What is the UK?

In Life, Travel by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

Planning a trip to England? Or maybe Britain? But why stop there, how about Great Britain, the UK, or the British Isles? Wait, what exactly is the difference? While in North America we often use these names interchangeably, you can be sure that anyone from Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, Wales, or the Republic of Ireland would be quick to make the distinction. So why not save them the trouble and familiarize yourself with the difference between Great Britain and Britain, Great Britain and the UK and between the UK and the British Isles.

The Basics


What makes Britain so great? Well, Scotland apparently. Britain refers to just England and Wales, while Great Britain refers to England, Wales, and Scotland.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – or the UK for short – is comprised of Great Britain – England, Scotland, Wales – plus Northern Ireland. All four of these nations were once independent countries but united on January 1, 1801. Although Northern Ireland is on the island of Ireland, all citizens of the UK, including Northern Irish, are referred to as British.

Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but not Great Britain, while the Republic of Ireland is part of neither Great Britain nor the UK – having left the UK in 1922. The island of Ireland, is, however, part of the British Isles. Despite this, be sure not to call an Irishman British – they are Irish. The capital of Ireland is Dublin, and the country is represented with its own flag – most definitely not the union jack.

The British Isles are comprised of Ireland, Great Britain and 5 000 smaller islands including the Isle of Man, the Isle of Wight, the Orkney and Shetland Islands and more. The largest island in the British Isles is Great Britain. Orkney and Shetland are both part of Scotland, and the Isle of Wight is the largest island in England.

A capital idea


When it comes to capitals, every member country has their own. England has London (which also serves as the UK’s capital), Edinburgh for Scotland, Cardiff for Wales, and Belfast for Northern Ireland. Like capital’s, each member has their own flag (and symbols) while the Union Jack – the flag of the UK – combines elements of the individual members.

I feel an election coming on


Considering the scale and complexity of the countries in the British Isles, surely there is a single simple governing structure? Right? Nope.


Scotland, while part of the UK also has its own parliament – much like Provincial Legislatures in Canada or State Legislatures in the United States – which has the power to pass laws and exercise a high degree of fiscal autonomy (including over taxes).


Wales doesn’t have a parliament but instead has a National Assembly which has many of the same functions as a parliament but cannot levy taxes.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland had a parliament for 50 years ending in 1972 but now has an assembly called, appropriately, the Northern Ireland Assembly. Like Wales’ National Assembly the Northern Ireland Assembly has the ability to pass laws but does not have the same level of fiscal autonomy enjoyed by the Scottish Parliament. Welsh, Scottish and North Irish citizens elect representatives in their national assemblies or parliament and MPs to the UK parliament, often simply called Westminster, in London.


England may be the dominant member of the UK but it does not have a national legislature of its own.

Republic of Ireland

The Republic of Ireland, as an independent country, has its own system of government. Unlike the UK, Ireland elects both a President – who holds a largely ceremonial position – by popular vote and a Taoiseach (Prime Minister) who heads the government.



Note: The below section was written prior to the infamous ‘Brexit’ vote. As it stands, the UK is still a part of the EU. However following the popular vote in favour of leaving the EU, negotiations on ongoing and a formal proposal to leave will (likely) follow.

Ireland and the UK are both also members of the EU (European Union) which has a total of 28 member states. So while the British Isles are separated from continental Europe by the British Channel they are technically, geographically and politically, European. But just as a Scott might prefer to be described as such rather than as Brit, many Brits prefer not to be described as European but instead as British. To further complicate the matter, the EU has its own parliament, to which both the UK and the Republic of Ireland elect separate sets of MEPs (Members of the European Parliament). In addition to the European Parliament there is also the European Commission, to which both the UK and Ireland have separate members appointed, as well as the European Council which is composed of the elected heads of state of all EU member countries. Confused? You should be. The EU is often criticized as being a bloated bureaucratic mess which is why some members, like the UK, are flirting with the idea of leaving the EU. However not all of the UK agrees with this. Some people in Scotland (specifically the Scottish National Party) want to stay in the EU and leave the UK, while some people in England want to ditch Scotland and the EU – finding an odd patch of common ground with each other.

Now that you’ve almost got a grip on the complexities of the British Isles, let’s make things even more complicated.

Overseas and Right Next Door


The Crown Dependencies

The Isle of Man and the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey are all self-governing British Crown Dependencies. All three are independently administered and not part of the UK (despite their proximity) and can pass their own legislation through their own parliaments and are officially their own sovereign countries, but are, nevertheless, described as territories for which the UK is responsible.

Gibraltar and other British Overseas Territories

Gibraltar, located at the bottom of Spain jutting into the Strait of Gibraltar towards North Africa, is a British Overseas Territory. People who reside in Gibraltar are not citizens of Gibraltar but rather British Overseas Territories citizens (BOTC). BOTC’s in Gibraltar vote for their own 17 member parliament and can’t vote in UK elections. The parliament is responsible for domestic governance but the UK still handles all defence, security, foreign policy and oversees “general good governance”. Not every British Overseas Territory is governed in the exact same way as Gibraltar, but we don’t have the time or patience to go over all 14 individually.

Neither the crown dependencies nor the British Overseas Territories vote in the UK elections or EU elections. However, legislation passed by the EU could affect the UK which could pass legislation to affect the Crown Dependencies or British Overseas Territories.

But wait, there’s more…

Common Ground


The Commonwealth of Nations

The Commonwealth of Nations is a voluntary international association of countries which were once part of the British Empire. They are politically independent, more so than British Crown dependencies or British Overseas Territories. Included in the Commonwealth are Australia, Canada, Jamaica, and India for a total of 53 members. The Commonwealth of Nations does not include the British Crown Dependencies (e.g, Jersey) nor the British Overseas Territories. However British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies can and do send athletes to the Commonwealth Games representing their home territories.

Simple enough? Well it gets a bit more complex.

The Commonwealth Realms

Distinct from the Commonwealth of Nations are the 16 members of the Commonwealth Realms. All 16 members of the Realm hold Queen Elizabeth II as their constitutional monarch. Included within these 16 are Canada, Australia, the Bahamas, Belize, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and more. Notable countries like India, Pakistan, Nigeria and others which are part of the Commonwealth of Nations are not Commonwealth Realms.

Got it? Good


So next time you take a trip to Northern Ireland you can tell your friends you are visiting Northern Ireland, the island of Ireland, the British Isles, Europe, the UK (but not Britain or Great Britain), the EU, the Commonwealth of Nations and a Commonwealth Realm. To which they might reply, “wow, all in one trip?”

If you’re interested in learn more about the UK and Ireland check out our profiles and Travel Guides for England (Profile | Travel Guide), Wales (P | TG), Scotland (P | TG), Northern Ireland (P | TG), and the Republic of Ireland (P | TG). Don’t forget about our Currency Spotlights on the pound and the euro.

Stay informed. Stay Current.