British culture

For those moving to the UK there are many new ideas, phrases and organisations to learn about. Whilst the official Home Office study materials give you an overview of some of the most important aspects of life in the UK there are still many things that can be very confusing at first.

Because this can be a complicated enough time for people seeking to make the UK their home we have compiled the following list of explanations to help you build a fuller understanding of life in the United Kingdom. If there are any topics which you think should be featured here then please contact us and let us know!

The Law

The police

The police force is a public service that works to protect the citizens of the United Kingdom from the effects of crime and as such there are certain powers they have. They have the power to stop any member of the public on foot in connection with a crime that is about to take place, or is taking place. They can stop people in a vehicle at any time. As part of this they can search a person or vehicle if they think they are involved in a crime.

If the police stop you you should give your name and address if they ask you. You do not have to answer any other questions, although you should consider what the police may think if you refuse to answer any! You are allowed to as for the name and badge number of an officer who has stopped you, and the reason why you have been stopped.

The police can ask you to go to a police station to answer more questions or make a statement - if you go voluntarily (and have not been arrested) then you can leave when you like. If, however, you have been rude, misleading or have given them grounds for suspicion they may arrest you. If you have been arrested then you cannot leave until you have been released by the police.

The police force, however, must also obey the law themselves and are bound by the following obligations:

  • they must not misuse their authority
  • they must not accept bribes or treat people differently for any reason
  • they must not make a false statement
  • they must not be abusive or commit any form of discrimination

Police officers should uphold the letter of the law and as such any corrupt or inappropriate practices should be punished. Should you feel you have been mistreated by a member of the police force you should contact the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

Being arrested
If you are arrested then the police should tell you the reason for your arrest. If this happens then you should be aware of the following:

  • If you have difficulty understanding English, an interpreter should be supplied, unless a delay might result in serious harm to a person or property
  • You have the right to see a solicitor
  • You have the right to send a message to a friend or family telling them where you are
  • You have the right to see the codes of practice the police should follow when searching and collecting evidence
  • For people under 17 years old, the police should only interview them if an ‘appropriate adult’ such as a adult friend, teacher or social worker is present.

More detailed information can be found in chapter 7 of the Home Office’s official study materials.

Knives and other weapons

It is against the law and a punishable offence to carry knives, guns or anything considered an offensive weapon in public spaces. This is a very high profile issue, particularly in London, and one that will be taken very seriously by the police and the courts. An offensive weapon is any bladed or sharply pointed instrument. The maximum penalty for an adult carrying a knife is four years in prison and a fine of £5000.

The Courts

There are various courts in the UK that deal with different types and severities of crimes. The matters these courts deal with is not always obvious, so a brief summary of the different courts, and the matters they deal with can be found here.

County Courts - The County Court, sometimes also referred to as the Small Claims Court, deals with civil matters such as claims for debt repayment, personal injury, breaches of contract, family issues such as divorce or adoption and housing issues, such as disputes over mortgages, rent arrears or repossession.
To take a case to a county court you must issue a claim to the court. The defendent is then contacted and invited to respond - if they dispute the claim then the case is heard by a judge in a private and informal hearing. A copy of the judgement, or order, is then sent to both parties and a record of any monies owed entered on the Register of County Court Judgements.

Youth Courts - The Youth Court is a part of the Magistrate’s Court and deals with almost all cases where the defendant is a minor, which is someone under the age of 18. They have the power to give detention and training orders of up to 24 months. As in Magistrates’ courts, cases are heard by a magistrate or a District Judge. They tend to be more informal than the adult and higher courts, but hearings are not open to the general public.
Young people may have to appear in the Crown Court if they are being judged with an adult or if the offence is very serious and the sentencing powers of the Youth Court are thought to be inadequate. Homicide and rape cases are always heard in the Crown Court.

Magistrate’s Courts - Magistrate’s courts handle the significant majority of cases in the criminal justice system - over 95%. Magistrate’s also deal with many civil cases (such as family matters, liquor licensing and gaming).
Cases are usually heard by a panel of three magistrates, who are referred to as ‘the bench’. Magistrates come from all walks of life and do not usually have any legal experience. There are also around 130 District Judges, who are experienced barristers or solicitors, and they sit alone and deal with the more complex or sensitive cases such as those to do with fugitive offenders or serious fraud.
Magistrates are generally limited to ordering sentences of up to six months (12 months for consecutive sentences) or fines of up to £5,000. If a more severe sentence is thought necessary then the magistrates can refer the case to the Crown Court.

Crown Court - The Crown Court deals with serious criminal cases such as murder, rape or robbery. These cases may be heard on appeal or referral from the Magistrate’s courts. Trials are heard by a Judge and a 12 person jury which is made up of a random selection of members of the public. Hearings are open to the public.

High Court of Justice - This is usually known simply as the High Court and deals with all high value and high importance cases. It is split into three divisions which deal variously with contract law and personal injury/negligence claims, business, trust or land law. The High Court deals with serious family matters such as disputes between families and hospitals over medical treatment or domestic violence. The High Court can also pass judgements on points of law from the lower courts, if required - This means that a difficult case has highlighted some uncertainty in legislation and the High Court is required to pass judgement on the interpretation.
Cases are normally heard by a judge, appointed by the monarch, as advised by the Judicial Appointments Commission. The Government is obliged by statute to respect judicial independence and so can’t influence these choices.

Court of Appeal - The Court of Appeal is the highest (most senior) court within the senior courts, including the High Court and Crown Court, and is split into two divisions. The Civil Division hears appeals from the High Court, the County Courts in England and Wales and from certain Tribunals such as Employment Appeal Tribunals and Immigration Tribunals. The Criminal Division hears appeals from the Crown Court.

Supreme Court of the United Kingdom - The Supreme Court was opened in October 2009 and hears the cases of greatest public or constitutional importance affecting the whole population. It is also the final court of appeal for cases passed up from lower courts. Information about the Court and judgements it has made can be found on the Supreme Court website.

The monarchy and national symbols

The United Kingdom is an administrative union of several nations and a principality. Detailed information about how this is governed can be found in your study guide, however some more information about the symbols and traditions of the nation are included here.


One of the most famous sights associated with London is that of the Yeoman Warders, popularly known as the Beefeaters. Traditionally these are the guardians of the crown jewels and any prisoners kept in the Tower of London, although today they act as tour guides, and an attraction in their own right.

It is uncertain where the name Beefeater came from, but the most likely and popular option is that their wages were in part made up of rations of beef.

There are 35 Yeoman Warders and one Chief Warder today - all of them are retired members of the armed forces and must have been senior non-commissioned officers with at least 22 years of service.

One of the warders is the Ravenmaster who is responsible for the welfare of the ravens at the Tower of London. A legend says that if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London then the monarchy will fall - today their wings are clipped to prevent them flying away.

National flowers

As well as having patron saints, each country in the United Kingdom has its own national flower. For England, this is the rose - it has been the rose since the English civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses, which took place in 1455-1485. During these wars the royal house of Lancaster used a red rose and the royal house of York used a white rose.

In Scotland the national flower is the thistle, a very distinctive, prickly and purple flower. This has also been used since the 15th century.

The national flower of Wales is the daffodil, a common sight in spring time.

In Northern Ireland the national flower is a three-leaved plant, very similar to clover, called the shamrock.

The Union Flag

The Union Flag of the United Kingdom is popularly known as the Union Jack. Its name comes from the fact that it is made up of a union of the English, Scottish and Irish flag and has been used in its current form since the union of England and Ireland in 1800. There is some debate as to where the name Union Jack comes from - supposedly takes its origins in the national flags flown from ships for identification, which were called ‘jacks’. The Welsh flag does not feature because Wales was a principality and not a country when the union was formed. It was formed in 1801, when Ireland became part of Great Britain.

The flag is flown from government buildings and royal residences on the following days:

  • birthdays of members of the Royal family
  • Commonwealth Day
  • Coronation Day
  • the Queen’s official birthday
  • Armistice or Remembrance Day
  • the opening and closing of Parliament
The flag is flown at ‘half mast’ - which means it is flown at half the height of the flag from the top of the pole - on days of national mourning. The flag may be flown at half mast on the following days:
  • from the announcement of the death of the monarch until the funeral - except for the day that the new monarch is announced, when the flag is flown from 11am until sunset
  • funerals of other members of the royal family
  • the funeral of foreign leaders, on command of the monarch
  • the funerals of prime ministers and ex-prime ministers, on command of the monarch
  • other times of national mourning, such as after the 7 July bombings in 2005


You may well hear about people being referred to as Sir, or Dame, or given the letters OBE, CBE or MBE after their name. These pre- or post-nominals (meaning they come before or after a name, respectively) refer to an award given by the monarch for distinguished contributions to society.

Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)
People are awarded the honorific of MBE for:

  • achievement or service in and to the community of a responsible kind which is outstanding in its field
  • very local ‘hands-on’ service which stands out as an example to others.

Once they have received this title they are referred to with the letters MBE after their name.

Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE)
People are awarded the honorific of OBE:

  • for a distinguished regional or county-wide role in any field
  • through achievement or service to the community and including notable practitioners known nationally.

Once they have received this title they are referred to with the letters OBE after their name.

Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)
People are awarded the honorific of OBE for:

  • a prominent national role of a lesser degree
  • a conspicuous leading role in regional affairs, through achievement or service to the community
  • making a highly distinguished, innovative contribution in his or her area of activity

Once they have received this title they are referred to with the letters OBE after their name.

Someone can be knighted or damed by the monarch, after which they are referred to as Sir or Dame. Famous examples include Sir Paul McCartney and Dame Judi Dench. People receive this honour for achievement or service:

  • to the community usually, but not exclusively, at national level
  • in a capacity which will be recognised by peer groups as inspirational and significant nationally and
  • which demonstrates sustained commitment.

Succession to the throne

We have included the first 10 people in line for the British throne. It is widely known that Prince Charles will be the next monarch, after the death of the Queen.

The line of succession follows some very specific rules. A person is always immediately followed in the line by his or her immediate descendants, and both age and gender matter - the eldest sons come before younger sons and all sons take precedence over daughters. Some would suggest that this is a sexist rule, but it is based on a long-lasting tradition.

As the monarch must also be a Protestant, anyone who is a Roman Catholic, becomes one, or marries one, is immediately excluded from the succession. Further, a person whose parents were not married to each other at the time of his or her birth is excluded from the succession, even if the parents subsequently marry.

  1. HRH The Prince of Wales (The Prince Charles; b 1948) son of Queen Elizabeth II
  2. HRH Prince William of Wales (b 1982) son of The Prince of Wales
  3. HRH Prince Harry of Wales (b 1984) son of The Prince of Wales
  4. HRH The Duke of York (The Prince Andrew; b 1960) son of Queen Elizabeth II
  5. HRH Princess Beatrice of York (b 1988) daughter of The Duke of York
  6. HRH Princess Eugenie of York (b 1990) daughter of The Duke of York
  7. HRH The Earl of Wessex (The Prince Edward; b 1964) son of Queen Elizabeth II
  8. James, Viscount Severn (b 2007) son of The Earl of Wessex
  9. The Lady Louise Windsor (b 2003) daughter of The Earl of Wessex
  10. HRH The Princess Royal (The Princess Anne; b 1950) daughter of Queen Elizabeth II

Manners and practices

It is likely that there will be an element of culture shock for you after you arrive in the United Kingdom. Every country is different and every day things that you take for granted may not be done in Britain, or could be mistaken for being rude.

Because people born in the United Kingdom take these things for granted and do many of them without thinking they can be very hard to understand for new arrivals.

Etiquette and manners

The British are famous around the world for the importance they place on manners and politeness. Whilst it may seem like there are an endless number of unwritten rules and restrictions applying to everything we do, it is more the case that certain courtesies are normal practice.

There are far too many to list here, but here is a useful and practical summary. These suggestions may seem completely normal practice to you, or they may be very strange - the important thing to take from them is an understanding of what is considered normal to the average British person!


It has been said by many people that the British make queues as a national past time, or sport. What is certain is that as a nation we naturally organise queues or lines were any kind of wait for a ticket machine, shop assistant, service, or indeed pretty much anything you have to wait for!

It is considered very rude to push to the front of, or jump, a queue. It is assumed that everyone knows this so do not be surprised if people react badly to someone pushing in.
It is important to note that this rule also applies to places where it may look like there isn’t a queue. When ordering rinks at a bar, for instance, people are normally aware of their ‘place’ in the queue - again, pushing in or trying to get served out of turn is considered very bad manners.


It could be said that the British are animal lovers. Many people in the United Kingdom have pets, and are often very proud of them. There are charity organisations such as the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) dedicated to protecting pets and wildlife alike.

You must be over 16 years old to buy an animal, and for pet owners there are legal responsibilities which can’t be ignored. For instance, if you own a dog then you must clean up the mess if it fouls in a public place. Special red bins are provided in parks and other areas where people normally walk their dogs; otherwise you should take it home with you and dispose of it there. If you do not do this then you can be fined by the council.

If you own a cat or a dog then you should make sure they wear a collar with their name and contact details on it. You can also get your cat or dog fitted with a microchip which contains the owner’s contact details. If your animal gets lost or separated from you then these can help you be reunited.

Travelling with pets
If you want to bring a pet dog, cat or ferret in to the United Kingdom then it is possible that they will have to spend a period in quarantine. All dogs, cats and ferrets entering the UK must be vaccinated against rabies.

Certain countries, such as the EU, and many of the Commonwealth countries, are part of the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS) which means that your pet may not have to enter quarantine. Details about travelling with animals and the PETS scheme can be found on the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) website.

Caring for animals
All pet owners are also obliged to provide the following for their pets:

  • Somewhere suitable to live
  • a proper diet, including fresh water
  • the ability to express normal behaviour
  • for any need to be housed with, or apart from, other animals
  • protection from, and treatment of, illness and injury

Anyone who does not provide these welfare needs, or is cruel to an animal can be banned from owning any pets or animals, fined up to £20,000 and/or sent to prison. Some information about the Animal Welfare Act 2006 can be found on the DEFRA website.

Treatment for sick animals
Veterinary surgeons are medical professionals who treat and care for sick and injured animals. There are veterinary surgeries across the United Kingdom and they can be found easily through the Yellow Pages, local listings and other directory services.

There is a charity called the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) which offers veterinary treatment for people who can’t afford it. The service is also available to pet owners who receive either housing benefit or council tax benefit and who live within a certain catchment area near a PDSA practice. More information can be found on the PDSA website.

Lost and stray animals
You should register your dog or cat with the National Pet Register as in the event that your pet gets lost or stolen then having their information on the register can help you be reunited.

The council is responsible for dealing with stray dogs. A stray dog is any animal which does not have a collar or microchip with the owners details on it. You can report a stray dog to your local council through the DirectGov website. If dogs are not claimed by their owner then it is down to the local authority policy as to what happens next - this may lead to the dog being destroyed.

If you have found a stray cat then you can find advice on the RSPCA website

If you are concerned about a sick wild animal you should call the RSPCA on 0300 1234 999 or visit the orphaned animals page of the RSPCA site.