BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: UK
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Friday, 20 April, 2001, 17:31 GMT 18:31 UK
Are the British a race?

Is there such a race as the British? With 2,000 years of immigration behind us, we are a well and truly mixed bunch, writes Jonathan Duffy.

If the challenge had been to expunge racism from the general election hustings, then it has not been a good start.

Even before official campaigning has begun, the thorny subject of race is all over the front pages.

Ronnie Barker dressed as a Viking
Short on morals but big on pillaging: the Vikings
Writing in the Daily Mail on Friday, Roger Scruton admonished the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, for his "in praise of multiculturalism" speech the day before.

"Labour rightly takes pride in respecting minorities yet refuses to accept the existence of a British race," sings the headline.

But has there ever been such a thing as a British race?

It all depends on which definition you chose for "race" itself.

The Oxford English Dictionary broadly defines the word as "a group of persons connected by common descent".

Asians expelled from Uganda arrive in the UK
Asians expelled from Uganda arrive in the UK
That seems to open the door to the idea of a British race, although since modern Britain only became an entity with the Act of Union in 1707 we are still a relatively young race.

But the OED's primary definition for "race" is more specific, siding with the idea that race can transcend national borders.

It classes a race as one of the "major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics".

In which case, the modern-day British are not a single race but a hotchpotch of ethnic groups that have settled within these shores down the centuries.

Certainly then, the notion of racial purity among the British is a fallacy, and our multiculturalism dates back to the Dark Ages and beyond.

Goodness Gracious Me
Immigrants have taken on many aspects of British culture
The Celts and Picts are among the most ancient settlers of the British Isles. They were followed by the Romans in the first century AD, although their contribution to British stock is thought to be minimal.

The Romans quit Britannia, as they had termed it, in the 5th century AD, making way for a succession of invasions by the Jutes, the Angles and the Saxons.

These three tribes, which settled mainly in southern England, were all Germanic people descending from parts of Denmark and what is now northern Germany.

Some 400 years later came the next wave, this time it was the Vikings. These pagan Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish warriors settled large tracts of what they called Bretland, including Shetland, Orkney, Northumbria and East Anglia.

Next up came the Normans, who were themselves descendants of the Vikings that had settled in northern France.
Chinatown, Manchester
The Far East has come to Manchester

In the thousand years since the Norman Conquest of 1066, there have been several other tides of settlement including a band of about 100,000 Huguenots fleeing persecution from France in the late 17th century.

The 19th century saw an influx of Jews and Irish and post-war 20th century Britain opened its doors to Poles, Indians, West Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Ugandan Asians and Chinese.

Do today's asylum seekers, who have come in from Eastern Europe and further afield, represent another step forward in Britain's long history of multiculturalism?

Opinion may be divided but what is certain is that when it comes to ethnic purity, the British are a lost cause.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console

Race row
Should race be an election issue?
See also:

20 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Portillo refuses to sign race pledge
19 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Tories reject Cook race claim
20 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Full text of anti-racism election pledge
Links to more UK stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK stories