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The United Kingdom’s long, complicated history lives on as Dave Gerow explains why England is not a country, why Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and why actor Sean Connery is not happy with Scotland’s status.
Text by: Dave Gerow
Country: United Kingdom

ere’s something that confuses people all over the world:

What’s the difference between England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom? Are they the same thing, or what?

Here’s the short answer: The United Kingdom (or U.K.) is a country. It comprises England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. England is one part of the United Kingdom. It’s not a country. Great Britain is an island. It’s not a country either. It’s a geographical region. The island of Great Britain contains England, Scotland and Wales. That’s most of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is on a small island to the west. The island’s name is Ireland. The other country on it is the Republic of Ireland. The two countries used to be one.

The name “Britain” is really the same as “Great Britain”. We sometimes add “Great” because there’s a region in France called Brittany, which is also known as Little Britain.

So how did England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland come together to form the United Kingdom?

Wales is much smaller than England. England used to be a bit of a bully and started attacking Wales in the 1200s. In 1485, Henry VII became King of England by defeating King Richard III in the War of the Roses. In the war, Henry VII was helped by the Welsh; he had Welsh blood himself. His son was Henry VIII, one of England’s most infamous monarchs. From 1535-42, Henry VIII created a series of laws making Wales a part of England. Welsh representatives were allowed to attend English parliament, but they had to speak English: the union was a serious blow to the Welsh language.

The U.K. was born when Scotland was added. In the early 18th century, Scotland was broke. It had had years of bad harvests, and about one-fourth of the nation’s money had been wasted in 1698 trying to establish a colony in Panama. England, which had been interfering in Scottish affairs for centuries, offered to ease Scotland’s financial troubles by forming a union. In 1707, the Scottish parliament voted 110-67 to accept. The vote was tainted by corruption; bribes were paid, and English spies populated Scotland’s political world. (Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Dafoe was one of those spies.)

The vote was very unpopular in Scotland, and martial law was enforced when riots broke out. Robert Burns, Scotland’s most beloved poet, wrote in 1791 that the Scottish were “bought and sold for English gold”, and many Scots still feel that way. (Sean Connery, for example, is an outspoken Scottish nationalist.)

In 2012, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron signed the Edinburgh Agreement, allowing a Scottish referendum to take place in late 2014. The question on the ballot will be, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” To Connery’s chagrin, polls suggest that a minority of Scots will vote for independence.

So now we have England, Wales and Scotland united – the entire island of Great Britain. How about Northern Ireland? The King of England had officially been the King of Ireland since Henry VIII, but England had no control over Irish laws or interests. In 1801, Ireland voted to form a union with Great Britain. The two islands, Great Britain and Ireland, now comprised the United Kingdom. But it wasn’t an easy union: the majority of the Irish are Catholic, and Protestant Britain persecuted Catholics.

Most of the people who wanted Ireland to be united with Britain lived in the northern part of the island. After the Easter Uprising of 1916, those pro-U.K. Irish were afraid that Ireland would become a republic, so they campaigned to have the small northeastern region of Ulster separated from the south. When Southern Ireland finally became independent in 1922, Northern Ireland remained a part of the United Kingdom. Violence over the partition and the inclusion of Northern Ireland in the U.K. has been ongoing ever since.

The UK flag

Take a look at the flag of the United Kingdom. It’s made up of three crosses, representing three members of the United Kingdom. The dominant red cross at the front is St. George’s Cross, which appears on England’s flag. Behind it is a white “X”: St. Andrew’s cross, representing Scotland. Then there’s a red “X”, which is the cross of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.

You’ll notice that Wales isn’t represented anywhere on the flag. That’s because when the U.K. was formed, Wales was already a part of England, and so was represented by St. George’s cross. And aesthetically, it’s difficult to imagine a bloody big red dragon being added anywhere in the current Union Jack. Nonetheless, the question of adding some representation of Wales to the Union Flag was brought up in Parliament in the 2000s, and it has been suggested that the flag be amended to include the Welsh dragon or the yellow cross of St. David, patron saint of Wales.

The politics of the United Kingdom are strange and complicated, but here’s the bottom line: Scots are not English. The Welsh are not English. The Irish are not English. And when you meet people from any of these places, you should be aware of the history that both divides and unites them.

UK Facts

England: The name “England” is derived from the Old English name Englaland, which means “land of the Angles“. With more than 53 million inhabitants, England is by far the most populous country of the United Kingdom.

Wales: In 2011, Wales’ population was estimated to have risen to just more than 3million, the highest in its history. Wales has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The Castles and Town walls of King Edward I in Gwynedd; Pontcysyllte Aqueduct; and the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape.

Scotland: In addition to the mainland, Scotland is made up of more than 790 islands including the Northern Isles and the Hebrides. In August 2012, the Scottish population had reached an all time high of 5.25 million people.

Northern Ireland: The population in 2011 was 1.8 million, having grown 7.5% over the previous decade. The Troubles, starting in the late 1960s, consisted of about 30 years of recurring acts of intense violence between elements of Northern Ireland’s nationalist community (principally Roman Catholic) and unionist community (principally Protestant) during which 3,254 people were killed.


More than the sum of its parts .

The United Kingdom is made up of 4 countries: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. England and Wales were the first countries that came together back in the 1800’s, later and after a tainted votation Scotland also joined. Finally Northern Ireland having split from Ireland, after an internal war that went on for decades, became part of The UK.

The flag is formed by merging the crosses of each country’s Saint: Saint Patrick’s for Ireland, Saint George’s for England and Saint Andrew’s for Scotland, Wales is not included since it joined very early on and it is very difficult to add a bloody dragon to a flag.



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