The UK has 4 states: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. I always thought that they are closer connected than the states of the US, since they have the same laws (as far as I know; I am German, so I don't have an idea, actually). In contrast to that every US state can make its own laws (at least I think this is the case, because the topic of different laws between US states sometimes occurs in the German news regarding death penalty and gun control laws).

Currently there is the European championship in football (soccer) taking place in which the teams of England, Scotland, and Wales are participating (Northern Ireland didn't qualify). Whenever there is the World Cup all 4 teams are participating or at least trying to qualify, too, but the US only has one national team.

My question: Why is that? Why do the UK states seem closer related to each other to me even though they all have their own national football team? And what is the difference compared to the US?

EDIT: I found the answer here: https://sports.stackexchange.com/questions/5752/why-great-britain-or-england-scotland-wales-ireland-in-different-sport

  • 2
    You might consider explaining how states work in Germany. For example, there is a region named Bavaria. Wikipedia says it has its own government. Prior to 1999, that wasn't true of Scotland. We can contrast the US and UK, but it might be more effective to contrast both with Germany.
    – Brythan
    Jun 14, 2016 at 16:13
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    Of course, even though Scotland didn't have it's own government it did (and does) have its own laws...
    – origimbo
    Jun 14, 2016 at 16:30
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    One thing which makes that comparison difficult is that the legal status of US states is very well-defined in the US constitution while the status of the member-countries of the UK is derived from traditions which have their roots in medieval times (and before).
    – Philipp
    Jun 14, 2016 at 16:53
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    @DanBron: Actually, the referendum was only legal because the Westminister parliament consented to it, and the referendum has no legal effect. Any separation would have to be separately legislated by the Westminister parliament. The Scottish parliament has no powers other than those delegated to it by the Westminister parliament (which Westminister can overrule or take away at any time) and secession is not one of them.
    – user102008
    Jun 30, 2016 at 20:48
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    @Philipp You have things exactly backwards, the US constitution is exceedingly vague (about everything, certainly compared to a modern constitution like that of Germany) and has been litigated for decades. The courts (rather than the text itself) largely made it what it is today. By contrast, devolution is very recent in the UK and the institutions of the other countries (Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) have been defined in details through Acts of parliaments.
    – Relaxed
    Dec 19, 2016 at 23:06

5 Answers 5


The United States of America (US) was originally linked by the Articles of Confederation. These linked the thirteen states more like the European Union is linked now--sovereigns who banded together in mutual support. In fact, the national government did not even have a taxing power. It was reliant on voluntary contributions for the revenues needed to pay for government operations and debt reduction.

The US decided to replace the articles of confederation with the more modern constitution. However, it was a compromise between those who wanted a more powerful and unified government and those who wanted to maintain the sovereignty of the individual states. It provided a limited national government.

The states each authorize and maintain their own governments. So the structure and political systems are set by the states themselves. The federal government originally had little ability to affect those legislatively. Much of the ability for the federal government to interfere in local politics derives from the mandate in the 14th amendment to protect the citizenship rights of the former slaves.

Scotland in the United Kingdom (UK) had no separate parliament prior to 1999 (at least since Scotland and England unified in 1707). I believe this means that the Scottish government is authorized by the national government. And of course, this is relatively recent. A twenty-year old history book wouldn't have it.

I don't know why Northern Ireland and Wales have their own teams in the UEFA Euro 2016. Presumably this is a national pride thing. Also note that football is apparently the highest profile sport in the United Kingdom (and many other countries). In the United States, it doesn't make the top three even neglecting car racing and golf.

Top athletes in the United States are much more likely to play American football, baseball, or basketball. In some areas, even hockey would be ahead of association football. It's not clear that any American states would be able to field their own competitive teams in association football. Separate teams by state could mean that players from less populated states would be out of luck. So the unified team may represent a weaker association football tradition rather than more strongly unified laws.

It's also worth noting that the American states don't have the same history of resenting their inclusion in the country as does Scotland. England conquered Scotland and left the Scottish people there. The descendants of the native American tribes are only a small proportion of the overall population and aren't concentrated in any one state.

TLDR: even though I agree that the UK is more legally unified than the US (although the UK is less unified than it used to be), there are still good reasons why the US doesn't have more than one national association football (soccer) team.

  • Thanks! Yes, it's true, football (soccer) is by far the most famous sport in Europe. I didn't know that Scotland separated just "recently". I guess Northern Ireland and Wales don't have a separate parliament, because you cannot imagine a reason. However, I think there are a lot of countries in Europe which history of smaller uniting states are similar to the one of the UK. But there is none having more than one national team, even though there are enough preple in e.g. Germany's states to set up a team which could compete to the ones of UK. What you say about US states teams seems reasonable.
    – Rob
    Jun 14, 2016 at 19:09
  • @Rob Actually both NI and Wales do both have a regional level of government akin to the Scottish parliament, although with slightly different collections of powers. You should note that these are all secondary to the UK parliament in Westminster, and that their powers are devolved to them, rather than assumed to rest there naturally as in the US case.
    – origimbo
    Jun 14, 2016 at 21:12
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    The sports question are complicated, to say it quickly. To put another example, the Faroe Islands are part of Denmark (but not of the EU) and they also field their own soccer team, but having a population of 50.000 they are never able to present a competitive team (no matter how popular soccer is there). Yet they still do it.
    – SJuan76
    Jun 14, 2016 at 22:25
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    "England conquered Scotland and left the Scottish people there." What?
    – user8398
    Jun 15, 2016 at 10:42
  • @Rob Scotland is not yet "separated", and Northern Ireland does have its own parliament at Stormont - it's just experiencing what you might call a government shutdown due to the uniquely dysfunctional politics since the end of the UK's civil war in 1999.
    – pjc50
    Jun 19, 2019 at 8:41

As with most things to do with politics, the current situations in both the UK and the US are a sum of the choices made over previous generations, and it is very difficult to understand direct comparisons between political bodies without knowing their histories. In this case I suspect the principle difference is that the US was formed as a confederation of 13 colonies which were rebelling against British rule, in part over the principle of self-governance. Looking at the populations in each State in the first US Census in 1790 we see the following figures:

  • Delaware 59,094
  • Rhode Island 168,825
  • Kentucky 73,677
  • Georgia 82,548
  • Vermont 85,539
  • Maine 96,540
  • New Hampshire 141,885
  • New Jersey 184,139
  • Connecticut 237,946
  • South Carolina 249,073
  • Maryland 319,728
  • New York 340,120
  • Massachusetts 378,787
  • North Carolina 393,751
  • Pennsylvania 434,373
  • Virginia 747,610

You will note that no single state dominated over the group the others in terms of population. Similarly the legal structures drawn up accept the states as the principle legislative bodies for internal domestic matters, while Congress was theoretically charged with dealing with foreign policy and overseeing interstate trade.

In contrast, the UK is a unitary state and constitutional monarchy in which the parliament of Westminster is assumed to have absolute sovereignty. It was formed through the union of the crowns and governments of the constituent countries, either through conquest by parties coming out of England (most of Wales & Ireland) or the result of royal interbreeding and financial difficulties on the part of smaller entity (Scotland). In 1707 when the Acts of Union were finally passed the population of England was perhaps 5 times that of Scotland. Indeed in the Victorian age, before Celtic cultural identities and nationalism became more important to people, England and Britain were often used synonymously inside the UK, just as they frequently are externally today.

  • This can be seen as a reason for multiple national football (soccer) teams when you just consider the UK and the US. But there are many countries in the world having a similar history like the UK and none has more than one national team. I must admit, that's a different question.
    – Rob
    Jun 14, 2016 at 19:14
  • Actually, there are several other cases of that, it's just that the divisions are less equal and thus less famous. See for example the list here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – origimbo
    Jun 14, 2016 at 21:15

As mentioned Britain is a unitary state, which means that power is centralised and authority is ultimately with central government; in this case in Westminster. The devolution of powers to regional governments in Scotland and Wales is a more recent development from the late 1990s. Northern Ireland's regional government dates back to when the Republic of Ireland became independent in the 1920s.

America by comparison is a federal state; a union of states who like to think of each other as independent colleagues, and have always had their own regional systems of government. Before the American civil war there was a question of states rights, and the idea was that the federal government should not infringe upon them. Nowadays however state law is subject to federal law, so although they can make their own laws; these have to fit within the legal framework of the constitution and all other federal legal and judicial systems. Generally speaking in America power has become more centralised within the federal government, and more recently in Britain power has become less centralised. Britain started life as a constitutional monarchy, and America emerged to reject that. Which explains how the foundations are very different.

That said, although the American states are legally more distinct than the British, the British ones have a much older history and identity. Wales was first unified in the 1500s, Scotland in the mid 850s. The kingdom of Scotland and kingdom of England were united in 1707 (by this stage Wales had become an English province [technically principality] due to Norman invasions centuries earlier). And though the kingdom of Ireland had been around since the mid 1500s, this had always been under English hegemony. The United Kingdom joined with Ireland in 1801, and then the Republic of Ireland split in 1922.

Because of these very old identities, England, Wales, and Scotland have their own sports teams. Ireland and Northern Ireland also each have their own sports teams for the same reasons that they are separate nations today; originating in the plantation of Ireland by protestant settlers from the 1500s, to try and secure Ireland against the threat of their Catholic locals facilitating an invasion by Catholic Spain. Northern Ireland voted to remain within the UK owing to its population at the time being majority protestant, and Northern Irish protestants were mostly from lowland Scotland. So again, there's distinct cultural identities at play.

  • 1
    On the sports question, Britain, in most sports, usually competes as four separate nations, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is true of Football, Rugby and Cricket (except that with Rugby, Northern Ireland and the Republic field a combined team). In the case of cricket, England and Wales are a joint competitor. In Athletics etc at the Commonwealth Games we compete as four nations. But in the Olympics we compete as Great Britain. And in the last two Olympics we have won vastly more medals per capita than countries like the USA and Germany. But Australia is close behind us.
    – WS2
    Dec 19, 2016 at 14:24
  • Just as a point - Wales hasn't been a principality (defined as a country ruled by a prince) since 1536 (ish). "Since the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542, which formally incorporated all of Wales within the Kingdom of England, there has been no geographical or constitutional basis for describing any of the territory of Wales as a principality." Source: Wikipedia but backed up by Welsh Government and UK Government sources. Sep 7, 2018 at 8:43

Just addressing the reason for the football team split in the UK, When Football (Soccer) first started it was only played in the UK, so it made sense to have teams from each of the constituent nations of the UK so they had someone to play against. By the time there was enough other countries around to make international competitions a serious thing there was already an established rivalry between the nations of the UK and no way that any of them would agree to disband.

  • To add to that, as GB & NI is one team (Team GB) in the olympics they fail to field a common soccer team even in the London 2012 Olympics. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland agreed to not oppose to England participanting as Team GB but would not participate as part of the team themselves.
    – Bent
    Mar 8, 2018 at 12:31

Both the U.S. and U.K. Have Regional Teams

Both the United States and the United Kingdom actually have regional football (soccer) teams. In the U.K., there are teams for major regions of the U.K., including England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In the U.S., these soccer teams are usually centered in various major cities. Typically there is only one team per state, although some bigger states have two teams. A similar pattern emerges for American football, baseball, basketball, hockey and other sports.

Very Different Kinds of Unions

Both the United Kingdom and the United States are unions, but their legal structure is considerably different.

The U.K. is a Unitary State and Constitutional Monarchy

In the case of the United Kingdom, it is structured as a unitary state, with all power emanating from the central government. The central government can delegate power to its political subdivisions, but it also can take that power away at any time. The central government is the only sovereign in the United Kingdom, and everything else is considered a political subdivision. Political posturing aside, it is Westminster that holds ultimate power.

The U.S. is a Federal Republic of Sovereign States

Contrast this with the United States, which was formed through the ratification of several agreements by 13 independent countries that each had its own government, its own military, its own currencies and its own laws. Each state considered itself an independent nation, similar to how European Union member states view themselves as independent nations.

Because the states considered themselves independent countries and sovereigns of their own, they entered negotiations with that mindset, similar to how EU member states entered negotiations to form the European Union.

The result was the Articles of Confederation and later the U.S. Constitution, which divided power between the federal government and the states, with both being sovereigns under the new federal system.

Under the agreement (the Constitution), neither party (the federal government or the states) are allowed to break the terms of the agreement. If the states break the agreement, the federal government will intervene. If the federal government breaks the agreement, many of the states will attempt to leave. This model of duel sovereigns is actually an important check and balance against tyranny, since both sovereigns have the power to enforce the agreement.

Changes in the U.S. Power Dynamic Over Time

Originally the federal government was only allowed to handle foreign affairs and interstate commence issues, plus other items specifically mentioned in the Constitution. All domestic issues were left to the states. And until the civil war, a majority of domestic law making power resided with the states, not the federal government.

Things like roads and highways, law enforcement, health care, welfare, public works, insurance and banking regulations, driving laws, etc. are all domains of the states. Each state still, to this day, has their own state military for defensive purposes, in addition the the federal government having their own military. Things like murder and running a red light are against state law, not federal law. States actually have to use extradition procedures to transfer criminals from one jurisdiction to another.

Before the civil war, the states had most of the power. This changed in a couple important ways after the civil war.

  • First, the federal government started enforcing civil rights violations after passing several amendments to the Constitution. This gave the federal government new powers to control state laws that violate citizen's rights (which is a good thing).

  • Secondly, the federal government found a loophole in the Constitution. While it is unconstitutional and illegal for the federal government to make laws related to domestic issues (such as health care, education, law enforcement, roads & highways, etc.), they can decide how they allocate federal funds. So basically, as an example, they are not allowed to make a national speed limit of 55 mph (88 km/h), but they can withhold federal funding if the state does not pass a state law making the speed limit 55 mph (88 km/h). (This actually happened and the Supreme Court actually ruled on this.)

The result is the states often bend to the will of the federal government to get the federal funds, but have the power to refuse the money and do what they want. Richer states obviously have more choices than poorer states that rely on federal funds.

So you wind up with weird things like a state passing a law because the federal government wants it, but then not enforcing it or making the penalty small. Or some states adopting a federal law, and others rejecting it. A constant tug of war of power and money between the states and federal governments.


So, in summary, the United States is a union of sovereign states that have the power to create and enforce their own laws without approval of the federal government, subject only to the Constitution of the United States of America and their own state constitution.

Whereas the United Kingdom is a unitary state that sometimes delegated powers to various political subdivisions, either for efficiency or for political reasons.

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