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England, Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom – what do they mean?


 Britain is a large island, separated from the continent of Europe by a narrow strait known as the English Channel. There are several smaller islands – the Channel Islands, Isle of White, Anglesey, Isle of Man, Farne Islands, Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland islands chief among them.

 There are three countries in Britain. England is the largest, containing most of the land area and population. The capital is London. To the North of England lies Scotland, comprising the northern part of Britain and the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland islands. The capital is Edinburgh. To the West lies Wales, whose capital is Cardiff.

 The term `Great Britain’ was coined by King James I in 1603 to mean these three countries (not including the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands). The point of the term is to describe the countries which were brought together under a single government (in Westminster, now part of London). There is a single head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, for all three countries; she is also head of state of many other countries, mostly former British colonies like Australia and Canada.


 Ireland is another large island lying to the West of Britain. From 1800 it too was governed from Westminster, the entire unit known as the United Kingdom. In 1921, the southern part of Ireland (known as Eire, with the capital at Dublin) became an independent country. The Northern part, known as Northern Ireland or Ulster, whose capital is Belfast, remained part of the United Kingdom – so it’s name is now officially `the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.


 In each of the three smaller countries there are political parties which would like complete independence from England. Partly to defuse them and partly to give their residence some feeling of local power, national assemblies were set up recently in Scotland and Wales. The primary impact of these assemblies is to increase employment for politicians and bureaucrats, and to cost money.

 They have been so successful in doing this that proposals are now being discussed for `regional assemblies’ within England. Unlike Scotland or Wales, the English regions do not have coherent historical identities (unless you go back more than a thousand years to the old kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria or Wessex). The 45 smaller counties already have a layer of local government. So it is hard to see how such a silly idea could make any headway. But this is politics after all ….

…. And Northern Ireland

 Successive governments have tried to introduce a national assembly for Northern Ireland, with mixed success. The Northern Irish community is divided between  `loyalists’ (who want to remain part of the UK) and `nationalists’ (who want to join Eire in a united Ireland). The vast majority of these people are peaceful and law-abiding but there are a few extremists on both sides who seek to achieve their aims through terrorism. These misguided people regularly wreck any serious attempt at a national assembly for Northern Ireland, thereby disenfranchising the communities they profess to serve.