Many are not aware of the precise meaning of the term "Great Britain". Even many British are unaware of the precise reality that the term expresses. Try asking a person living in the United Kingdom the exact meaning of the expression they have on their passports: "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". Many will not be able to provide an adequate answer. No wonder, therefore, that confusion also exists outside the United Kingdom and that in other European countries people erroneously group together the English, Scottish and Welsh under the word in their own language meaning "English". Hence, for example, the French commonly group them together in the term "anglais" and the Italians "inglesi"). This can be a cause of offence for the Scottish and the Welsh.

Here we shall try to explain the meaning of the terms "Great Britain", "United Kingdom", "British Islands" and "British Isles" as wells as the political and geographical realities that they express.


Great Britain

Great Britain is the largest island in Europe. "Great Britain" is the collective name for the three countries of England, Scotland and Wales. It also includes the small adjacent islands but it does not include the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

The term "Great Britain" came into being when England and Scotland became a single kingdom under King James VI of Scotland who also became King James I of England, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. It must be remembered, however, that this was not a political union but merely the union of the crowns of the two countries. Politically they were still two states, each with its own Parliament.1 Political union came about only during the reign of Queen Anne, in 1707. It was in this year that the Scottish Parliament assembled for the last time and the formal union of Parliaments was effected. It was on 1 May of that same year that the "United Kingdom of Great Britain" came into existence.

Under Edward I the conquest of Wales was completed and Wales was united to England under Henry VIII, the second monarch descended from the Welsh House of Tudor. 2 This union was ratified by two Acts of Parliament in 1536 and again in 1543.


The adjective "British"

The adjective "British" is, of course, used in relation to Great Britain but there is also a common tendency to use it when referring to issues relating to both Great Britain and the United Kingdom. This is inaccurate and from a legal point of view erroneous.

Sometimes, however, in legislation the term "British" is used to refer to the United Kingdom as a whole, especially in matters relating to the question of nationality. 3

The United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is made up of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The official name "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" came into use in 1922 after the constitution of the Irish Free State (1922-1937), the former name of the Republic of Ireland.

The whole of Ireland had been united to Great Britain by an Act of Parliament in 1800 and which took effect in January 1801. 4 However, this union had never been popular in Ireland and became the target of Irish Nationalist leaders ever since. The union of the whole of Ireland with Great Britain lasted until the constitution of the Irish Free State. The Treaty that sanctioned the separation laid down that the six counties in the north should remain united to Great Britain hence constituting Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom but not part of Great Britain.

Therefore, the United Kingdom of Great Britain, used to indicate the political union of England, Scotland and Wales, was expanded, in the 20th century, to include Northern Ireland: the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" as it now appears on passports.

When speaking of the United Kingdom and its constituent parts it is important to use the correct terminology. In 1969 the Royal Commission on the Constitution was set up with the aim of examining the relation between central legislature and government on one hand and the "several countries, nations and regions of the United Kingdom" on the other. The words "countries", "nations" and "regions" reveal a certain vagueness which was eventually resolved by the Report of the Commission. 5


The Isle of Man and the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey are not part of Great Britain, they are not part of the United Kingdom and neither are they part of the European Union. They are self-governing British Crown dependencies.

The British Islands

The expression "British Islands" has been defined in the Interpretation Act 1978 as meaning the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. The Republic of Ireland is not included in this definition.

The British Isles

The expression "British Isles" is geographical and not political. They are a group of islands off the northwest coast of Europe consisting of Great Britain, the whole of Ireland, the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the Isle of Man, the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Isle of Wight, the Scilly Islands, Lundy Island, the Channel Islands and many other smaller islands. A list of the main islands of Great Britain is to be found on another page on this site.


1 Art. 1 of the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland in 1707.

2 The Tudor dynasty was descended from the Welsh adventurer Owen Tudor (c. 1400-1461). Wales had already been conquered by Edward I and the conquest was sealed with the Statute of Rhuddlan, also known as the Statute of Wales, in 1284. In the first half of the sixteenth century, under the reign of Henry VIII, acts of union were passed and Wales sent representatives to the English Parliament. After the union of the two countries Wales had no effective government and Welsh laws and administration were replaced by the English. The Welsh saw this as an annexation of their country.

3 Cfr. Interpretation Act 1978, Sched. 1. By the British Nationality Act 1981, s. 50 (1), the United Kingdom includes the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man for the purposes of nationality law.

4 Art. 1 of the Act of Union created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Since medieval times Ireland had had its own Parliament. By the end of the 18th century this Parliament had enjoyed only limited power due to political pressure from England. After the break with Rome during the reign of Henry VIII and particularly after Cromwell, the Irish Parliament effectively became the voice of the Protestant minority in Ireland as all members of Parliament had to take the Oath of Supremacy recognising the monarch as head of the Church. This was obviously incompatible with the Roman Catholic religion of the vast majority of Irishmen. An interesting allegorical account of the English treatment of Ireland inspired by the planned union of England and Scotland can be found in Jonathan Swift's The Story of the Injured Lady. To complement the ideas contained in this tract, written from the point of view of a member of the Anglo-Irish community, one might also read one or two Irish ballads in which the indigenous Irish abhorred their increasing dependence on England. Swift's The Story of the Injured Lady and the Irish ballads are available on the site "Irish Literary Texts".

5 The report of the commission does much to clarify the question of terminology. It speaks of the four "countries" that make up the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.



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