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:
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 …
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