The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a country in western Europe, and a member of the 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 often considered countries or nations in their own right. The fourth is Northern Ireland and its border with the Republic of Ireland is the current limit of UK sovereignty in the island of Ireland. Some groups in Cornwall also contend that Cornwall should be considered as a nation of the UK not a county of England.
The UK was formed by a series of Acts of Union which united the countries or territories of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland (the island) 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, and is today the Republic of Ireland, whilst the north-eastern portion of the island, Northern Ireland, remains part of the United Kingdom.
The UK is situated off the north-western coast of continental Europe. The country has a land border with the Republic of Ireland but is otherwise surrounded by the North Sea, the English Channel, 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 as shorthand for the United Kingdom regularly use "Britain". The term "Great" is used in opposition to "Little" Britain or Brittany in France (the '-ny' ending being diminutive).
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 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Ireland because it was sometimes understood internationally to mean "the islands belonging to Britain", a description out of date in the Irish case since 1922.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) is sometimes used.
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: 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 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). As with the 1707 union, an unrepresentative parliament was bribed and coerced to vote itself out of existence. 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 European nation.
The UK is currently weighing the degree of its integration with continental Europe. A member of the European Union, it has not 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. (http://www.mori.com/mrr/2000/c000616.shtml). 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 (fewer than 20) 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 his Cabinet. The cabinet is theoretically a committee of the Privy Council, the ancient council that officially advises the monarch. Executive power is vested in the monarch 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 the Crown are chosen largely from among Members of Parliament (members of the Commons). A small number are chosen from the appointed upper house, the House of Lords.
The British system of government has been emulated around the world because of the UK's colonial legacy. Nations that follow British-style parliamentarism, with an executive chosen from, and answerable to, the legislature, are said to operate under the Westminster system. This system of government is generally very stable and creates strong government.
Head of state
The UK's current monarch and head of state is Queen Elizabeth II who acceded to the throne in 1952 and was crowned in 1953. In modern Britain, the monarch's role is mainly though not exclusively ceremonial. She 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.
The United Kingdom monarch also reigns in 15 other sovereign countries that are known as Commonwealth Realms. Although Britain 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.
Head of government
In day to day politics real executive political power is exercised by the Prime Minister and cabinet. The Prime Minister is usually the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons and is commissioned to form a government by the monarch based on his or her ability to command the support of parliament. The current prime minister is Tony Blair of the Labour Party.
Parliament is bicameral, composed of the 659-member elected House of Commons and the appointed House of Lords. 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 powers of the hereditary peers - only 92 out of several hundred retain the right to sit in the House of Lords, 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. 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.
The official name
In the UK, some other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous (regional) languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. These languages are Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, Cornish, Lowland Scots and Ulster Scots. In each of these, the UK's official name is as follows:
- Teyrnas Unedig Prydain Fawr a Gogledd Iwerddon (Welsh)
- An Rìoghachd Aonaichte na Breatainn Mhòr agus Eirinn a Tuath (Scottish Gaelic)
- Ríocht Aontaithe na Breataine Móire agus Thuaisceart Éireann (Irish Gaelic)
- An Rywvaneth Unys a Vreten Veur hag Iwerdhon Glédh (Cornish)
- Unitit Kinrick o Great Breetain an Northren Ireland (Lowland Scots)
Main article: Subdivisions of the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is made up of the home nations, four constituent "parts": the nations of England, Scotland, and Wales, and Northern Ireland. These are in turn made up of the following subdivisions:
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.
See also: City status in the United Kingdom, Towns of the United Kingdom, and Local government in the United Kingdom
Map of the United Kingdom
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 (or Lincolnshire Wolds) 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, Sheffield, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, Nottingham 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. Main and capital city is Cardiff, located in the south of 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, as is the uninhabited islet of Rockall, although this claim is disputed. Main cities are Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.
Northern Ireland, making up the north-eastern part of Ireland, is mostly hilly. The main cities are Belfast and Derry.
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, one of the largest of Western Europe. 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 while industry continues to decline in importance. 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 Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday and Paul Dirac.
Many believe that a great number of major sports originated in different areas of what is now the United Kingdom, including Association football (soccer), golf, cricket, boxing, rugby, lawn tennis and billiards. 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.
Playwright William Shakespeare is arguably the most famous writer in the world; 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, Thomas Hardy 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, Edward Elgar, Arthur Sullivan (most famous for working with librettist W. S. Gilbert), Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin 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, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and many others. The UK was at the forefront of punk 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 Motorhead 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