The United Kingdom
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
William Blake (From the Preface to Milton)
The United Kingdom is a confusing place. And it seems particularly so for the British.
If you are not British you may be used to calling this land Great Britain, Britain or England. But the official name of the country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This also can be a problem, not least for republicans! The United Kingdom has two parts - Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Britain (as the name is often abbreviated) is composed of three parts, Scotland, Wales and England, with a population of 60.6M.
The 2011 national census questionnaire gave a glimpse of the confusion at work. Question 9 asked citizens to choose their country of birth. But United Kingdom and Great Britain were not options! Instead Britons were expected to choose a country such as England or Northern Ireland, which do not issue passports or have a seat in the United Nations.
Question 15 asked for a description of "national identity". But "British" was at the bottom of the list. The other national identities listed were for those same entities that do no issue passports or have seats in the United Nations. They include "Northern Irish". If that is a "national identify" it is one that could include both British citizens from County Derry and Irish citizens from County Donegal, for both are in the north of the island of Ireland.
It has become normal to refer to the UK as being composed of four “nations”, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England. These are nations without nationalities, armies, passports, diplomats, or seats in international institutions. They do, however, have “national” soccer teams.
Scotland and England were at one time independent nations. Wales has never been so. Nor has Northern Ireland. The idea that Northern Ireland, just six counties of the Irish province of Ulster, is a nation in its own right is particularly ridiculous. But to the British establishment what the people who live in Northern Ireland think hardly matters. The “four nations” concept is a tidy one that pleases nationalists in Wales and Northern Ireland.
Until 1999 there was just one government for all of the UK. No more.