The Commonwealth of Nations, Explained in 1 Chart

The Brexit referendum, set for June 23rd, will determine whether the United Kingdom stays or leaves the European Union. But it's not just U.K. citizens who get to have a say.

Citizens of the Commonwealth who live in Britain also get to vote.

If you're not sure exactly what the Commonwealth is, there's good reason. The connections between United Kingdom and its former colonies is a tangled web of territories, dependencies, monarchies, realms, and independent sovereign nations covering nearly a third of the world's population.

Below are a series of diagrams to help explain it's structure, beginning with the British Isles and building up.

Unraveling the British Isles

Between its highly unusual structure and a host of different regions that share similar or even identical names, the British Isles are a confusing place.

I think the piece that trips most people up is the idea of a country within a country. The United Kingdom, a country, is made up of four separate countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

“Country” is normally used interchangeably with “sovereign state,” and in most cases they are the same, but not always. Sovereign state is an official, well-defined term. It is what most people really mean when they say country. It refers to the highest level of world government, the one that has the final say over what happens within its borders. And though there are some disputes over the sovereignty of particular territories, the U.N. serves as a common point of reference for a list of the world’s sovereign states.

“Country,” on the other hand, is much more vague. The term has no agreed definition, and different governments use it to refer to different things. If the decision were up to another government, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland might instead be considered provinces or regions, since they do not have sovereignty over their lands (only the United Kingdom does). I suppose because of their distinct cultures and historical independence, the U.K. decided to regard them each as countries.

Beyond the four countries, the U.K. also has sovereignty over the three Crown Dependencies (the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey). However, as independent jurisdictions they are not part of the United Kingdom. The Queen serves as the islands’ head of state, but not technically as their queen. In the Isle of Man, her title is Lord of Mann and in the Channel Islands, she has no specific title.

To top off the confusion, four of the regions have “Britain” or “British” in their name. The British Isles, The British Islands, Great Britain, and Britain all have different meanings. “Britain” is not shown in the diagram, but it is an alternate name for the United Kingdom.

"Ireland" appears three times: Northern Ireland (a country within the United Kingdom), the Republic of Ireland (an entirely separate sovereign state), and Ireland (the island that they both occupy).

The Republic of Ireland gets its own color (green) because it is not a member of the Commonwealth.

The Monarchy of the United Kingdom

In the same way that the United States government has sovereignty over Puerto Rico, Guam and other territories beyond the 50 states, the United Kingdom’s sovereignty also extends to other territories beyond its borders.

The 14 Overseas Territories in the diagram are the last remnants of the British Empire, former colonies that never claimed their independence or decided to remain under the umbrella of the U.K. They all belong to the constitutional monarchy of the United Kingdom and recognize the queen as their monarch and head of state.

The Commonwealth Realms

 Separate from her role as Monarch of the United Kingdom, the Queen is also Queen of Canada, Queen of Australia, Queen of Jamaica, and Queen of the other 12 other sovereign states shown in the chart, known as Commonwealth Realms.

Many of the countries have the Queen’s face on their currencies and several incorporate the Union Jack into their own flags, but the Royal Family has only a minor ceremonial role in their governments.  Though the queen is technically head of state for all of the Commonwealth Realms, in practice the head of state functions are carried out by official representatives, who each Realm nominates for itself.

Contrary to any criticisms you may have heard about the royal family soaking their former colonies for taxes, the Commonwealth Realms are not required to pay any money to the U.K. or to its royal family.

The Commonwealth

The Commonwealth is the last remaining connection between the U.K. and [most of] its former colonies, which together make up about a third of the world’s population.

The concept of the Commonwealth came into being shortly after colonies began declaring independence while retaining the U.K.’s monarch as the head of state. It described the changing British Empire, which now included independent countries. Since then it has gradually evolved into a voluntary intergovernmental organization in which all members are equal. Two of its members (Rwanda and Mozambique) don’t even have any historical ties to the British Empire.

The Queen remains the ceremonial Head of the Commonwealth, but the U.K. no longer has any special role in the organization’s governance.

Who is eligible to vote in the Brexit referendum?

The vote is open to U.K., Commonwealth, and Irish citizens who live in the United Kingdom.

  • U.K. citizenship includes everyone from the Monarchy of the United Kingdom as well as citizens of the Crown Dependencies (even though they are not technically part of the U.K.).
  • The vote is also also open to citizens of India, Canada, Namibia, and all the other Commonwealth countries. as long as they live in the U.K.
  • You may be surprised to learn citizens of Ireland (the Republic of Ireland, not Northern Ireland) are eligible to vote. Under British law, Commonwealth and Irish citizens are treated as a special class. They have fewer rights than U.K. citizens, but more than other foreign nationals, including the right to vote.

In summary, citizens of every location shown in the final chart (nearly a third of the world's population) are eligible to vote.... if they live in the United Kingdom.

The vote is also open to Commonwealth Citizens living in Gibraltar and U.K. nationals who live abroad (full description of voter eligibility).


If you were at all confused about Great Britain, England, the U.K., Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Commonwealth, or any associated territories, dependencies, monarchies, realms, jurisdictions, or former colonies, hopefully these charts helped clear it up.

If not, try to keep a stiff upper lip (ouch!).

Credit to TWCarlson for his Euler diagram on which the ones here are based.

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