This is a question we have been asked a few times since we started the Versus-All website. Surprisingly, some of the people who have asked us to cover Britain vs England have been European and we’re pretty sure that one of them was a Brit masquerading as an Australian just to avoid embarrassment. As always, we’re happy to cover it because if you’re not in the know, it can be a tricky one.
After all, every question is tough if you don’t know the answer and there’s no shame in that. We’ve asked our resident British writers to cover this one, so, just what is the difference between Britain and England and what’s the difference between being British and English? Also, as many of you may be wondering, where does the United Kingdom fit into that?
Britain vs England: What is the Difference?
This is actually a fairly easy one, but it’s understandable how so many people get tripped up by it. The issue with seemingly easy questions is that few people think it’s necessary to answer them, which feeds the cycle of uncertainty and leaves all those people not quite understanding the situation.
If you’re American, one of the best ways of looking at this is to compare Britain to New England and England to New York. In other words, you can be both, but just because you are from New England (Britain in this analogy) doesn’t mean you are from New York (England).
Hopefully that makes sense and we haven’t just further complicated the issue. There’s a chance you may now be asking yourself, “What does New England have to do with Britain?”
Britain vs England: Putting the Analogies Aside
Great Britain is an island that encompasses 5 countries: England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland. Great Britain itself is part of the British Isles, which includes very small islands like Shetland and Orkney. These are not countries themselves but are merely part of the countries that they are closest to. For instance, Shetland sits to the North-East of Scotland and is considered to be part of Scotland.
The British Isles are also part of Europe, which is a continent. When someone says “Britain” they are referring to the island and all of its countries, as well as the many small islands that sit off its shores and form part of the British Isles.
Are you with us so far? Okay, let’s move on.
Britain vs UK
One of the biggest misconceptions that non-Brits people have about Britain is that the UK and Britain are interchangeable and that they both mean the same thing. This is not true. The UK is a sovereign country that encompasses Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, all of which are under a constitutional monarchy with London as it capital.
A sovereign country is basically an area of land—one that can cover multiple regions and countries—that is represented by a centralized government and also has a sovereignty. So, while the four countries that makeup this region are classed as individual countries, they are under the control of the sovereign power that oversees the UK. They have their own governments, but these have been granted their powers by the UK government and they are the ones who pull the strings. It’s not unusual for them to have their own laws, but most of these concern differences in sentencing as well as civil matters, when it comes to standard criminal law, it’s pretty standard across all of these countries.
On the global stage, these countries are represented by the UK. When governments are formed, all of these four countries vote and all of these four will then be governed, under the banner of the United Kingdom, by the government that comes into power.
So, Britain is the name given to the island where five countries can be found; the United Kingdom is the name given to the ruling government of four of these countries; England is the biggest and richest of these countries and it is also home to London, which is the seat of the government and the monarchy.
Britain vs the United Kingdom: What About Ireland?
So, where does the Republic of Ireland come into this?
This is actually where it gets more complicated. Geographically speaking, Ireland is a single country that forms part of the British Isles. But it is actually divided between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with the former being under the control of the UK and the latter being its own republic.
If this sounds unusual, it’s not. Just think of Korea, which is split between the north and the south or even of Cyprus.
British vs English: What do They Call Themselves?
That leaves just one question, what does someone from the UK call themselves? If someone from the USA refers to themselves as an American, then what about someone from the UK?
Well, this is actually a hot topic in the UK right now. As you can imagine from a kingdom that governs four countries but is predominantly based in one, there is a lot of discontent. The Scots in particular have called for their own independence, and Wales and Northern Ireland have been vocal about getting a bigger role. They think the English have too many benefits and get too much attention from the government, and when they hear people from England referring to themselves as “English” and not “British”, which is to say individuals and not a whole, they get annoyed.
But the truth is that someone who calls themselves English is rarely doing it out of spite and is probably not even thinking about the British vs English argument. What’s more, if you ask someone from Scotland what they consider themselves to be, the vast majority will say “Scottish” and not “British”. The same can be said for those from Wales and Northern Ireland.
It’s an argument that has raged for a long time and one that will continue as these countries consider a vote to gain their independence, especially since the UK voted to be out of the EU, taking Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland with it, even though those countries, Scotland in particular, strongly voted against it.
But that’s an article and an argument for another day. As far as the Britain vs England and British vs English arguments are concerned, hopefully we’ve cleared it up.