United Kingdom

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The United Kingdom
of Great Britain
and Northern Ireland
United kingdom rel87.jpg
UK location.png
Union jack.jpg
UK Royal Coat of Arms.png
Flag Coat of Arms
Capital London
Government Constitutional monarchy
Language English (official)
Monarch HM 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 (UK) is a sovereign state north-west of mainland Europe. It comprises England, Scotland and Wales, which occupy the island of Great Britain, and Northern Ireland on the island of Ireland. It attained its current identity in 1922 after most of Ireland was granted independence.

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

The United Kingdom has the fifth largest economy in the world, and is a member of the European Union, NATO and the United Nations. British values, culture and institutions were spread throughout many parts of the world during the period of the British Empire, 1600-1960, and British contributions to world culture include the English language, the parliamentary form of government, the Anglican Church ("Church of England"), a tradition of personal liberty, and the common-law legal system.


The official name of the nation (since 1927) is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.[1] The full official name is seldom used except in very formal or legal documents. The short version for historical topics is either "Britain" or "Great Britain." The short version for recent events (since the 1970s) is "United Kingdom" or "UK" The adjective is always "British".

Britain was part of the British Empire, which has become the "British Commonwealth", and is mostly a discussion club --Britain has a few scattered minor possessions but gave up its last important colony--Hong Kong--in 1997.

  • England is the largest of the four components of the United Kingdom. "England" was often used to stand for the nation in older literature published before 1970. However use of "England" to refer to the entire country is now sometimes considered offensive by many citizens of the other three member countries and is thus discouraged.
  • The standard language of the UK is English; Welsh has parity in Wales, and Gaelic is widely used on official documents, roadsigns, etc in remote Gaelic-speaking areas of western Scotland.

MacColl (2008) explores the use of the term 'Britain' in English, French, and Latin texts from the 12th century to the 16th. The term was flexible, used in a variety of ways (geographically, politically, and ethnically), and not always indicative of any specific meaning. The English at first tended to conflate 'Britain' with England or the southern portion of the island of Great Britain, though the term 'Greater Britain' was applied starting in the 14th century to refer to the entire island. The Scottish, beginning in the 15th century, used the term in the modern sense - as reflective of the entire island of Great Britain and the 'polity' of England, Wales, and Scotland. This latter usage paved the way for the relatively smooth ideological transition after the 1707 Acts of Union.[2]


The national anthem of the UK is currently God Save the Queen. Should a male heir accede to the throne, the anthem will become "God Save the King".[3]

The constituent nations have their own unofficial 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 more commonly used). Additionally the hymn "Jerusalem" has a large number of supporters in England as an alternative to, or replacement for, the national anthem. 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.


Tower Bridge, London.

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.

A net total of 408,000 people were added to the UK population in 2008, the largest numerical increase since 1972. This was partly due to the highest fertility rate in more than three decades. More than half of the increase in births last year was due to non-UK born mothers.

There is also an ever-increasing ageing population with the number of people over 85 now at a record 1.3 million, the equivalent of one in every 50 people.


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, although this is in the process of being raised to 18 for England and Wales. "Public" schools are elite private prep schools, such as Eton and Rugby, attended by elite youth who pay high tuition rates.

About one-fifth of British students go on to post-secondary education.

Higher education has been a specialty for over 500 years at Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge), with new "red brick" universities added in the 19th century and many others in the late 20th century. Universities contribute L33 billion a year to the economy. Britain has a strong attraction for international students, with 342,000 attending in 2007 (compared to 672,000 in the U.S. and 183,000 in Australia). They spend L1.5 billion in tuition in Britain annually, plus another L.4 billion off campus.


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
  • 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%.

Ethnic tensions

Ethnic tensions continue to simmer. There is popular resentment, for example, of the 600,000 Poles who have migrated to Britain for work since 2004.

Britain is home to 2.4 million Muslims from numerous ethnicities. This population is growing 10 times faster than the national average. Regarded as one of the most tolerant countries in Europe, Britain struggles with questions of integration, particularly the social exclusion of its Muslims, as well as the psychological aftermath of the July 2005 suicide bombings on London’s public transport system carried out by young Britons of Pakistani descent, which left 52 people dead and over 700 injured.


Religious faith, according to a 2009 survey, has declined sharply in Britain over the last two decades. Now only 50% of people describe themselves as Christian, as opposed to 66% in 1990. Most of the decline is due to a drift away from the Church of England, it is claimed, with only 23% claiming allegiance, down from 40%.

In 2003 the Office of National Statistics estimated 29% of the population identified with Anglicanism, 10% with the Catholic Church, and 14% with Protestant churches. A 2007 survey reported that the number of Catholics (mostly Irish) attending Sunday services has overtaken the number of Anglicans doing so. A September 2006 English Church Census reported that Methodists were decreasing as a percentage of the population, while members of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Pentecostal churches, many churches from Africa, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, almost entirely immigrants, were increasing.[4]

Individuals with no religious belief comprised 15% of the population in 2003. Muslims comprise 3% of the population. The Muslim community is predominantly South Asian in origin, but other groups from the Arabian Peninsula, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Levant are represented. In addition, there is a growing number of indigenous converts. Although estimates vary, the Government places the number of mosques in the whole country at one thousand. Groups comprising 1% or less of the population include Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Buddhists. Individuals from Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Sikh backgrounds are concentrated in London and other large urban areas, primarily in England.

Attendance at religious services was significantly different from the number of adherents. According to a report released on May 8, 2008, by Religious Trends, only 4 million Christians attend services on a regular basis (defined as at least once a month) in the country. These figures do not include Northern Ireland, where higher%ages reportedly attend both Catholic (more than 60%) and Protestant (more than 35%) services. The Religious Trends report stated that more than 50% of Muslims regularly worship at mosques. Figures for Jews and other religious groups were unavailable.

Religious affiliation was not evenly distributed among ethnicities. According to the 2001 census, approximately 70% of the white population described themselves as Christians. Nearly 75% of black Caribbean respondents stated that they were Christians, as did 70% of black Africans. Meanwhile, 45% of Indians were Hindus and 29% were Sikhs. Approximately 92% of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were Muslims.

In Northern Ireland, where divisions between nationalists and unionists evolved largely along religious lines, the 2001 census showed that 53.1% were Protestants and 43.8% were Catholics. Many Catholics and Protestants continued to live in segregated communities in Northern Ireland, although many middle class neighborhoods were mixed communities. The policy of the Government remained one of promotion of religious tolerance.

There are two established (or state) churches--The Church of England (Anglican) and the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian). The Act of Settlement, enacted in 1688, states that no Catholic, or person married to a Catholic, may ascend the throne.

Religion in schools

The Government provides financial support—up to 90% of the total capital costs of the buildings and 100% of running costs, including teachers' salaries - to sectarian educational institutions that are commonly referred to as "faith schools".

The Government also helps fund the repair and maintenance of all listed places of worship for religious groups nationwide and contributes to the budget of the Church Conservation Trust, which preserves "redundant" Church of England buildings of architectural or historic significance.

The Government has not classified the Church of Scientology as a religious institution and therefore has not granted the organization recognition for charitable status.

More than 30% of state schools had a religious character. Nearly all of the 6,949 "faith schools" are associated with Christian denominations, although there are 31 Jewish, 7 Islamic, and 2 Sikh schools. An additional two Jewish, three Islamic, and two Sikh schools have also been tentatively approved by the Government to open. In addition, several hundred independent schools of a religious nature receive no state support but must meet government quality standards. Controversy arose in 2006 over 100 Islamic schools when an Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted) evaluation of these schools showed many were "little more than places where the Koran was recited." The schools were given time to correct their deficiencies. A review is due in 2010. Some Christian faith schools also faced controversy. Some were accused of not following the national curriculum in science, teaching creationism instead. During the reporting period, a further controversy erupted when it was learned that some faith schools were not following an "open" admission policy as required by law, denying admission to both special needs children and those outside the faith of the school administrators. The Catholic Church and the Church of England have an agreement to voluntarily accept up to 25% of places for pupils from another religious group or no religious group.

Almost all schools in Northern Ireland receive state support. More than 90% of students attended schools that were either predominantly Catholic or Protestant. Integrated schools served approximately 5% of school-age children whose families voluntarily chose this option, often after overcoming significant obstacles to provide the resources to start a new school and demonstrate its sustainability for 3 years before government funding begins. Demand for places in integrated schools outweighed the limited number of places available. The May 8, 2007, devolution, or granting of power, authorized the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide on academic selection. Now there are more than 50 integrated schools, and the new Government permits existing schools to petition to change from sectarian to integrated. More petition for that status than are granted it. Some have accused the Government of a go-slow approach to avoid sectarian animus.

The law requires religious education for all children, ages 3 to 19, in publicly maintained schools. In England and Wales it forms part of the core curriculum in accordance with the Education Reform Act of 1988. In Scotland, religious education of some sort is mandated by the Education Act of 1980. However, the shape and content of religious instruction throughout the country is decided on a local basis. Locally agreed syllabi are required to reflect the predominant place of Christianity while taking into account the teachings and practices of other principal religions in the country. Syllabuses must be nondenominational and refrain from attempting to convert pupils. Schools with a religious designation follow a syllabus drawn up by the school governors according to the trust deed of the school. All parents have the legal right to request that their children not participate in religious education, but the school must approve this request.

Daily collective prayer or worship of "a wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character" is practiced in schools in England and Wales, a requirement that may be waived for students who obtain permission of the school authorities. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 permits sixth form students (generally 16-19-year-olds) to withdraw themselves from worship without their parents' permission or action. This new law does not exempt sixth form students from religious education classes. Non-Christian worship is permitted with approval of the authorities. Teachers have the right not to participate in collective worship, without prejudice, unless they work for a faith school.

After several controversial court decisions prohibiting full-face veils in school (but not head scarves) and the wearing of a Christian chastity ring, the Department of Education provided guidance that advises schools to "… act reasonably in accommodating religious requirements," under human rights legislation. Some Muslim groups, including the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said it was inappropriate for the Government to provide guidance that regulated Muslim communities in matters concerning the expression of their religious beliefs. But it is also legally possible under the act, according to the guidance, to have a school uniform policy that "restricts the freedom of pupils to manifest their religion" on the grounds of health and safety and the "protection of the rights and freedoms of others." The Government's guidance is meant to remind "head teachers" to act with a degree of sensitivity when considering decisions that will impact the cultural complexion of their communities.


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
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, encouraging people to actually question religion 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.

It should be noted that non-practising Christians and the non-religious group are growing in the UK and Europe. At the same time, there is growth in the Islamic, Sikh and Hindu groups due to immigration.

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 football (which is called soccer in North America), cricket, rugby, tennis, hockey and golf. The UK is represented in international competitions by the individual nations (such as in football, the one-day form of cricket and rugby) and by the whole of the UK in other sports (such as athletics, golf and tennis). The Test cricket team is that of 'England & Wales' (colloquially, just 'England') but from time to time has had Scottish and Irish players.

The UK remains a major sporting force both in competition and the administration of sport. It is dominant in several Olympic sports, notably cycling, rowing and sailing and a leading force in cricket, rugby union, and golf.

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. There are several major venues for football, rugby and cricket.

Domestic sport is dominated by football (Americans call it soccer) with one of the strongest and most popular leagues in the world - the Premier League of England. Teams such as Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea 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, golf, tennis, athletics, cycling, 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 other countries such as volleyball, handball, American football and basketball have small but dedicated followings.


See also British politics

Nationalist movements 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 create a sovereign united Ireland. At the present time, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own legislatures.

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) selected from among the members of the House of Commons and, less frequently, the House of Lords. The prime minister is normally the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons, and can remain in office for so long as he or she has the support of a majority in that body.


Parliament was authorized in the Magna Carta (1215), and first summoned by King Edward I in 1296, the oldest governing body in the world. Parliament represents the entire country and can legislate for the whole or for any constituent part or combination of parts. Elections are called by the prime minister, but the maximum length of a parliament is usually 5 years (except in wartime). The focus of legislative power is the 646-member House of Commons, which has sole jurisdiction over finance. Normally the government--the prime minister and cabinet--have full control of the House. If they lose control and new general election is held. 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. 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.

Members of the House of Commons are elected to represent specific geographic constituencies. Members are elected on a "First past the post" system and there is no proportional representation. The upshot is that a third party with under 25% of the vote typically obtains very few seats.

Constituent countries

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 Agreement (more commonly known as the "Good Friday Agreement", and more rarely as the Belfast Agreement[5]) was reached on Friday, April 10 1998 in Belfast and 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.

Principal Government Officials

  • Head of State - Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith who, as Head of State for many other countries also holds other titles particular to her role and rule as Head of State for those countries. More commonly referred to as HM (Her Majesty) Queen Elizabeth II

The Cabinet

  • Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service - Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP
  • Chancellor of the Exchequer - Rt Hon Alistair Darling MP
  • Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs - Rt Hon David Miliband MP
  • Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor - Rt Hon Jack Straw MP
  • Secretary of State for the Home Department - Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP
  • Secretary of State for Health - Rt Hon Andy Burnham MP
  • Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills - Rt Hon The Lord Mandelson
  • Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP
  • Secretary of State for International Development - Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP
  • Secretary of State for Defence - Rt Hon Bob Ainsworth MP
  • Leader of the House of Commons, Lord Privy Seal and Minister for Women and Equalities - Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP
  • Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government - Rt Hon John Denham MP
  • Secretary of State for Transport - Rt Hon The Lord Adonis
  • Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families - Rt Hon Ed Balls MP
  • Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change - Rt Hon Edward Miliband MP
  • Secretary of State for Work and Pensions - Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP
  • Secretary of State for Northern Ireland - Rt Hon Shaun Woodward MP
  • Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council - Rt Hon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon
  • Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport - Rt Hon Ben Bradshaw MP
  • Chief Secretary to the Treasury - Rt Hon Liam Byrne MP
  • Secretary of State for Wales - Rt Hon Peter Hain MP
  • Secretary of State for Scotland - Rt Hon Jim Murphy MP

Also attend Cabinet meetings:

  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and Chief Whip - Rt Hon Nicholas Brown MP
  • Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster - Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP
  • Minister of State for Housing - Rt Hon John Healey MP
  • Minister for Science - Lord Drayson
  • Attorney General - Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC
  • Minister for Children, Young People and Families - Rt Hon Dawn Primarolo MP MP[6]

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. The current Prime Minister, Gordon 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 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.


Britain 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 British force in Afghanistan is at 9,000 in late 2009 and will rise by an extra 500 troops in 2010. British forces are primarily based in the Helmand region, where they are on the front line in the war against continued Taliban operations. In addition, Britain has contributed more than £500 million to Afghan reconstruction--the second-largest donor after the U.S.


Britain has shown a greater willingness than the United States to criticize the Israelis over settlements and what some call the disproportionate responses to provocations from Gaza and southern Lebanon. (Jewish Labour MP Gerald Kaufman is among the most vocal.) Like his predecessors, both Labour and Conservative, Foreign Secretary Miliband has been unequivocal: "Settlements are illegal under international law," he told Parliament in 2008; "They are a major blockage to peace in the Middle East on the basis of a two-state solution."

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.


Britain has been hard hit by the Recession of 2008, with its major banks taken over or subsidized by the government. Real gross domestic product declined by 4.6% in 2009, and is expected to rise by 0.6% before 2010 and probably will continue to increase by 1% in 2011.

Britain 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.

Britain 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 (2009 est.): -4.6%
  • Per capita GDP (2006 est.): US$31,800.
  • Natural resources: Coal, oil, natural gas.
  • 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.

The UK has never joined the Euro zone.


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. However, there was no permanent Roman imprint apart from roads and locations for cities. 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 and distinctive and distinguished university education.


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 by the same king 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 of Great Britain and Ireland (normally shortened to "Great Britain" or "Britain"). 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

Queen Victoria, by Sir Francis Grant.

The British Empire was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. It was a product of the Age of Discovery, which began with the maritime explorations of the 15th century, that sparked the era of the European colonial empires. By 1921, the British Empire held sway over a population of about 458 million people, approximately one-quarter of the world's population.[7] It covered about 36.7 million km² (14.2 million square miles),[8] about a quarter of Earth's total land area. As a result, its political, linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, it was often said that "the sun never sets on the British Empire" because its span across the globe ensured that the sun was always shining on at least one of its numerous colonies or subject nations.[9]

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.

During the five decades following World War II, most of the territories of the Empire became independent. Many went on to join the Commonwealth of Nations, a free association of independent states. [10] Some have retained the British monarch as their head of state to become independent Commonwealth realms.

Sea Power

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, as the Royal Navy dominated the seas.

Industrial Revolution

Britain's industrial revolution greatly strengthened its ability to oppose Napoleonic France. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain 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. It is controversial whether British colonies accelerated or slowed Britain's economic growth, for its growth rate fell below nations without empires, especially the U.S. and germany. Democracy came in fits and starts in a series of reforms that finally, by the 1920s, allowed all adults to vote.

End of Empire

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

Nationalism became stronger in other parts of the empire, particularly in India and Egypt.

In 1926, Britain granted Australia, Canada, and New Zealand almost complete autonomy as "dominions"; beginning with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, the remainder of the British Empire was almost completely dismantled by the 1960s.

See also


  1. From 1801 to 1927 the official name was The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
  2. Alan MacColl, "The Meaning of 'Britain' in Medieval and Early Modern England." Journal of British Studies 2006 45(2): 248-269
  3. This same melody is also sung by American schoolchildren (with different words) as "My Country, 'Tis of Thee".
  4. According to U.S. State Department Report, 2008
  5. http://www.nio.gov.uk/index/key-issues/the-agreement.htm
  6. http://www.parliament.uk/directories/hciolists/hmg.cfm
  7. Angus Maddison. The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (p. 98, 242). OECD, Paris, 2001.
  8. Bruce R. Gordon. To Rule the Earth... (See Bibliography for sources used.)
  9. This phrase had already been used a few centuries before by the king Charles I of Spain, referring to the Spanish Empire.
  10. T. O. Lloyd, The British Empire, 1558-1995. 2nd ed. (1996).