So Where Are We Anyway?
England? Britain? UK? What’s the Difference?
First things first: England, Great Britain, UK? All the same thing? These terms, which are so often used interchangeably, actually refer to distinct geographical and, frequently, political entities. Should you still think these distinctions are inconsequential after reading these pages, we invite you to visit, let’s say, a bar in Scotland and inform the boys just how cute their English pub is. By the time your bruises and scars have healed, you will have had ample time to mull over the weightiness of these distinctions.
Scotland, England, and Wales are three separate nations all inhabiting the island of Britain.
What do we mean by “nation”? It is not our intention to burden you with medieval history and constitutional arcana, so suffice it to say, at one point Scotland and Wales were separate kingdoms, which at different points in time, and with varying degrees of resistance, fell sway to English rule through “Acts of Union.” Lest you think this all sounds like a one-way transaction, it should be pointed out that such great “English” dynasties as the Stuarts and the Tudors had their roots in Scotland and Wales respectively.
The United Kingdom, or UK, is officially the United Kingdom of Great Britain (the big island) and Northern Ireland (the predominantly Protestant northeast quarter of the island of Ireland, distinct from the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland).
Broadly speaking, the inhabitants of the UK are called “the British” (and definitely not “the Uniteds” or “the Kingdoms”). So, while both a Welshman and a Scotsman are British, neither is English. Generally, though, people of the UK are more likely to describe themselves as Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, or English than as British. A Scotsman, by the way, is a Scot, and not Scotch, a term considered derogatory and best used only in America when ordering what in Scotland is simply called whisky (in the US spelled “whiskey”).
We now offer you the exclusive “Peoples of the UK” Venn diagram:
Many of the cultural differences between the US and UK begin with the basic fact that the UK is much smaller than the US.
UK Population in 2007: 60,975,000
US Population in 2007: 301,140,000
UK total land: 94,251 square miles (244,110 square kilometers, smaller than Oregon)
US total land: 3,619,969 square miles (9,375,720 square kilometers)
General British FAQs
Is the UK a part of the European Union?
Yes, though you’d think it had been imposed at gunpoint by some Franco-German mob to hear how people talk about it. Actually, in 1973 the British voted in a referendum and joined what was then known as the European Economic Community. Conservatives argue that the UK joined a free-trade zone that has become a superstate where unelected bureaucrats in Brussels dictate what the British can and cannot do. The more liberal argument is that after two world wars ripped the continent apart in the last century, the EU has helped usher in the longest period of peace in European history.
Then why doesn’t the UK use the euro like other EU countries do?
Because the UK delayed joining the economic and monetary union within the EU, and kept their own currency. There is still some lively debate in the UK about whether they should trade their sterling for euros. Another EU country that chose to forgo the euro is Denmark, where in 2000 voters said “no” in a referendum to adopting the euro—so the Danish krone is still used. It would be enormously difficult for any British prime minister to commit the UK to joining the “eurozone” without a referendum, and it is most likely that any vote on the matter would not favor giving up the pound.
What’s the “Commonwealth”?
It’s a group of independent states, primarily former colonies of Britain, that maintain an association of cooperation and recognize the reigning monarch of Britain as its symbol. Basically, it’s what the British Empire has evolved, or devolved, into, depending on your point of view.
There are fifty-three independent states that are part of the Commonwealth, including Australia, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Belize, Botswana, Canada, Cyprus, Ghana, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Malaysia, Maldives, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Uganda, and, of course, the United Kingdom. Nations within the Commnowealth do not have ambassadors to one another; instead they exchange high commissioners.
What are the “Home Counties”?
These are the counties immediately around London. The counties of Kent, Surrey, Essex, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, and Hertfordshire fall under the “Home Counties” umbrella, the smarter bits of which are sometimes referred to as the “stockbroker belt.”
Snapshots of British History
55 b.c.—Julius Caesar lands
Julius Caesar briefly lands in Kent but isn’t too impressed. He came, he saw, he left.
a.d. 43—Roman occupation begins
The Roman emperor Claudius (of I, Claudius fame), in need of a political pick-me-up back home, invades England. England remains a part of the Roman Empire for almost four centuries, the last legions withdrawing early in the fifth century. Advantages: roads; peace; Italian food; founding of London, York, and other cities. Disadvantages: foreign occupation; introduction of togas and other Roman items totally unsuited for wet, northern climates.
a.d. 61—Boudicca’s rebellion
When a political opponent famously described Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as “charging about like some bargain-basement Boadicea” during the Falklands War, they were comparing Thatcher with the original British warrior woman, Boudicca (known as Boadicea to the Romans and the classically educated). Boudicca was the wife of an English client-king of the Romans. On his death, the Romans seized his kingdom, flogged Boudicca, and raped her daughters. Like some female Dirty Harry, she had her revenge, leading a vast and bloody rebellion against the Romans. However, as with Margaret Thatcher, her uncompromising, take-no-prisoners approach eventually alienated all but her most committed supporters and led to her downfall.
In London, there is a famous statue of this national icon riding her war chariot by Westminster Bridge, next to Parliament Square.
Fifth Century a.d.
Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and other Germanic tribes pile over and fill the power vacuum in England created by the Romans’ departure. Local native Christians, like the semi-mythical King Arthur, try to fight them off but are ultimately subsumed by the invading WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Pagans from northern Germany, in this case).
William “the Bastard” of Normandy lands in Sussex and defeats King Harold, who is killed by an arrow in the eye. William takes the crown and a new moniker: William “the Conqueror” (though he remains a complete bastard).
Under duress, a politically weakened King John grants “all freemen of our kingdom, for us and for our heirs forever” a series of rights and liberties detailed in the now-famous Magna Carta. This document established that no one, not even the sovereign, is above the law. The Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, which says that no freeman will be unfairly imprisoned, refers directly back to the Magna Carta as does the US Constitution, in particular the Bill of Rights.
English sea captains are playing bowls in Plymouth when news arrives that a vast Spanish invasion fleet has been sighted. With a composure of which the nation is proud to this day, lead sea dog Sir Francis Drake insists they play on, “as there was plenty of time both to finish the game and beat the Spaniards after.” Both of which they do, earning the defeat of the Spanish Armada recognition as perhaps England’s greatest hour.
1640–60—English Civil War
This is a remarkably complicated and involved period in the island’s history, and the bane of generations of British schoolchildren forced to study up on the Long, Rump, and Barebone’s Parliaments, the Grand Remonstrance, and the Divine Right of Kings. In brief, Puritan forces—ideological brethren of those who came over to America on the Mayflower a couple of decades earlier—ride a general wave of discontent to overthrow and execute the high-handed Charles I, who, being a king, is a staunch believer in the Divine Right of Kings. Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan leader, refuses the crown but establishes himself as a virtual dictator. Today, he is largely remembered for his barbarity toward the Irish and the Puritans’ priggish attempts to shutter the nation’s theaters and ban Christmas festivities. By the time of Cromwell’s death, people have come to miss the colorful if incompetent Stuarts, and King Charles I’s son is invited back to reign as Charles II.
Excerpted from Britannia in Brief by Leslie Banker and William Mullins. Copyright © 2009 by Leslie Banker. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.