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Britain - What's In A Name

Land's End

This is not going to be a list of things typically British, such as baked beans, chocolate biscuits, people saying "mustn't grumble" and so on. But a web site called InfoBritain should be able to say what the word "Britain" refers to. This question opens up such a can of worms that it's tempting to change the name of the web site.

Britannia was the name given by the Romans to their northern province, which roughly corresponds with what is known as England today. Previously the island may have been known as Albion, a word which might derive from the Latin "Albus" meaning white, referring to the white cliffs on England's south coast. Some Mediterranean traders might have called Britain the Tin Islands, after the metal they came to the south west of the country to buy. However, these same Tin Islands or Cassirerides, could have been a mythic place created by jealous traders trying to obscure Britain's existence rather than give it a name. When the Romans left early in the fifth century the name Britannia, or Britain, remained, although the province itself broke up into many new territories as the native Celts struggled against an influx of Germanic settlers. Matters were made more complicated by Celts and Germanics fighting amongst themselves. Many Romanised Britons left for the region of Brittany, and according to Norman Davies in The Isles, there were a few occasions when the term Great Britain was used to differentiate the little Britain of Brittany from the bigger Britain to the north.

After the Roman withdrawal the territory of former Britannia spent hundreds of years broken into a bewildering mass of competing kingdoms. By the seventh century there was an uneasy pattern of seven kingdoms - Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia. Scandinavian raiders then began to invade at the end of the ninth century, and eventually took over a great swath of land in the east of the country. The ninth century king of Wessex, Alfred and his successors, managed to work out a way of living relatively peacefully with the Scandinavians. At this time, confusingly, Britain became England. A tenth century chronicler said "Britain has now become England (Engla Land)". History then followed its twists and turns through the Norman, Plantagenet and Tudor eras to the reign of Elizabeth I, who died without an heir. James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603. James wanted to bring England and Scotland closer together, and proposed the name Great Britain for his combined kingdom. He also approved a design for the first Union flag. England and Scotland eventually became united in law by the Act of Union in 1707 during the reign of Queen Anne. With the inclusion of Ireland in 1800, "Britain" referred to the whole of the British Isles.



Scottish Parliament Building, Edinburgh

Some commentators suggest that a united Britain suited all involved states because it gave the manpower to resist France in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and then to build an empire. Scotland's entry into the union in 1707 was encouraged by the feeling that Scots would share in the overseas commercial gains which until then were being enjoyed by England alone. But when the empire was dissolved in 1947 Britain began to switch back to an earlier incarnation. The southern Irish Republic had already broken away in 1922. Movements for greater autonomy gathered strength in Wales and Scotland. Today there are regional assemblies for both Wales and Scotland. Now if someone says they are proud to be British it is hard to know what they mean. Do they mean they are proud to be English, or proud to be English, Scottish, Welsh with a little bit of Irish thrown in? All of these countries are very different, and it is hard to picture someone feeling a proud sense of identification with them all.







Wallace Monument Stirling, Scotland

There are some historians who predict the imminent break up of Britain. Against this possibility is the economic fact that large countries usually do better economically than smaller ones. The states of the United States are more powerful together than they would be individually. Although there are those who jump up and down about patriotism, there are many others who value a better quality of life over such abstract concepts. Inspite of all the flag waving it is usually the economic bottom line that endures in the end, as it did in putting Britain together in the first place. Ironically as the individual parts of Britain try to secure a greater measure of independence, they will probably be individual only under the wider European Union umbrella, to which the Republic of Ireland has already committed itself.

In 2001 the then foreign secretary Robin Cook gave a speech in which he suggested that chicken tikka masala was England's new national dish. There were also some television adverts for McDonalds being shown at the time, publicising a new chicken tikka masala burger. In the adverts British people of Asian origin were singing the Alan Hull song Fog On the Tyne. "The fog on the Tyne is all mine" sang a young Asian man in a wobbly voice. Of course the fog on the Tyne cannot really belong to anyone. The fog drifts over the river and disappears in the sun. And yet it's only something that belongs to no one in particular than can belong to everyone. Britain to me should be like the fog on the Tyne. Only a fog of this nature is free to drift across any barrier and be there in a reassuring way for us all. Nationalists would do well to remember that.





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