The Difference Between the United Kingdom, Great Britain, England and a Whole Lot More


There is now a poster version of the last slide available on my site and you can also help me make additions for version 2.0.

If you’re interested in the British Empire, you might like the (somewhat controversial) book: Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British Empire.


Welcome to the United Kingdom (and a whole lot more) explained by me, C. G. P. Grey

The United Kingdom, England, Great Britain? Are these three the same place? Different places? Do British people secretly laugh those who use the terms wrongly? Who knows the answers to these questions? I do and I’m going to tell you right now.

For the lost: this is the world, this is the European continent and this is the place we have to untangle.

The area shown in purple is the United Kingdom. Part of the confusion is that the United Kingdom is not a single country but instead is a country of countries.

It contains inside of it four co-equal and sovereign nations

The first of these is England – shown here in red. England is often confused with the United Kingdom as a whole because it’s the largest and most populous of the nations and contains the de facto capital city, London.

To the north is Scotland, shown in blue and to the west is wales, shown in white.

And, often forgotten even by those in the United Kingdom, is Northern Ireland shown in orange.

Each country has a local term for the population. While you can call them all ‘British’ it’s not recommended as the four countries generally don’t like each other.

The Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh regard the English as slave-driving colonial masters – no matter that all three have their own devolved Parliaments and are allowed to vote on English laws despite the reverse not being true – and the english generally regard the rest as rural yokels who spend too much time with their sheep.

However, as the four constituent countries don’t have their own passports, they are all British Citizens, like it or not.

British Citizens of the United Kingdom – whose full name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

So where’s Great Britain hiding?

Right here: the area covered in black in Great Britain. Unlike England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Great Britain is a geographical term rather than a political term.

Great Britain is the largest island among the British Isles.

Within the United Kingdom, the term ‘Great Britain’ is often used to refer to England, Scotland and Wales alone with the intentional exclusion of Northern Ireland.

This is mostly, but not completely true, as all three constituent countries have islands that are not part of Great Britain such as

The Isle of Wight, Isles of Scilly and Lundy which are part of England, the Welsh Isle of Anglesey and the Scottish

  • Hebrides
  • Shetland Islands
  • Orkney Islands
  • Islands of the Clyde

The second biggest island in the british isles is Ireland.

It is worth noting that Ireland is not a country. Like Great Britain, it is a geographical, not political, term.

The Island of Ireland contain on it two countries, Northern Ireland – which we have already discussed – and the Republic of Ireland.

When people say they are ‘Irish’ they are referring to the Republic of Ireland which is a separate country from the united kingdom.

However, both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom are members of the European Union even though England often likes to pretend that it’s an Island in the mid-atlantic rather than 50km off the cost of France. But that’s a story for another time.

To review:

The two largest islands in the British Isles are Ireland and Great Britain. Ireland has on it two countries – the republic of ireland and northern ireland, while Great Britain (mostly) contains three: England, Scotland and Wales. These last three, when combined with northern Ireland form the United Kingdom

Finished… no

There are still many unanswered questions. Such as, why, when you travel to Canada is there British Royalty on the money?

To answer this, we need to talk about Empire.

You can’t have gone to school in the English-speaking world without having learned that the British Empire once spanned a 1/4th the worlds land and governed nearly a 1/4th its people.

While it is easy to remember the part of the empire that broke away violently…

We often forget how many nations gained independence through diplomacy, not bloodshed.

These want-to-be nations struck a deal with the empire where they continued to recognize the monarchy as the head of state in exchange for a local, autonomous parliament.

But this raises the question: are these countries then still part of the United Kingdom?

Well, not exactly, but to understand how they are connected, we need to talk about the crown.

Not the physical crown that sits behind glass in the tower of London and earns millions of tourist pounds for the UK but the crown as a complicated legal entity best thought of a a one-man corporation.

Who created this corporation?

God Did.

According to British Tradition all power is vested in God and the monarch is crowned in a Christian ceremony.

God however – not wanted to be bothered with micromanagement – conveniently delegates his power to an entity called the crown. While this used to be the physical crown in the tower of london – it evolved over time into a legal corporation sole able to be controlled only by the ruling monarch.

All the laws of the United Kingdom derive their right to exist from the crown, which in turn derives its power from God.

It’s a useful reminder that the United Kingdom is still technically a theocracy with the reigning monarch acting as both the head of state and the supreme governor of the official state religion: Anglicanism.

Such are the oddities that arise when dealing with a 1,000 year-old Monarchy.

Back to Canada and the rest. The former colonies that gained their independence through diplomacy and continue to recognize that authority of the crown are known as the Commonwealth Realm.

They are, in decreasing order of population:

  • Canada
  • Australia
  • Papua New Guinea
  • New Zealand
  • Jamaica
  • Solomon Islands
  • Belize
  • The Bahamas
  • Barbados
  • Saint Lucia
  • Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  • Grenada
  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • Saint Kitts and Nevis
  • Tuvalu

All are independent nations but still recognize the monarchy as the head of state even though it has little real power within their borders.

There are three further entities that belong to the crown and these are the Crown Dependencies.

Unlike the Commonwealth Realm, they are not considered independent nations, but are granted local autonomy by the crown and British Citizenship by the United Kingdom – though the UK does reserve the right to over-rule the laws of there local assemblies.

The Crown Dependencies are:

  • The Isle of Man
  • Jersey
  • Guernsey

Are we all done now?

Almost, but not quite. There are still a couple of loose threads, such as this place:

The tiny city of Gibraltar on the Southern Cost of Spain famous for its rock, its monkeys and for causing diplomatic tension between the United Kingdom and Spain.

Or what about the Falkland Islands? Which caused so much tension between the United Kingdom and Argentina that they went to war over them.

These places belong in the last group of crown properties know as: British Overseas Territories. But their former name – crown colonies – gives away their origins.

They are the last vestiges of the British Empire.

Unlike the Commonwealth Realm, they have not become independent nations and continue to rely on the United Kingdom for military and (sometime) economic assistance. Like the Crown Dependencies, everyone born in their borders is a British Citizen.

The Crown colonies are, in decreasing order of population:

  • Bermuda
  • Cayman Islands
  • Turks and Caicos Islands
  • Gibraltar
  • British Virgin Islands
  • Akrotiri and Dhekelia
  • Anguilla
  • Saint Helena
  • Ascension Islands
  • Tristan da Cunha
  • Montserrat
  • British Indian Ocean Territory
  • South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
  • Falkland Islands
  • British Antarctic Territory
  • Pitcairn Islands

In our final review, the United Kingdom is a country situated on the british isles and is part of The Crown which is controlled by the monarchy.

Also part of the crown and the british isles are the crown dependencies. The independent nations of the former empire that still recognize the crown are the commonwealth realm and the non-independent remnants of the former empire are the british overseas territories.


Thanks to the following Flickr users for making their images available under a Creative Commons license: Robert Youngdi_the_huntressJames CridlandChris RobertshawPeter-Ashley Jackson & Peter Pikous.

Russian subtitles by: Alexey Kovalev