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What is the UK? Is it the same as Britain, Great Britain or England?

By Don Aitken
 

DISCLAIMER: This description is confined to legal and other factual issues which seem to be capable of "correct" answers. It does not deal with psychological questions about "Englishness", "Britishness" etc., nor with issues of race. The question of whether there is an English or a British race (or both) and if so how this should be defined is just not a sensible question.

Preliminary: States and Nations

The British Isles are divided between two countries which are independent states in international law, namely 1) the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (so called since 1927) and 2) the Republic of Ireland. Unlike the states of the USA or Germany, or the provinces of Canada, the constituent parts of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) do not have legislatures with their own areas of exclusive jurisdiction, and England has no legislature at all.

It is not possible to have a federation without a constitution prescribing the powers of the different levels of government, and the UK has no such instrument. The primary principle of our constitutional law is that the UK Parliament can do anything. The legislation which created the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies carefully reserved power to the UK Parliament to legislate in all matters. The powers of the subordinate legislatures are devolved powers. So the UK is not a federation; it is a unitary state.

England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland have all been regarded for centuries as nations, and are still correctly referred to as such. This has nothing to do with legal status. England, Scotland and Ireland all were once Kingdoms, but no longer are (since 1707 in the case of England and Scotland, 1800 in the case of Ireland). Wales was not a Kingdom but a Principality, and is sometimes still referred to as such.

Concentric Circles

If, like me, you live in England, you are part of all of the following entities (listed in order of increasing size):

  1. England
  2. England and Wales
  3. Great Britain
  4. The United Kingdom
  5. The United Kingdom and Islands
  6. The British Isles
  7. The Common Travel Area
  8. The European Territories of the United Kingdom
  9. The European Union
  10. The United Kingdom and Colonies
  11. The Commonwealth

1. England

There is surprisingly little to say about England, except that it contains about 80% of the population of the UK and hence is overwhelmingly dominant in relation to all UK-wide political issues. It is an important administrative unit, and many UK government departments (such as the Department of Health) have jurisdiction only in England.

2. England and Wales

This unit, which doesn't even have its own name, is important because it defines the jurisdiction of the English courts, usually just called "the jurisdiction" in legal terminology. It is the area of application of English law (which strictly should be called the law of England and Wales, but rarely is). There is no such thing as British or United Kingdom law, because there are no British or United Kingdom courts. Many statutes apply to the whole of the UK, but courts in Scotland or Northern Ireland may (and frequently do) interpret them differently from the English courts. This is why the Lockerbie trial took place in a Scottish court. Many administrative bodies have jurisdiction over England and Wales. The rule that the word "England" in a statute includes Wales was introduced by the Wales and Berwick Act 1746 and abolished by the Welsh Language Act 1967.

3. Great Britain

This is a both a geographical term referring to the island on which the greater parts of England, Wales and Scotland are situated, and a legal one referring to those three territories considered together. The name originates from the Latin 'Britannia', the 'Great' being introduced to distinguish it from Little Britain, which was the French province later called Bretagne, or Brittany. The island of Rockall, several hundred miles out in the Atlantic, is legally part of Scotland, although actually closer to Ireland; the British claim to the island is disputed by the Irish Republic. Some, though not many, administrative bodies have jurisdiction over Great Britain. Great Britain was a Kingdom from 1707 to 1800, but no longer is.

4. The United Kingdom

Great Britain and Northern Ireland together make up the United Kingdom, hence the full name ("The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland"). I suspect that the UK is probably the only country in the world whose average inhabitant has no idea what its legal name actually is. This defines the area represented in the UK Parliament and for which that Parliament normally makes laws. It is also a citizenship unit (although only since 1981). It does not define the area for which the UK government is responsible in international law - see below.

5. The United Kingdom and Islands

This includes a further three jurisdictions which have never been part of England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland and are not part of the UK but over which the Queen is sovereign and for which the UK government is internationally responsible. They are the Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea between England, Scotland and Ireland, and the Bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey, which are the two parts of the Channel Islands, off the coast of France, and were part of the Duchy of Normandy before William I conquered England in 1066. Alderney and Sark are subordinate parts of the Bailiwick of Guernsey. All of these territories have their own representative institutions and laws (offshore banking and stamps looming large as in many small territories). They are British Possessions, but not colonies, and their inhabitants, unlike those of colonies, are British citizens (except for EU purposes).

6. The British Isles

Another geographical term referring to the whole group of islands adjoining Great Britain, including Ireland. Politically it includes the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, and the Isle of Man. Usage is not consistent as to whether the Channel Islands are included - geographically they should not be, politically they should. Irish people may detect political implications in this term, and it tends to be avoided, although there is no obvious alternative. The term used in connection with the Northern Irish peace process is just "the Isles", which could be anywhere. One obvious alternative, "Great Britain and Ireland", is also avoided because it used to be part of the title of the British monarch (1801-1927). See next paragraph for "British Islands".

7. The Common Travel Area

This is the area from which people can enter UK ports without being subject to routine immigration control. Same as the previous, but includes the Channel Islands. The legal term "British Islands" meant this area up to 1978, but now excludes the Republic (Interpretation Act 1978) so means the same as 5 above (including the Channel Islands). Immigration control has never been applied to Republic of Ireland citizens, who are also entitled to vote if resident in the UK and in general are not treated as aliens. The Irish Republic has recently, as part of the peace process, extended the same treatment to UK citizens.

8. The European Territories of the United Kingdom

This means the United Kingdom and Islands, plus Gibraltar, which is a British Colony with its own citizenship. Citizens of all parts of this area are UK Nationals in European Union law.

9. The European Union

The UK and Republic of Ireland are among the 15 members of the EU, which is an international organisation, not a state, although it has its own law, which is directly applicable in all member states through their own courts. Citizens of all of these states are EU citizens and have the right to settle in any member state, and in the UK can vote in local but not national elections. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are not strictly part of the EU, their relationship with it being governed by special ad hoc arrangements.

10. The United Kingdom and Colonies

This is the total area for which the UK government has international responsibility. The remaining colonies (none of which has a population of more than 70,000) are mainly in the Caribbean and Pacific. The full title, rarely used, is "The United Kingdom, Islands, and Colonies". The alternative term "British Empire" is no longer used, and 'colony' is falling out of favour and being replaced with 'dependent territory'. The extension of full British citizenship to these territories is under way.

11. The Commonwealth

The Commonwealth (known until 1950 as the British Commonwealth, or the British Commonwealth of Nations) is an international organisation most, though not all, of whose members were once British colonies. Most Commonwealth countries are republics, although some (such as Canada) have Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state. She is also Head of the Commonwealth, a role which involves no constitutional functions. These positions are entirely separate from each other; no other member of the Commonwealth is in any way subordinate to the United Kingdom. Commonwealth countries are not "foreign"; their citizens are not aliens in the UK, and can vote, although they are now subject to the same immigration controls as aliens. The Republic of Ireland is not a member of the Commonwealth, although it is also not a "foreign" country (Ireland Act 1949).

"British" and "Britain"

Like the USA, the UK suffers from having no convenient adjective to describe the country or its people. The best thing that can be said for "British" is that it is not quite as misleading as "American", but it is nevertheless the established term for "relating to the UK". So "British citizen" is correct (though only since 1981 - see below). This causes endless confusion and a fair amount of ill-will when applied to the people of Northern Ireland. They are British citizens, and so "British" in that sense (although they can also be citizens of the Republic of Ireland if they wish, as many do). They are not from Great Britain, so they are not "British" in that sense (i.e. as distinct from Irish).

There is no satisfactory noun for "British person", either. "Briton" is too formal, "Brit" too informal, and "Britisher" just foreign. All are best avoided. The term "British subject", in its original sense, is obsolete. It used to mean anyone who owed allegiance to the British sovereign, and therefore included citizens of independent Commonwealth countries as well as the UK. The modern equivalent is "Commonwealth citizen". "British subject" is now used as shorthand for a Commonwealth citizen who is not a citizen of any country. Such a person, who would otherwise be entirely stateless, is entitled to a passport issued by the British government.

There was no separate UK citizenship until 1948, when the term "citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies" was used. Since 1981 it has been "British citizen" (the first use of the term "British" in this context). "UK national" is a technical term of EU law with a slightly different meaning (see 8 above).

So what about "Britain"? This is not a term with any legal meaning, but if you ask the English person in the street what country they live in surveys show that more will answer "Britain" than anything else. So it should probably be taken as a back-formation from "British", and therefore to mean "United Kingdom".

Sport

Most people probably encounter foreign countries through their sports teams more often than in any other way. We create even greater confusion here, since practice varies between different sports. In most older sports (e.g. rugby) there are teams representing the historic nations of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. In others (e.g. soccer) there are separate teams for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There may also be teams representing the whole of the British Isles (rugby again). It is only in the Olympic Games, where participation is strictly on the basis of nationality, and in sports focussed on the Olympics, such as track and field athletics, that a UK or "British" team is likely to feature. As a final curiosity, our leading cricket team, although always called "England", actually represents England and Wales. Scotland and Ireland have their own teams.

Historical and foreign usages

The correct and careful use of such terms as "United Kingdom" in any context other than the strictly legal is a recent development, dating from about the 1930s, when modern Scottish nationalism became a live political issue. Anything written before that date, even by historians, is likely to use "England". Disraeli famously signed the 1878 Treaty of Berlin as "Prime Minister of England", to the dismay of his Foreign Office advisers. And A.J.P. Taylor, in the preface to his volume of the "Oxford History of England", published in 1965, had to point out that "when the Oxford History was launched a generation ago 'England' was still an all-embracing word. It meant indiscriminately England and Wales, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and even the British Empire." As a result of this, the usual term in most foreign languages has always been "England", and will probably continue to be so for some time yet.

Don Aitken
February 2002

More on this subject, by John Davies