England, Britain, and the United Kingdom: What’s the Difference?

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Located off the Northwestern Coast of continental Europe lies an archipelago of islands that most of you are familiar with. 

The thing is, the name of the islands and the names of the places that make up the islands are often used incorrectly. 

Moreover, how all the various parts of this archipelago are related to each other is pretty confusing as well.

Learn more about England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and the British Isles and how they are not the same thing on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

This is a topic I figured I should do an episode on because I’ve referenced it in so many previous episodes, but I’ve never actually put it all together in a single package. 

Many of you are already perfectly aware of what I’ll be talking about, especially if you happen to live on the islands in question. 

Others of you are probably aware of most of what I’ll be talking about because you’ve absorbed it over the years through osmosis, even though it was never explicitly explained in this fashion.

Finally, some of you probably have been using some of the terms incorrectly and didn’t even know it.

So let’s get started by zooming out and looking at the big picture. The entirety of the British Isles. 

The British Isles are a collection of islands in the Atlantic Ocean consisting of over 6,000 islands. The largest island is Great Britain, more on that it a bit, and the next largest island is the island of Ireland.

It also includes the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, Shetland, and Orkney islands, and a host of smaller islands off the coast of the larger ones.

Here I have to address the collective cries which are going up all over Ireland right now over the use of the term British Isles.

The British Isles is just one of many geographical names around the world that have traditional roots and are disputed by other countries. These include the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Japan.

In the case of the British Isles, it is muddied by the term British, which is the demonym for people who are citizens of the United Kingdom.  The term ‘British” actually comes from the island of Great Britain, which is part of the British Isles.

People in Ireland, or more accurately, the Republic of Ireland, are not British, even though they live in the British Isles, and given the history of Ireland, and not keen to be thought of as Britsih. 

This is sort of like, but a little bit different, from the term ‘American’ being used to describe people from the United States of America, even though other countries are in North and South America as well. 

The term “West Briton” was attempted to be pushed on the Irish in the early 19th century, but that didn’t go anywhere. 

There have been alternate names suggested to replace the term ‘British Isles.’ These include “Briton and Ireland,” “Britain and Ireland,” the “Atlantic Archipelago,” the “Anglo-Celtic Isles,” and the “British-Irish Isles.”

However, none of these have achieved widespread adoption, so I’m going to continue to use “British Isles,” but with the recognition that many Irish would prefer another term. 

Zooming in, we can now focus on the island of Ireland. 

The island of Ireland consists of two countries, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. In particular, the part of the UK on the island of Ireland is Northern Ireland, which is a constituent country of the United Kingdom. 

Technically speaking, the Republic of Ireland is not the official name of the country. The official name is simply ‘Ireland’ or, in the Irish languge, ‘Eire.’ The term Republic of Ireland is used to distinguish the independent country of Ireland from the geographic island of Ireland. 

How the island of Ireland wound up being split in two is the topic for a future episode, as there is a whole lot to the story. 

As far as the name, the term Ireland can often be ambiguous as it can refer to both the island of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. 

What you are referring to can depend on context. For some things, both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland act together. For example, the Irish national team in Rugby Union represents the entire island of Ireland. 

In the FIFA world cup, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have different teams, but there is no United Kingdom team. 

The island of Ireland has a single tourism board representing both islands. 

The Republic of Ireland is part of the European Union and Northern Ireland isn’t anymore. 

You can travel between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and not even notice that you’ve crossed an international border. 

So, Ireland is both a geographic island and a country that makes up most of the island. Sometimes the two parts of Ireland work together, and sometimes, they don’t. 

Between the island of Ireland and the island of Great Britain is the Irish Sea. 

In the Irish Sea is the Isle of Man.

I’ve previously done an entire episode on the Isle of Man, so I won’t belabor the point, but the Isle of Man is part of the greater British Isles, but it is not part of the United Kingdom, nor is it an independent country. 

It is considered a Crown Dependency. It isn’t formally part of the UK, but the UK is responsible for things like defense and foreign relations, and the head of state is also Charles III. However, his position as head of state is Lord of Man, not king. 

Moving east, we get to the main island and the source of most of the confusion, Great Britain. 

Great Britain is the name of the island, not the name of the country. This is confusing because, as I mentioned, British is the demonym given to people in the United Kingdom, which is the name of the country. 

Actually, the technical name is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 

Adding to the confusion is that Great Britain is often used interchangeably with the United Kingdom, even though it technically shouldn’t. For example, when I check for reviews from the UK in Apple Podcasts, I have to put gb in the URL, not the UK, which confused me the first time I tried it.

The British Olympic team is referred to as Team GB, which, again, is a technical misnomer. 

The country of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland consists of what are known as four constituent countries. One of the four is right there in the title, Northern Ireland, which I’ve already discussed.

The other three countries are located on the island of Great Britain: England, Scotland, and Wales.  

Here I should note another confusing thing, the use of the word ‘country.’  The four constituent countries of the UK are not countries in the sense that they are sovereign nation-states. They do not have individual armed forces, carry out their own diplomacy, or sign treaties. 

Northern Ireland is not a country in the same way that the Republic of Ireland is a country. 

It is a special use of the term, which is only used when referring to constituent parts of a kingdom. The only other place that has constituent countries that make up a kingdom that I am aware of is the Netherlands. 

Back to the island of Great Britain. Another mistake people make is assuming that everyone who is British is English or that England is synonymous with Britain.  Calling someone from Scotland, English is up there with calling someone from Ireland, British. 

England compromises only 56% of the island of Great Britain. 34% is Scotland, and the remaining 10% is Wales. 

The reason why these are considered separate countries is historical. 

Wales and Scotland have Celtic languages and cultures. When the Romans conquered the province of Brittania, they mostly controlled what is today England. They never were able to conquer Scotland, and Wales, which is very mountainous, was mostly ignored. 

After the Romans pulled out, Germanic peoples, such as the Angles and Saxons, invaded and settled in England. The Angles are the people for whom England and English are named—the land of the Angles. 

Wales was conquered by English King Edward I in 1283, and in the 16th century, it was annexed into England. However, it kept a separate identity and managed to keep the Welsh language alive. 

Despite many wars with England over the centuries, Scotland remained independent. What eventually brought Scotland and England together was the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England. She had no heir, so the next in line was the Scottish King James VI, who then became James I of England because they had different numbering conventions. 

They remained separate kingdoms under personal union, meaning they had the same monarch. 

In 1707, the Kingdoms of Scotland and England were unified as the single entity known as the Kingdom of Great Britain.

So, while King Charles III today is the king of the English, there is no title called the King of England.

There is a single British Parliament located in London that passes laws for all of the United Kingdom. However, in the late 1990s, a movement towards devolution of powers created legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. These legislatures have the authority to pass laws which affect their regions, similar to how states and provinces act in the United States, Canada, and Australia. 

Oddly enough, there is no legislature just for England. 

That means laws that only affect people in England are voted on by members of parliament from Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, but the opposite isn’t true. 

This has been dubbed the West Lothian question. West Lothian is, strangely enough, a district in Scotland, not England. The term derives from a member of parliament from West Lothian who brought up the question repeatedly in the 1970s.

With 84% of the population of the UK residing in England, it hasn’t been as pressing of an issue. There has been talk of creating an English Parliament or possibly creating legislatures at the regional levels in England, which would better approximate the population levels found in the other constituent countries. 

Just to tie this up, the channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey are often included as part of the British Isles because of their cultural and political ties to the UK. I’ve done a previous episode on them, but they have the same status as the Isle of Man. They are Crown Dependencies and not part of the United Kingdom.

Geographically, they are also technically not part of the British Isles. 

So just to summarize everything.

The British Isles is a term disliked by the Irish, which is used to describe all of the islands in the archipelago off the northwestern coast of Europe.

The British Isles consist of two main islands, Ireland and Great Britain. 

There are two countries, the Republic of Ireland, which isn’t really its name, which makes up most of the island of Ireland, and the United Kingdom, which consists of all of the island of Great Britain and a small part of the island of Ireland. 

The United Kingdom is made up of four countries, which aren’t really countries. England is just one of the four countries, and while it is the largest in terms of population and area, not everyone who lives in the United Kingdom or Great Britain is English. 

So England is a part of Great Britain which is a part of the United Kingdom, which is part of the British Isles. 

….and there are some small islands that crown dependencies.

Simple, isn’t it?

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener ‘Disappointed and confused’ over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Completionist club member protesting

Gary. Over the length of this podcast, you have given me and my wife many interesting facts to talk about and to share with our friends and family. We were both proud members of the completionist club, I would listen while riding my bike with my dog every day after work. And then you released the episode about the Alaskan Earthquake. That earthquake episode shook both of us to the core. We are now both questioning everything, everywhere, daily! The capital of Alaska is not, in fact, Anchorage, as you stated. The capital of Alaska is and has always been Juneau. We both desperately need you to correct this so that we can trust you again and we can stop protesting with our signs in front of the completionist clubhouse. Thank you, Gary.

Thanks, Disappointed and confused! I hate to break this to you, but I issued a correction the very next episode after the Alaska Earthquake episode.  The correction is at the end of the episode on the origins of baseball.

Moreover, I made a post on the Facebook group with the correction just hours after the episode went out.

While I certainly do strive for perfection, I do occasionally let things slip through the cracks.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.