Although the term 'Britishness' " into political and academic prominence" only in the late 20th century, its origins lie with the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. It was used with reference to Britons collectively as early as 1682, and the historian Linda Colley asserts that it was after the Acts of Union 1707 that the ethnic groups of Great Britain began to assume a "layered" identity—to think of themselves as simultaneously British but also Scottish, English, and/or Welsh. In this formative period, Britishness was "closely bound up with Protestantism". The Oxford English Dictionary Online dates the first known use of the term Britishness to refer to the state of being British to a June 1857 issue of Putnam's Monthly Magazine.
Since the late 20th century, the exploration and proliferation of Britishness became directly associated with a desire to define, sustain or restore a homogeneous British identity or allegiance to Britain, prompting debate. For instance, the Life in the United Kingdom test—reported as a test of one's Britishness—has been described as controversial. The UK Independence Party have asserted that Britishness is tied with inclusive civic nationalism, whereas the Commission for Racial Equality reported that Scots, Welsh, Irish and ethnic minorities may feel quite divorced from Britishness because of ethnic English dominance; Gwynfor Evans, a Welsh nationalist politician, said that "Britishness is a political synonym for Englishness which extends English culture over the Scots, Welsh, and the Irish". Historians Graham Macphee and Prem Poddar state that Britishness and Englishness are invariably conflated as they are both tied to the identity of the British Empire and UK; slippage between the two words is common. With regards to a proposed oath of allegiance for school leavers, historian David Starkey argued that it is impossible to teach Britishness because "a British nation doesn't exist".
Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, made a speech in 2006 to promote Britishness. Brown's speech to the Fabian Society's Britishness Conference proposed that British values demand a new constitutional settlement and symbols to represent a modern patriotism, including a new youth community service scheme and a 'British Day' to celebrate.
One of the central issues identified at the Fabian Society conference was how the English identity fits within the framework of a devolved UK. Does England require a new constitutional settlement for instance?
Her Majesty's Government has sought to promote Britishness with the inaugural Veterans' Day (now called Armed Forces Day), first held on 27 June 2006. As well as celebrating the achievements of members of the armed forces, at the first event for the celebration Brown said: