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Britain, UK, England: What Does It All Mean?

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Meaning of England, Britain, UK: Are They the Same Country?

The simple answer to this question is NO!!!

It can often be confusing to know which term to use when discussing the small set of islands in Northern Europe on which I live. Deep-rooted political and cultural differences lead to a hotchpotch of terms being used, and far too often I have seen incorrect uses from outlets on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. This doesn't just account for individuals on Twitter or Facebook, it can also sometimes even trip up major news organisations. I have friends and colleagues who, despite working here, still don't fully understand the differences; I hope that this article can help allay some of the confusion. I wrote this piece in response to various confusions I noticed about what Scotland was voting for in their 2014 Independence Referendum.

British Isles

First up, and starting from the largest in size, is the British Isles.

The British Isles is the term used to describe all of the Islands highlighted on the map to the right. The main two islands are Great Britain (described in more depth below) which is on the right and the island of Ireland which includes both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The British Isles also include the much smaller, self-governing, states of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man (although it should be noted that these islands look to the UK for some aspects such as defence). In total there are over 6,000 islands overall, although only a very small proportion of these are inhabited.

The main thing to note is that, at this level, the terminology still only refers to a geographic landmark and does not describe any political boundaries. Indeed if you were to call an Irishman British, he would probably not be too happy about the fact. It was actually a tweet referring to the British Isles that drove me to write this article about the terms and their use. The tweet said that "Scotland were voting to leave the British Isles". Unfortunately, for this to have happened, it would have required a major tectonic event!

United Kingdom

If you were to look at my passport, the front cover states "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". The UK is officially the country of which I am a citizen, and this is what Scotland were in fact voting whether to leave or not in their recent referendum. As the name suggests the union encompasses Great Britain (a little more below) and also Northern Ireland. A total of four countries.

The Union was created in 1707 when England and Scotland joined together (at this time Wales was already part of the Kingdom of England). The union was mutually beneficial for both parties, England got the security of knowing that Scotland could not choose an unsavoury monarch after the death of Queen Anne and risk an invasion. The Scots were suffering financial issues following an unsuccessful attempt to colonise part of Central America and were given security.

On 1st January 1801, Ireland also joined this union. The two countries had been in a personal union for almost 300 years, but this made the union official and was partly in response to an uprising in 1798. However, in 1922 the majority of Ireland (excluding what is now Northern Ireland) took independence to leave the UK which gives us the format that exists today.

Great Britain

Often you will see the terms Great Britain and the United Kingdom used to mean the same things. Be it in the press or even on drop-down options on websites, the terms are used interchangeably. However, this isn't correct. Great Britain is officially the largest of the British Isles, incorporating just mainland England, Wales and Scotland.

It's an easy mistake to make though. Residents of the UK are known as being British and at events such as the Olympic Games we compete as Great Britain and Northern Ireland (This is partly due to Northern Irish sensitivities over the union and also because Jersey/Guernsey/Isle of Man compete alongside to create Team GB). Indeed, even from a political point of view, you will find islands that are geographically part of Great Britain incorporated into the term as they are wholly governed by one of England/Scotland Wales. For example, the Isle of Wight (England), Anglesey (Wales) or the Shetlands (Scotland).


England is by far the largest member country of the United Kingdom accounting for about 53% of the land mass and 84% of the population. It is probably for this reason that you often see non-Brits refer to people from the UK as English, even though they may be Scottish/Welsh/Northern Irish. As an Englishman myself I don't mind too much but a word of warning, never call a non-Englishman English and expect him to be happy about it!

Only a couple of the top ten largest cities in the UK fall outside England and the largest city by a long way is London which is both the capital city of England and the UK. This can lead to some discontent from the other countries that see UK politics as being too English-centric yet the same argument would occur in other parts of England that see them as too London-centric.


The second largest constituent of the UK in both terms of population (8.4%) and land area (32.3%) is Scotland across the Northern border of England. As mentioned earlier, Scotland has only been a member of the UK since 1707 which, whilst more recent than when the USA declared independence, is still quite recent in nationalistic eyes. In 2014 a referendum was held over the question of Scottish independence, a vote that went in the favour of unity 55%/45% (although the regional differences were quite large as can be seen on the BBC website). However, the question of independence is still high on the agenda in Scotland, especially as, whilst the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU in the Brexit referendum, Scotland would have voted to remain.

As mentioned above the union of Scotland with the rest of Great Britain was mutually beneficial at the time but the Scots do keep a lot of their history and culture alive today be it from the stereotypical bagpiper in his kilt through to the speaking of Scottish Gaelic in parts or the still thriving whiskey industry.

Since 1999, Scotland has had its own devolved parliament that has powers over certain aspects of spending and law-making within Scotland itself and these powers are occasionally increased, especially in light of the recent referendum. This parliament sits in Edinburgh, although the largest city in Scotland is in fact Glasgow.


The next largest member of the union is Wales which has 4.8% of the population and 8.5% of the land. Much of this land is mountainous which makes it very picturesque and leads to about 2/3 of the population living in the south of the country between Swansea to the west and the valleys around Newport to the East. During the industrial revolution these areas were home to hundreds of coal and metal mines that brought jobs to traditionally agricultural areas but today most of these mines have shut which has left behind some financial issues in recent times.

Wales can trace its part of the Union back to the 1530s when it was incorporated into England but it has always maintained its own sense of culture. Today, like Scotland it has its own devolved government although its range of powers isn't quite as broad. The other big cultural difference that you will find in Wales is the language where about a fifth of the population speak Welsh as their native language (primarily in the West and North). This means that every sign in Cymru (to give Wales its Welsh name) is written in both languages.

Northern Ireland

The smallest member nation of the UK in both terms of population (2.9%) and land mass (5.7%), Northern Ireland has had a chequered history. It was created in 1921 as a result of Irish independence and was primarily designed as a home for those Unionists (those who wanted to remain part of UK) who were primarily Protestant in the country. However, a significant minority of primarily Catholic republicans (those who wanted independence) remained as this led to years of near civil war due to sectarian violence known as the troubles. A peace agreement, the Good Friday agreement, was brokered in 1998 and since Northern Ireland has been largely self-governing but there are still underlying issues today.

The largest city and its capital is Belfast which is a lovely city to visit, even if it does still show some of the scars of the troubles. Due to its history with Ireland, there are still a lot of direct links between the two countries with the Republic having discussions over laws etc. that would be mutually beneficial and at a sporting level, some sports, most notably Rugby, both Irish states combine as one.

And Now You Know!

I really hope that this piece has answered some of your questions on what each of the various terms means around the UK/Britain etc. However, if you're still in doubt I think the below Euler diagram could also be of help. Also, if you have any other questions that you feel I didn't quite cover then please leave a comment below and I will attempt to answer to the best of my ability!

Euler Diagram Showing What Is Included In Various Terms

Euler Diagram Showing What Is Included In Various Terms

Questions & Answers

Question: So Elizabeth II is Queen of what?

Answer: She is Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island. However, this is where there is then another layer of complexity as several commonwealth countries have her as a head of state but that is worth and entire new article!

© 2014 Mike Hey