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The United Kingdom (UK) of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a sovereign state that occupies a number of large and small islands off the west coast of the continent of Europe. The state consists of a political union of four countries, three on the island of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and one that occupies the northern part of the island of Ireland (Northern Ireland).
The state is a constitutional monarchy, in which the monarch acts as head of state for a number of affiliated territories, including the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, and for the 15 Commonwealth states that are the remnants of the world’s largest empire. The UK was the home of the industrial revolution in the 18th century and remains one of the world’s major industrial powers. Political influence is maintained through membership in the Group of Eight (G8) and a permanent seat on the United Nations (UN) Security Council.
The union of these four countries developed over a period of 700 years, beginning with the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 which brought Wales under the control of the English monarchy. This relationship was formalized in 1535 with the Laws in Wales Act which made Wales subject to acts of the English parliament. In 1603, the failure of Elizabeth I to provide an heir for the English throne led to the accession of King James VI of Scotland and the union of the monarchies of England and Scotland. The Act of Union of 1707 suspended the Scottish parliament and led to the creation of a single unified parliament at Westminster. The Act of Union of 1801 achieved the same end for Ireland; however, this union lasted for only a little over 100 years and in 1922, the southern portion of the island of Ireland achieved independence as the Irish Free State and resulted in the change to the current name in 1927.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, the UK was one of the countries in Europe best positioned to take advantage of the innovations in navigation and exploration that opened up the New World to European exploitation. Unlike many European countries, colonization by the UK was not primarily driven by the crown but by independently financed merchant companies. This private entrepreneurship led to an explosion in private wealth that in turn was available as investment capital when the industrial revolution began in the 18th century. Colonization also provided raw materials and a critical mass of middle-class merchants who were accustomed to taking risks, and who formed the UK’s entrepreneurial class.
The advantages of early industrialization and an expanding global empire to provide raw materials made the UK the first true world superpower in the 19th century. At its greatest extent the British Empire covered one quarter of the land surface of the earth and contained one third of the world’s population. However, by the middle of the 20th century challenges from new powers such as Germany, Russia, and the United States, together with the physical and financial devastation of two World Wars led to the dismantling of the empire and the diminishing of the UK’s industrial power. By the 1960s, the financial and political weakening was sufficient to persuade the UK to apply for membership in the newly formed European Economic Community. Membership was achieved in 1972 and while British membership in the European Union (EU) has never been overwhelmingly popular in the country, the current Labor government has created a much more positive working relationship with Brussels than the Conservative administration that was in power throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s.
The primary lowlands of the United Kingdom are in the midlands and south of England, with narrow lowland belts in central Scotland and along the south coast of Wales. The flattest land is in the Fens of eastern England, where land has been reclaimed from the marshes for agriculture since Roman times. The south coast and much of the midlands and southwest of England are covered with low hills that occasionally become a line of defined hills, such as the Cotswolds or the Chalk Downs. The primary highland areas of England are the limestone hills of the Peak District and the Cumbrian mountains of the Lake District, with the highest mountain in England (Scafell Peak at 978 meters) falling just short of 1,000 meters. Much Welsh terrain is very mountainous, especially in the north which contains Mount Snowden (1,085 meters). Scotland has the highest terrain in the UK, including the highest peak, Ben Nevis (1,344 meters) and is almost entirely mountainous to the north and west of the Highland Line.
The largest body of open water in the UK is Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland, and there are relatively few major rivers, with all major ports now located on estuaries. The primary rivers are the Thames, the Severn, and the Humber in England and the Clyde and Forth in Scotland. The UK’s other notable geographic feature is the large number of islands that surround the coast particularly in the north and west, where Scotland’s major island groups, the Shetlands, the Orkneys, and the Inner and Outer Hebrides, contain over 700 islands.
Located on the western edge of Europe, the UK has a marine west coast climate with high rainfall, particularly in the winter along the west coast. The moderating influence of the Atlantic and prevailing westerly winds leads to moderate temperatures, with winter highs averaging in the mid single digits (C) and summer highs around 15-20 degrees C.
Population and Culture
The current population of the UK is 60.6 million people, with the highest population densities in the south of England. England makes up the largest and fastest growing component of the UK population with a little over 50 million people. Scotland has a population of five million, which has remained static over the past 100 years, and the populations of Wales (3 million) and Northern Ireland (1.6 million) exhibit alternating patterns of very slow growth and stagnation depending on economic and political conditions.
While out-migration to the colonies drew off excess population during the industrial revolution, the UK has generally been subject to net immigration. From the 1950s through the 1980s, the primary origin of migrants was former colonies, particularly India, Pakistan, the West Indies and East Africa. Since the UK’s admission to the EU, however, Europe has become the major source for immigrants (as well as becoming the main destination for British migrants).
The UK does not have an official language, although English is spoken by virtually the entire population and is the main language of government, the media and education. The other indigenous languages are the Celtic languages of Wales, Southwest England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man (Welsh, Cornish, Scots, Irish, and Manx Gaelic). Relatively small percentages of the population speak these languages but recent government support has ensured that both media and education resources are available in the regions in which they are most prevalent. The influx of migrants from a variety of former colonies has also meant that the UK now has the largest number of Punjabi and Hindi speakers outside of Asia, and Gujerati, Bengali, and Cantonese are also commonly spoken in cities with large ethnic communities.
While the UK has several established churches including the Church of England (Anglican) and Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), the UK currently has one of the lowest rates of church membership and attendance in the world. The Catholic Church is the second largest denomination, and there is a Jewish community that dates to the 17th century. The recent immigrants have diversified the religious community, and the UK is now home to the largest Hindu community in Europe, with growing numbers of Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists.
The UK is also noted for its cultural achievements, most particularly in the realms of literature, science, and education. The UK has some of the oldest universities in Europe including Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and St. Andrews. In 2006 the UK was reported as the second most prolific source of research in the world (after the United States) with nine percent of the world’s scientific research papers.
Economy and Politics
As the first country to enter the Industrial Revolution, the UK dominated production and trade in textiles, heavy engineering, and iron and steel in the 19th century; however, as other countries industrialized and competition increased for labor and raw materials the UK lost its advantage and deindustrialized rapidly. Services made up 80 percent of the economy in 2004; the service sector is dominated by finance, particularly insurance, banking, and stock trading and is concentrated in the southeast of England. Tourism is also a significant contributor to the economy and the UK is the world’s sixth largest tourist destination. The UK has one of the most efficient agricultural sectors in Europe, with two percent of the labor force producing over 60 percent of all food consumption needs. The UK is also unusual in having a large energy sector, with coal, natural gas, and oil accounting for over 10 percent of GNP.
The UK is a constitutional monarchy with executive power residing in the prime minster and the cabinet acting on behalf of the monarch. Legislative power resides in the Houses of Parliament which consist of a virtually powerless unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons, which is made up of 646 elected representatives. After each election (which must occur at least once within each five-year period) the largest party forms a government, and the leader of that party becomes prime minister. Power transfer occurs immediately after an election and the date of the next election is at the discretion of the government in power. The UK is unusual in that it does not have a written constitution, but relies instead on “custom” and separate acts of constitutional law.
Throughout the 20th century, the two primary political parties in the UK have been the Labor and Conservative parties, but recently there has been a rise in minor parties, in particular the Liberal Democrats, and nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. The influence of these parties contributed to the development of separate regional legislatures for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in recent years.
- Central Intelligence Agency, “United Kingdom,” World Factbook, www.cia.gov;
- Huw Thomas, Race and Planning: The UK Experience (Routledge, 2000);
- World Bank, “United Kingdom,” worldbank.org.