United Kingdom

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The United Kingdom
of Great Britain
and Northern Ireland
United kingdom rel87.jpg
Union jack.jpg
UK Royal Coat of Arms.png
Flag Coat of Arms
Capital London
Government Constitutional monarchy
Language English (official)
Monarch Queen Elizabeth II
Prime minister Gordon Brown
Area 94,526 sq mi
Population 60,587,300 (2007)
GDP 2006 $2.006 trillion
GDP per capita $35,051 (2006)
Currency Pound Sterling

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, generally called The United Kingdom or The UK, is a sovereign state north west of mainland Europe. It consists of England, Scotland and Wales, which occupy the island of Great Britain, and Northern Ireland on the island of Ireland. It attained its current form in 1922 after most of Ireland was granted independence (although the current name 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was not adopted until 1927), but its origins can be traced back at least to 1603, when England and Scotland came to be ruled by a single monarch (James I of England and VI of Scotland). England and Scotland were formally united under a single parliament, forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain, on 1 May 1707.[1]

The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy. Its current head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, and its head of government is Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Nationalist movements of significant importance exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, seeking (in the case of Scottish and Welsh nationalists) to dissolve the United Kingdom and to win independence for their respective territories, and in the case of Northern Ireland nationalists and republicans to achieve a sovereign united Ireland. At the present time, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own legislatures.

The United Kingdom has the fifth largest economy in the world, and is a member of the European Union, NATO and the United Nations. The UK's values, culture and institutions were spread throughout many parts of the world during the period of the British Empire, and the UK's contributions to world culture include the English language, the parliamentary form of government, the Anglican (or Episcopalian) Church, a tradition of personal liberty, and the common-law legal system.


The United Kingdom is the shorter name of the state composed of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It has existed since 1801, though in 1922 most of Ireland won its independence, and its formal name changed accordingly. The official name is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The adjective associated with the United Kingdom is "British".

  • Great Britain is often used as a synonym for the UK, but it more properly refers to the largest island in the United Kingdom which contains England, Scotland and Wales. As a result this term can cause offence to some people in Northern Ireland.
  • Britain is used (without the adjective "Great") as a synonym for the United Kingdom as a whole.[2]
  • England is the largest of the four components of the United Kingdom.


The de facto national anthem of the UK is currently God Save the Queen. When Queen Elizabeth II dies or abdicates, her son Prince Charles will become King, and the anthem will become "God Save the King", with the other words remaining the same (apart from obvious changes in gender pronouns). This same melody is also sung by American schoolchildren (with different words) as "My Country, 'Tis of Thee".

The constituent nations of the UK have come to have their own anthems. In the case of Wales, this is Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers), and for Scotland it is Flower of Scotland. England does not have its own distinctive anthem in the same way, but at sporting events in which England is competing as a separate nation, Edward Elgar's patriotic song Land of Hope and Glory is sometimes used (although God Save the Queen is most commonly used). In Northern Ireland, the Protestant and Catholic communities respectively use God Save the Queen and Amhran na bhFiann, the Irish national anthem. Londonderry Air is often used as the anthem for Northern Ireland competitors in sporting events.

It should be noted that God Save the Queen/King is only the national anthem by long usage, since about 1745. It has never been declared so officially.


The United Kingdom's population in 2004 surpassed 60 million--the third-largest in the European Union. Its overall population density is one of the highest in the world. Almost one-third of the population lives in England's prosperous and fertile southeast and is predominantly urban and suburban--with about 7.2 million in the capital of London, which remains the largest city in Europe. The United Kingdom's high literacy rate (99%) is attributable to universal public education introduced for the primary level in 1870 and secondary level in 1900. Education is mandatory from ages 5 through 16. About one-fifth of British students go on to post-secondary education. The Church of England and the Church of Scotland are the official churches in their respective parts of the country, but most religions found in the world are represented in the United Kingdom.

A group of islands close to continental Europe, the British Isles have been subject to many invasions and migrations, especially from Scandinavia and the continent, including Roman occupation for several centuries. Contemporary Britons are descended mainly from the varied ethnic stocks that settled there before the 11th century. The pre-Celtic, Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse influences were blended in Britain under the Normans, Scandinavian Vikings who had lived in Northern France. Although Celtic languages persist in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, as well as Cornwall in south-west England, the predominant language is English, which is primarily a blend of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French.

  • Population (2007 est.): 60.8 million.
  • Annual population growth rate (2007 est.): 0.275%.
  • Major ethnic groups: British 91%, Irish 2%, West Indian and African 3%, South Asian 3%, others 1%.
  • Major religions: Church of England (Anglican), Roman Catholic, Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), Muslim.
  • Major languages: English, Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic.
  • Education: Years compulsory--12. Attendance--nearly 100%. Literacy--99%.
  • Health: Infant mortality rate (2007 est.)--5.01/1,000. Life expectancy (2007 est.)--males 76.23 yrs.; females 81.3 yrs.; total 78.7 years
  • Work force (2007, 31.1 million): Services--80.4%; industry--18.2%; agriculture--1.4%.

Religious Beliefs

According to the 2001 Census the religious make-up of the UK at that time was:

Religions in United Kingdom
Belief Thousands Proportion
Christian 42,079 71.6
No Religion 9104 15.5
Muslim 1591 2.7
Hindu 559 1.0
Jedi Knight 390 0.7
Sikh 336 0.6
Jewish 267 0.5
Other 179 0.3
Buddhist 152 0.3
Pagan & Wicca 40 0.1
Total religious 45,163 76.8
No answer 4289 7.3

The answers were distorted by an internet campaign just prior to the census, that claimed that if at least 50,000 people stated their religion as 'Jedi Knight' it would be officially classified as a religion. This was not true, though the Office of National Statistics does aggregate very small religions into the 'Other' category whereas a religion of 50,000 would be itemised separately. This separate listing does not constitute any form of official recognition.

Two of the four states of the United Kingdom, England and Scotland, have official state religions. The Church of England is the official religion of England and the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland is the official religion of Scotland. The (Anglican) Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1871 and the (Anglican) Church of Wales was disestablished in 1920, whereupon it was renamed the [[Church in Wales]].

Crown Dependencies

A number of the smaller British Isles, most importantly Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are 'British Crown Dependencies' and not members of the UK. Their governments are independent of that of the UK other than foreign and defence policy (the UK government retains the legal power to overrule the governments of the Dependencies, but this power has not been exercised since 1967), and they are not members of the European Union.

Sports and Pastimes

Many of the most popular sports in the world today were developed or codified in the UK. These include soccer (which is called football), cricket, rugby, tennis and golf. The UK is represented in international competitions by the individual nations (such as in football, cricket and rugby) and by the whole of the UK in other sports (such as athletics, golf and tennis). While not possessing the recent sporting success of countries such as Australia, the UK remains a major sporting force both in competition and the administration of sport. Certain venues have their own distinct and historical recognition and host a number of international competitions. These include Wimbledon for tennis, Silverstone for motor racing, and St Andrews for golf.

Domestic sport is dominated by soccer with one of the strongest and most popular leagues in the world - the Premier League of England. Teams such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool are well known sports club brands and maintain followings across the world. Cricket and both codes of rugby also have strong and popular domestic leagues. Other popular sports include snooker, rowing, darts, horse racing, and motor racing. These most popular sports are well covered by both the print press and television.

Some sports which are more popular in America such as American football and basketball have small but dedicated followings.


See also British politics

The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution. The equivalent body of law is based on statute, common law, and "traditional rights." Changes may come about formally through new acts of Parliament, informally through the acceptance of new practices and usage, or by judicial precedents. Although Parliament has the theoretical power to make or repeal any law, in actual practice the weight of 700 years of tradition restrains arbitrary actions.

Executive power rests nominally with the monarch but actually is exercised by a committee of ministers (cabinet) traditionally selected from among the members of the House of Commons and, to a lesser extent, the House of Lords. The prime minister is normally the leader of the largest party in the Commons, and the government is dependent on its support.

Parliament represents the entire country and can legislate for the whole or for any constituent part or combination of parts. The maximum parliamentary term is 5 years, but the prime minister may ask the monarch to dissolve Parliament and call a general election at any time. The focus of legislative power is the 646-member House of Commons, which has sole jurisdiction over finance. The House of Lords, although shorn of most of its powers, can still review, amend, or delay temporarily any bills except those relating to the budget. The House of Lords has more time than the House of Commons to pursue one of its more important functions--debating public issues. In 1999, the government removed the automatic right of hereditary peers to hold seats in the House of Lords. The current house consists of appointed life peers who hold their seats for life and 92 hereditary peers who will hold their seats only until final reforms have been agreed upon and implemented. The judiciary is independent of the legislative and executive branches but cannot review the constitutionality of legislation.

The separate identities of each of the United Kingdom's constituent parts are also reflected in their respective governmental structures. Up until the recent devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, a cabinet minister (the Secretary of State for Wales) handled Welsh affairs at the national level with the advice of a broadly representative council for Wales. Scotland maintains, as it did before union with England, different systems of law (Roman-French), education, local government, judiciary, and national church (the Church of Scotland instead of the Church of England). In addition, separate departments grouped under a Secretary of State for Scotland, who also is a cabinet member, handled most domestic matters. In late 1997, however, following approval of referenda by Scottish and Welsh voters (though only narrowly in Wales), the British Government introduced legislation to establish a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. The first elections for the two bodies were held May 6, 1999. The Welsh Assembly opened on May 26, and the Scottish Parliament opened on July 1, 1999. The devolved legislatures have largely taken over most of the functions previously performed by the Scottish and Welsh offices.

Northern Ireland had its own Parliament and prime minister from 1921 to 1973, when the British Government imposed direct rule in order to deal with the deteriorating political and security situation. From 1973, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, based in London, was responsible for the region, including efforts to resolve the issues that lay behind the "the troubles."

By the mid-1990s, gestures toward peace encouraged by successive British governments and by President Clinton began to open the door for restored local government in Northern Ireland. An Irish Republican Army (IRA) cease-fire and nearly 2 years of multiparty negotiations, led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, resulted in the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998, which was subsequently approved by majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Key elements of the agreement include devolved government, a commitment of the parties to work toward "total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations," police reform, and enhanced mechanisms to guarantee human rights and equal opportunity. The Good Friday Agreement also called for formal cooperation between the Northern Ireland institutions and the Government of the Republic of Ireland, and it established the British-Irish Council, which includes representatives of the British and Irish Governments as well as the devolved Governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Devolved government was reestablished in Northern Ireland in December 1999.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a 108-member elected Assembly, overseen by a 12-minister Executive Committee (cabinet) in which unionists and nationalists share leadership responsibility. Northern Ireland elects 18 representatives to the Westminster Parliament in London. However, the five Sinn Fein Members of Parliament (MPs), who won seats in the 2004 election, have refused to claim their seats.

Progress has been made on each of the key elements of the Good Friday Agreement. Most notably, a new police force has been instituted; the IRA has decommissioned its weapons, and the security situation in Northern Ireland has normalised. Since 2002, when the last devolved government was suspended, the British Government, with Irish and U.S. support, continued to push Northern Ireland's main parties towards a power-sharing agreement. In October 2006, intense negotiations led to the St. Andrews Agreement, which set up a Transitional Assembly, as the precursor for the return of devolved government. Parties were given until 26 March 2007 to work out arrangements for a power-sharing agreement. As part of these negotiations, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) insisted that Sinn Fein endorse policing structures, a key U.S. objective as well.

In a historic move, Sinn Fein's general membership finally agreed to support policing in late January 2007. New assembly elections were held on 7 March, returning the unionist (Protestant) DUP and nationalist (Catholic) Sinn Fein again as the two largest parties. While party leaders Ian Paisley (DUP) and Gerry Adams (Sinn Fein) did not reach agreement on power-sharing in time for the 26 March deadline, they did hold a historic joint meeting that day. At the meeting, they agreed to begin a power-sharing government on May 8 with Paisley as First Minister and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein as Deputy First Minister. On 8 May 2007 Paisley and McGuinness took their oath of office in the presence of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, and a bipartisan U.S. presidential delegation headed by Special Envoy Paula Dobriansky, who was accompanied by Senator Ted Kennedy.

While most attributes of government have been devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, responsibility for security and justice remains in the hands of the Parliament in Westminster. The St. Andrews Agreement envisioned devolution of policing and justice by May 2008. Other outstanding issues relate to continued paramilitary activities. While the IRA has completely decommissioned its weapons and is no longer considered a terrorist threat, a few loyalist (Protestant) paramilitary groups have thus far refused to stand down or decommission. While one large loyalist paramilitary group recently announced it has placed its weapons "out of use", it has not formally decommissioned them. There is also some concern about dissident republican groups who are believed responsible for a number of fire bombs in November 2006 around Northern Ireland.

The United States also is committed to Northern Ireland's economic development, and through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) almost $462 million was obligated to the International Fund for Ireland from 1986 to 2006. The fund provides grants and loans to businesses to improve the economy, redress inequalities of employment opportunity, and improve cross-border business and community ties.

Principal Government Officials

  • Head of State--Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
  • Prime Minister (Head of Government)--The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown, MP
  • Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs--The Rt. Hon. David Miliband, MP
  • Ambassador to the U.S.--Sir David Manning
  • Ambassador to the UN--Sir Emyr Jones Parry, KCMG

Political Conditions

Tony Blair became the first Labour Prime Minister ever to win a third consecutive term when he was re-elected on May 5, 2005. Labour has a 67-seat majority in the House of Commons. The Conservative (Tory) Party and Liberal-Democrats (LibDems) form the major opposition parties. Blair stepped down as Prime Minister in June 2007. Labour Party leader Gordon Brown succeeded him. The main British parties support a strong transatlantic link, but have become increasingly absorbed by European issues as Britain's economic and political ties to the continent grow in the post-Cold War world. Prime Minister Brown is expected to continue Blair's policy of having the United Kingdom play a leading role in Europe even as the United Kingdom maintains its strong bilateral relationship with the United States. Britain's relationship with Europe is a subject of considerable political discussion in the United Kingdom.

Membership in the European Union

The Conservative government of Sir Edward Heath took the UK into the European Union in 1973. The Labour Party under Harold Wilson won the 1974 general elections and due to splits within the party, called the only national referendum asking the people if they wanted to stay in the Union. The "yes" vote won by a margin of approximately two to one. The Labour and Conservative parties have since had deep divisions over Union membership. Labour's 1983 manifesto promised to leave the Union, and whilst the Conservative party have never pledged to leave the Union, a growing band of "Eurosceptics" threatened to tear the party apart in the 1990s. All three major parties wish to stay in the Union although disagree over the level of integration, but smaller parties such as the UK Independence Party and the Referendum Party campaigned on the single issue of sovereignty being lost to the Union.

Defence and Foreign Relations

The United Kingdom is a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and is one of NATO's major European maritime, air, and land powers; it ranks third among NATO countries in total defence expenditure. The United Kingdom has been a member of the European Community (now European Union) since 1973. In the United Nations, the United Kingdom is a permanent member of the Security Council. The U.K. held the Presidency of the G-8 during 2005; it held the EU Presidency from July to December 2005.

The British Armed Forces are charged with protecting the United Kingdom and its overseas territories, promoting Britain's wider security interests, and supporting international peacekeeping efforts. The 37,000-member Royal Navy, which includes 6,000 Royal Marine commandos, is in charge of the United Kingdom's independent strategic nuclear arm, which consists of four Trident missile submarines. The British Army, consisting of approximately 99,200 personnel, the Royal Air Force, with 42,000 personnel, along with the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, are active and regular participants in NATO and other coalition operations. Approximately 9% of the British Armed Forces is female, and 4% of British forces represent ethnic minorities.

The United Kingdom stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., and its military forces are part of the coalition force in Afghanistan. The U.K. force in Afghanistan will increase to 7,700 by the end of 2007. U.K. forces are primarily based in the Helmand region, where they are on the front line in the war against continued Taliban operations. In addition, the U.K. has contributed more than £500 million to Afghan reconstruction--the second-largest donor after the U.S. The U.K. was the United States' main coalition partner in Operation Iraqi Freedom and continues to have more than 5,000 troops deployed in Iraq to help stabilise and rebuild the country. Under UN Security Council Resolution 1483, the U.K. also shared with the United States responsibility for civil administration in Iraq and was an active participant in the Coalition Provisional Authority before the handover of Iraqi sovereignty on June 28, 2004. Britain's participation in the Iraq war and its aftermath remains a domestically controversial issue.

Relations with the United States

The United Kingdom is one of the United States' closest allies, and British foreign policy emphasises close coordination with the United States. Bilateral cooperation reflects the common language, ideals, and democratic practices of the two nations. Relations were strengthened by the United Kingdom's alliance with the United States during both World Wars, and its role as a founding member of NATO, in the Korean conflict, in the Persian Gulf War, and in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The United Kingdom and the United States continually consult on foreign policy issues and global problems and share major foreign and security policy objectives.

The United Kingdom is the fifth-largest market for U.S. goods exports after Canada, Mexico, Japan, and China, and the sixth-largest supplier of U.S. imports after Canada, China, Mexico, Japan, and Germany. U.S. exports of goods and services to the United Kingdom in 2006 totaled $92 billion, while U.S. imports from the U.K. totaled $93 billion. The United States has had a trade deficit with the United Kingdom since 1998. The United Kingdom is a large source of foreign tourists in the United States. In 2005, 3.4 million U.S. residents visited the United Kingdom, while 4.2 million U.K. residents visited the United States.

The United States and the United Kingdom share the world's largest foreign direct investment partnership. U.S. investment in the United Kingdom reached $324 billion in 2005, while U.K. direct investment in the U.S. totaled $282 billion. This investment sustains more than 1 million American jobs.


The United Kingdom has the fifth-largest economy in the world, is the second-largest economy in the European Union, and is a major international trading power. A highly developed, diversified, market-based economy with extensive social welfare services provides most residents with a high standard of living. Unemployment and inflation levels are amongst the lowest within the European Union.

Since 1979, the British Government has privatised most state-owned companies, including British Steel, British Airways, British Telecom, British Coal, British Aerospace, and British Gas, although in some cases the government retains a "golden share" in these companies. The Labour government has continued the privatisation policy of its Conservative predecessor, particularly by encouraging "public-private partnerships" (partial privatisation) in such areas as the London Underground. The economy of the United Kingdom is now primarily based on private enterprise, accounting for approximately four-fifths of employment and output.

London ranks alongside New York as a leading international financial centre. London's financial exports contribute greatly to the United Kingdom's balance of payments. Ratings agencies rank the United Kingdom's banking sector as one of the strongest in the world and its banks are amongst the most profitable in the G-8. It is a global leader in emissions trading and is home to the Alternative Investment Market (AIM). It is also a government priority to make London the leading center of Islamic finance.

The United Kingdom is the European Union's only significant energy exporter. It is also one of the world's largest energy consumers, and most analysts predict a shift in U.K. status from net exporter to net importer of energy by 2020, possibly sooner. Oil production in the U.K. is levelling off. While North Sea natural gas production continues to rise, gains may be offset by ever-increasing consumption. North Sea oil and gas exploration activities are shifting to smaller fields and to increments of larger, developed fields, presenting opportunities for smaller, independent energy operators to become active in North Sea production.

  • GDP (at current market prices, 2007 est.): US$1.93 trillion.
  • Annual growth rate (2006 est.): 2.8%.
  • Per capita GDP (2006 est.): US$31,800.
  • Natural resources: Coal, oil, natural gas, tin, limestone, iron ore, salt, clay, chalk, gypsum, lead, silica.
  • Agriculture (1.1% of GDP): Products--cereals, oilseed, potatoes, vegetables, cattle, sheep, poultry, fish.
  • Industry: Types--steel, heavy engineering and metal manufacturing, textiles, motor vehicles and aircraft, construction (5.2% of GDP), electronics, chemicals.
  • Trade (2006 est.): Exports of goods and services--US$468.8 billion: manufactured goods, fuels, chemicals; food, beverages, tobacco. Major markets--U.S., European Union. Imports of goods and services--US$603 billion: manufactured goods, machinery, fuels, foodstuffs. Major suppliers--U.S., European Union, Japan.


The currency of the United Kingdom is the Pound Sterling, commonly called Pound and written £ or GBP, divided into 100 New Pence (now commonly just called pence or 'p'). Traditionally the UK had a complicated triple currency structure of 20 shillings to the Pound and 12 "old pence" (represented by a "d" from the Roman denarius) to the shilling, making a total of 240 pence to the Pound. This system was abandoned in 1971 due to difficulties with computerised accounting systems, in favour of the current decimal system. This change was not without its critics.

The UK was one of the three European Union nations of the time (along with Sweden and Denmark) not to join the Euro at its inception, a position it maintains. Banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland are permitted to print their own banknotes, as long as they keep an equivalent amount of sterling in reserve.


The Roman invasion of Britain in 55 BC and most of Britain's subsequent incorporation into the Roman Empire stimulated development and brought more active contacts with the rest of Europe. As Rome's strength declined, the country again was exposed to invasion--including the pivotal incursions of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in the fifth and sixth centuries AD--up to the Norman conquest in 1066. Norman rule effectively ensured Britain's safety from further intrusions; certain institutions, which remain characteristic of Britain, could develop. Among these are a political, administrative, cultural, and economic centre in London; a separate but established church; a system of common law; distinctive and distinguished university education; and representative government.


Both Wales and Scotland were independent kingdoms that resisted English rule. The English conquest of Wales succeeded in 1282 under Edward I, and the Statute of Rhuddlan established English rule 2 years later. To appease the Welsh, Edward's son (later Edward II), who had been born in Wales, was made Prince of Wales in 1301. The tradition of bestowing this title on the eldest son of the British Monarch continues today. An act of 1536 completed the political and administrative union of England and Wales.

While maintaining separate parliaments, England and Scotland were ruled under one crown beginning in 1603, when James VI of Scotland succeeded his cousin Elizabeth I as James I of England. In the ensuing 100 years, strong religious and political differences divided the kingdoms. Finally, in 1707, England and Scotland were unified as Great Britain, sharing a single Parliament at Westminster.

Ireland's invasion by the Anglo-Normans in 1170 led to centuries of strife. Successive English kings sought to conquer Ireland. In the early 17th century, large-scale settlement of the north from Scotland and England began. After its defeat, Ireland was subjected, with varying degrees of success, to control and regulation by Britain.

The legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland was completed on January 1, 1801, under the name of the United Kingdom. However, armed struggle for independence continued sporadically into the 20th century. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 established the Irish Free State, which subsequently left the Commonwealth and became a republic after World War II. Six northern, predominantly Protestant, Irish counties have remained part of the United Kingdom.

British Expansion and Empire

Begun initially to support William the Conqueror's (c. 1029-1087) holdings in France, Britain's policy of active involvement in continental European affairs endured for several hundred years. By the end of the 14th century, foreign trade, originally based on wool exports to Europe, had emerged as a cornerstone of national policy.

The foundations of sea power were gradually laid to protect English trade and open up new routes. Defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 firmly established England as a major sea power. Thereafter, its interests outside Europe grew steadily. Attracted by the spice trade, English mercantile interests spread first to the Far East. In search of an alternate route to the Spice Islands, John Cabot reached the North American continent in 1498. Sir Walter Raleigh organized the first, short-lived colony in Virginia in 1584, and permanent English settlement began in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia. During the next two centuries, Britain extended its influence abroad and consolidated its political development at home.

Great Britain's industrial revolution greatly strengthened its ability to oppose Napoleonic France. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the United Kingdom was the foremost European power, and its navy ruled the seas. Peace in Europe allowed the British to focus their interests on more remote parts of the world, and, during this period, the British Empire reached its zenith. British colonial expansion reached its height largely during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Queen Victoria's reign witnessed the spread of British technology, commerce, language, and government throughout the British Empire, which, at its greatest extent, encompassed roughly one-fifth to one-quarter of the world's area and population. British colonies contributed to the United Kingdom's extraordinary economic growth and strengthened its voice in world affairs. Even as the United Kingdom extended its imperial reach overseas, it continued to develop and broaden its democratic institutions at home.

20th Century

By the time of Queen Victoria's death in 1901, other nations, including the United States and Germany, had developed their own industries; the United Kingdom's comparative economic advantage had lessened, and the ambitions of its rivals had grown. The losses and destruction of World War I, the depression of the 1930s, and decades of relatively slow growth eroded the United Kingdom's preeminent international position of the previous century.

Britain's control over its empire loosened during the interwar period. Ireland, with the exception of six northern counties, gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1921. Nationalism became stronger in other parts of the empire, particularly in India and Egypt.

In 1926, the United Kingdom, completing a process begun a century earlier, granted Australia, Canada, and New Zealand complete autonomy within the empire. They became charter members of the British Commonwealth of Nations (now known as the Commonwealth), an informal but closely-knit association that succeeded the empire. Beginning with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, the remainder of the British Empire was almost completely dismantled. Today, most of Britain's former colonies belong to the Commonwealth, almost all of them as independent members. There are, however, 13 former British colonies--including Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and others--which have elected to continue their political links with London and are known as United Kingdom Overseas Territories.

Although often marked by economic and political nationalism, the Commonwealth offers the United Kingdom a voice in matters concerning many developing countries. In addition, the Commonwealth helps preserve many institutions deriving from British experience and models, such as parliamentary democracy, in those countries.

See also


  1. Murdoch, Alexander, England, Scotland, and the Acts of Union (1707), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, Jan 2007, accessed 1 May 2007
  2. number10.gov.uk - Countries within a country - Website of the British Prime Minster.