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The Difference Between England, Britain and the UK

August 2, 2012

So this is my attempt to explain, in a comprehensible way, the difference between these names, which are often used interchangeably, but actually quite different. If you already know the difference, this is likely to be really boring. If you don’t already now, it could be useful if you’re travelling to any of the non-English parts of the UK; calling a Scotsman “English”, for example, may cause offence. Some of these terms are geographical, others political. You could probably get all this off wikipedia, but I like explaining things to people in an ever-so-slightly patronising way, so I’m going to anyway. So, to begin:

The British Isles

The British Isles are a group of Islands off the north coast of Europe. They look like this:

There are actually over 6,000 islands altogether, but by far the largest two are Great Britain and Ireland. The term “The British Isles” is a purely geographical one, and shouldn’t be taken to mean that they are entirely “British”; there has been some objection to the use of the term “British Isles” for this reason (more on just what that means later). In fact, the British Isles are occupied by two  completely separate, sovereign and independent states: The United Kingdom and The Republic of Ireland.

The Republic of Ireland

The Republic of Ireland, sometimes known as Southern Ireland, or just Ireland, covers the majority of the second largest of the British Isles (which is also commonly referred to as Ireland) The Republic of Ireland is a separate country. Completely. The way that Canada is separate from the US. It has its own president, its own laws, and its own seat at the United Nations. Since it’s a different country to the rest of the UK, I’m not going to talk about it any more here. Lovely place, though.

The United Kingdom

The United Kingdom, or UK for short, is the other sovereign state (I’m trying to avoid using the word country, for reasons that will become apparent later) in the British Isles. It covers everything in the British Isles that isn’t part of the Republic of Ireland. It is a single country (damn, I used that word). It has a single seat at the UN. There is a UK Parliament, based in London, consisting or representatives from every part of the UK, with full legal authority over the whole of the UK. Where parts of the UK have their own devolved or local forms of government, they have been given this power by the UK government.

The Constituent Countries

Technically, the full name of the country is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  In fact, there are four parts to the UK, known as constituent countries; England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

England is the largest, most populous and richest country in the UK. London is the capital city of England (as well as the UK). It’s the only one of the constituent countries not to have its own parliament, but since the UK parliament is so massively dominated by England (over 80% of the UK’s inhabitants live in England), it doesn’t really need one. The UK government effectively fills the role of the English government.

Of the other three constituent countries, Wales is generally regarded as the least independent. It was conquered by England in 1282, and by 1542 was essentially absorbed into England, although this combined country was later referred to as England and Wales. It shares a legal system with England, but has it’s own parliament, known as the Welsh Assembly. Initially the assembly had  relatively minor powers, but these have been steadily increasing.

Scotland is the second largest of the constituent countries, both geographically and by population. Before 1603, Scotland had a separate King to England and was in independent nation, notwithstanding repeated invasions and regime changes by the English. In 1603, James VI, King of Scotland, also became King of England. The two countries were not united, but have had the same ruler ever since. In 1707, after acts of parliament in both Scotland and England, the two countries were united to form the United Kingdom, although Scotland kept its own separate legal system (which it still has). Scotland now has its own parliament once again, although all its powers are derived from the UK parliament. There are plans for a referendum on full independence from the UK to be held some time soon; in the event of Scotland voting for independence (which is unlikely), the UK parliament would then pass a law giving Scotland its independence (as it did with, say, Canada).

Northern Ireland, as the name suggests, occupies the northern part of Ireland. When Ireland was granted its independence in the early 20th Century, the northern counties, with the majority of the protestant, pro-British population, chose to remain in the UK (it’s actually a bit more complicated than this, if you’re really interested, go and look it up). Northern Ireland still has a sizeable catholic minority, many of whom would rather it was part of the Republic of Ireland. Northern Irish politics is incredibly complicated and I’m not going to even try and explain it here, but,as  with Scotland, Northern Ireland has its own parliament and government, with powers granted to them by the UK parliament in London.

Great Britain

This is the slightly annoying bit. Great Britain (also known simply as Britain) is the largest of the British Isles. It’s therefore generally considered that England, Wales and Scotland together make up Great Britain. Actually, because there are so many smaller islands around Great Britain, this isn’t quite true. The Hebrides, for example, are part of Scotland, despite not actually being part of Great Britain. Similarly, the Isle of Wight, just of the south coast of Britain, is part of England. This is a bit of a technicality though; the people living on all of these islands are usually considered to be British. The exception is those living in/on Ireland. Those in the Republic would generally consider themselves to be Irish rather than British, while those in Northern Ireland might, or might not, consider themselves to be British, depending on their political views. Taking Great Britain to mean England, Scotland and Wales is a pretty safe bet.

Other Stuff

What about the Channel Islands, aren’t they British? And Gibraltar? And the Falklands? Well, actually, that’s even more complicated, and there can be a different answer for every tiny little group of islands around the world. If you really want to know, you can go and find out. Or you can go and get a life. I’m a little concerned that I took so much time out of mine to write this. Never mind. I’m off to eat some ice cream.


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