Dear Straight Dope:
What's the difference between Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and England? They all seem the same, but different. Do they have different boundaries? Which include Wales and Northern Ireland? Do they have different governments?
Man, this is probably a 6th grade geography question, or a quick look in an almanac, but Cecil said I should answer it anyway. Somebody has to get you guys up to speed.
The simple answer is that the United Kingdom is officially "the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland." Great Britain is the large island, consisting of England, Scotland, and Wales. Northern Ireland is that chunk at the north-east quarter of the island of Ireland. (The rest of the island of Ireland is the Republic of Ireland, an independent country.)
The United Kingdom at one time also included the Channel Islands (Jersey, Guernsey, and Guernsey’s dependencies: Alderney, Brechou, Great Sark, Herm, Jethou, Lihou, and Little Sark) and the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. These are now all dependencies of the British crown, although they are largely self-governing. As a practical matter, this means their tax laws are very attractive.
Leaving nothing to chance, let me fill you in on a few more basic facts about the UK and its constituent parts:
– England – capital is London, area is 50,400 sq miles. There are about 50 counties as administrative units, like Berkshire and Bedfordshire and Midlands and Kent and Lancashire and so forth.
– Scotland – capital is Edinburgh, area is 30,400 sq miles. There are nine regions, and the island authorities (Orkney, Shetland, and Western Isles).
– Wales – capital is Cardiff, area is 8,000 square miles. There are eight counties, and you can’t pronounce any of them (Clwyd, Dyfed, Gwynedd, Powys, etc.)
– Northern Ireland – capital is Belfast, area is 5,500 sq miles, and there are six counties.
– Isle of Man – capital is Douglas, area is 225 sq miles; not officially part of the United Kingdom.
– Channel Islands – about 75 square miles all together; not officially part of the United Kingdom.
Now, about the governments. Basically, the Act of Union of 1707 gave England and Scotland a common government, although they were united under a single monarch in 1603 under James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England). In 1801, Ireland (the entire island) became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (and the Colonies beyond the Seas). After World War I, southern Ireland broke off to become the Republic of Ireland, a separate country.
So on the question of "different" governments, it’s tricky. There are regional governments for Scotland and Wales, although they are fairly weak and deal with local matters only. The real power is with the government (Parliament) of the United Kingdom. It’s kind of like the distinction between state governments and the federal government in the U.S., although if you missed 6th grade geography, you probably missed that part, too.
Scotland now has its own parliament that has recently been given more power, including the power to levy taxes. The Welsh forum is not so powerful. England does not have a separate elective body, but there are regional councils.
Northern Ireland is supposed to be putting some form of local government in place, but this depends on the peace process, currently delayed by the more war-like factions.
In short, this is an area that gets politically "hot" from time to time, over which governmental agency should have how much power. F’rinstance, there’s the splinter groups that think Scotland should separate from the United Kingdom, etc. So check your local newpaper every few weeks for late-breaking developments.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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