The Difference between the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England Explained

Welcome to the United Kingdom (and a Whole Lot More) explained by me, C. G. P. Grey. United Kingdom? England? Great Britain? Are these three the same place? Are they different places? Do British people secretly laugh those who use the terms incorrectly? Who knows the answers to these questions? I do, and I’m going to tell you right now. For the lost — this is the world, this is the European continent, and this is the place we have to untangle. The area shown in purple is the United Kingdom. Part of the confusion is that the United Kingdom is not a single country, but is instead is a country of countries.

It contains, inside of it — four, co-equal, and sovereign nations. The first of these is England, shown here in red. England is often confused with the United Kingdom, as a whole, because it’s the largest and most populous of the nations, and contains the de facto capital city, London. To the north is Scotland, shown in blue, and to the west is Wales, shown in white, and — often forgotten even by those who live in the United Kingdom — is Northern Ireland, shown in orange. Each country has a local term for the population. While you can call them all ‘British,’ it’s not recommended; as the four countries generally don’t like each other. The Northern Irish, Scottish, and Welsh regard the English as slave-driving, colonial masters (no matter that all three have their own, devolved, Parliaments; and are allowed to vote on English laws despite the reverse not being true), and the English generally regard the rest as rural, yokels who spend too much time with their sheep. However, as the four constituent countries don’t have their own passports, they’re all British citizens, like it or not.

They are British citizens of the United Kingdom, whose full name, by the way, is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So where’s Great Britain hiding? Right here, the area covered in black is Great Britain. Unlike England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Great Britain is a geographical — rather than a political — term. Great Britain is the largest island among the British Isles. Within the United Kingdom, the term ‘Great Britain’ is often used to refer to — England, Scotland, and Wales alone — with the intentional exclusion of Northern Ireland. This is mostly, but not completely, true, as all three constituent countries have islands that are not part of Great Britain: such as the Isle of Wight (part of England), the Welsh Isle of Anglesey, the Scottish Hebrides, the Shetland Islands, the Orkney Islands, and the Islands of the Clyde.

The second biggest island in the British Isles is Ireland. It’s worth noting, at this point, that Ireland is not a country; like Great Britain, it’s a geographical — not political — term. The Island of Ireland contains, on it, two countries: Northern Ireland, which we have already discussed, and the Republic of Ireland. When people say they are ‘Irish,’ they’re referring to the Republic of Ireland (which is a separate country from the United Kingdom). However, both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom are members of the European Union — even though England, in particular, likes to pretend that it’s an island in the mid-Atlantic, rather than 50 kilometers off the coast of France — but that’s a story for another time. To review: the two largest islands in the British Isles are Ireland and Great Britain. Ireland has, on it, two countries — the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland; while Great Britain, mostly, contains three: England, Scotland and Wales.

These last three, when combined with Northern Ireland, form the United Kingdom. There are still many unanswered questions: such as, why, when you travel to Canada, is there British royalty on the money? To answer this, we need to talk about empire. You can’t have gone to school, in the English-speaking world, without having learned that the British Empire once spanned 1/4th the world’s land and governed nearly 1/4th the world’s people. While it’s easy to remember the parts of the British Empire that broke away violently, we often forget how many nations gained independence through diplomacy, not bloodshed.

These want-to-be nations struck a deal with the Empire: where they continued to recognize the Monarchy as the Head of State, in exchange for a local, autonomous parliament. To understand how they are connected, we need to talk about the Crown. Not the physical crown — that sits behind glass in the Tower of London, and earns millions of tourist pounds for the UK — but the Crown as a complicated, legal entity, best thought of as a one-man corporation. Who created this corporation? God did. According to British tradition, all power is vested in God and the Monarch is crowned in a Christian ceremony. God, however, not wanting to be bothered with micromanagement, conveniently delegates his power his power to an entity called the Crown. While this used to be the physical crown in the Tower of London, it evolved, over time, into a legal corporation; sole able to be controlled only by the ruling monarch. It’s a useful reminder that the United Kingdom is still, technically, a theocracy: with the reigning monarch acting as both the Head of State and the Supreme Governor of the official state religion: Anglicanism. Such are the oddities that arise when dealing with a thousand year-old Monarchy.

Back to Canada and the rest. The former colonies that gained their independence through diplomacy, and continue to recognize the authority of the Crown, are known as the Commonwealth Realm. They are, in decreasing order of population: Canada, Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Jamaica, the Solomon Islands, Belize, the Bahamas, Barbados, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Tuvalu. All are independent nations, but still recognize the Monarchy as the Head of State (even though it has little real power within their borders). There are three further entities that belong to the Crown, and these are the Crown Dependencies: the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey. Unlike the Commonwealth Realm, they are not considered independent nations, but are granted local autonomy by the Crown, and a British Citizenship by the United Kingdom (though, the UK does reserve the right to over-rule the laws of their local assemblies).

Are we all done ???? Almost, but not quite; there are still a couple of loose threads, such as this place: the tiny city of Gibraltar on the southern coast of Spain. Famous for its rock, its monkeys, and for causing diplomatic tension between the United Kingdom and Spain. But what about the Falkland Islands: which caused so much tension between the United Kingdom and Argentina, that they went to war over them. These places belong in the last group of Crown properties known as: British Overseas Territories, but their former name, ‘Crown Colonies,’ gives away their origin. They are the last vestiges of the British Empire. Unlike the Commonwealth Realm, they have not become independent nations and continue to rely on the United Kingdom for military and, sometimes, economic assistance. Like the Crown Dependencies, everyone born within their borders is a British citizen. The Crown Colonies are, in decreasing order of population: Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Gibraltar, the British Virgin Islands, Akrotiri and Dhekelia, Anguilla, Saint Helena, the Ascension Islands, Tristan da Cunha, Montserrat, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, the Falkland Islands, the British Antarctic Territory, and the Pitcairn Islands.

For our final Venn diagram: the United Kingdom is a country situated on the British Isles and is part of the Crown, which is controlled by the Monarchy. Also part of the Crown and the British Isles are the Crown Dependencies. The independent nations of the former Empire that still recognize the Crown are the Commonwealth Realm, and the non-independent remnants of the former Empire and are the British Overseas Territories. Thank you very much for watching!

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