I wrote this piece about British national terms after my Cross-Cultural Communication lecturer asked me about the differences between different UK-ish groups. Anyone/everyone disagree?
The most important bit, and by far the most offensive to get wrong, is recognising that the non-English nations within the UK can never be called ‘England’. England, Scotland and Wales are Great Britain; Great Britain and Northern Ireland together are the UK; and citizens of the UK are referred to as British citizens (the word ‘Britain’ on its own doesn’t have a set meaning). If you call someone from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland ‘English’, they’ll be extremely cross. This is a particular problem for non-native English speakers, since many languages don’t discriminate between ‘British’ and ‘English’.
However, there are also plenty of ways of using technically correct forms that can cause confusion, and sometimes offence.
Most Scottish or Welsh people don’t mind being referred to as ‘British’, although most wouldn’t use that term to describe themselves. However, a Scottish or Welsh person with strong political nationalist views might take offence at it. In general, it’s best to describe someone who’s Scottish or Welsh as simply Scottish or Welsh, although a mixed group of people from England, Scotland and Wales can be referred to as British without offending anyone.
With Northern Irish people, there’s a Protestant/Catholic divide (in the sense of heritage/culture rather than actual religions). Most NI Protestants are happy to identify as British; most NI Catholics would be angry to be described as British, even when they’re in a group that also includes people from England, Scotland and Wales. You can’t even sidestep that one by using ‘Northern Irish’, as most Catholics would just describe themselves as ‘Irish’ (particularly as many Catholics born and resident in Northern Ireland choose to carry [Southern] Irish passports, since the Republic of Ireland grants citizenship to anyone born anywhere on the island of Ireland, and Irish citizenship gives you full residency and voting rights anywhere in the UK). Nor can you sidestep it by using ‘Irish’, because many Protestants would be offended to be described as ‘Irish’ rather than ‘Northern Irish’.
Whether a person born in England says they are ‘English’ or ‘British’ is dependent on several factors: whether they have mixed UK heritage, whether or not they’ve grown up in London (‘English’ tends to have more rural, village green-ish connotations, whereas ‘British’ is more urban and ethnically mixed), if they’re from an ethnic minority (black and Asian people in England generally refer to themselves as ‘black British’ and ‘Asian British’, because they don’t identify so well with the stereotype of English), and political affiliations (because of the connotations above, people who are more conservative are more likely to identify as English and vice versa, although this isn’t a hard and fast rule).
However, most people born in England won’t be offended by being called the term they don’t personally use (I’m not offended to be described as English, and my Tory friends aren’t offended to be described as British) – I think this is largely because England is traditionally the dominant nation/culture within the UK, and in most English people’s minds there isn’t much of a difference between English/British. The exceptions here would include a few extreme English nationalists (but a far smaller percentage of the population than in Scotland or Wales) if called British, and possibly a few people from ethnic minority groups if called English.
(the entirely crazy-old-man David Duff has rightly pointed out that in the spirit of the headline, the Welsh are Taffs. CHANGED)