Brand Strategy Marketing

England’s seizure of God Save the King causes a UK identity crisis


By Gordon Young, Editor-in-Chief

September 14, 2023 | 6 min read

The Drum’s Gordon Young has a go at sorting out the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s very obvious branding problem.


The UK and NI have challenges around the naming and visual identity. Even those dabbling in the fashionable realm of audio branding will agree it has a few issues on that front, too.

And for evidence of that, look no further than the unholy row concerning the recent Scotland v England football match, where the Scots drowned out the English national anthem with boos. More on that in a minute.

But in terms of the basics, confusion reigns - we are British, except if we come from Northern Ireland. We also identify as either English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish.

Our history is the root of the confusion. Great Britain was formed by the Union of the Crown between Scotland and England in 1707. However, in 1801, Ireland joined to form a new entity, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland - which, after the birth of the Irish Free State - became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1927.

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Confused? We are, too. Abroad, if not England or Great Britain, the country is called the UK. But unlike the French, American or Chinese - everyone else - there is no collective noun for somebody from the UK. UKer as an option? Nope, that could be rhyming slang.

Our national institutions are impacted, too.

The central bank is called The Bank of England. Mind you, it was founded by William Patterson, a Scotsman, so that might be OK.

And a key UK inward investment campaign uses the Great Britain brand to make the point we are great at everything (except national branding). As an afterthought, Northern Ireland is shoved into the ads. So we are total UKers, after all.

But the fault line can cause seismic rows in the realms of sport. And there was no better example than the Scotland v England game.

Football pundit Ally McCoist - a Scotsman himself - accused the Scottish fans of disrespect for booing and suggested their animosity was driven by ‘SNP extremists.’ But I grew up in the 70s and 80s. I am old enough to remember that golden era when Scotland had a record-breaking streak for continuous qualification into the World Cup (we qualified for everyone between 1974 and 1990). It was also an era when the SNP was deemed an eccentric fringe.

We booed England then, too - resenting the fact that their Football Association not only commandeered the national anthem as their own but, back then, also the Union Jack.

Michael Stewart, the pundit and former Manchester United and Scotland player, pointed out on the BBC, “God Save the King cannot be the English *and* British national anthem. That is the crux of the issue. England is not Britain, but it acts like it is on many fronts. That’s disrespectful and unacceptable. It’s also not sustainable.”

Back in the day, it felt like Scotland was not only playing against England but also Britain. I often wonder if this sentiment helped the rise of the SNP.

There is no doubt that branding has a key role in defining nations - the US is perhaps one of the best examples, and its national flag is a stunning piece of graphic design. Its strong national identity is key in unifying a diverse, disparate and sometimes divided nation.

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Now, the UK or Great Britain, or Britain - whatever it is called - has a lot going for it. England now waves its own flag at tournaments, and the Royal Family remains a unifying force. But some bugbears remain.

Without a doubt, from the perspective of UK national brand cohesion, the England football team continuing to use the national anthem is an own goal.

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