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.
Source: A genealogy of the term British reveals its imperial history – and a Brexit paradox : The Conversation