British is the adjective that refers to Britain—historically to Great Britain and today to the United Kingdom. Once a spiritual people, today the British are overwhelmingly atheistic and even disrespectful of religion, unless it is a religion hostile to Christianity. Their provincial reverence for Charles Darwin contributed to their spiritual decline.
The "British people" (usually Britons or, informally, Brits) are the subjects of the United Kingdom. They usually call themselves English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish/Irish referring to which constituent country of the UK they self-identify with. In Northern Ireland "British" is usually associated with the Unionist community, with nationalists and republicans generally regarding themselves as exclusively Irish.
Until the 1960s the word "English" was commonly used instead of "British." This annoyed the Scots and Irish so much that "English" is today more narrowly confined to the language and to the country of England (which comprises most of the British population).
Historically, the British Empire from 1600 to 1997 was the largest empire the world has ever seen, administered from London. British settlements and dependencies—usually called "colonies"—were established all over the world. There was never any doubt that the British were the rulers and the locals were mere subjects.
In terms of size it peaked in the 1920s, covering a quarter of the world's land surface area. Most of the growth came after 1783 when Britain lost America after losing the American Revolutionary War. The large empire was possible because Britain "ruled the seas" through the strong domination of the Royal Navy, and used this to ensure free trading for British interests. With up to a quarter of the world as British subjects, the Empire was also the world's foremost military power. For many centuries, populations lived under a period of relative peace and prosperity that was the Pax Brittannica, though from a modern perspective, the methods used to control and ensure this superiority on occasion were on occasion particularly vicious.
The empire as such no longer exists, though its legacy can still be appreciated today, be it through the popularity of traditional British sports such as football, cricket, rugby and golf; or from the status of English as the current global lingua franca; or from the use of the Westminster system of government and English common law around the world.
The Empire's successor is the Commonwealth of Nations, which still features the British monarch Queen Elizabeth II as the Head of the Commonwealth. The commonwealth consists of the UK, Commonwealth Realms which still have the British monarch as Head of State, and republics.
- The term "citizen" is increasingly used for the more technically correct "subject."
- Leduc, L. The Politics of Direct Democracy: Referendums in Global Perspective; Broadview Press; Ontario. Page 73, (2003)