It is impossible to write about what is quintessentially British without including references to the symbols that are embedded in the cultural and popular history of the nation.
It is a perennially popular challenge to encapsulate in a single image, what most represents a country. School children may be set the challenge for an art project. Sponsors use internet polls to find out what is Britain’s favourite tree, flower, dog breed, or sport etc. National teams and competitions seek an image to represent them on the global stage. The results of each such campaign alone are inconsequential but when collected together they create a visual tapestry of a rich and varied history and culture, full of recognisable symbols that distinguish the British nation from any other.
The present British Union flag, dating from the union of Great Britain with Ireland in 1801 combines the red cross of England, white saltire of Scotland and red saltire of Northern Ireland, while the country of Wales is indirectly represented through the flag of England. A flag is the simplest, traditional and indeed official way to represent a nation. However, it takes nature to add a more evocative image of the land itself. The national emblems of each home nation – the red rose, thistle, daffodil or leek, and flax, fulfil this connection. The inns and hostelries around the British Isles, generally named after historic references, are also inextricably attached to place. The Royal Oak, The Rose & Crown and The Swan are typical pub names found in nearly every town or village in the land.
Animals are held in close affection to British people. More than half of UK adults have a pet and 42% of them have a dog, proving we are a nation of dog lovers and animal lovers generally. While the Labrador is the most popular dog to own, it is the British Bulldog, also a popular choice that has come to symbolise Britishness. British Bulldog spirit, the courage and resilience typical of the breed, were an integral part of wartime propaganda posters used in the Second World War and the symbolism was also attached to Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister during the Second World War.
Some man-made symbols of Britain and Britishness have a widespread fame that far exceeds what you would imagine from their functional purpose! The ubiquitous red telephone box and post box are fixtures held in high esteem throughout the land. When the traditional red phone booths were modernised and new replacements were installed after the privatisation of British Telecom in the 1980s, campaigns to preserve and adopt for alternative uses these well loved symbols of British life achieved a very high profile. These days it is not unusual to find the old style red telephone booths functioning as architectural planters for floral displays or mini information booths or even village libraries and exhibition galleries. There are also more heritage phone booths in London than ever before and British red telephone kiosk can still be found in former or current British enclaves around the world. The British are proud of their cultural icons and will apply their inventiveness and creativity to preserve them.
At a more dynamic level, there are more active examples of British symbolism. Anyone who has witnessed the Red Arrows flying formation team shooting overhead trailing red, white and blue smoke, will attest to a renewal of national pride.
The Red Arrows
The one symbol that translates across the world in any language is association football. With its origins in Britain and being home to some of the most famous clubs in the world, the game remains an icon of Britishness, despite England’s dwindling position in world rankings.
Please browse our gallery of selected great British Symbols above for inspiration, and click to find useful information and links to help you learn about them.