The UK explained

Mr Londoner explains everything you wanted to know about the UK… but were afraid to ask!

I’m often asked by my overseas guests to explain the difference between England, the United Kingdom, Great Britain and the British Isles. It sounds obvious, doesn’t it …?

So I tested out my own (British) friends and family on the question. There was, if truth be told, a fair degree of confusion.

So here goes then ….


Part A : the bare bones basics

England, Scotland and Wales

England, Scotland and Wales are three nations that together comprise Britain, or Great Britain. Just to confuse you though, each nation is also referred to as a country.

Each of these three nations are proudly – some would argue fiercely – separate entities with their own governance arrangements and regional powers. Wales has a National Assembly and Scotland, the Scottish Parliament. Neither, however, is fully independent. You might make a loose comparison to American states. They have powerful governors and local resources but are nevertheless still subject to US federal law.


Great Britain

Great Britain – or Britain – then consists of England, Scotland and Wales. But excludes Northern Ireland. Are you still with me?


What’s so great about Great Britain?

There’s considerable confusion about the inclusion of the word ‘Great’. Great Britain is purely a geographical reference. So, despite what some may think, the ‘Great’ in Great Britain does not refer to long-forgotten imperial glories or to some overwrought sense of national self-importance. Great Britain is simply a landmass.


So where does Northern Ireland fit in?

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom but shares an open border with Eire, or Ireland. Eire has been an entirely independent nation-state since 1921. Like Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland exercises devolved powers through its own national assembly. And the Stormont Estate – or Stormont as its known – is the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

A map of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and Europe. (Image: Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)


The United Kingdom

Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) plus Northern Ireland together comprise the United Kingdom or the UK. It officially came into being within its current constitutional format, following Irish independence, in 1927. The total area of the United Kingdom, if you’re interested, is 94,000 square miles (240,000 km2). This short film courtesy of Business Insider might help put you in the picture.

In the same way that US states are bound by US federal laws, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are subject to UK laws and bound by the outcomes of UK elections and referendums. This year all four nations left the European Union following the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum – even though Scotland voted against it. This decision has fuelled the rise of Scottish nationalism. Scotland was a fully independent country until 1707 – and there’s a rising political movement for it to become so again.

The Brexit divide has raised the temperature of our political discourse. Image by Mr Londoner.


Confused? No? ok, so what are the British Isles then?

The British Isles by contrast are a geographical landmass. This consists of about 5,000 islands both great and small (depending of course on how you define an island). The description certainly includes the Hebrides (off the north coast of Scotland) and the Isle of Man. When we refer to the British Isles we include Eire – or Ireland – (an independent country, remember, and part of the European Union). Confusingly, we sometimes include the Channel Islands in the description. They are Crown Dependencies and also, technically, not part of the archipelago. Look on a map and you’ll see they’re nearer to France than Britain.


Ok, just so I’ve understood …. Northern Ireland is part of the British Isles, part of the United Kingdom, but not part of Great Britain?

Right first time! Only England, Scotland and Wales comprise Great Britain. All of them together however comprise the UK. And Eire, or Ireland, is a completely independent country.


Part B: a bit more info assuming you’re still there


Birth of a nation … how did we get to where we are?

Fighting dominates our tempestuous history. Conflict between England and Wales was ongoing from the late 13th century. After much bloodshed and eventual conquest, the two nations were ultimately joined, by various legislative acts, in the 1540s. In 1707 – on 1 May – the Act of Union joined England and Wales with Scotland. In 1801 the whole of Ireland joined the party. So, for the next 121 years at least, we became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.


When did Ireland become independent?

Five-sixths of Ireland (in the south of the island of Ireland) seceded from the UK in 1922, leaving the present formulation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The UK’s name was formally adopted in 1927 reflecting the new geopolitical realities. Ireland effectively left the UK in 1922, becoming fully legally independent in 1931.


Who’s actually in charge?

The United Kingdom is a unitary parliamentary democracy. This means the UK is governed by one central authority, our Parliament. Our Prime Minister and Cabinet run the government of the day, elected at least every five years. We are also a constitutional monarchy. The once-absolute powers of the king or queen have been greatly limited (and dramatically so on occasion!) by successive Parliaments since the 13th century. However, our monarch – not the Prime Minister – remains the Head of State.

The Houses of Parliament. Image by Maurice, licensed under CC BY 2.0


Ok, so there’s a Constitution?

Yes … and no. Unlike the USA or France, the UK has an unwritten Constitution rather than something neatly codified into a single document. Our Constitution has evolved through case law, going back over the centuries. It includes the 1215 Magna Carta, which strengthened individual rights, protected subjects from arbitrary arrest and limited the power of the King. Our highest court in the land is now the UK Supreme Court. It recognises key and long-established constitutional principles. They include the sovereignty of Parliament, democracy and the rule of law – both domestic and international, a point severely tested during the Brexit negotiations.


So where does the Queen fit in today then?

Queen Elizabeth II has reigned since 1952, when her father, King George VI died. Her coronation was in 1953, on 3 July. Either way, that still makes Her Majesty the world’s longest-serving current head of state. When the Queen dies she will be replaced by her son-and-heir, Prince Charles, currently the Prince of Wales.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Image by Foreign and Commonwealth Office, licensed under CC BY 2.0


What’s the Commonwealth?

The British Commonwealth of independent nations is what has emerged from the end of Empire. Unlike the Empire, membership of this body is entirely voluntary.

All 54 members of the Commonwealth are former British colonies or protectorates with one exception, Rwanda, which joined in 2009.


And dare I ask … what about the European Union?

The UK joined what was originally the EEC (the European Economic Community) in 1973. On 31 January 2020, the country became the first member state to depart the Union having voted to leave after the Brexit referendum in 2016. The decision means the UK is leaving the EU single market and customs union and is ending the freedom of movement that has allowed British citizens to live and work across the 27 countries of the Union.

Image by motiqua, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The UK actually left the EU earlier this year. But it is currently in a period of transition, to at least 31 December 2020, where EU regulations relating to trade, employment law and environmental standards etc, still apply. The negotiations, specifically to clarify the exact terms of a final departure deal, have been bad-tempered to say the least.


Whatever your views on Brexit, this controversial vote has divided the UK. It continues to inflame passions on both sides and currently makes us a rather Dis-United kingdom.


Featured image by LaertesCTB,  licensed under CC BY 2.0

About the author:

Mr Londoner is writer, broadcaster and ex-museum director Antony Robbins. He’ll run his walking tour: Vive La difference – from weavers to baristas – how Europeans have shaped our city, on 10 October 2020.