You would think that figuring out the name of a country wouldn’t be too difficult. I mean, Germany is just called Germany (then again, that can also be complicated). But that other country across the pond can present a unique challenge for people who weren’t raised with the terminology. There’s the United Kingdom, there’s Great Britain, there’s England, there’s the British Isles, and somehow, that still doesn’t cover all of the terminology for that specific part of the world. So what’s the difference between Britain, England and the UK?
Well, it’s complicated. Here, we’ll define each of these terms. By the end of it, you’ll be the master of all things British (or is it all things English?).
Starting with the smallest geographic landmass, England is a country. Its capital is London and it borders Scotland and Wales, which are two separate countries. Its name means “Land of the Angles,” referring to the Angles, who were a Germanic tribe of people who migrated to the landmass now known as England in the 5th century. You’re probably more familiar with the phrase “Anglo-Saxon,” which is simply a term that combines the Angles and the Saxons, who were technically separate tribes but both contributed to early England.
First of all, there is no difference between “Britain” and “Great Britain” — the former is just a shorter way of referring to the latter. In many ways, Great Britain is specifically a geographical term, because it refers to the whole island that comprises England, Scotland and Wales. It also is used in political terms to refer to these three countries together. This name ultimately comes from the name for the island that was bestowed upon it by the Britons, who were the tribe who had settled there before the Anglo-Saxons arrived.
To add to the confusion, many publications, including the Guardian, use Great Britain as a synonym for “the United Kingdom.” But to explain what that means, let’s move to the United Kingdom itself.
The United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is a sovereign state made up of four countries: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This political entity formed slowly over time. In the 16th century, Wales, which had already been conquered by England, was fully incorporated into the Kingdom of England. In 1707, a treaty between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland was signed, forming the Kingdom of Great Britain (because now the whole island was one political entity). Then, in 1801, after a period of subjugation by England, the Kingdom of Ireland was formally incorporated to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Finally, in 1922, most of Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom, splitting the island into two: Ireland and Northern Ireland, the latter of which stayed part of the United Kingdom.
For those interested only in the question in the headline, this is all you need to know about Britain, England and the UK. Britain is the landmass where England is, England is one country, and the United Kingdom is four countries united together. But when it comes to the United Kingdom, there are a lot more intricacies to be considered.
The British Isles
The British Isles is another term that is more geographical than political, though they encompass both England and the UK. It refers to the whole grouping of islands in that part of the country. The two largest are Great Britain and Ireland, but there are many smaller islands as well. These are the Isle of Man, the Hebrides and thousands of smaller islands.
Most of the smaller British Isles are politically part of the United Kingdom. Skye, Lundy and Portland, for example, are all part of the countries nearest them, and thus are not politically separate. Three of the British Isles, however, are in a separate political class: a Crown dependency. These islands are the Isle of Man, the Bailiwick of Guernsey and the Bailiwick of Jersey. They are not technically part of the United Kingdom, but the United Kingdom is considered responsible for them and so they’re also not sovereign states. They do have their own legislative bodies to self-govern, but the United Kingdom technically has the ability to impose its laws on them.
British Overseas Territories
At its apex, the British Empire had massive territories stretched out across the world. England and the UK as a whole had a vast hold on countries in North America, Africa and Asia. But in the early 20th century, when that period of colonialism came to a close, many countries gained independence from the United Kingdom. Still, there are currently 14 territories that are deemed British Overseas Territories, or United Kingdom Overseas Territories. Most of these territories are now self-governing, but the United Kingdom is technically responsible for their defense and foreign relations policies.
The 14 British Overseas Territories are Anguilla; Bermuda; the British Antarctic Territory; the British Indian Ocean Territory; the British Virgin Islands; the Cayman Islands; the Falkland Islands; Gibraltar; Montserrat; Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands; Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha; South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia; and Turks and Caicos Islands.
Notably, three British Overseas Territories — the British Antarctic Territory, the British Indian Ocean Territory and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands — have no residents, acting as temporary residences of various military and research personnel.
The Commonwealth Of Nations
During the decolonization period of the early 20th century, many countries were already gaining more independence from England and the UK. To address the changing political situation, it was decided that the British Empire would remake itself into the British Commonwealth of Nations. This was formalized in the Balfour Declaration of 1926. The heart of the agreement was that the British colonies would become free and equal sovereign states, but still pledge allegiance to the British Crown.
The British Commonwealth of Nations continued to evolve over the next several decades. For one thing, a number of the countries gained more total independence from the United Kingdom. Also, the word “British” was dropped from the name. The exact political and economic ramifications of being a member of the Commonwealth of Nations is extremely complicated, and it varies by country. One of the lasting legacies is the Commonwealth Games, which is a multi-sport event held every four years. So it’s very similar to the Olympics, except only athletes who live in the Commonwealth of Nations are eligible.
There are 54 members of the Commonwealth of Nations, and among this category there is some variation. The differences are entirely dependent on who is considered the head of state.
A Commonwealth realm is a realm in which the head of state is the Head of the Commonwealth. As of now, that person is Queen Elizabeth II. The Head of the Commonwealth does not have very much control over the Commonwealth realms, and is mostly a symbolic role. The Head of the Commonwealth is also not necessarily England’s monarch. But it’s been agreed that if Queen Elizabeth II dies, her current successor (Prince Charles) will also become the Head of the Commonwealth.
As of 2021, there are 15 Commonwealth realms: Antigua and Barbuda; Australia; The Bahamas; Belize; Canada, Grenada; Jamaica; New Zealand; Papua New Guinea; Saint Kitts and Nevis; Saint Lucia; Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; the Solomon Islands; Tuvalu; and, of course, the United Kingdom.
A republic means that the power rests with the people, and so the head of state is an elected official. Many Commonwealth republics were formerly Commonwealth realms, until they gained full independence from the United Kingdom. There are two exceptions to this — Mozambique and Rwanda — that were never a British colony.
As of 2021, there are 33 Commonwealth republics: Bangladesh; Botswana; Cameroon; Cyprus; Dominica; Fiji; the Gambia; Ghana; Guyana; India; Kenya; Kiribati; Malawi; the Maldives; Malta; Mauritius; Mozambique; Namibia; Nauru; Nigeria; Pakistan; Rwanda; Samoa; the Seychelles; Sierra Leone; Singapore; South Africa; Sri Lanka; Tanzania; Trinidad and Tobago; Tuvalu; Uganda; Vanuatu; and Zambia.
There are also members of the Commonwealth of Nations that have a monarch as the head of state, but that monarch is not Queen Elizabeth II.
As of 2021, there are five Commonwealth monarchies: Brunei, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malaysia and Tonga.
English vs. British
“English” and “British” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they mean slightly different things. English refers only to people and things that are from England specifically. Thus, to be English is not to be Scottish, Welsh nor Northern Irish. British, on the other hand, refers to anything from Great Britain, meaning anyone who lives in Scotland, Wales or England are considered British. This isn’t too hard to remember if you just keep in mind the differences between Britain, England and the UK. But because Northern Ireland is also often considered part of Great Britain, the Northern Irish are also sometimes called British. Though, like many things in Northern Ireland, this label can be contentious.
This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Barbados is no longer a Commonwealth realm.