What's the Difference Between Britain and England?

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Moments after Andy Murray’s victory over Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon, the New York Times went with a headline that raised some eyebrows: “After 77 Years, Murray and England Rule.” The story was expanded for the print edition, and the headline tweaked—first switching out “England” for “Britain,” then changing the second clause.

That is because—despite what many think—England and Britain aren't the same thing. The best analogy would be to call the United States the Midwest: It disenfranchises a significant proportion of the country, and risks offense. It’s a common misconception that has been going on for centuries, and it’s difficult to unravel.

Cry God for Andy, England and St George!

“Britain” was initially the term for the home of a group of Celts who inhabited modern day England and Wales (and a small part of southern Scotland) before Roman occupation. It was nothing more than that—and remained that way until 1603, when James I of England (who was also James VI of Scotland) sought to unite his two countries. He titled himself King of Great Britain, though opposition and wariness meant that Great Britain didn’t exist during his lifetime, and though subsequent kings and queens ruled both Scotland and England, the governments beneath them were separate for Scotland and England.

It took another century, and the ascension to the throne of Queen Anne in 1702 following a succession crisis, to put the wheels of union back into motion. Anne’s first speech to parliament as Queen of England explained it was “very necessary” to unite the two countries.

Teams of negotiators were drawn up, and after years of talks the Acts of Union 1707 were passed in the English and Scottish Parliaments, drawing together the two countries into the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

So what is it today?

Today, “Great Britain” refers to the entirety of the United Kingdom, save for Northern Ireland (or, if you want to think of it in terms of landmass, the British Isles minus the island of Ireland). This is why technically, the country that flies the Union flag is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and not just Great Britain. But invariably there’s slippage in the definition: When people refer to Great Britain (or just plain Britain), quite often they mean the United Kingdom.

Still with us? Well what if we told you that today most Britons drop the “Great” from Great Britain? If you ask, they’ll say they’re British, from Britain; no one fills out their passport’s nationality section to say they’re United Kingdom-ish.

But Andy Murray’s definitely not English.

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So let’s break it down: England + Scotland + Wales = Great Britain. Great Britain + Northern Ireland = the United Kingdom. Of course, just as New Yorkers and Bostonians share a friendly rivalry, so do Scottish and Englishmen and women.

In fact, the divisions can run deep between the two. Scottish national pride can rub against the natural gravitation of the seats of power, commerce and industry to the heart of England. The tension is so bad that there will be a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014—which could make the English/British/Scottish conundrum a lot easier to untangle.

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July 16, 2013 - 8:30am
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