- For other meanings of the terms "United Kingdom" and "UK" , see United Kingdom (disambiguation) and UK (disambiguation).
- For an explanation of terms like England, (Great) Britain and United Kingdom see British Isles (terminology).
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (usually shortened to the United Kingdom or the UK) is a country (or more specifically a constitutional monarchy or unitary state) off the north-western coast of continental Europe, surrounded by the North Sea, the English Channel, the Celtic Sea, the Irish Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.
It is composed of four constituent parts: three constituent countries—England, Scotland, and Wales—on the island of Great Britain, and the province of Northern Ireland on the island of Ireland. The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland forms the United Kingdom's principal international land border, although there is a nominal frontier with France in the middle of the Channel Tunnel.
- Main article: British Isles (terminology)
The United Kingdom was formed by the union of the Kingdom of England (which included the principality of Wales) with the Kingdom of Scotland and later the Kingdom of Ireland to form a single state. The modern "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" is the result of the partition of Ireland in 1922. The United Kingdom is sometimes mistakenly referred to as "England", "Great Britain", or "Britain": these terms all mean different things. England is simply one part of the UK. Great Britain, (or just "Britain"), is the geographical name of the largest of the British Isles.
Thus "Great Britain" (or "Britain" for short) properly refers to the nations of England, Wales and Scotland, i.e. the United Kingdom except for Northern Ireland. "UK" and "British" are both used as adjectival forms (for example when writing of UK demographic trends or British census data).
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. Although this union occurred at a time when the Scottish government was on the brink of economic ruin, it was deeply unpopular with the Scottish population, who displayed their fury with three days of rioting.
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 Irish Rebellion of 1798 (see 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 world 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 from the effects of World War I and World War II. The second half witnessed the dismantling of the Empire and the UK rebuilding itself into a modern and prosperous nation.
The UK has been a member of the European Union since 1973. Its attitude towards further integration is conservative, and there is significant Euroscepticism in UK politics. It has not chosen to adopt the Euro, owing to internal political considerations and the government's judgement of the prevailing economic conditions.
Government and politics
Main article: Politics of the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy, with executive power exercised on behalf of the Queen by the Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers who collectively make up Her Majesty's Government. These ministers are drawn from and responsible to Parliament, the legislative body, which is traditionally considered to be "supreme" (that is, able to legislate on any matter and not bound by decisions of its predecessors). The UK is one of the few countries in the world today, and probably the only democracy, that does not have a codified constitution, relying instead on tradition.
The Prime Minister appoints other Ministers from Parliament, who together form the Cabinet. The Prime Minister is the head of government. Sovereignty is vested fully in the monarch, who is Head of State, but under the United Kingdom's constitutional monarchy Her Majesty's Government is answerable and accountable to the House of Commons. The British system of government has been emulated around the world - a legacy of the United Kingdom's colonial past.
In the United Kingdom the monarch has extensive theoretical powers, but his or her role is mainly, though not exclusively, ceremonial. 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 (being given Royal Assent), although no monarch has refused to assent to a bill that has been approved by Parliament since Queen Anne in 1708. Although the abolition of the monarchy has been suggested several times, the popularity of the monarchy remains strong 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 . The current monarch is Queen Elizabeth II who acceded to the throne in 1952 and was crowned in 1953.
Parliament is the national legislature of the United Kingdom. It is the ultimate legislative authority in the United Kingdom, according to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. It is bicameral, composed of the elected House of Commons and the unelected House of Lords, whose members are mostly appointed. The House of Commons is the more powerful of the two houses. The House of Commons has 646 members who are directly elected from single-member constituencies based on population. The House of Lords has 724 members: hereditary peers, life peers, and bishops of the Church of England. The current Prime Minister is Tony Blair of the Labour Party, who has been in office since 1997.
The two largest political parties are the Labour Party and Conservative Party. The UK has long had a two-party system, but in the last 20 years the Liberal Democrats have re-emerged as a large third party. The electoral system used for general elections is first-past-the-post.
The constitution of the United Kingdom is un-codified and partially unwritten, which means that no single document regulates how the government works, and unwritten constitutional conventions are used extensively. The constitution is based on the principle that Parliament is the ultimate sovereign body in the country.
There has long been a widespread sense of national identity in the Celtic nations. Throughout the late 19th century the UK debated giving Ireland home rule. The Scottish National Party was founded in 1934, and Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales) in 1925. Referendums for devolution succeeded in 1997 for Scotland and Wales and in 1998 for Northern Ireland. In 1999, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales were established, the former having primary legislative power. Proportional representation is used for the elections, which has resulted in a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition government in Scotland. Due to internal disagreements, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended since 2002. In Cornwall, there is a movement that calls for devolution (Cornish nationalism), and an academic debate over the Cornish identity and constitutional status of Cornwall.
- Law of the United Kingdom
- British monarchy
- Politics of Northern Ireland
- Politics of Scotland
- Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
- Courts of the United Kingdom
Main article: Subdivisions of the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is a country that is divided into four constituent parts:
The constituent parts of the United Kingdom have administrative subdivisions as follows:
- The regions and administrative counties of England
- The council areas of Scotland
- The counties and county boroughs of Wales
- The districts of Northern Ireland
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. 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 plan's future is uncertain, as of 2004, after the 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.
Main article: British Armed Forces
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 the United Kingdom'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 Ballistic 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.
The United Kingdom fields one of the most powerful and comprehensive military forces in the World. Its global power projection capabilities are second only to those of the United States Armed Forces. Its special forces, principally the SAS, are seen by many as the best-trained military entity in the entire world. The Royal Navy is the second largest navy in the World in terms of gross tonnage. Despite the United Kingdom's wide ranging capabilities, recent, pragmatic 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.
The British army has been actively involved in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. However, a programme of demilitarisation is being gradually implemented.
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 Southern England Chalk Formation. The main rivers and estuaries are the Thames, Severn and the Humber Estuary. The largest urban area is Greater London. 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 1085 m above sea level. North of the mainland is the island of Anglesey. The largest and capital city is Cardiff, located in South Wales.
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. The largest city is Glasgow.
Northern Ireland, making up the north-eastern part of Ireland, is mostly hilly. The main cities are Belfast ('Beal Feirste' in Irish) and Londonderry / Derry ('Doire' in Irish). The province is home to one of the UK’s World Heritage Sites, the Giant's Causeway, which consists of more than 40,000 six-sided basalt columns up to 40 feet high.
In total it is estimated that the UK includes 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 in terms of market exchange rates and the sixth largest by purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates. Over the past three 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 armaments, petroleum products, personal computers, televisions, and mobile telephones. Tourism is also important: with over 24 million tourists a year, between China (33) and Austria (19.1), 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
At the April 2001 census, the United Kingdom's population was 58,789,194-- the third-largest in the European Union (behind Germany and metropolitan France) and the 21st-largest in the world. Its overall population density is one of the highest in the world. Almost one-third of the population lives in England's prosperous south-east and is predominantly urban and suburban--with about 7.2 million in the capital of London. 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 (except in Scotland where it was introduced in 1696). Education is mandatory from ages 5 through 16. The Church of England and the Church of Scotland function as the official national churches in their respective countries, 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 on Great Britain under the Normans, Scandinavian Vikings who had lived in Northern France. Although Celtic languages persist in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, the predominant language is English, which is a West Germanic language descended from Old English, and featuring a large amount of borrowings from Norman French.
The primary language spoken is English. Other indigenous languages include the Celtic languages; Welsh, the closely related Irish and Scots Gaelic, and the Cornish language; as well as Lowland Scots, which is closely related to English; Romany; and British Sign Language (Northern Ireland 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 Bengali, Cantonese, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu. The United Kingdom has the largest number of Hindi speaking peoples outside of the Indian sub continent.
See also: Languages in the United Kingdom
Main article: Culture of the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom contains many of the world's leading universities, including the University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, University of Edinburgh and the University of London (which incorporates, amongst others, The London School of Economics, Imperial College and University College London), and has produced many great scientists and engineers including Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Isambard Kingdom Brunel; the nation is credited with many inventions including locomotive, vaccination, television, and both the internal combustion and the jet engine.
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, J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Dickens. Important poets include Lord Byron, Robert Burns, Lord Tennyson and William Blake. (see main article: British literature).
Notable composers from the United Kingdom have included William Byrd, John Taverner, William Lawes, John Dowland, 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 and Benjamin Britten in the 19th and 20th. George Frideric Handel spent most of his composing life in England.
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 pop stars, including the Beatles, Sir Cliff Richard, Queen, the Rolling Stones, The Who 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 mid to late '90s, the Britpop phenomenon has seen bands such as Oasis, Blur, Radiohead and Coldplay gain international fame. The UK is also at the forefront of electronica, with British artists such as Aphex Twin, Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawhney and Lamb at the cutting edge. The United Kingdom was also associated with music from the Caribbean, with a large number of Jamaicans and other Caribbean nationals being present in the UK. (see main article: Music of the United Kingdom).
A great number of major sports originated in the United Kingdom, including football, golf, cricket and boxing. 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.
The national sport of the UK is association football, but the UK does not compete as a nation in any major football tournament. Instead the home nations compete individually as England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is because of this unique four-team arrangement that the UK currently does not compete in football events at the Olympic Games. However, as London is the host for the 2012 Olympics Games, a special team from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland will compete for the UK. A similar arrangement applies to Rugby Union, except that a single team represents all of Ireland, although every four years the British and Irish Lions (comprising the best players from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland) tour other countries. (see main article: Sport in the United Kingdom).
- Celtic Frontier or County Boundary? Competing discourses of a late nineteenth century British border
- BBC Nations History of the nations within the UK
- Inconvenient Peripheries Ethnic Identity and the United Kingdom Estate The cases of “Protestant Ulster” and Cornwall’ by prof Philip Payton
- British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
- CIA World Factbook: UK
- Gateway to UK governmental services and websites
- Mercator's Atlas Maps of Cornwall & Wales ("Cornewallia & Wallia"), Ireland ("Irlandia"), Scotland ("Scotia") and England ("Anglia") circa 1564.
- Number 10 Downing Street
- Office of National Statistics
- Office of Public Sector Information Source for all UK legislation 1987-present (successor to Her Majesty's Stationery Office)
- The British Isles Independent view of the UK
- The British Monarchy
- The United Kingdom Parliament
- Official Yearbook of the UK factbook produced by the Office for National Statistics (years 2000 to 2005 available online)
- UK Cities lists a variety of useful resources for every city in the UK
- UK travel guide United Kingdom for travellers
- World66 Guide to United Kingdom A travel guide written by its users.
- www.multimap.co.uk provides online maps and aerial photographs of the UK
- www.streetmap.co.uk alternative to multimap
- www.upmystreet.com detailed localised information about places in the United Kingdom
- UK Parks National parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other protected areas
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