Understanding how the places that make up the United Kingdom can be confusing for outsiders. Here’s a quick guide of how England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom all fit together.
What’s the Difference Between England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom?
Let’s start with the big picture and drill down. The United Kingdom, whose official name is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is made up of the “countries” of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. (I’ll explain why “countries” is in quotes later…)
Great Britain is a specific island containing the “countries” (yes, still in quotes) of England, Scotland, and Wales. Northern Ireland is the northern part of the island of Ireland. While Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, the rest of the island is a sovereign nation, the Republic of Ireland.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the terms United Kingdom and Great Britain are often used synonymously. But that isn’t quite accurate. One of the best examples is how the United Kingdom participates in the Olympic Games, not as the UK, but as Great Britain. Inside the nation, the UK’s Office for National Statistics refers to England, Scotland, and Wales as countries but to Northern Ireland as a province.
Pro Tip: Here’s what to do and see if you only have two days to spend in Edinburgh.
Designing the Union Jack, the United Kingdom’s Flag
The “Union Jack”, the flag of the United Kingdom was initially made by superimposing the Flag of England…
What About the Channel Islands — Jersey and Guernsey — and the Isle of Man?
Jersey and Guernsey, the Channel Islands, are in the English Channel that separates Great Britain from France and the rest of the European continent. The Isle of Man sits squarely between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. Although they are within sight of the land that makes up the United Kingdom, all three of these islands — Jersey, Guernsey, and Isle of Man — are not part of the UK. Instead, they are considered Crown Dependencies. This means that they are largely self-governing, yet still part of the British Crown. So while they may have some autonomy in terms of local government and laws, they are dependent upon the UK for things like defense and international relations.
Fun Fact: Citizens of Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man carry a special British passport that ties them to their specific Crown Dependency.
The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire
Additionally, the British Overseas Territories are not part of the United Kingdom. There are currently 14 territories around the world that fall into this category. Roughly half of the British Overseas Territories are islands in the Caribbean Sea. Others include islands in the Indian Ocean, South Pacific, and off the southern tip of South America. There is also the British Antarctic Territory and Gibraltar at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula where it borders Spain and looks across the Strait of Gibraltar at Morocco.
About Those “Countries” That are Apparently NOT Countries
When it comes to international politics, the nation of the UK is what’s recognized, not any of the four “countries.” From an American perspective, this should be easy to follow. California, Texas, and New York don’t attend NATO and United Nations meetings. The United States does.
Related Article: How to Speak Yankee – A Guide for People Who Speak Queen’s English
So the Four Countries of the UK are Like the 50 States in the US?
Yes. Actually, no. Well, it’s complicated.
From a legal perspective, the UK does not have a single, country-level judicial system like the Federal law in the United States. Instead, it has three different systems. Northern Ireland law in Northern Ireland, Scots law in Scotland, and English law in both England and Wales. There are a handful of exceptions to the country-level laws explained above. One is immigration law which applies across all of the United Kingdom. This makes sense since passports are not issued for England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Rather, they are issued for the United Kingdom.
When it comes to education, there are four separate systems. To some degree, this is similar to state-by-state differences in our public schools. However, while we have the Washington, DC-based Department of Education, national aptitude tests, and national college entrance exams, this is not part of the system in the UK.
England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland each have their own capital. This is similar to the way each state has its own capital. The capital of Scotland is Edinburgh, the capital of Wales is Cardiff, and the capital of Northern Ireland is Belfast. But in England, London is the capital of that “country” as well as the capital of the United Kingdom. That would be like Boston being both the capital of Massachusetts and the capital of the country.
Sage Advice: Explore the capital city’s most impressive sights with this London landmarks walking route.
What Do You Call People from England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom?
Sticking with our top-down approach, anyone from the United Kingdom can be called British. Just like anyone from the United States of America can be called American. But citizens may also identify with England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland on a more local level. So, just like an American can also be a Texan, Californian, or Kansan, people holding British passports may also identify as English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish.
Ultimately, British is an overarching state identity. However, in Scotland and Wales, citizens tend to identify more strongly with that country over Great Britain. So they are more likely to say they are Scottish or Welsh than British. In England, most white people consider themselves English first and then British. But minorities and first, second, and third generation immigrants often consider themselves to be British rather than English because it’s an inclusive identity.
Pro Tip: Scotch is a term to describe something from Scotland. An example is a Scotch egg, which is boiled and wrapped in breaded sausage meat. But when it comes to the residents, the term is Scots, as most Scottish people find the term Scotch to be offensive if applied to humans.
Fun Fact: While Cornwall is considered an English county, the Cornish people are a protected national minority. Or, learn about the Cornish people who immigrated to the US in the 19th century by visiting this destination.
What About You?
Have you hesitated while trying to decide whether to call someone English or British? Were you clear on the difference between Ireland and Northern Ireland? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.