What are the differences between Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and England

When speaking of Great Britain, the United Kingdom, or England, one thinks almost automatically of that group of islands located in northwestern Europe and separated from France by the English Channel. In popular language, it is common to use these three names in an undifferentiated way to refer to the country inhabited by the British, but nothing could be further from the truth. This tendency to consider the three names as synonyms is a very widespread error in which words that designate clearly differentiated elements are interchanged with each other.

Here we are describing the differences among these three terms:

Map of Great Britain
Source: Denver Library

Great Britain, a geographical and historical name

First of all, the name Great Britain refers to a geographical unit. Britain (also known as Albion ) was the territory occupied by the British, a people descended from the Celts who occupied much of the island and who faced the Roman invasions of 43 BC. Currently, Great Britain refers to the island of the greater size of the British archipelago, located between the European continent, to the east and south, and Ireland to the west. The set of all the islands that make up the archipelago is called the British Isles.

Great Britain designates, in a geographical sense, the island formed by England, Wales, and Scotland, three of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom, as well as most of the contiguous island territories except the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. This island is located northwest of the coast of mainland Europe, it is the largest island and the most populous island on the European continent. However, Northern Ireland is not part of this denomination. To understand why, we must go back to the creation of the first of our three denominations, in 927, when the kingdom of England covered all of the southern British Isles and formed a state – Wales was invaded by the English at the end of the 13th century. When Scotland wishes to unite with the Kingdom of England, in 1707, we speak of the Kingdom of Great Britain. It was then in 1801 that Ireland, an island located to the west of Great Britain, joined the Kingdom of Great Britain, thus forming the United Kingdom. This is why we speak of the United Kingdom as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and this since 1922 and the separation of the two Ireland.

British Isles terminology
Terminology for the British Isles, the United Kingdom, Great Britain, and Ireland.
Source: Britannica

The United Kingdom and England: one capital and one flag

If London is the capital of England, it is also the capital of the United Kingdom, which is made up of four nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. We are actually talking about the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. While the capital of England is London, each nation has a regional capital. Thus the Scottish capital is called Edinburgh, that of Wales Cardiff and that of Northern Ireland Belfast. Be careful, we are not talking about Ireland, which is a country in its own right, a parliamentary republic with its own flag, whose capital is Dublin. The two Ireland were separated in 1920. Northern Ireland was created on May 3, 1921, under the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

Thus, the United Kingdom designates all of its four states. This set has its own flag, called the Union Flag, “the Union Flag”, or “Union Jack”. It is made up of the three superimposed flags of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

In addition, the citizens of the United Kingdom are all British and all have the same passport: there is therefore neither an English passport, nor a Scottish, Welsh, or even North Irish passport.

If, on the contrary, we speak of the United Kingdom, this term defines a political unit that constitutes a state made up of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In 1921, after the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War, the Free State of Ireland was created, making the entire Emerald Isle an independent state. After the reintegration of Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom, the established political unit brought together England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland under a single association of states. The Republic of Ireland is the only region of all the islands that are not part of this union.


It is usually spoken of England to refer to the totality of the islands or as equivalent to any of the two terms that we have already defined. This may be because London, the capital of the United Kingdom, is located in England since, in the past, this was the territory that dominated the others and extended its dominions to the other side of the sea. But today, England refers to one of the regions that make up Great Britain, bordering Scotland to the north and Wales to the west. It is the largest area of ​​the island and in which some of the most important cities of the islands such as Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham are located.

The latter may be the worst of the three confusions, as in the other areas that make up the UK, such as Scotland, they have a strong nationalist sentiment and deep respect for their heritage, culture, and traditions. That means that if they are confused with English, they can interpret it as something negative and even offensive.

The different entities and Brexit

What about Brexit? Who are the citizens affected by this decision? In the referendum of June 23, 2016, the British population voted in favor of the UK leaving the European Union by 51.9%. Once the Withdrawal Agreement was ratified, the United Kingdom – made up of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, leaving the European Union on January 31, 2020, at midnight, and is therefore no longer a member state of the European Union or of the European Energy Community. On that date, the United Kingdom became the third state to the European Union. In the Brexit, Debatesthe question arises of the status of Ireland and Northern Ireland, since Brexit would logically entail a physical border on the island of Ireland. A protocol is put in place in the Withdrawal Agreement, with a solution to avoid this physical border, as well as a customs border on the island of Ireland.

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