England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom (UK) are often confused for each other and used interchangeably. However, each term means something quite different. England is a country situated on the island of Great Britain, which also includes Scotland and Wales. England is part of United Kingdom, which is a political union of four separate countries (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland). These countries all have distinct cultural traditions and strong national pride, so it is important to know the distinctions between these terms.
Part of the confusion of the terms draws from the separate meanings of country and sovereign state. A country is a nation with a government, occupying territory. Sovereign states are a centralized entity that are made up of one or more countries, and are recognized by international law. England is a distinct country, but in to international politics only the sovereign state of the UK is recognized and not England.
Let’s break it down:
England is a country. It encompasses 50,301 square miles and borders Wales to the West and Scotland to the North. It has a population of over 53,000,000. It’s capital is London. England is governed directly by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, also located in London. England has one of the strongest economies in the world, and the City of London is considered the financial capital of the world.
England has a long and illustrious history. Although the region has been inhabited since prehistoric times and was under Roman rule for a period, England has existed as a unified kingdom since the 900s. England was ruled by a monarch and the Parliament of England until 1707 when the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed. England has had a profound impact on the world, through language, political dominion, scientific achievements, and artistic contributions.
Great Britain is primarily a geographical distinction. It is neither a country nor a sovereign state. It refers to the island on which England is located, along with Scotland and Wales. It is the 9th largest island in the world, and the largest in Europe, separated from the rest of Europe by the English Channel.
Great Britain came into being as a political entity beginning in 1536, when England annexed Wales. Then, in 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died without leaving any heirs. James VI, King of Scots was next in line to succession, and he became King of England, Wales, and Scotland. It wasn’t until 1707 when the parliaments of these countries were joined by the Act of Union to form the Kingdom of Great Britain.
The United Kingdom is formally known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Unlike England and Great Britain, its stands as a sovereign state and is represented at the UN, NATO, and the EU. The United Kingdom is made up of the countries England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom also has 14 overseas territories and 3 crown dependencies that do not make up part of the UK itself.
The United Kingdom began in 1801, when the Irish Parliament voted to join the Union, turning the Kingdom of Great Britain into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. After long struggles, in 1922 the southern counties in Ireland choose independence and became the Republic of Ireland. The name of the UK then changed to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Although the UK is a single, sovereign state, there are variations in rule between the countries. England is the only country in the union that is governed exclusively by the Parliament of Great Britain. The other countries have certain authorities delegated to them to govern and administer themselves. For example, there are three separate systems for Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England. The UK also has four separate educational and healthcare systems.
Scotland is at the northern end the island of Great Britain and is part of the UK. Its capital is Edinburgh. While still under the constitutional monarchy of the United Kingdom, Scotland has a limited self-governance with a parliament of its own. There is a strong movement in Scotland to breakaway fro the United Kingdom. This was put to a vote in 2014 and was rejected by a narrow margin.
Wales is a small nation and part of Great Britain and the United Kingdom. Wales was annexed by Acts of the English Parliament 1535-1542 and was merged England. Wales is known for its distinctive language. The capital of Wales is Cardiff. Since 1997, Wales has had its own National Assembly. Like Scotland, elements in Wales also seek independence from the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland is country on the northern end of the island of Ireland, sharing border with the Republic of Ireland. It is part of the United Kingdom, but not Great Britain. The capital of Northern Ireland is Belfast. For most of the last 100 years, Northern Ireland has been beset by conflict, primarily between UK state forces and Catholic nationalists, known as “the Troubles.” In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement did much to ease the conflict, and it also granted the Northern Ireland Assembly responsibility in a range of devolved policy matters.
To add to the confusion, the term ‘Britain’ is frequently used to refer to the whole of the UK. And in many cases, even in the Olympics, Great Britain or GB is used as the name for all of the UK. Citizens of the UK may refer to themselves as Brits, but they are more likely to consider themselves English, Welsh, Scottish, or Northern Irish.
- United Kingdom: A sovereign state including the countries of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
- Great Britain: An island on which the countries of England, Scotland, and Wales are located.
- England: A country in Great Britain, and part of the United Kingdom.