Where the Peg Doesn’t Fit the Square – or Does It?
What’s the difference between the UK, Great Britain, and England? What about Wales and Scotland? Where does Northern Ireland fit in? The UK system of governance is complicated, with each member country presiding over its own government, healthcare system, and borders. Here’s how to make sure you know where you are, what you’re referring to, and who’s in charge of it all.
If I asked you to point to the UK on a map, could you do it? Sure you could; you’re a worldly, educated person. But what about Great Britain? Wales? The Isle of Man? It might not make much difference to an outsider, but call a Welsh person English and see what happens.
The UK is a unique configuration of nations that work together under one governmental umbrella, but keep individual cultural and political identities.
The member countries include Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England. So, if you’re British, you could be from Aberdeen, Scotland or Abergavenny, Wales, without being English. But if you’re from Abingdon, England, you’re both English and British.
How Many Countries Are There in This Country?
Each country has its own political parties and parliament and also sends members to the UK Parliament. They’ve got their own languages (Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, Irish Gaelic, among many) and their own healthcare systems, sports teams, and national mascots, and so on and so forth.
Long story short, no one within Britain refers to themselves only as British, because cultural identity is tied not to Britain as a whole, but to your particular country, region, town, neighborhood, street, etc. As with most countries, borders and official designations don’t map neatly onto cultural and regional differences. (If you ask an American to define where “the Midwest” or “the South” is, you’ll get a similarly muddy response.) But make no mistake–Scotland, Wales and England are separate nations belonging to one country.
The Biggest Island of ‘Em All
Simply put, the United Kingdom refers to a political affiliation, and Great Britain refers to geography. Great Britain is the name of the island itself. You know the one: big, lumpy, kind of looks like a vacuum cleaner, super old, hangs out between Ireland and France. There are plenty of other British Isles–the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Man, and my personal favorite, the Isles of Scilly (pronounced “silly”), just to name a few–but Great Britain is the biggest.
By contrast, the UK has only been a thing since England and Wales joined with Scotland in 1707. In the grand scheme of things, that’s relatively recent. This is why people are British, rather than United Kingdomish–it’s more permanent.
The Quiz of Quizzes – Don’t Get Quizzled
Time for a pop quiz: When the UK sends athletes to the Olympics, they compete on Team GB.
If Northern Ireland is as a country still part of the United Kingdom but not part of Great Britain, which Olympic team does their best ski-jumper go to? Your time starts… NOW.
Okay, it’s a trick question. Northern Ireland is a part of the UK, but it’s on the island of Ireland (along with the Republic of Ireland), which means their Olympic athletes can choose which team to compete for–GB or Ireland. Politically, they’re in the UK, but geographically they’re not part of Great Britain. Clear? No? Great. You’re getting the hang of it.
And just for the people in the back, in case it needs repeating, Irish people are not British, and they are definitely not English. The Republic of Ireland is its own sovereign nation, completely independent of the UK and Great Britain and all the rest of it. They’ve got their own president, and a prime minister (called the Taoiseach, bonus points to non-Gaelic speakers who can pronounce that right on the first try), and, in this author’s opinion, the best butter in the world.
The relationship between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the island of Ireland is a subject for an entirely other blog post and we’re just not getting into it here. Suffice it to say that, big picture, Northern Ireland is a part of the UK, Ireland is not.
That’s all there is to it! If it seems deeply confusing, that’s because it is–but it’s also a unique form of governance that preserves political and cultural identity within a larger system. In recent decades, indigenous languages and cultural practices have come back from the brink of extinction in the UK. Lumping all British people in with the English does a disservice to this important work, and will get you in deep trouble at the pub. You’ve been warned.
Are their geographical and political uniquenesses in the country you live? Are people sensitive to their identity? Sign up for free on TCI and join the conversation!
by: Katie Bergen