When you are talking to people from Britain, it is safest to use “Britain” when talking about where they live and “British” as the adjective to describe their nationality. This way you will be less likely to offend anyone. It is, of course, not wrong to talk about “people in England” if that is what you mean – people who live within the geographical boundaries of England. After all, most British people live there. But it should always be remembered that England does not make up the whole of the UK.
There has been a long history of migration from Scotland, Wales and Ireland to England. As a result there are millions of people who live in England but who would never describe themselves as English. They may have lived in England all their lives, but as far as they are concerned they are Scottish or Welsh or Irish – even if, in the last case, they are citizens of Britain and not of Eire. These people support the country of their parents
or grandparents rather than England in sporting contests. They would also, given the chance, play for that country rather than England. If, for example, you had heard the members of the Republic of Ireland World Cup football team talking in 1994, you would have heard several different kinds of English accent and some Scottish accents, but only a few Irish accents. Most of the players did not live in Ireland and were not brought up in Ireland. Nevertheless, most of them would never have considered playing for any country other than Ireland.
The same holds true for the further millions of British citizens whose family origins lie outside the British Isles altogether. People of Caribbean or south Asian descent, for instance, do not mind being described as “British” (many are proud of it), but many of them would not like to be called “English”. And whenever the West Indian or Indian cricket team plays against England, it is certainly not England that they support! There is, in fact, a complicated division of loyalties among many people in Britain, and especially in England. A black person whose family is from
the Caribbean will passionately support the West Indies when they play cricket against England. But the same person is quit happy to support England just as passionately in a sport such as football, which the West Indies do not play. A person whose family is from Ireland but who has always lived in England would want Ireland to beat England at football but would want England to beat (for example) Italy just as much. This crossover of loyalties can work the other way as well. English people de not regard the Scottish, the Welsh or the Irish as “foreigners” (or, at least, not as the same kind of foreigners as other foreigners!) An English commentator of a sporting event in which a Scottish, Irish or Welsh learn is playing against a team from outside the British Isles tends to identify that team as if it were English. A wonderful example of double identity was heard on the BBC during the Eurovision Song Contest in 1992. The commentator for the BBC was Terry Wogan. Mr. Wogan is an `Irishman who had become Britain`s most popular television talk-show host during the 1980s. Towards the end of the programme, with the voting for the songs nearly complete, it became clear that the contest (in which European countries compete to present the best new popular song) was going to be won by either Ireland or the United Kingdom. Within a five-minute period, Mr. Wogan could be heard using the pronouns “we” and “us” several times; sometimes he meant the UK and sometimes he meant Ireland!