Is it Great Britain, the United Kingdom, the British Isles or what exactly?

In February 2009 I wrote a post for the Yahoo! Geo Technologies blog about how people outside of the United Kingdom are sometimes confused by the vagaries of how to correctly write street addresses in the UK and if the United Kingdom is a country and if England is a country then how can England be part of the United Kingdom. Some pointed comments to the original post ensued from the likes of Ed Parsons from Google and Andrew Larcombe from the British Computer Society’s Geospatial Specialist Group.

And so almost a year later I went back and started to research exactly how the United Kingdom, Great Britain and the British Isles are actually put together. It was an educational journey because, even with being born and bred in London, it turned out that even I didn’t fully understand this subject. So I tried to codify it with a variation on The Great British Venn Diagram, which looks something like this:

United Kingdom Venn Diagram

Let’s start with the easy bit. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are constituent countries at an administrative level; they’re shown in yellow on the diagram above.

Great Britain, so named as to distinguish itself from Brittany, is a geographic island which comprises the countries of England, Scotland and Wales.

The United Kingdom is a sovereign state, shown in red, which comprises England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Ireland, also a geographic island, contains the administrative country of Northern Ireland and the sovereign state of the Republic of Ireland or Eire.

So far so good, but what about the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands? Both of these are not part of the United Kingdom, instead they are both Crown Dependencies, shown in purple, and are part of a federacy with the United Kingdom. And a federacy? That’s a type of government where one or more of the member administrative units have more independence than the majority of the member administrative units.

Finally, there’s everything else; those remnants of the British Empire scattered across the globe which enjoy the slightly nondescript appellation of British Overseas Territories (or British Dependent Territories prior to 2002 or Crown Colonies prior to 1981).

To be more precise, these are parts of the British Empire that did not gain independence and that the United Kingdom asserts sovereignty over. They take in Anguilla, Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn Islands, St Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekalia and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Of course not everyone agrees with these definitions

Britain Venn Diagram

Image Credits: Nanci.
Written and posted from the Kempinski Hotel Bristol in Berlin (52.5052405, 13.3280218)

18 Comments

  • This doesn’t answer the important question. When England plays Scotland at rugby, who gets which national anthem and why ? :-)

  • Very cool! There’s a slightly more different diagram on Wikipedia, which my blog covered back in 2006; one of the things missing from the above is that England and Wales share a legal system, and so are not separate entities in a very strong sense; there *is* the Welsh Assembly which has no equivalent in England, but it cannot pass Wales-only laws.

    See the discussion on http://www.crypticide.com/dropsafe/article/1696 ; doesn’t cover the BOT though.

  • Oh, and see also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Isles_%28terminology%29 which has been updated since the cited discussion, obviously… :-)

  • It’s incredible how complex it is. My favourite aspect is that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are “Countries” in the country of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Good times.

    One minor error with your diagram is that Northern Ireland is not part of the Republic of Ireland – you should have a separate circle within the Ireland circle for the RoI that does not encompass Northern Ireland.

  • Of course the term ‘British Isles’ is as insulting to Irish people as would be the term ‘French Isles’ to encompass Great Britain, and the Channel Islands to the British.

    See also, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Isles

  • Useful narrative. There’s a bit more detail at the web archive’s copy of the old Number 10 website, which also outlines devolution and informal uses of the term Britain.

    http://web.archive.org/web/20080209003312/http://www.number-10.gov.uk/output/Page823.asp

  • “the sovereign state of the Republic of Ireland or Eire.”

    Ooh, controversial.

    I take it you haven’t seen the interminable “what is the name of the state which occupies the bits that aren’t Northern Ireland?” dispute on Wikipedia?

  • The trouble is that England doesn’t have a National Anthem (although “Land of Hope and Glory” would be a suggestion) – “God Save the Queen” is actually the Commonwealth Anthem and therefore equally applicable to the England, Scotland, and Wales teams (although the Welsh do have their own anthem).

    Confused? You should be!

  • Wales is not a country; it is a principality. Not to be picky or anything.

  • @Glen: Caveat: No flame war intended here. There is a historical Principality of Wales (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principality_of_Wales) but to quote that article “The term principality is sometimes used in a modern sense to denote all of Wales, but this has no constitutional basis”. So from an administrative point of view Wales is a country so viewing it as a principality formally is incorrect but view it as one informally, colloquially and historically is correct.

  • I live in Wales and can confirm that it is indeed a country.

  • A very worthy and interesting topic, Gary.

    I can only comment confidently on two aspects;

    (a) ‘The British Isles’ as an archaic term and (b) George Best.

    (a); the British Isles ceased to be so after Ireland’s Independence in 1922.

    http://www.irelandinformationguide.com/British_Isles

    Geographically however, it was still referred to as that for many decades afterwards. Because it was ‘handy’ to do so. Physically, like Iberia, scientists would refer to the two islands as one. But it did piss off Irish Nationalists. And was/is very politically incorrect [before that term became a cliche].

    The Ordnance Survey Ireland do not recognise The British Isles in it’s mapping, nor does the National Geographic Association;

    http://irishnationalcaucus.blogspot.com/2008/01/british-isles-references-leave-irish.html

    Nowadays, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are geographically known as “The Island of Ireland” with the two administrations referred to and accepted politically and colloquially as North and South. Devolved power from Westminister has sanctioned this. This is only in the last decade though.

    Hence the Island of Ireland is a geographically recognised entitity and not part of the British Isles that includes England, Scotland, Wales, Jersey etc. but it contains the sovereignty of the six Northern counties which are part of the United Kingdom.

    I had my first geography lesson in Britain, my last in Ireland – so I know what’s what.

    So the Venn Diagram [blue] should be Great Britain and Ireland.

    (b) George Best; I cannot understand how a womanising short-serving alcoholic footballer got so much cred / adoration / and an airport named after him!?!

  • Note also that in some parts of ‘The Continent’ (now that’s another discussion) they refer to us as ‘The Island’, though I wouldn’t even attempt to define what the extent of that description.

  • You talk about England, Scotland and Wales being parts of the island of Great Britain. But each of those countries also includes offshore islands (admittedly, some are not very offshore), such as the Isle of Wight, the Scilly Isles, Lundy, Anglesey, the Hebrides, etc. So, your excellent diagram is rather incomplete.

  • @graybo: All of what you say is indeed true, however to be fair the diagram doesn’t attempt to be totally geographically inclusive, it attempts to help answer the question of the relationships between the different geographical entities which make up this region.

    Yes, the isles of Wight, Lundy, Anglesey and so on are not shown but then again, no one’s ever asked me “what country is the Isle of Wight part of?” but lots of people have asked “is England a country or not?” … which was what set me off to write the post in the first place.

  • @Ant: I’ve never come across “The Island” … have you got any references to this?

  • @Oona: Colloquial and historical place names and geographies are great. Just because an organisation doesn’t formally recognise a place name doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist out there in the world. I feel another blog post coming on …

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