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(art credit: Jenks1983)

Explaining the use of England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom to writers from other countries.

I have surprising had quite a lot of asks regarding “England” and “what is this ‘UK’ thing?” or more disturbingly “is United Kingdom a real country?

The United Kingdom is a real country – I live in it and so do over 70 million other people!

The United Nations and the vast majority of the world define "countries" as sovereign states.

England is not a sovereign state like the USA/Russia/China. The United Kingdom is the sovereign state/country, recognised by the UN, that England belongs to.

After announcement of the Royal Baby – this interesting news article came on the BBC website: Royal Baby – The American Mistake.

I have actually seen websites proclaiming the “future King of England’s” birth – which is particularly funny because there has not been a King of England since the 18th century. The Royal Baby will be the future monarch of the United Kingdom.

If anyone has seen the passport of a person from England – you should spot that nowhere on their passport does it say the word England (or Scotland or Wales). The passport clearly states in big gold letters at the top: “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” and above that “European Union”.

England was an official country up until the Act of Union 1707 when England merged with Scotland to create “The Kingdom of Great Britain”. Wales had been conquered and subdued in the Middle Ages and was at this time considered part of England. Today, “Great Britain” as a political entity means: England, Scotland and Wales (but not Northern Ireland).

The history of Ireland is complex and fraught with war (mostly against the invading English).  By the 19th century, Ireland was under British control and in a new Act of Union in 1801 Ireland was joined with Great Britain to form “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”. However this new country didn’t last for very long. Understandably the Irish wanted their country back, and they wanted their country be recognized as a real country not a backward province to some imperialist hegemony that thought it should rule the world.

The Irish were successful in gaining independence in 1922. Ireland is now its own country again. It has its own currency (the Irish Euro) and makes its own laws without interference from a higher authority, issues its own passports and belongs to the United Nations in its own right – something that neither England, Scotland or Wales have achieved.  However Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom (and this has lead to decades of violence and conflict).

Thus by 1922 – the country was given its current name: “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” or just the UK for short.

So if England (and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) are not official sovereign states – what are they?

They can be considered nations and are legally "constitutional countries" but not official countries recognised by the international community.

These four areas are much more like the US/Australian States or Canadian Provinces than true countries.

They have autonomy in certain aspects: e.g. Scotland gets to set its own education system and has its own parliament, can set its own income tax rate. However none of these areas can fully reject the legal authority of the United Kingdom Parliament in London. They are also bound financially to the United Kingdom as they do not get to issue their own currency. Scotland does print its own money but it is still the pound sterling. It is exactly the same currency as that printed by the Bank of England it just has different pictures on the front. You can use Scottish pound anywhere in the UK, though shop keepers down south might give you some weird looks.

In terms of the military: they have their own regiments but these regiments belong to the UK military. Scotland for example cannot prevent the Scottish regiments from engaging in the Iraq War if they wanted to.

Of course the entire picture is complicated by the fact that Scotland wants complete independence like Ireland and Northern Ireland can’t quite decide. The UK parliament is situated in England, mostly filled with English politicians, and generally makes laws that benefit England. England also has the highest population (by far) out of all four areas, so people can be forgiven for thinking that England is the UK but technically, officially it is not.

However compare this to the state of Texas – it is one of the biggest US states, produces a huge amount of the country’s GDP, has its own government with its own governor who gets to decide everything from education, to state taxes.  The difference is that the government of America is not situated in Austin (or Dallas or Houston), does not comprise mostly of Texans and does not make most of its laws with only Texas in mind or at least one hopes not.

Texas is not the USA anymore than England is the United Kingdom. A person can be both a Texan and an American. I can be both British and English but it’s not the same thing.

The Union Jack


This flag is not the English flag, neither is it the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish flag. It is the official flag of the United Kingdom and only the United Kingdom. England, Scotland and Wales have their own national flags (they are technically nations but not countries).  It is called the Union Jack/Union Flag, either name is acceptable. It’s a complete myth that it’s only called the Union Jack if its flying from a ship.

The Union Jack is an amalgamation of St. George’s Cross (England), St Andrew’s Cross (Scotland) and St Patrick’s Cross (Ireland).


Contrary to what you might think at first glance this flag does not have two lines of symmetry. It actually isn’t symmetrical at all – and therefore it can be flown upside down as an insult (though it would only work if the person looking at it had good vision).

Remember how England is a bit like Texas? The Texans have their own state flag and they are represented on the American flag as one of the 50 stars. It’s pretty much the same with the Union Jack.


On the subject of sporting competitions I will say one thing: having a national football/rugby/whatever team does not make you a country. The World Cup organisers do not have the political clout of the United Nations in recognising countries.

Besides the Olympic committee – deems the UK to be an official country but not any of the individual nations.

As for Andy Murray – the winner at Wimbledon: he is both Scottish and British. He represents Britain when he played at Wimbledon but not England. Many Scottish people have taken offence that recent New York times headline: “After 77 Years Murray and England Rule”.

So to complete my little rant to all fanfiction writers out there:

1. Great Britain = England, Scotland and Wales but not Northern Ireland

2. The UK/Britain = England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

3. The people who live on these islands (not including the Republic of Ireland) are British and this is not the same as being English or Scottish or Welsh. Sherlock and John live in England, they also live in the UK. They are officially British, whether or not they think of themselves as English as well is a personal choice.

4. The Royal Navy + the Royal Air Force + The British Army are the military forces of the UK not England (please do not refer to it as the English Army, it’s insulting to all the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish soldiers)

5. The NHS serves the whole of the UK not just England – do not call it the English Healthcare Service.

6. The official language of The United Kingdom is English (I did get asked this question – and yes we do speak English). In Wales they speak Welsh, in Scotland they have Gaelic and in Northern Ireland they speak Irish. Should you ever visit Wales, the street signs and official notices are often bilingual – sort of like in Canada where both English and French are used.

7. The UK does not have an official national anthem – instead “God Save the Queen” is sung in place of an official anthem and therefore serves as the de factor national anthem. There has been decades long debate about naming an official anthem. Other contenders include: "Land of Hope and Glory" "I vow to Thee my Country

8. The UK is governed by a constitutional monarchy. This mean our official head of state is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II not the Prime Minister David Cameron. She occupies the same position as the President of other countries. Legally, the Queen appoints the Prime Minister to “help” her with the business of government. Elections are held so that the Queen knows the opinion of her subjects – constitutionally, she does not have to agree to appoint the person her subjects elect. She also has the power to dismiss anyone in her government, though this has never happened. In reality the Queen does not interfere with the businesses of the state.

9. The Queen owns all the law courts in this country. Therefore legally she cannot be tried in these courts, neither can any of her family members

10. The Queen's image also appears on all the currency from 1p coin up to the £50 note and most stamps. Once she pass away - the new King will mint coins and print notes with his own image on the coins and notes.


( 48 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jul. 23rd, 2013 09:46 pm (UTC)
This was nice and concise, thank you.

Part of the confusion might also stem from the resurgence of English national identity in the last ten, twenty years. Statistics show that there's an increasing number of people who identify as English but not as British and it definitely shows both in everyday communication and in official statements.

On a completely different note, I thought the term "future King of England" quite fitting to describe the general frenzy and overblown anticipation - as it almost seemed to reach Tudor levels. :)
Jul. 24th, 2013 02:04 am (UTC)
Yes, thank you for the primer =^) I'm a bit of history buff with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses ( Yorkist side! Hey I like lost causes, lol ) and like to think I'm mostly up on this stuff. But hey there's no way I could know it all living and growing up over here in the States.

I do think it's slightly different with you guys though. England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland ARE countries in my mind even if not officially because you all have different languages and cultures. It's not quite the same here in the states because no state has an official language ( that I'm aware of, political skirmishes aside ) or religion. I think it's entirely conceivable for dissolution to occur and for you guys to be perfectly okay. But I don't think the same could happen here. We made sure of that with our Civil War. ( As opposed to your Civil War where you lopped off the king's head ).

And I thought the Queen COULD choose the prime minister if some sort of deadlock or failure to form a coalition government occurs? Didn't Elizabeth II do that at one point?

Anyway, great read as always!
Jul. 24th, 2013 08:25 am (UTC)
I always thought that should the USA decide to dissolve into different countries, they would all still prosper. For example if the USA decided to split into North and South I think they would still have an amicable, mutual beneficial relationship like the USA and Canada have today.

Dissolution works if the new countries the are formed balance each other out in terms of economic, political and military might. This simply can't be said of England, Scotland and Wales.

England is not like any one state in the USA because produces upwards of 80%-90% of the UK's GDP, it also has 80% of the UK's population living within its boundaries. Therefore it is both economically and militarily in a much better position than its neighbours - it will dominate the political and economic stage in Britain in the same way after dissolution as it did before. Scotland and Wales would never be truly independent.

(Ireland is very different in that it has a more favourable geography for development compared to Scotland and Wales. Being a separate island, it has developed economically in a much more independent fashion throughout history as well, making it much more suited to be an independent country. )

Whereas the bigger, richer states in the USA such as California and Texas tend to balance each other out and give each new country born from the USA a good chance of independent success compared with its neighbour.

As for the Queen choosing a prime minister - she technically chooses every prime minister. In a perfectly hung parliament with no majority what so ever - the politicians decide amongst themselves who is to be prime minister and then inform the Queen. She basically has a ceremonial role.

Edited at 2013-07-24 08:32 am (UTC)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Jul. 25th, 2013 03:31 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tripleransom - Jul. 25th, 2013 05:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - biascut - Jul. 26th, 2013 07:35 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 24th, 2013 02:11 am (UTC)
Loved it, several things I didn't know, thank you.

Two points of confusion: It actually isn’t symmetrical at all – and therefore it can be flown upside down as an insult (though it would only work if the person looking at it had good vision).

It can or it cannot be flown upside down?

9. The Queen owns all the law courts in this country. Therefore legally she, nor any of her family, can be tried in these courts.

She cannot be tried? it doesn't specify.

Thank you!

(PS was there more to #7?)
Jul. 24th, 2013 08:12 am (UTC)
Thanks for pointing these things out:

The Union Flag can be flown upside down but the difference between the way it looks upside down and right way up is very small. Therefore it takes an eagle eyed and seasoned onlooker to spot this. Sometimes it can be very embarrassing at official events if the hosts do not realise that the flag is not symmetrical.

The Queen cannot be tried in any of the courts in the UK because she legally owns them, so you cannot sue the Queen.
(no subject) - inamac - Jul. 27th, 2013 08:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lauramcewan - Jul. 27th, 2013 05:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wellingtongoose - Jul. 27th, 2013 06:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 24th, 2013 04:09 am (UTC)
FYI, Alaska is the biggest state, over twice the size of Texas. I thought you would want to know. Hardly anyone remembers. You could say, 'Texas is the biggest of the lower 48 states'.
I love your essays, and avidly look forward to them. I live in dread you will run out of topics some day.
Jul. 24th, 2013 08:09 am (UTC)
I completely forgot about Alaska - Texas looms larger in the popular imagination than on the map!

So if there are 48 lower states, and Alaska is one upper state - what is the second upper state?
(no subject) - tempest_415 - Jul. 24th, 2013 02:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
Hawaii is parked out in the middle of the Pacific. - (Anonymous) - Jul. 24th, 2013 11:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hawaii is parked out in the middle of the Pacific. - (Anonymous) - Jul. 25th, 2013 06:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 24th, 2013 09:28 pm (UTC)
This reminds me of the "The Difference Between the UK, Great Britain and England Explained" video, but more concise.

Jul. 24th, 2013 10:29 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the refresher. I had learned the distinction between England, Great Britain and United Kingdom in school but that was a few years ago...

Your posts are always well written and interesting. If you feel like it, I would appreciate some info on the Commonwealth and the UK/Queen's influence on countries like Canada. I'm French and I recently immigrated to Quebec, so I'm not yet all clear about why we have the Queen's image on our currency. I guess I'll have to study a bit more before applying for dual citizenship...
Jul. 25th, 2013 02:52 am (UTC)
I believe (and I say this as an American living in a US city on the border with Canada, (so I frequently watch Canadian news and listen to Canadian radio stations, but I'm not Canadian so I could be wrong about this) that Canada recognizes Elizabeth II as its monarch, and that Canada remains a nominal part of the Commonwealth of Natioms, which is why she is on the money. As near as I can tell, this is a source of some debate amongst Canadians. There was angry grumbling among some of my Canadian friends around the time of the Queen's 60th coronation anniversary, as some celebrated happily and others were less enthusiastic.
(no subject) - wellingtongoose - Jul. 25th, 2013 09:23 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - 8dreamcatcher8 - Jul. 25th, 2013 05:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - 8dreamcatcher8 - Jul. 25th, 2013 05:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Jul. 25th, 2013 06:11 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - 8dreamcatcher8 - Jul. 25th, 2013 05:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 25th, 2013 12:55 am (UTC)
This is an incredibly England-centric view of things. While technically correct, it's pretty much forgetting that each country has its own history and its own culture.

Try telling someone from Scotland that they're not SCOTTISH, they're British. Enjoy the fireworks and the cursing. :P
Jul. 25th, 2013 08:47 am (UTC)
I said quite specifically that: England, Scotland and Wales are separate nations - they have their own cultural and historical identities which is what makes them nations rather than large swathes of land.

And as I said before Andy Murray is both Scottish and British. He chooses to identify himself as Scottish, the international community forces him to identify as British whether he likes it or not because he can't get a Scottish passport.

Edited at 2013-07-25 08:47 am (UTC)
(no subject) - kiviraat - Jul. 25th, 2013 07:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - inamac - Jul. 25th, 2013 08:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sollersuk - Jul. 26th, 2013 06:34 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 25th, 2013 02:34 am (UTC)
By the 19th century, Ireland was under British control

Ooh, that's late. I'd say by the 16th century (substituting English control, naturally) and in reality the English controlled large areas from the late 12th century. The other thing that needs to be spelled out is that Northern Ireland (still) has a Protestant/Unionist majority, because of the import of colonists under the Stuarts - I've met Americans who refused point blank to believe this, which made it very difficult to explain the current political situation. (My own belief is that most of the rest of the UK would be intensely relaxed about losing Northern Ireland if the Unionists didn't riot every time you take down a Union Jack.)
Jul. 25th, 2013 09:05 am (UTC)
Oh yes the Normans started a campaign of invasion about the same time as they invade England (though much less successfully), but historically they had always referred to Ireland as a separate sovereign entity to England.

The subjugation of Ireland did not go smoothly. The Normans made a few footholds and then got their influence wiped out by the Black Death. King Henry VIII tried rather more successfully to conqueror Ireland but even then he never maintained full control. In the 17th and 18th century there was a huge wave of colonization which was aimed to "dilute" the population (as you said a lot of them settled in Northern Ireland). It was only by the 19th century that unrest had retreated to a level that "peace" could be used to describe the situation.

I actually agree with you - Britain has an amicable and mutually beneficial relationship with Ireland. However now the the Troubles have subsided somewhat (though The Real IRA is still out there), central government is more concerned about Scottish independence and not thinking enough about NI.

(no subject) - kalypso_v - Jul. 25th, 2013 10:04 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 25th, 2013 10:56 am (UTC)
ai, that's reminded me of the hate our international 'official' name sometimes gets:)

I'm from Czech Republic (Česká republika), which consists of three historic 'lands' - Čechy (Bohemia), Morava (Moravia), and Slezsko (Silesia). The problem is that the international-i.e. English state name "The Czech Republic" is too long for logos or badges, so - for example - our national hockey team only bears the name "Czech". And that's a big reason for hate from Moravian separatists, because "Czech" is an adjective, implying the origin from the Bohemia, not the whole republic. It's a bit complicated:)
Jul. 25th, 2013 04:23 pm (UTC)
Northern Ireland also has it's own bank notes (again easily identifiable by being pound sterling). I bank them less often than Scottish notes but they certainly are floating around the English part of our dysfunctional family!
Jul. 25th, 2013 07:50 pm (UTC)
The official language of The United Kingdom is English (I did get asked this question – and yes we do speak English)

I'm intrigued now - what language do people think we speak?
Jul. 25th, 2013 11:08 pm (UTC)
Some sort of un-identified European language.

The two questions I got asked from two different readers on my tumblr both assumed that English "originated" from the USA. The USA's political influence around the world ensures that English is the lingua franca in much of the world. Therefore they assumed that in the UK we broadcast TV shows in English to give a broader appeal and penetrate the US market.
(no subject) - blackcat348 - Jul. 26th, 2013 04:41 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dorsetgirl - Jul. 26th, 2013 11:04 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2013 12:54 am (UTC)
I love it when you speak 'British' to me!
Jul. 26th, 2013 07:42 am (UTC)
One quibble:

The people who live on these islands are British

That's a bit misleading - people from Ireland are definitely not British, and people from Northern Ireland can choose which passport they want to take. So only people who live on the big island and some of those who live in Northern Ireland are British, although everyone from Northern Ireland is entitled to be British if they want to be.

(My partner's Irish so I've learned how-not-to-talk-about-Ireland through going to Ireland a lot - it certainly wasn't part of my formal or informal education as an English person. And even though I've got a firm grasp of how not to piss off Irish people, I still struggle to explain it to other English people!)
Jul. 26th, 2013 09:49 am (UTC)
By "these islands" it refers to the Island of Great Britain, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. It does not include Ireland - as I said quite specifically: Ireland is a separate sovereign state/country.
(no subject) - biascut - Jul. 26th, 2013 09:58 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wellingtongoose - Jul. 26th, 2013 12:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2013 01:39 pm (UTC)
9. The Queen owns all the law courts in this country. Therefore legally she cannot be tried in these courts, neither can any of her family members

Only the Queen is exempt, as Regina v. Regina would be impossible. The Princess Royal knows the truth of this!
Jul. 27th, 2013 10:01 pm (UTC)
Nice meta once again. XD

I am a Historian and I must admit while I was a student I was always confused about references to England in the history books suddenly being replaced by references to Britain. Also, it was only after I left secondary school that I realised that the UK was now the official term for the country.

I am wondering though, if Great is dropped then just Britain could be used in place of the UK? Since the people are British?

I agree that Northern Ireland always confused me. Is that the area where they have the controversial processions.. Protestants vs. Catholics every year? If there is all this conflict in Northern Ireland then I wonder how they haven't made up their minds to leave the UK.

Anyway, in my country it is similar where we have Trinidad and Tobago everyone just refers to the country as Trinidad and the people as Trinidadians and the people from Tobago are not happy and say they want to be an independent island but they earn about 5-10% of total GDP and cannot survive on their own but they keep grousing. ^^
Jul. 31st, 2013 07:51 am (UTC)
If there is all this conflict in Northern Ireland then I wonder how they haven't made up their minds to leave the UK.

Probably because on the last time the issue was put to the electorate on both sides of the border in the form of the Referendum on the Good Friday Agreement (1998) 71% of the Northern Ireland electorate voted in favour of the questions put in the referendum on an 81% turnout (voting non-compulsory) and 94.4% of the Republic of Ireland electorate voted in favour on a 56.3% turnout (again, voting non-compulsory). One of the key provisions of the Good Friday Agreement with which the voters therefore agreed was the dropping of the provision of the 1937 Constitution of the Irish Republic which asserted that Northern Ireland was and should be part of the Republic, so I think we can take the result of the Good Friday Agreement Referendum as conclusive evidence that Northern Ireland is not undecided on this point.

Edited at 2013-07-31 10:35 am (UTC)
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