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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Comments (3)
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  • 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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