2 Minute History Lesson: The UK

I’ve been to several different countries in my lifetime, and I’ve formed the opinion that the “average American” is about as smart as the “average Briton” or the “average German”. But one thing Americans as a whole seem to have great difficulty with is the difference between “England”, “Great Britain” and the “United Kingdom”. Americans tend to use these names interchangeably, and this is not correct. So take a couple of minutes to learn the difference:

There is a large island off the northern coast of France. This island – that is, the physical island itself – is known as Great Britain. Great Britain was traditionally divided into two separate countries: England and Scotland. However, Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 and left no heir. This led to King James VI of Scotland – a descendant of Henry VII through his great-grandmother Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s eldest sister – being offered the English crown. James accepted, and became known as King James I in England.

It’s important to understand that although James was king of both countries, the two were still independent nations at the time. England and Scotland each had their own form of parliament, currency, customs procedures, army, navy, legal and educational systems… and all those other things that make one country different from another. King James himself would lead the first movement to unify England and Scotland; although he was unsuccessful, the idea persisted. In 1707, the Act of Union was passed by both the English and Scottish parliaments. With this act, both “England” and “Scotland” ceased to exist, and one nation called the United Kingdom of Great Britain was formed.

England and Scotland still exist as geographic and cultural divisors, just as people in North Carolina and South Carolina might continue to refer to themselves as “North” or “South” Carolinians if the two US states were to merge. England and Scotland even field separate teams in most rugby and soccer tournaments, as well as the Commonwealth Games, a type of “Olympics” held between nations of the British Commonwealth. But the fact remains that there’s only one parliament, one army, one navy, one customs agency and one Olympic team: that of Great Britain.

So what about Wales and Ireland? Well, Wales had already been conquered by the time people began to think of “England” and “Scotland” as “nations” in the modern sense. So it was never an independent nation to begin with, therefore it’s just considered a part of England (in a legal sense; there’s a huge cultural difference between the English and the Welsh). Ireland was part of the English (then British) Empire for centuries. In 1800, another Act of Union was passed, this time between the British parliament and the Irish parliament. This created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Irish had long fought against British rule, and in 1922 the Irish Free State came into being. Still part of the British Empire, the Free State existed until a new constitution was adopted by the Irish in 1937. Eventually this would lead to the declaration of the Republic of Ireland in 1948. Ireland is a completely independent nation, and is not even a member of the British Commonwealth. As if this weren’t confusing enough, when the two islands that make up Britain and Ireland are discussed geographically, they are usually referred to as the British Isles, even though Ireland isn’t a part of Britain (the island) or Britain (the nation).

Of course, nothing’s ever static in this world, and changes always seem to be happening. In 1998, a Welsh “National Assembly” was founded, and a year later the Scottish parliament was founded. These aren’t true “parliaments”, in the sense that all external affairs (such as national defense) are handled by the Westminster parliament. Westminster can even override certain legislation passed by both the Welsh and Scottish parliaments. There’s plenty of discussion in the UK about how much autonomy to give each “state”. Some advocated the “devolved” parliaments as a way to strengthen the Union; others see it as the first steps in the eventual the breakup of the United Kingdom into at least three (if not four) separate countries. What will happen? Only time will tell!

Lastly, you have three islands off the coast of Great Britain: the bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey and the Isle of Man. These three islands are crown dependencies. They are in the possession of the British crown, but they are not part of either the United Kingdom or the European Union. Their small size and limited resources make them heavily dependent on the UK, and the governments of crown dependencies work closely with the British government on things that work best with cooperation (like assigning post codes and telephone numbers). Having said that, most laws passed by the Westminster parliament don’t apply to them, as they have their own parliaments – in fact, the Isle of Man’s parliament – Tynwald – has been meeting since 979 AD, making it the world’s oldest continuously-sitting parliament. These crown dependencies also issue their own currency and have their own postal systems, although neither the banknotes or stamps are legal tender in the United Kingdom (but are often accepted anyway).

Whew! I think I confused myself with this post!

3 Replies to “2 Minute History Lesson: The UK”

  1. What about Northern Ireland? The 6 counties of Ulster are still part of “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” They also, as of earlier this year, have their own independent parliament.

  2. Heh… I KNEW you’d leave a comment about Northern Ireland! πŸ˜‰

    I initially didn’t want the article to be too long. But it turned out to be somewhat long, yes?

    And here’s the thing: it was late, and I was getting sick of working on this article in general (I had it in my “Drafts” for about a week). I couldn’t find any specific information about HOW Northern Ireland came to be. Wiki wasn’t even really clear on how the Republic of Ireland came to into existence. I was familiar with the Irish Free State, but Wiki’s entry on “Ireland” and the “Irish Free State” simply said that Ireland adopted a new constitution in 1937 and eventually became the “Republic of Ireland” in 1948… with no mention of the UK’s role in any of it. As I said, it was late, and I was sick of working on this piece… so I just skipped NI in general.

    Sorry for that, man! πŸ™‚

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