Ask Smithsonian 2017
A Smithsonian magazine special report
Listen up, would-be Anglophiles: Here’s how never to mess up your realms, kingdoms and empires again
Unless you are living under a rock, you likely woke up today to plenty of news and commentary on the decision of U.K. voters to “Brexit” the European Union. But what is the United Kingdom, anyway? The telltale “Br” in the term seems to have created some confusion as to who’s really saying bye-bye to the E.U.—prompting well-intentioned onlookers abroad to perpetuate some misconceptions about how to refer to the political drama’s players.
Understanding complex geopolitical dynamics may be hard, but that’s no excuse not to refer to countries by their proper names. Here’s a quick primer to help you sort out who’s who when it comes to the U.K.:
First, let’s talk geography
Part of the confusion could come from the fact that much of the United Kingdom is located on a single island that is itself a part of a larger set of islands. In strict geographic terms, Great Britain (also known as “Britain”) is an island tucked between the North Sea and the English Channel, which at its narrowest point is about 20 miles away from the European continent. Great Britain is part of the British Isles, a collection of more than 6,000 islands including Ireland in the west and smaller islands like Anglesey and Skye.
What about countries?
To start with, there’s the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The U.K., as it is called, is a sovereign state that consists of four individual countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Within the U.K., Parliament is sovereign, but each country has autonomy to some extent. For the most part, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments defer to the U.K. Parliament in “reserved matters” that deal with things like foreign policy and E.U. membership, but retain authority over “devolved matters” that deal with things like education and housing.
Non-Brits tweeting about #brexit: you need this. pic.twitter.com/rlObCi5OSq
Though bound to the Crown and tied together in unity, the individual countries within the U.K. retain their own local identities and even their own regional languages. (Welsh, for example, is the official language in Wales even though the official language in the U.K., as a whole, is English.)
Since becoming a republic in the 1940s, the Republic of Ireland (which shares a border with Northern Ireland) has operated as a sovereign state of its own. Though it is physically close to the U.K., the Republic of Ireland has its own relationships and memberships with the United Nations, the E.U. and other international organizations.
Other ins and outs
The word “British” is confusing in and of itself—it can refer to things that relate to the United Kingdom, Great Britain or the former British Empire. Though that empire used to be the world’s most powerful colonial force, its reach has waned. However, the present-day U.K. does have a few remaining colonies worldwide, which are referred to as British Overseas Territories. These territories remain subject to British rule, though some are self-governing:
Three islands within the British Isles retain special status as “Crown Dependencies.” Though the U.K. is technically responsible for them, they are independently administered and self-governing. Instead of having a relationship with the U.K., they have a relationship with “The Crown”—the British monarchy:
Then there’s the Commonwealth Realm—countries that accept the Crown, aka Queen Elizabeth, as their constitutional monarch. As members of the Commonwealth of Nations, each Commonwealth Realm governs itself and makes its own domestic and foreign-policy decisions, but they retain ties to the U.K. and to one another. This streamlines diplomatic relations and fosters ongoing community between nations that used to be part of Britain’s formidable empire:
Technically, the U.K. itself is part of the Commonwealth Realm, too.
OK—now there’s no excuse to refer to “Britain” when you’re talking #Brexit or to lump a country like Canada in with the U.K.’s exit from the E.U. But while you’re at it, watch for another gaffe: Calling the E.U. the U.N. (Suffice it to say that it’s not, and that the U.K. has not announced any intention to sever its membership with the United Nations.) When Fox News did so yesterday, British onlookers were not amused.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article referred to the South Sandwich Islands as the South Islands. We regret the error.
Erin Blakemore is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist. Her work has appeared in publications like The Washington Post, TIME, mental_floss, Popular Science and JSTOR Daily. Learn more at erinblakemore.com.