England, Britain, Great Britain or the United Kingdom?

How different flags were combined to create today’s Union Jack.
Symbols and cultural identifiers of Wales.
England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland make up the United Kingdom.
Symbols and cultural identifiers of Scotland.

Great Britain, which is the island located east of Ireland, comprises England, Scotland and Wales. Adding Northern Ireland to this island of Great Britain, moreover, one gets the United Kingdom, which is an independent country.1 Great Britain and the United Kingdom, in other words, are two different entities. Quite confusingly, though, both the island of Great Britain and the country of United Kingdom are often referred to as Britain.

To understand how one of the two “Britains”, the country of United Kingdom, came into being, we need to dig into history. Here we find that from around the 10th century until 1707, England was a separate country. Then, in 1707, England, which also included Wales, united with Scotland, creating the country of Great Britain. Subsequently, Great Britain and Ireland united in 1801, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland before most of Ireland pulled out of the union in 1922. What was left after 1922 was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This is the United Kingdom we know today.

Three flags become one

The history of unifications between England, Scotland and Ireland, which led to the creation of today’s United Kingdom, as one might naturally assume, affected the design of the British flag. To begin with, when England merged with Scotland, their two flags also merged. The flag of the more powerful of the two nations, the English flag, was now partly superimposed on the Scottish white saltire, the result of which was a new flag that became known as the Union Jack.

The Union Jack was updated when Great Britain, consisting of England, Scotland and Wales, entered into union with Ireland. The new feature, which was said to represent Ireland, was a red saltire. This red saltire then remained on the Union Jack when most of Ireland left the union.

Regional identities

The four entities continuing in union with each other after most of Ireland pulled out — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — had, and still have, many things bringing them together. Still, diverse cultural and political heritages in these four areas has led to a situation where regional governments have extensive autonomy and regional identification is often strong. The same heritage and regional identification, furthermore, mean that many people from Scotland and Wales prefer to be identified as Scots or Welshmen or Welshwomen, although they are usually ok with being referred to as Britons as well.

  1. Many Britons see England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as constituent countries in an all-encompassing entity named the United Kingdom. This British view cannot easily be dismissed given that the term country is rather loosely defined.