The Difference Between The UK, England, And Great Britain

Today I found out the difference between The United Kingdom, England, and Great Britain.

The actual name of the sovereign state we are talking about is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK). The United Kingdom is made up of the countries England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

The confusion of the terms seems to revolve around the term “country” and the political powers that are perceived based on that word. While the four countries that make up the UK are considered separate in the minds of locals, and in certain sporting events, their powers for local law and control are devolved from the UK. Think of the 50 states of the United States, while each state has their own set of laws, they all are still under the power of the federal government. In the case of the UK, it is somewhat similar, though certain responsibilities are also implied, like healthcare and education, that are delegated to three of the four countries. The responsibilities that are delegated differ from one country to the next. England is the only country in which the UK does not devolve any powers and instead it is legislated directly by the UK government. When it comes to international politics, it is the sovereign nation of the UK that is recognized and not any of the four constituent countries.

The term “Great Britain” refers to the land mass that comprises England, Scotland, and Wales. Something that aids in the confusion as to the difference between Great Britain and the UK is that the term is sometimes internationally used as a synonym for the UK.  For instance, the UK’s Olympic team competes under the name “Great Britain” and the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) gives the UK the country codes of GB and GBR. This can be confusing given that the ISO also codes England, Scotland, and Wales as subdivision countries of the UK but Northern Ireland as a subdivision province. If you’re getting the impression that Northern Ireland is the red-headed stepchild of the UK, you may be right! (both figuratively and literally, if you believe the current statistics for redheaded populations that is)

The confusion over the definition of these four countries, in reference to the UK, is further muddied up in sporting competitions. There are several international sporting events, like the commonwealth games, and football competitions, in which each of the four has their own team, and do not compete under a unified national team. When competing under these conditions, their nations are referred to as “home nations”. Because each team is from a specific home country, it can lead some to think these countries have political autonomy as well. Given the inebriated thought processes attained during the enjoyment of these competitions, it’s not too hard to understand where this drunken confusion comes from.

If you’re curious when these unions between the countries that comprise the UK came about, it happened as follows:  England and Wales were joined in 1536.  Scotland and England were joined together in 1707, along with the previously joined Wales, to officially form the Kingdom of Great Britain.  Ireland decided to join up in 1801, at which point the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed.  In 1922, however, many of the Southern counties of Ireland decided to remove themselves from the union and the UK changed their name to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

So in summary:

  • Great Britain = England, Scotland, and Wales
  • UK = England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (and the full name is the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”)
  • England = Just the part of the island that is England

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Bonus Facts:

  • The “Union Jack”, the flag of the UK was initially made by superimposing the Flag of England with the Flag of Scotland in 1606.  When Ireland joined up in 1801, Saint Patrick’s Flag was added to the composition.
  • The first peoples of the UK were the Picts who inhabited Briton around 10,000 BC. Two centuries later, they were driven north to Scotland by the Celts who promptly took over. The Romans then conquered in 45 AD and ruled for several more centuries. From around 600AD to around 900AD several peoples known as Angles, Saxons, and Jutes began to populate and govern the area. They became known as Anglo-Saxons. Then between 900 and 1400 came the conquering Vikings, then Danish, and finally the Normans. After that, in 1485 Henry Tudor claimed the English crown and the rest of British rule is an incestuous line of Kings and Queens of the monarchy leading to that handsome Prince William Mountbatten-Windsor and his lovely wife Kate!
  • The United Kingdom ranks 28th on the Human Development Index. This index is a comparative statistic that measures a countries “human development” based on factors like life expectancy, literacy, education, and standards of living, like income potential. Unfortunately for those Northern Ireland folks, their neighbors to the south who left the UK without them, living in the Republic of Ireland, rank 7th.
  • The top five countries on the Human Development Index are: 1- Norway 2- Australia 3- Netherlands 4- United States and 5- New Zealand. The bottom five countries for human development are: Chad, Mozambique, Burundi, Niger, and The Democratic Republic of Congo. So based on these statistics, you can assume you lost the ovarian lottery if you were born in Africa somewhere!
  • The United Kingdom has 14 overseas territories and 3 crown dependencies that do not make up part of the UK itself. Crown dependencies differ from territories in that they are the possessions of “The Crown”, and as such, sovereignty over them lies with the Queen (or King, as the case may be). The executive responsibilities for them are carried out by Her/His Majesty’s Government. The 14 overseas territories are under the sovereignty of UK itself, and not solely the ruling monarch.
  • As of July 9, 2011, there are 195 independent sovereign states in the world. This includes independent Taiwan. So if you’re Chinese, you might consider that there are only 194, but who’s counting anyway? The last country to gain recognition as an independent state was the Republic of South Sudan in July of 2011.
  • The UK does not have a single judicial system; instead, it has three separate systems. These systems are Northern Ireland law, Scots law, and English law. As you might expect, English law governs Wales as well. There are a few instances where there are laws that have jurisdiction throughout all of the UK, immigration law being one; further, employment law is recognized in the three countries of Great Britain proper. The UK has four separate educational systems, and four separate healthcare systems as a result of both being devolved to each separate country.
  • London is not only the capital of England, but is also the capital of the UK.  The capital of Scotland is Edinburgh.  The capital of Wales is Cardiff.  Finally, the capital of Northern Ireland is Belfast.
  • The national anthem of the UK is “God Save the Queen”, though the lyrics are changed to “God Save the King”  when the ruling monarch is a man.  One can only imagine the confusion and tumult at sporting events directly after the death of the ruling monarch where the gender of the heir is different than that of their predecessor and some people have heard of the death and others haven’t.
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  • Technically (although this is up for debate) it’s the Union Flag, unless it’s flown whilst at sea, in which case it’s the Union Jack:

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Piers: noted for future reference. :-)

    • It’s the Union Flag, if at sea or on land, Union Jack is a lazy name.

      Wikipedia is written by the general public and sometime full of b.s.

      The Union Flag contains the flags of Northern Ireland, Scotland and England.

      Wales is a principality of England.

      So Great Britain is England and Scotland really, and as we write at the Olympics, Great Britain and N.I. for Northern Ireland.

      United Kingdom is England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

      That’s my belief.

      • Unfortunately, friend, that belief is wrong. Wales hasn’t been a principality since the Laws in Wales Act of 1535. A principality is a region under the rule of a prince. Wales attained this political status 800 years ago when Llywelyn the Great unified many of the Welsh Lords, he was the original bearer of the title ‘Prince of Wales’. The Principality of Wales, then, was realised by a Welshman, and, like Scotland, had its own legal codes. the Laws of Hywel Dda, parts of which subsisted up 1535. Some sixty years later, Wales was conquered by Edward I, and annexed to the English crown. In 1301, the future Edward II was invested as the Prince of Wales. Today, the title may still exist, but clearly, Prince Charles exercises no power whatsoever over the Welsh people. Contrast this with Prince Albert II who wields political power in Monaco, which is thus properly designated a principality.

        Even if Wales were today ruled by Prince Charles , it wouldn’t be a principality of England, it would be a principality of the United Kingdom, given that Charles is the eldest son of the Queen of the United Kingdom, not the Queen of England. Great Britain is Wales, Scotland and England, and what is bemusing is how this antiquated idea of Wales as anything less than a country still persists – you’re by no means the only person to make the mistake.

  • Factoid: The Spanish for English is Ingles. The Spanish for groin is Ingle. 😉

  • Nobody outside the UK cares.

  • what year was Canada stopped being a part of the UK -They gave up the union jack and chose the Maple leaf.

    • Canada was never part of the UK. As the article above relates, the UK only includes the countries England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (and previously all of Ireland). This would be like saying Australia, The Cook Islands, Fiji, New Zealand, Niue and Tuvalu are part of the UK because they incorporate the Union Flag in their national flags. Canada was, and remains, part of the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth) along with 52 other nations, including the UK, which recognise the current British monarch as the head of the commonwealth.

  • Good article! I am Scottish and so understand the differences very well, and thought you did an excellent job of explaining the confusion. However, I must say, in your summary at the end when you say “England = just part of the island that is England”. I feel this could be explained more clearly as “England is a part of the island Great Britain” Also, as a ‘grammar nazi’ – as we are so called, I must put forward my distress of your use of AD. When using it, it is grammarically correct to place the AD before the date in question, e.g AD900, as oppose to 900AD. Hope I’m not being a pain?

  • Ireland did not ‘Join’ the UK. We were invaded and ransacked, raped and murdered. We rebelled and after years of bloody war against superior and often brutal forces we made treaty with the UK for our independence. Northern Ireland was kept by the British and We singed it away for the promise of peace.

    • I agree with this statement, maybe for the article leave out what actually happened.. but Ireland was invaded by the then UK mostly due to war between the UK and Spain, the UK didn’t trust that Ireland would hold off Spanish ships and instead allow the Spanish to stay in Ireland and attack.

      So the UK then took over Ireland, did the above, took everything of the land and then paid the Irish Nationals little money to work for them leaving the Irish with very little giving English,Welsh and Scottish landlords lots of money to manage the land in Ireland.

      Later after much fighting the UK and Ireland came to a treaty to give back most of Ireland (Republic of Ireland) but keeping the North. To this day there is still flighting between Catholics (Republicans who want Ireland back as one county) and Protestants (Who want to keep Northern Ireland and are proud of being part of the UK).

      These fights and attacks are recently caused mostly by marches from protestants who like to express their union with the UK and it is part of their culture, which inadvertently but questionably anti-Catholicism and this causes allot of trouble and disruption all year round (As protestants march from May-November weekly/bi-weekly).

      The last attach recorded in NI by republicans was yesterday in Belfast Cathedral Quarter where there is a mixed night-life, shopping and restaurants which is condemned by both sides due to the loss in Trade within Belfast it will cause.

    • Oh boo bloody hoo. You were beaten in war. The Celtic Irish were raiding Great Britain before Queen Elizabeth decided to rule Ireland. Britain has been invaded by several other people groups. No one in Britain is whining about the Normans or the Romans or the Vikings. Get the heck over it already. If it weren’t for the British Empire there would be a drastically smaller Irish diaspora. Britain and Ireland have so much in common there like one nation.

  • I somehow don’t think that anyone in the UK would be oblivious of Queenie dying… god forbid.

  • Good article. You might also want to add a bonus fact about the “British Isles” which is a geographical term rather than political.

    As someone else commented, “England = just part of the island that is England” doesn’t really make sense as the island is never referred to as England, but “the island that is British Isles” does when referring to all including southern Ireland (even though they definitely do not consider themselves British!) or to “the island of Great Britain” which matches the political definition (England + Scotland + Wales but not Northern Ireland).

    • Simple fact “England is not an island”.

      • Correct England is not an Island, but Britian is. Since Scotland, England and Wales are located on the island of Great Britian, they are all British. like the other three countries Northern Ireland is part of the UK. Northern Ireland however is not British as they are not located on the Island of Great Britain.

  • There is a problem relating to nomenclature.

    Many understand the term “United Kingdom” within “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” to refer to a union of “Great Britain” on the one hand, and “Northern Ireland” on the other.

    However the term “United Kingdom” precedes The Acts of Union which united the “Kingdom of Great Britain” and the “Kingdom of Ireland” in 1801. It was first officially used in the 1707 Acts of Union where it means a union of “The Kingdom of Scotland” on the one hand, and “The Kingdom of England” on the other. (The three separate kingdoms had been ruled by one monarch (James VI of Scotland and James I of England and Ireland) since 1603)

    Which of the above the term “United Kingdom” means now is sometimes a matter of debate over a round of beer in the pub of an evening, at least within England.

  • Now I finally understand the differences. I’m not from UK and I found this very interesting.

  • Fun fact: The sovereign state with the longest recognised name and the sovereign state with the shortest recognised name is the same place! The United Kingdom Of Great Britain And Northern Ireland (48 letters) is also recognised as just UK (2 letters).

  • Thanks for this article. It is very helpful to me as an American to clear up some confusion. I think that the context of the article is fine to ignore who ransacked, invaded, raped and pillaged whom over the past thousand or two years – that is for an historical discussion. This was strictly intended to provide clarification of name conventions, not make a political statement.

  • I think you mean “derived,” not “devolved.” Devolve is the opposite of evolve, as in, “The conversation devolved into a shouting match.”

  • So is Southern Ireland independent then?

    • Yes it is.

      Although it is part of Europe so you could argue that isn’t truly independent as Brussels will dictate much of what happens.

    • Yes, but I believe it’s not called Southern Ireland. It’s called the Republic of Ireland, or the Independent Republic of Ireland, or just Ireland. All of Ireland was independent (lot’s of invasions and they really had to fight for it, but independent none-the-less) until around the 1500’s when England took over. Later, as part of a peace treaty, England kept part of Ireland (Northern Ireland), and gave part of Ireland their independence back (the Independent Republic of Ireland). That’s a very simplified summary of course…

  • Emmanuel K. Dangan

    Thanks for clarifying my doubt about the understanding of United Kingdom and its divisions.

  • H.E. Pennypacker

    Good article – funny and informative, yet I still find myself just as confused about it as before. I don’t think that’s indicative of the article but rather the confusing relationship that exists between the “countries” over there. It seems to me they’re not states like our states, yet they’re not actual countries either. They’re somewhere in between apparently.

  • Very good article, I just had the thought about UK being/or not being a country. It is still very confusing the Scottish say their country is Scotland, yet If I try to put England as my country I am informed its the UK.. With some of the comments/way of thinking we cannot change what happened many many years ago, we can only try and change the future for the better. I do not have a chip on my shoulder against those countries who fought against England in World war 1 and 2.

  • I would like to correct a statement made here about devolved powers from Westminster to Scotland. Scottish law, education and churches have always been separate as they never were part of the Union of Parliaments in 1707, so have never been “devolved” as you seem to believe. A very important fact to keep in mind. If you want to “find out”, make sure it is correct!

  • I also found the article interesting, many thanks. But some confusion remains: 1. What is the definition of a country? I mean, nobody refers to Texas or Bavaria as a country, so why are Wales and England countries? 2. I’d be interested in the status of the channel islands, are they a part of England, and if not, what are they?

    • The thirteen colonies that the original United States comprised were just that, colonies. They were part of the British Empire. They weren’t autonomous until they founded a new nation, a new country. I couldn’t tell you the precise definition of a country, but I’m sure these colonies didn’t qualify. (I imagine) when the likes of Texas joined the union, it did so on an equal footing with each individual state, not with the whole agglomeration of them, and was therefore accorded the same political status.

      The United Kingdom, on the other hand, represents the union of distinct political entities, and though the uniting was often done against a background of war, coercion and subjugation, it was nevertheless the process of two autonomous, previously-established countries or nations. Its correlate wouldn’t be the US, but, instead, the EU, which likewise represents the political union of countries, rather than colonies or cantons.

      The Channel Islands are called crown dependencies, which is to say that they are self-governing and not part of the United Kingdom.

  • The correct name of the Irish Republic is Erin, or Erie, if you prefer.

  • no that i really care about the UK but i always wondered how the hell they are the UK and sometimes great britt. and as one country they play as different nations in football. but it is now more clear. thank u mate. cheers from Texas, USA

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