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The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

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Even for those who live in what they call the United Kingdom, there is a very limited understanding of what the name means and what makes up the country that they live in. To add to the confusion, there are the remnants of the old Empire that many consider British, as well as other places people are confused about. So let us start with the basics.

The United Kingdom

The full name of the 'UK' is 'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'. So simple isn't it? The UK is made up of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so what's the problem? Well the problem, really, is what makes up Great Britain.

Great Britain

First off, although you may not believe this, there is no such thing today (politically speaking) as Great Britain. OK - there may be sports teams that are 'British' and many other bodies that represent 'Britain' but as a political entity it doesn't exist.

So what does the 'Great Britain' in the full name of the UK refer to?

The term Great Britain seems to have first been used in the reign of King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) to refer to the separate kingdoms (England and Scotland) on the same landmass that were ruled over by the same monarch. There seems to be some debate as to whether the term refers to simply the main landmass or the main landmass and those islands that are part of each kingdom. However it is defined, there are some parts which cause confusion.

The 'United Kingdom of Great Britain' was formed in 1707 by the Act of Union that created a single kingdom with a single Parliament (Westminster). However Scotland has always retained its own legal system.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain lasted until 1801 when Ireland was formally incorporated and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed. This meant the whole of the island of Ireland. This name was again changed when the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were formed - see below.

What about Wales?

Wales is a Principality. In the medieval period, there were many European states that had a Prince as head of state (some still exist, such as Monaco). Wales was one of these. Wales wasn't really invaded by the Normans in 1066 in the way that England was; instead a gradual campaign was fought which culminated in 1282 when King Edward I of England defeated Llywelyn the Last, who was killed. To demonstrate English dominance over the Welsh, the English King gave the title of Prince of Wales (the title of the old Welsh rulers) to his eldest son; the eldest son of the Monarch retains this title to this day. Wales, it should be noted, was annexed by England and, unlike Scotland, does not have a separate legal system.

So, by the time that the term Great Britain was first used in the reign of James I, Wales was no longer treated as a separate country in any way. Many years later, in 1999, a devolved Welsh Assembly was established. This Assembly has limited powers over secondary legislation1. Importantly, it has no tax-raising powers. When the referendums were held in Scotland and Wales over devolution, though the Scots were permitted to vote on whether to allow their own parliament to have such powers (which they ultimately agreed to do), the Welsh were not given such an option.

Northern Ireland

The history of Ireland is long and controversial, but for our story here we need only consider 'recent' events.

'Northern Ireland' is a comparatively modern concept. The uprisings of the early 20th Century eventually ended in Irish self-government and then independence. However, part of the North of Ireland had a Protestant majority and wanted to remain as part of the UK. As a result, a 'compromise' was reached whereby most of the regions of Ireland would form an independent Irish state (the modern Republic of Ireland) and the remaining regions would comprise a new 'province' of the United Kingdom (modern-day Northern Ireland).

Northern Ireland has been given a devolved Assembly with law-making powers that has been meeting on and off since its creation in 1998. However, ultimate power currently still rests with Westminster while further agreements are made between the local parties.

British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies

In addition to the UK there are parts of the world that are in some way considered British. These are British Overseas Territories (formerly known as British Dependent Territories) and Crown Dependencies.

British Overseas Territories

In British Overseas Territories, the United Kingdom is responsible for foreign affairs and defence-related issues. The executive authority of the United Kingdom (and the Crown's authority) in most British Dependencies is represented by Governors, but in some cases it is by Commissioners, Administrators or Residents.

The following are British Overseas Territories:

  • Anguilla
  • Bermuda
  • British Antarctic Territory
  • British Indian Ocean Territory
  • British Virgin Islands
  • Cayman Islands
  • Falkland Islands
  • Gibraltar
  • Montserrat
  • Pitcairn Islands
  • South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
  • St Helena and its dependencies (Ascension and Tristan da Cunha) and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Additionally there are two UK Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus; these are Akrotiri and Dhekelia. A UK Sovereign Base Area is a British Overseas Territory the same as any other with a Crown appointed Administrator except that in this case the Territory is a military reservation formed from land kept by the UK when a former colony was granted independence.

Crown Dependencies

Crown Dependencies are geographically part of the British Isles (see below for what the British Isles are) but are autonomous states with a more tenuous political link to the UK. They are: the Isle of Man, the Bailiwick of Jersey and the three independent jurisdictions of 'Guernsey, Alderney and Sark' that comprise the Bailiwick of Guernsey.

Unlike British Overseas Territories the government of the United Kingdom in Westminster has no legal duty or responsibility with respect to the administration or running of Crown Dependencies except where agreed by international treaty. In practice, as in British Overseas Territories, the British Government takes care of foreign affairs and defence-related issues, but in this case it is done for a small fee instead of out of a legal duty. The UK Monarch is also the head of state in these islands but not in their role as the British King or Queen. In the Channel Islands (Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark) it is as the Duke of Normandy, in the Isle of Man it is as the Lord of Mann. On rare occasions the UK parliament in Westminster will pass laws that will apply to Crown Dependencies. These are normally to do with foreign affairs and defence-related issues affecting the UK. In these rare cases, the Bill will state the dependencies it applies to and the Crown will consider the bill in all their applicable roles as head of state before giving Royal Assent to the Bill.

An important difference between British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies is that Gibraltar - being a British Dependent Territory and part of Europe - is also part of the European Union (EU) under the UK's Treaty of Accession (1973), while the Channel Islands and Isle of Man, being Crown Dependencies, are not considered part of the EU apart from customs purposes and for trade in agricultural commodities. The population of Gibraltar is not large enough to form a constituency for the European Parliament and until recently they have never had a vote in European elections. In 1999, however, it was ruled that their Human Rights had been violated and that they should be allowed to vote in European elections and plans were made to enable them to do so. In August 2003 it was announced that Gibraltarians would be considered part of the South West England European Parliament seat. This will not apply to the UK Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus as they have no indigenous population.

Citizens of British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies (with the exception of those cases where citizenship is connected to Sovereign Base Areas) are entitled to British citizenship (in this instance 'British' means 'of the United Kingdom'), and with it the right of abode in the UK. However British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies do not have to give such rights to British citizens.

Other names frequently used

The British Isles

This is often used to mean Britain, the United Kingdom or a vague 'that blobby bit off mainland Europe'. It is not a political term. The term has a physical, geographical definition as Great Britain, the whole of Ireland, Anglesey, 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.

The British Islands

The British Islands is yet another term, and has been formally defined as United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man by the Interpretation Act 19782.

So, That's It, Then?

In short yes - but then there are all the problem bits that people don't fully understand. To clear confusion here are some of them.

  • The Isles of Scilly are part of England, have representation in the Westminster Parliament (St Ives constituency) and are classed as a Unitary Authority - although not formally one, but for many local services are part of Cornwall and the South West.

  • Cornwall, despite a small but vocal nationalist grouping, has not been independent since 936 AD, when Athelstan finally invaded all of it.

  • All the Scottish Isles, Hebrides, Shetland etc are part of the Kingdom of Scotland and therefore part of the United Kingdom.

  • Attempts have been made to extend the United Kingdom - the small rock Rockall was claimed by the United Kingdom in 1955 when the navy landed by helicopter. This was to remove any claims by the Republic of Ireland, Denmark and Iceland. It was further made secure by an ex-SAS soldier, Tom MacLean, who camped on it for 40 days in 1975. This was to ensure the 12-mile exclusion zone, and to make sure its potential Oil/Gas reserves remained British. Noted explorer John Ridgway also lived there in the 1980s.

  • Attempts have also been made to leave the United Kingdom - the World War II naval fort of the Sealand Government (originally called Roughs Tower) is now considered by many to be an independent state. It is situated seven miles off the mainland coast (out from the Thames estuary) which is further than the three miles of official territorial waters. It is therefore considered to be in international waters. In 1967, Paddy Roy Bates occupied the then-abandoned fort (which meant that from a legal point of view the UK had no claim on it) and declared himself Prince of his own country. In 1968, after he fired upon Royal Navy ships and was placed before a UK court, the judge ruled that the court had no jurisdiction - thereby, in the Sealanders' opinion, gave de-facto recognition to their state. Further recognition was gained after Germany sent a diplomatic mission to Sealand to attempt to rescue 'Prisoners' of War' after a failed attempt to take over Sealand. The issue has never been resolved and now Sealand is home to an IT company that will host any sort of web page as long as it doesn't break Sealand law - which apart from banning Child Pornography has no other limitations.

1Primary legislation is effectively the type of law passed currently at Westminster in that it lays down the scope of legislation. It might, for example, say that there must be a national curriculum in schools. Secondary legislation governs the way the laws work in practice. (taken from Welsh Assembly Powers)2The UK government has passed more than one Interpretation Act (the first was in 1899). In each of these Acts many disparate terms are defined (or redefined) that are referred to in other Acts of Parliament. These vary from what a definition of month is, to what a London Borough is.

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