The Difference Between the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England: A (Pre-Brexit) Video Explains

I once played in a New York pub band with an Englishman, a Northern Irishman, and a Scotsman. This is not the setup for a joke. (We weren't that bad!) But I had questions. Were they all from different countries or different parts of one country called Britain, or Great Britain, or the grander-sounding United Kingdom?

British history could be a contentious subject in such company, and no wonder given that the violence of the Empire began at home, or with the neighboring people who were absorbed—sometimes, partly, but not always—against their will into a larger entity. So, what to call that territory of the crown which once claimed one fourth of the world as its own property?




CGP Grey, maker of the YouTube explainer above, aims to clear things up in five minutes, offering his own spin on British imperial history along the way. The United Kingdom is a “country of countries that contains inside it four coequal and sovereign nations,” England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. “You can call them all British,” says Grey, but “it’s generally not recommended as the four countries generally don’t like each other.”

Like it or not, however, they are all British citizens of “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” Still confused? Well, Britain and the United Kingdom name the same country. But “Great Britain” is a geographical term that includes Scotland, England, and Wales, but not Northern Ireland. As a “geographical rather than a political term,” Great Britain sounds silly when used to describe nationality.

But it gets a bit more complicated. All of the countries located within Great Britain have neighboring islands that are not part of Great Britain, such as the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney Islands, and Isles of Anglesey and Wight. Ireland is a geographical term for the land mass encompassing two nations: Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain, or the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which—as you know—is decidedly not.

All of these countries and “countries of countries” are part of the European Union, says Grey, at which point it becomes clear that the video, posted in 2011, did not anticipate any such thing as Brexit. Nonetheless, this information holds true for the moment, though that ugly saga is sure to reach some resolution eventually, at which point, who knows what new maps, independence referenda, and border wars will arise, or resurrect, on the British Isles.

Related Content:

The Entire History of the British Isles Animated: 42,000 BCE to Today

Watch the Rise and Fall of the British Empire in an Animated Time-Lapse Map ( 519 A.D. to 2014 A.D.)

The History of Europe from 400 BC to the Present, Animated in 12 Minutes

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • Eddie says:

    Correction on northern Ireland – all of the population are Irish by Geography and describe themselves as such. The English in essence are the UK as all job’s and prosperity has flowed to them at the expense of the rest of the so called UK

  • Charlotte says:

    The video is good, but he talks too fast and for those whose English is not their mother tongue is sometimes impossible to be following all the information!

  • Marlon says:

    Please do it again, but faster!

  • Eire says:

    The Government of Ireland does not officially recognise the term ‘the British isles’, and its embassy in London discourages its use. Britain and Ireland is used as an alternative description, and Atlantic Archipelago has also seen limited use in academia.

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