Is the UK the same as England/Britain? Does it matter? UK, hun? Materially, the UK is not a nation – with fewer common experiences than ever before from schools and policing, to borders and governance. Using ‘the UK’ obscures and erases the unique position of the state of Northern Ireland and the power and importance of language when describing socio-political discourse. We shouldn’t talk about the UK as if it’s one country, as homogeneous, or as a single entity.
‘The UK’ stands for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Yet far from being innocuous or neutral, in many cases its use is inaccurate, divisive and exclusive. We’ve noted countless cases where the term ‘the UK’ is used in place of England, or England, Scotland and Wales, or a combination thereof. Since the 1990s the use of the term ‘the UK’ has become increasingly popular, while ‘Britain’ or ‘England’ seem to be in decline. This is partly for its brevity in a digital world, and perhaps because the acronym has appeared to be a more politically neutral term at a time when far right associations with Britain were increasing.
‘Britain’ had uncomfortable connotations of Empire and for lots of middle-class English people, saying they were from ‘the UK’ seemed less loaded. The shift coincided with changing conceptions of national identities, as powers were being devolved from Westminster to the different regions in the United Kingdom. While conceding different powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the British establishment could still foster a sense of unity despite the regional differences, by homogenising people into a single, imagined UK identity.
Rarely is ‘the UK’ used in a context which actually includes or accounts for all of its regions. One can simply not be ‘from the UK’ and the variations within the UK are vast and politically significant. Scottish, Welsh, English and Irish nationalities are important markers for self-describing national identity and there is no UK equivalent. No one defines themselves as ‘United Kingdomish’. While some within the regions do define themselves as British, this does not mean that the UK is, in and of itself, a national identity or nation.
Some practical but important differences between each region of the UK include different voting systems, governance, armed police, the use of administrative detention as well as separate laws for education, healthcare and the voluntary sector. These broad differences are not reflected by 9000 charity sector organisations that have ‘UK’ in their name, while many operate in only one or two UK regions.
This is not a pedantic argument, though the implications of getting it wrong may be invisible to many people. In the 2018 Irish referendum on abortion we found many campaign materials and news reports lamenting the tragedy that Irish women ‘have to travel to the UK to seek a termination’. This had the effect of obscuring the experiences of the many women in the North of Ireland who live in a UK jurisdiction but who for decades suffered draconian restrictions from the Victorian era. Abortion was therefore even more restritcted in the UK, but only in one part of it.
When we were growing up in Derry we witnessed the tail end of a brutal conflict, lived under military occupation, were governed by direct rule with very little local representation. We were familiar with armed police and lived in areas with single-sex and segregated religious schools. Abortion was criminalised and our passports were Irish, not British. In reporting on society, using ‘UK’ as a place name makes little sense to people whose societal experience remains very different from those in England, Wales and Scotland.
A government website is dedicated to ‘Life in the UK’ as if the experience of people in social matters is uniform across the regions. In fact there is greater diversity between regions of the UK, especially with Northern Ireland, than there is in many international comparisons. For example a 2017 report by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive noted that religious segregation in public housing in Belfast was 94% and only marginally more integrated elsewhere (90%). The Department for Education puts the figure of integrated schooling at just 7%, meaning 93% of school pupils are in segregated religious schools, a rise of 3% in ten years. When the timeline of civil rights, voting, marriage equality, bodily autonomy and so many aspects of daily life are very different, it becomes clear why the ‘Life in the UK’ citizenship course that is essential to become a ‘British citizen’ is rendered absurd.
With such differences it’s also easy to see how the narrative that the UK is a country holds little weight in many parts of these islands. Brutal police killings and systemic racism have opened up a debate about our history. The geography of our streets and landmarks is being reconsidered, the question of how and why we name ourselves, or are named by others is, crucial. The ability to self define our identities and place names is important. We call on writers, editors and all those who have a platform to interrogate their use of the term ‘United Kingdom’ and consider the weight that names carry in our discourse. When you say ‘UK’, is that really what you’re referring to?
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