view on Britishness.

Sherlock Holmes Museum in London By Anders Thirsgaard Rasmussen – Sherlock Holmes Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0,

I realised that British identity is multifaceted just like German or any other identity is. It is not solely aristocratic and traditional or even old-fashioned, it is also fast-paced, innovative and can be rough as well as ugly. London’s architecture might serve as a good metaphor where the grandeur of St Paul’s or Parliament is contrasted by the Shard and the Millennium Bridge. I still associate tea culture and politeness with Britain, but by now I am just as aware of the many great coffee roasting houses and the occasional catcall on the street.

St Paul’s Cathedral and Millennium Bridge from the Thames riverside By I, Nattfodd, CC BY-SA 3.0,


2013 I decided to take my interest in the UK to a scholarly level and started studying English Studies at Bonn University. With lecturers from Germany, the UK, Canada and the US, my knowledge and perception of Britishness grew even more diverse. Every teacher aimed at a different approach based on their own culture. I was now able to discuss my love for English literature and pop culture in class but also learned more in-depth about the unpleasant politics and effects of (post-)colonialism.

Thus, my view on Britishness went through different stages correlating with my own biography and interests. The internet and especially my studies turned my partial perception into a more diverse view. For me, Britishness, as well as other cultural identities, is an ever-changing concept, approachable from many different angles but never entirely fathomable.

There may be typical associations with British society, but I believe that these are accompanied by the danger of stereotyping. In the end, British identity is the whole of individual identities, and one should bear in mind that they should not be deprived of their agency.







‘What do British identities mean to me?’ – Part One

This week, we’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by our new intake of MLitt British Studies students at the University of the Highlands and Islands. As part of their induction onto the programme, we wanted to get our students thinking about the nature of British identities, so we set them a blogging task: to answer the question ‘What do British identities mean to me?’marlene pic

Our first post comes from Marlene Wöckinger, an Erasmus exchange student from the University of Salzburg.

… It’s Complicated…

English is not my mother tongue. If you could hear me speak you would notice a strong accent. When I am travelling people ask if I am German. No, I answer, I am from Austria. Not Germany! Even though we speak German, we – Austrians – always make sure we are not mistaken for Germans. After the first and second world war Austria struggled to find a national identity. We now like to be known for Schnitzel, Strudel, skiing and Mozart. But one of the most important things is to stress that we are not German.

Even in Austria – a rather small country – there is a great variation between different regions. Folks who do not live in Vienna do not like the people there. Each state has its own national dish, their own dialect, their own history. On a micro level, even people from one valley know from the way you speak if you come from a different valley; they sometimes can even be aware of the village you grew up in. Origin is important to us.

Not all my childhood friends were Austrian. They came from Croatia, Turkey and Germany. Sometimes they did, sometimes their parents did, sometimes their grandparents did. Growing up, it did not matter to us. Now some of them struggle with their complex identities. It happens most of the time when they are challenged by others who cannot get their head around a person having more than one identity, more than one country they belong to.

Earlier this year I became even more aware of the extent people use national labels to define who they are. When traveling to Palestine and Israel one can easily offend someone by using the wrong term. To give a brief impression of what I mean by that, here are some examples of different identities I came across whilst travelling: ‘Israeli’, ‘Arab’, ‘Palestinian’, ‘Arab with an Israeli passport’, ‘Jew’, ‘Arab Jew’, ‘Israeli with Polish or German ancestors’, … some used more than one of these labels. It is astonishing how many different identities there are. Some defined themselves against someone else, others used relational concepts.

Concerning British identities: looking at Britain one can make comparisons to the examples above. Even though people speak English, never assume they are English! Just like with Austria and the German language, the language you are speaking does not define were you come from and who you identify as.

Scottish or English? Big difference! North or South England? Big difference! Manchester or Liverpool? Big difference! City or countryside? Big difference! Every region has their own identity, their own prejudice, the things they are proud of, the things they like to hide. Being aware of the global, regional or micro level you are looking at is therefore important.

Dealing with British identities one should discuss quite a few opposing but also complementary identities. With its rich history many aspects (migration, race, sexuality, and so on) have to be included in the analysis in order to paint a representative picture of the people.

Coming back to my example of the many different self-definitions I was confronted with in Israel and Palestine, it is vital to point out how national identities differ from person to person. What might fit one, does not fit the other. I still cannot grasp how many ways people have here to describe themselves. It is much more complex than being British, English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh.

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