The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a country in western Europe, and a member of the British Commonwealth and European Union. Usually known simply as the United Kingdom, UK or, inaccurately, as Great Britain or Britain, the UK has four constituent parts. Three of these parts—England, Wales and Scotland—are located on the island of Great Britain and are often considered nations in their own right. The fourth is Northern Ireland, which is located on the island of Ireland and is often described as a province of the United Kingdom. The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland forms the United Kingdom's only international land border. The UK also however has overseas territories throughout the world and relationships with several Crown dependencies.
The UK was formed by a series of Acts of Union which united the countries of England, (Wales already was a part of England), Scotland, and Ireland under a single government in London. The greater part of Ireland left the United Kingdom (then called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) in 1922 to form a seperate Kingdom of which the Kings of the United Kingdom were also King of Ireland untill 1949) when it became the Republic of Ireland, whilst the north-eastern portion of the island, Northern Ireland (Ulster), remains part of the United Kingdom.
The UK is situated off the north-western coast of continental Europe and has a land border with the Republic of Ireland, but is otherwise surrounded by the North Sea, the English Channel, the Celtic Sea, the Irish Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
Great Britain, now sometimes called simply Britain, is the geographical name for the largest island in the British Isles, and includes the mainland nations of England, Wales and Scotland, sometimes also including their islands. Additionally, the media regularly use "Britain" as shorthand for the United Kingdom, although this is resented by a minority. The term "Great" is used in opposition to "Little" Britain or Brittany in France (the '-ny' ending being diminutive). Great Britain is occasionally abbreviated as either GB or GBR.
The British Isles is sometimes used to describe an archipelago of islands including Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Isle of Wight, Orkney, the Hebrides, Shetland Islands, Channel Islands and others. However the term is not used by some in Ireland because it was sometimes understood internationally to mean "the islands belonging to Britain", a description out of date in the Irish case since 1922. An alternative Islands of the North Atlantic (IONA) has been proposed, but is used rarely, predominantly in diplomatic circles or by Irish nationalists.
Main article: History of the United Kingdom
Scotland and England have existed as separate unified entities since the 10th century. Wales, under English control since the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284, became part of the Kingdom of England by the Act of Union 1536. With the Act of Union 1707, the separate kingdoms of England and Scotland, having shared the same monarch since 1603, agreed to a permanent union as the Kingdom of Great Britain. This occurred at a time when Scotland was on the brink of economic ruin and was deeply unpopular with the broader Scottish population. The Act of Union 1800 united the Kingdom of Great Britain with the Kingdom of Ireland, which had been gradually brought under English control between 1169 and 1691, to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This was also an unpopular decision, taking place just after the unsuccessful United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798 (see also Society of the United Irishmen). The timing, when further Napoleonic intervention or an invasion was feared, was predominantly due to security concerns. In 1922, after bitter fighting which echoes down to the current political strife, the Anglo-Irish Treaty partitioned Ireland into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, with the latter remaining part of the United Kingdom. As provided for in the treaty, Northern Ireland, which consists of six of the nine counties of the Irish province of Ulster, immediately opted out of the Free State and to remain in the UK. The nomenclature of the UK was changed in 1927 to recognise the departure of most of Ireland, with the name United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland being adopted.
The United Kingdom, the dominant industrial and maritime power of the 19th century, played a leading role in developing Western ideas of property, liberty, capitalism and parliamentary democracy - to say nothing of its part in advancing world literature and science. At its zenith, the British Empire stretched over one quarter of the earth's surface. The first half of the 20th century saw the UK's strength seriously depleted in two World Wars. The second half witnessed the dismantling of the Empire and the UK rebuilding itself into a modern and prosperous nation.
The UK is currently weighing the degree of its integration with continental Europe. A member of the European Union, it has not yet chosen to adopt the euro, owing to internal political considerations and the government's judgement of the prevailing economic conditions. Constitutional reform is also a current issue in the UK. The House of Lords has been subjected to ongoing reforms, Scotland elected its own parliament in 1999 and in the same year, devolved assemblies were created in Wales and Northern Ireland. According to opinion polls, the monarchy remains generally popular in spite of recent controversies. Support for a British Republic usually fluctuates between 15% and 25% of the population, with roughly 10% undecided or indifferent.. Despite the country's liberal heritage, the Government's Information Commissioner stated in 2004 that the country is currently in danger of becoming a surveillance society.
The United Kingdom is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations (successor organisation to the former British Empire) and NATO. It is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council and holds a veto power. It is one of the few (no more than ten) nuclear powers on the planet.
See also: Monarchs; History of Britain; History of England; History of Ireland; History of Scotland; History of Wales, UK local history terms
Main article: Politics of the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy, with executive power exercised by a government headed by the Prime Minister and the other Ministers of State who form the Cabinet. The cabinet is theoretically a subcommittee of the Privy Council, the ancient council that officially advises the monarch. Executive power is vested in the monarch, who serves as Head of State, but in reality Her Majesty's Government is answerable and accountable to the House of Commons, the lower and only directly elected house in Britain's bicameral Parliament. By constitutional convention, Ministers of State are chosen largely from among Members of Parliament (members of the Commons) with a small number chosen from the mainly appointed upper house, the House of Lords. Ministers of State are automatically appointed to the Privy Council and have the ability to exercise to both prerogative and legislative powers. The Prime Minister is usually the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons and is commissioned by the monarch to form a government based on his or her ability to command the support of the Commons. The current Prime Minister is Tony Blair of the Labour Party, who has been in office since 1997.
The British system of government has been emulated around the world because of the United Kingdom's colonial legacy. Nations that follow British-style parliamentarism, with an executive chosen from, and (theoretically) answerable to the legislature, are said to operate under the Westminster system of governance.
The current monarch is Queen Elizabeth II who acceded to the throne in 1952 and was crowned in 1953. In the modern United Kingdom, the monarch's role is mainly, though not exclusively, ceremonial. Her Majesty has access to all Cabinet papers and is briefed weekly by the Prime Minister. Constitutional writer Walter Bagehot asserted that the monarch had three rights: to be consulted, to advise and to warn. These rights are exercised rarely but have proved important at key times—such as when there is a "hung parliament". Each year, normally in November, on the occasion of the State Opening of Parliament, Her Majesty the Queen officially opens Parliament, and makes a speech announcing what the government plans to do during the next year.
The monarch is an integral part of Parliament (as the "Crown-in-Parliament") and theoretically gives Parliament the power to meet and create legislation. An Act of Parliament does not become law until it has been signed by the Queen (been given royal assent), although no monarch has refused to give royal assent to a bill that has been approved by Parliament since Queen Anne did so in 1708. The Queen also confers titles and honours to people who have rendered outstanding services to the country, as the Fount of Honour.
The monarch is the head of the executive, as well as being Head of State, and the British government is officially known as Her Majesty's Government of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister, who is technically appointed by the Queen, is the head of the government. All foreign policy, such as the signing of treaties and the declaration of war, is done in Her Majesty's name. The monarch is the Fount of Justice in the UK and all criminal cases are brought forward in the monarch's name ("Rex versus" if a King, "Regina versus" if a Queen). The monarch is also the Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces, known as Her Majesty's Armed Forces.
The monarchy's popularity remains strong in the UK, despite a number of recent scandals and debates. It is felt by many in the UK that having a non-political person, despite achieving the position on hereditary principles, as Head of State is a better alternative to a political Presidential system. Currently, support for a republic is 23% (according to a recent poll by the Daily Telegraph).
The British monarch also reigns in 15 other sovereign countries that are known as the Commonwealth Realms. Although the UK has no political or executive power over these independent nations, it retains influence, through long-standing close relations. In some Commonwealth Realms the Privy Council is the highest Court of Appeal.
The monarch is forbidden to become or to marry a Roman Catholic by the Act of Settlement.
Parliament is bicameral, composed of the 646-member elected House of Commons and the mainly appointed House of Lords. The House of Commons is more powerful than the House of Lords. Its 646 members are directly elected from single member constituencies, based on population, from the four parts of the United Kingdom. The House of Lords, also known as the Lords, has currently 706 members. None of these have been elected, and they are all either hereditary peers, life peers, or bishops of the Church of England. Historically, the House of Lords has featured members of nobility who were granted seats by nature of birthright, although this feature has been abolished. Furthermore, the House of Lords Act 1999 severely curtailed the number of the hereditary peers who could sit in the upper chamber - only 92 out of several hundred retain the right, by either being elected by their fellow peers or by holding either of the royal offices of Earl Marshal or Lord Great Chamberlain. Reforms of the House of Lords originally called for all of the hereditary peers to lose their voting rights, however a compromise was reached which will allow them to be gradually phased out.
The United Kingdom is described as being traditionally a centralised, or unitary, state, with Parliament at Westminster holding responsibility for most of the UK's political power. Throughout the late nineteenth century the UK debated giving Ireland home rule. Home rule was given to Northern Ireland in 1920: it was eventually abolished by London in 1972, after much civil strife. Home rule came back on the political agenda in the 1990s, with the creation of three home rule parliaments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In 1999, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales were established, the former having primary legislative power. There is some debate, both popular and academic, as to whether the Cornish could be considered a constituent peoples of the UK and possibly a Nation. A movement to obtain some degree of home rule also exists in Cornwall, a petition of over 50000 signatures was collected endorsing the call for a Cornish Assembly however the UK government is not known to be considering any form of devolution to Cornwall. Regional Assemblies were attempted in the North, but after a referendum in the 'North East' region where 78% voted against the scheme, the plans for regional governments were abandoned. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister stated, however, that "the Government continues to have a clear policy to decentralise power and improve performance through reform in local government and strengthening all the English regions." Northern Ireland's most recent attempt at home rule, with a directly elected power-sharing Assembly emerged from the Good Friday Agreement, but it is currently suspended. Unlike federalism, however, home rule parliaments have no constitutional status or rights to exist. They are created by Parliament and, as Northern Ireland experienced in 1972, can be abolished by Parliament.
Main article: Subdivisions of the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is divided into four constituent parts:
The constituent parts of the United Kingdom have subdivisions as follows:
The Act of Union 1536 incorporated Wales and England into England and Wales for legal purposes.
Although all four have historically been divided into counties, England's population is an order of magnitude larger than the others; so in recent years it has for some purposes been divided into nine intermediate-level Government Office Regions - North East, North West, Yorkshire and the Humber, East Midlands, West Midlands, Eastern, London, South East, South West. Each region is made up of counties and unitary authorities, apart from London, which consists of London boroughs. Although at one point it was intended that each or some of these regions would be given its own regional assembly, the plans' future is uncertain, as of 2004, after the first-scheduled North East region rejected its proposed assembly in a referendum.
Scotland consists of 32 Council Areas. Wales consists of 22 Unitary Authorities, styled as 10 County Boroughs, 9 Counties, and 3 Cities. Northern Ireland is divided into 26 Districts.
Also sometimes associated with the United Kingdom, though not constitutionally part of the United Kingdom itself, are the Crown dependencies (the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey, and the Isle of Man) as self-governing possessions of the Crown, and a number of overseas territories under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.
See also: City status in the United Kingdom, Towns of the United Kingdom, and Local government in the United Kingdom
Main article: Military of the United Kingdom
The armed forces of the United Kingdom are known as the British Armed Forces or Her Majesty's Armed Forces, officially the Armed Forces of the Crown. Their Commander-in-Chief is the Queen and they are managed by the Ministry of Defence.
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. They are active and regular participants in NATO and other coalition operations.
The British Army had a reported strength of 112,700 in 2004, including 7,600 women, and the Royal Air Force a strength of 53,400. The 40,900-member Royal Navy is in charge of the United Kingdom's independent strategic nuclear arm, which consists of four Trident missile submarines, while the Royal Marines provide commando units for amphibious assault and for specialist reinforcement forces in and beyond the NATO area. This puts total active duty military troops in the 210,000 range.
Along with France and Russia, Britain fields one of the most powerful and comprehensive military forces in Europe. Despite Britain's wide ranging capabilities, recent defence policy has a stated assumption that any large operation would be undertaken as part of a coalition. Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq (Granby, No-Fly-Zones, Desert Fox and Telic) may all be taken as precedent - indeed the last true war in which the British military fought alone was the Falklands War of 1982.
Main article: Geography of the United Kingdom
Most of England consists of rolling lowland terrain, divided east from west by more mountainous terrain in the northwest (Cumbrian Mountains of the Lake District) and north (the upland moors of the Pennines) and limestone hills of the Peak District by the Tees-Exe line. The lower limestone hills of the Isle of Purbeck, Cotswolds, Lincolnshire and chalk downs of the North Downs, South Downs and Chilterns of southern England. The main rivers and estuaries are the Thames, Severn and the Trent & Ouse feeding the Humber Estuary; major cities include London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Bristol, Nottingham, Leicester, and Newcastle upon Tyne. Near Dover, the Channel Tunnel links the United Kingdom with France. There is no peak in England that is 1000m or greater.
Wales is mostly mountainous, the highest peak being Snowdon, at 1,085 m above sea level. North of the mainland is the island of Anglesey. The largest and capital city is Cardiff, located in the south of Wales. The other metroplitan areas include Swansea, Newport, and Wrexham.
Scotland's geography is varied, with lowlands in the south and east and highlands in the north and west, including Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain (1343 m). There are many long and deep-sea arms, firths, and lochs. A multitude of islands west and north of Scotland are also included, notably the Hebrides, Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands, as is the uninhabited islet of Rockall, although this claim is disputed. Main cities are Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Dundee.
Northern Ireland, making up the north-eastern part of Ireland, is mostly hilly. The main cities are Belfast and Londonderry.
In total it is estimated that the UK is made up of around 1098 small islands, some being natural and some being crannogs, a type of artificial island which was built in past times using stone and wood, gradually enlarged by natural waste building up over time.
Main article: Economy of the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom, a leading trading power and financial centre, has an essentially capitalist economy, the fourth largest in the world. Over the past two decades, the government has greatly reduced public ownership by means of privatisation programmes, and has contained the growth of the Welfare State.
Agriculture is intensive, highly mechanised, and efficient by European standards, producing about 60% of food needs with only 1% of the labour force. The UK has large coal, natural gas, and oil reserves; primary energy production accounts for 10% of GDP, one of the highest shares of any industrial state.
Services, particularly banking, insurance and business services, account for by far the largest proportion of GDP. Industry continues to decline in importance, although the UK is still Europe's largest manufacturer of cars, armaments, petroleum products, personal computers, televisions, and mobile telephones. Tourism is also important: with over 23.9 million tourists a year, between China (36.8) and Canada (20), the United Kingdom is ranked as the sixth major tourist destination in the world.
The Blair government has put off the question of participation in the Euro system, citing five economic tests that would need to be met before they recommend that the UK adopts the Euro, and hold a referendum.
Main article: Demographics of the United Kingdom
The primary language spoken is English. Other indigenous languages include the Celtic languages; Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, which is closely related to Irish Gaelic, Cornish and Irish Gaelic; as well as Lowland Scots, which is closely related to English; Romany; and British Sign Language (Irish Sign Language is also used in Northern Ireland). Celtic dialectal influences from Cumbric persisted in Northern England for many centuries, mostly famously in a unique set of numbers used for counting sheep.
Recent immigrants, especially from the Commonwealth, speak many other languages, including Cantonese-Chinese, Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu.
Also see: Languages in the United Kingdom
Main article: Culture of the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom contains two of the world's most famous universities, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Oxford, and has produced many great scientists and engineers including Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, Paul Dirac and Isambard Kingdom Brunel amongst others.
A great number of major sports originated in the United Kingdom, including Association football (soccer), golf, cricket, boxing, rugby, tennis and billiards, and rounders, the forerunner of Baseball. England won the 1966 FIFA World Cup and the 2003 Rugby World Cup. The Wimbledon Championships are an international tennis event held in Wimbledon in south London every Summer and are seen as the most prestigious of the Tennis Calendar.
Playwright William Shakespeare is arguably the most famous writer in world history; other well-known writers include the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne), Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Dickens. Important poets include Lord Byron, Robert Burns, Lord Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, William Blake and Dylan Thomas. (see main article: British literature).
Notable composers from the United Kingdom have included William Byrd, John Taverner, Thomas Tallis, and Henry Purcell from the 16th and early 17th centuries, and, more recently, Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Arthur Sullivan (most famous for working with librettist Sir W. S. Gilbert), Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten(Baron Britten), and John Tavener in the 19th and 20th.
The UK was, with the US, one of the two main contributors in the development of rock and roll, and the UK has provided some of the most famous bands, including the Beatles, Queen, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and many others. The UK was at the forefront of punk rock music in the 1970s with bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash, and the subsequent rebirth of heavy metal with bands such as Motörhead and Iron Maiden. In more recent years, the Britpop phenomenon has seen bands such as Oasis, Blur, and Supergrass gain international fame. (see main article: Music of the United Kingdom).
Main article: list of United Kingdom-related topics