I used to correct English people and foreigners who used 'England' when they meant 'Britain'. They would usually be apologetic, occasionally puzzled. Most take the view of the constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor: that the formation of the United Kingdom came about largely as the result of 'the expansion of England through a process of conquest, treaty and negotiation.' Since that is the case, they might reason, why not call it all
England? What's the fuss?
I worked in Moscow at the period before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In that time, a British merchant banker would visit me to pick my brain on the state of the Russian economy, about which, as FT bureau chief, I was paid to try to understand – gleaning what I could from the improvisations which the new government of Yegor Gaidar was struggling to make in the chaos of a collapsed order.
In one such conversation, he used 'England' of the UK and – humorously – I corrected him: 'You mean the UK, I think.' He looked at me quizzically, and said, also humorously – 'Now, now, none of your Scots nationalism!' Yet what I had said was the exact opposite of his playful accusation. I was making – aware of its futility – a unionist remark. I have wished since that I had asked him to explain what he meant. I don't think he was being ironic: he said it thoughtlessly, a little tease. But thoughtlessness has its basis in a prior thought, or mindset – in this case, that my objection to the linguistic absorption of the UK into England could only stem from a disapproval of a union dominated by England, which was likely to have its origin in an attachment to Scots independence.
That mindset now seems to me so natural as to be unavoidable, at home and abroad (though I still try to correct people). Englishmen, and women, with such a mindset will reasonably say (if they don't lose themselves in apologies) that there is, of course, a Scotland, a Wales, and a Northern Ireland, and of course they are different from England. But, they might say (or at any rate think) that England has, over time, taken them in, treated them badly at times to be sure in the past, but ultimately addressed their grievances and come to a civilised union among them.
Yet – the mindset would reasonably continue – a country which is so much England must express English priorities, and these will tend to be more important. English customs, turns of speech, views of the world will be more powerfully present for most British and for most foreigners than any other. This is more the case since the historic and contemporary symbols and institutions of British power and reach – the Westminster parliament, the government departments, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, the monarchy's main site at Buckingham Palace, the great national galleries, the City, the BBC – are in London, both Britain and England's capital. Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland all market themselves to tourists energetically and with some success – but largely for scenery, for adventures by land and sea, and for hospitality and distinctive culture. London is the state's executive power.
The three surrounding nations, the mindset might go on, now have large opportunities to give voice to their needs and complaints, and have all, recently if at different times and to different degrees, been granted substantial self-government. Northern Ireland has had a separate parliament for close on a century. Scotland and Wales have had referenda on devolved government, and Scotland on independence – a manoeuvre not recently granted in other European states such as Spain. There, separatist politicians have been jailed for flouting a constitution which proclaims the indivisibility of Spain, and in Article 155 enjoins a government, if empowered by a majority of the Senate, to force an errant regional authority to desist from, for example, claiming independence.
In the UK, a sovereign parliament is, de facto, the constitution: and at least until the last few decades of the 20th century, that was in the main accepted throughout the state. But within it, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish are represented, even (the Scots) over-represented: their MPs ascend to the cabinet, and to the premiership. Government has not been wholly dominated by the English, and those at its apex have often reflected the multi-nationality of the UK. Since the second world war, however, this has been true only of the Scots: the Welsh and especially the Northern Irish have strong grounds for complaint of very minor representation in the cabinet and in many other power centres, and a complete absence of tenure of 10 Downing Street.
Where it would be unthinkable to have a secretary of state for Scotland who was not Scottish, it's quite common for the secretary of state for Wales not to be Welsh – as in Labour's South African-born Peter Hain, and the Conservative South Yorkshire-born William Hague. Where some redress has been and continues to be made for the past lack of women and both women and men from ethnic minorities in high positions of power, little has been done for the Welsh and the Northern Irish.
Of the 14 prime ministers since the second world war, seven (Clement Attlee, Anthony Eden, Edward Heath, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Theresa May) are 'pure' English – with no near-ancestor being other than English. Four (Harold MacMillan, Alec Douglas-Home, Tony Blair and David Cameron) have strong Scots connections: MacMillan, whose mother was American, was descended from a crofter (great grandfather) on the Isle of Arran: he and Blair, who had a Scots father and a Northern Irish mother, both at times called themselves Scots.
Douglas-Home and Cameron were scions of the Anglo-Scots aristocracy-cum-upper middle class and the former's main home, when he inherited his full title, was in the Scottish Borders. James Callaghan was English with Irish and Jewish forebears; Winston Churchill was English with, like MacMillan, an American mother; and Gordon Brown is 'pure' Scots – indeed, as one of the three sons of a Presbyterian minister, he is from the old religious heart of Scotland.
A close Welsh connection is wholly absent, and Northern Ireland peeps in only through Blair. But Scotland is strongly present: a reflection of its quite different status within the union from those of Wales and Northern Ireland. It was a nation state: and by emphasising, especially in the past half-century, that the 1707 union with England was one of formal equals which reserved for Scotland education, worship and culture, England has been made to feel it owes, not owns it. And England, till now, has usually acquiesced.
Calling the UK 'England' is, for most English, no slight: it is an implicit folding of the 'Celts' into 'Anglo Saxonia' (a distinction with little meaning now: we are quite mixed up). To be reminded that there is another way of expressing that, a 'political correctness' which – unlike other such common references which have been erected into taboos – few mind ignoring. To be corrected just seems a little aggravating. None of your Scots nationalism!
Yet in this apparently trivial mis-naming lies one of the largest issues now facing the UK. How is it to continue as a union, when devolution, especially to Scotland, has so strained its no-constitution constitution to the point where much academic and political commentary believes it to be no longer functional. In the early decades of the 21st century, a nation state regarded as among the most successful and liberal of the past two centuries faces a disintegration, and thus a sharp diminution of its power – just at the time when it faces a transition from being a member of the European Union to not being one, a transition which is a major aggravating factor in the union's integrity.
The easy, even affectionate, assumption by many English people that the surrounding nations are, albeit with some resentment, loyal to a union which (with the constant exception of the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland) still benefits them, appears to be passing. For unionists, the most pressing issue is how to revive a union they feel – and the majority in all of the small nations feel – should be retained and even strengthened.