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The Commonwealth
United Kingdom



Did you know:

Queen Elizabeth II is Head of the Commonwealth and head of state of 16 Commonwealth countries.

The UK hosts in London the HQ of the Commonwealth Secretariat, Commonwealth Foundation, Association of Commonwealth Universities, Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, Commonwealth Games Federation, Commonwealth Local Government Forum and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

Scholarships and fellowships are awarded by the United Kingdom to citizens of other Commonwealth countries under the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan.

Three Britons have won the overall Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and four the Best First Book award.

Key facts

Population: 63,136,000 (2013)
GDP: 1.5% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: World ranking 14
Official language: English
Timezone: GMT plus 0–1hr
Currency: pound sterling (£)


Area: 243,305 sq km – England 130,395; Scotland 78,313; Wales 20,754; Northern Ireland 13,843.
Coastline: 12,400km
Capital city: London
Population density (per sq. km): 259

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) consists of a group of islands off the western coast of Europe. The largest, Great Britain, comprises three countries: England, Scotland and Wales. Ireland, to the west, consists of the UK’s province of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. There are several offshore islands and island groups, the largest lying off Scotland.

The UK is a union of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Crown dependencies (the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man) are largely self-governing with the UK responsible for their defence and international relations and are not part of the United Kingdom.

Main towns:

London (capital, England, pop. 8.25m in 2011), Birmingham (England, 1.08m), Glasgow (Scotland, 590,507), Liverpool (England, 552,267), Bristol (England, 535,907), Sheffield (England, 518,090), Manchester (England, 510,746), Leeds (England, 474,632), Edinburgh (Scotland, 459,366), Leicester (England, 443,760), Bradford (England, 349,561), Cardiff (Wales, 335,145), Coventry (England, 325,349), Nottingham (England, 289,301), Kingston upon Hull (England, 284,321), Belfast (Northern Ireland, 280,561), Stoke-on-Trent (England, 270,726), Newcastle-upon-Tyne (England, 268,064), Southampton (England, 253,651), Portsmouth (England, 238,137), Plymouth (England, 234,982), Derby (England, 225,394), Wolverhampton (England, 210,319), Aberdeen (Scotland, 195,021), Norwich (England, 186,682), Swansea (Wales, 179,485), Oxford (England, 159,994) and Cambridge (England, 145,818).


There are 419,630 km of roads, 100 per cent paved; motorways account for some 3,500 km. At least 70 per cent of households own one or more cars, 27 per cent owning two or more.

The world’s first passenger steam railway (the Stockton and Darlington Railway) began operation in Britain in 1825. The system was nationalised in 1948 and privatisation was completed in 1997, though Railtrack, the company that managed the railway infrastructure, reverted to public ownership in 2001, as Network Rail. There are 31,471 km of railway.

The Channel Tunnel was opened to traffic in 1994. It operates a fast undersea train shuttle between Folkestone in England and Calais in France, carrying cars, freight and passengers, linking London with Paris and Brussels. There are underground railway systems in London (‘the tube’) and Glasgow. Liverpool has a metro- like system. Several light rail systems were built during the 1990s, including the Docklands Light Railway, Tyne and Wear Metro, Manchester Metrolink, South Yorkshire Supertram, the Midland Metro and the Croydon Tramlink.

There are about 100 commercially significant ports and several hundred small harbours. The main ports are London, Dover, Tees and Hartlepool, Grimsby and Immingham, Southampton, Liverpool and Felixstowe. Forth, Sullom Voe (Shetland) and Milford Haven mostly handle oil.

London’s international airports are Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and City Airport. Other major international airports are Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. There are more than 150 civil aerodromes.

International relations:

United Kingdom is a member of the Council of Europe, European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, United Nations and World Trade Organization.


The UK is just under 1,000 km long and just under 500 km across at the widest point. The country is low-lying in the east of England, with mountains in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Pennine chain forms a ridge down northern England. The Cambrian Mountains stretch across Wales, with Snowdon in the north-west rising to 1,085 metres. Northern Ireland has the Sperrin, Antrim and Mourne Mountains. Scotland has almost 300 peaks over 913 metres and Ben Nevis in the Grampian range rises to 1,343 metres. The Scottish Orkney and Shetland islands in the north and Hebrides in the north-west are mountainous and fiorded island chains. The UK is well-watered, with navigable rivers including the Thames, Severn, Trent, Mersey and Tyne. There are many lakes, especially in the north-west (the Lake District) and in Scotland and Northern Ireland (known respectively as lochs or loughs).


The climate is mild, cool-temperate and oceanic. Rainfall is generally heaviest between September and January. Air currents across the Atlantic are warmed by the Gulf Stream and make the rainfall unpredictable but also give the country a warmer climate than usual for its latitude. The northerly latitude gives long days in summer and long nights in winter.


The most significant environmental issues are: continuing reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in line with Kyoto Protocol commitments; air pollution mainly by motor vehicles; and the need to recycle a progressively larger proportion of solid waste.


The original natural vegetation consisted largely of forest, but 76 per cent of the land area is now cultivated farmland or pasture. There is moorland in Yorkshire (northern England), the south-west and Scotland. Forest areas have doubled since 1919 and represent 12 per cent of the land area, having increased at 0.5 per cent p.a. 1990–2010. Fifteen national parks in England, Wales and Scotland, regional parks and various designated areas help to protect the environment. Arable land comprises 26 per cent of the total land area.


About 30,000 animal species are found in the UK. Indigenous wildlife originally included bears and wolves, but human settlement has long rendered these extinct. Surviving larger mammals include deer, otters, badgers and foxes; marshland areas support waders and other birds, and there are many migrants. Conservation schemes protect numerous species and important habitats. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 extended the list of protected species, and three conservation agencies (English Nature, the Countryside Council for Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage) have schemes to recover and reintroduce threatened species. Five mammal species and four bird species are thought to be endangered (2014).


Stone circles like Avebury and Stonehenge are evidence of prehistoric cultures, especially notable in the milder south of England where ancient sites abound. Julius Caesar led token Roman expeditions into Britain in 55 and 54 BCE. Roman colonisation began 80 years later, lasting from CE 43 to about 409. Scotland resisted occupation for most of the period.

After the departure of the Romans, Angles, Saxons and Jutes from northern Europe settled, the Angles giving their name to England. Several large kingdoms emerged: Northumbria in the north, Mercia in the midlands and Wessex in the south. Vikings from Scandinavia made incursions from the eighth century and settled widely in the north and east. Ireland was dominated by the Vikings during the tenth century. In 1066 England was invaded and conquered by the Norman duke William of Normandy (France).

In 1169 Henry II of England authorised an invasion of Ireland, following which a large part of the country came under the control of Anglo-Norman magnates. Wales came under English rule during the 13th century, during the reign of Edward I; but the continuing strength of Welsh national feeling was shown by a rising at the beginning of the 15th century.

Christianity spread in the sixth to seventh centuries. Much of Britain shifted from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism in the 16th century. England retained an Episcopalian church (governed by bishops), while Scotland embraced a Presbyterian system.

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne, so uniting the two Crowns. However, England and Scotland remained separate political entities during that century, apart from an enforced period of unification under Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s. In 1707 both countries agreed on a single parliament for Great Britain.

Several campaigns were waged against Irish insurgents during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603). The northern province of Ulster resisted English rule particularly strongly; following defeat of the rebels, Ulster was settled by immigrants from Scotland and England. Further risings were crushed by Oliver Cromwell. An uneasy peace prevailed throughout most of the 18th century. In 1782 the Irish Parliament was given legislative independence and in 1801 Ireland was joined to Great Britain by an Act of Union.

England has ousted its monarch on more than one occasion. During England’s civil wars (1642–51), triggered by clashes between king and parliament, Charles I was executed and a republic briefly instated under Oliver and later Richard Cromwell (1649–60). In 1688 a bloodless ‘revolution’ took place, and James II was replaced by William and Mary.

Britain transformed itself from an agrarian to an industrial society from the 1760s to 1830s, the world’s first industrial revolution. The country also developed a powerful navy and merchant fleet. It was the first nation to have a political anti-slavery movement, which led the government to ban the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1833–34.

In the 19th century, wealthy and industrialised, Britain became the major world power with an empire that included colonies on every continent. However, the 20th century reversed much of this. Two world wars, failure to keep pace with industrial advance, a severe brain drain and the independence of Commonwealth countries reduced Britain’s position on the world stage. But it remains a leading liberal democracy, with art and literature, intellectual freedoms and parliamentary traditions of lasting influence.

Through the 1960s and 70s, the government switched between the Labour and Conservative parties. The general election of 1979, following the ‘winter of discontent’ of continual strikes and industrial unrest, gave a large majority for the then relatively unknown Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher and began a long period of Conservative government.

Thatcher implemented a radical programme of economic liberalisation, privatisation, trade union reform and reduction of public expenditure. She won the two succeeding elections until she resigned in 1990 following a Tory leadership contest. She was replaced by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Major, who won the April 1992 elections, with a smaller but still substantial majority.

During this period, leadership of the opposition changed hands. Neil Kinnock, Labour Party leader since October 1983 who had driven through modernisation of the party, resigned after losing the 1992 elections, and was succeeded by John Smith, whose unexpected death in 1994 led to another leadership election, won by Tony Blair, who sought to modernise the party. Under the banner of ‘New Labour’, his reform of the party resulted in the jettisoning of traditional socialist policies.

Led by Blair, Labour won the May 1997 elections with the largest majority in its history – 418 seats, against 165 Conservatives, 46 Liberal Democrats and 30 others (mainly representing nationalist interests in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Blair became Prime Minister. John Major resigned as Conservative leader and was replaced by the former Welsh Secretary, William Hague.

In the general election in June 2001 – 11 months before the full five-year term – in a record low turnout, the Labour Party won a decisive victory with 413 seats and 41 per cent of the votes; the Conservatives took 166 seats (32 per cent) and the Liberal Democrats 52 (18 per cent). Hague resigned as Conservative leader and was replaced by the former shadow defence secretary, Iain Duncan Smith. Then, in November 2003, following a no- confidence vote of Conservative MPs, he, in turn, was succeeded by shadow chancellor of the exchequer, Michael Howard.

Immediately after the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001, the UK lent its total support to the US Government in building a broad coalition to fight international terrorism, then in military operations in Afghanistan from October 2001 and Iraq, from invasion in March 2003 to withdrawal of the last British troops in May 2011.

Constitutional development

England has had a single crown since the tenth century and a parliament since the 13th century. The constitution evolved through the struggle for power between them. Early parliaments – the term is first recorded in 1236 – were called to meet the king’s expenses of government. Those who were summoned by name in due course formed the House of Lords; others who represented communities became the House of Commons. Individual freedoms, such as protection against unlawful imprisonment, were protected by the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. By the early 18th century real power was passing from the monarch to parliament, and parliament developed a two-party system. From 1832, the vote, initially held by the land-owning classes only, was gradually extended until universal male suffrage was achieved in 1918. In 1928 the vote was extended to women and in 1969 the minimum voting age was reduced from 21 to 18.

The modern Conservative Party evolved out of the 18th-century Tory party and the Liberal Democrats out of the Whig party. The Labour Party, representing working people, emerged at the end of the 19th century.

Referendums over the introduction of a certain level of self- government were held in September 1997. The Scottish referendum produced a strong majority for a separate parliament (74 per cent) with limited tax-raising powers (63 per cent majority) on a turnout of over 60 per cent. In Wales, the result was a narrow majority of 50.3 per cent, on a turnout of 50 per cent, for a Welsh Assembly.

The first elections to the new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly were held on 6 May 1999. Labour emerged as the largest party in both legislatures, although without an overall majority in either. The elections were the first to be held in Great Britain under a system of proportional representation. In the 2007 elections the Scottish National Party (SNP) became the largest party in the Scottish Parliament. Then in 2011 it gained a majority and formed an SNP government, promising a referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom during its term of office.

Northern Ireland

The deep divisions in Northern Irish society, dating from the time of the Irish independence struggle at the beginning of the 20th century, were exposed in an upsurge of violent conflict in the 1970s, which lasted into the 1990s. Most Protestants, who constitute the majority (50.6 per cent in the 1991 census), are Unionists who want to remain British; many Roman Catholics (38.4 per cent) are Nationalists or Republicans, who favour unity with the Irish Republic. Thirty years of unrest led to some 3,500 killings and 36,000 injuries.

The Anglo–Irish Agreement of 1985 recognised, for the first time, Ireland’s right to have a consultative role on Northern Ireland. When in August 1994 the Irish Republican Army (IRA) announced a ceasefire, its political wing, Sinn Fein, joined the multiparty talks. A continuing issue in all subsequent talks was that of IRA disarmament. Mediator US Senator George Mitchell broke the initial deadlock by recommending in January 1996 that disarmament should proceed by stages in parallel with the talks. However, in February the IRA resumed hostilities, and when talks formally began in June 1996, Sinn Fein was not included until the ceasefire was resumed and talks with all major parties were under way in October 1997. This resulted in the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998, which constituted an elected assembly, a power-sharing executive of all major parties with devolved powers and cross-border institutions.

In return for a share of political powers for the Roman Catholic minority and for an involvement in Northern affairs for the Irish, Ireland was to relinquish the goal – enshrined in its constitution – of a united Ireland unless and until it is proved by vote to be the wish of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. The Agreement was approved by the peoples of Ireland and Northern Ireland in May 1998 and the 108 members of the new assembly were elected in June 1998. However, formation of the cabinet was delayed by the IRA refusing to disarm; it was finally formed in December 1999 when the Ulster Unionists accepted a new deadline for the IRA to disarm in January 2000 after the government was formed.

A series of allegations of IRA paramilitary activity – culminating in the arrest of people accused of intelligence gathering inside the Northern Ireland Office – led in October 2002 to the resignation of Unionist ministers, and the suspension of the assembly and resumption of direct rule by the UK Government. Power-sharing under the Good Friday Agreement was resumed in May 2007, with Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as First Minister and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein as Deputy First Minister, the Ulster Unionists having been overtaken by DUP in both UK elections of May 2005 and Northern Ireland elections of March 2007.

European relations

The UK joined the EU (then the European Economic Community) in January 1973. Some aspects of EU membership have been a source of contention within the country’s economic, political and social spheres. Critical issues include possible adoption of the euro currency; the embracing of a policy enabling free movement of workers to the UK from EU member states, particularly those in the eastern parts of Europe; and the ratifying of EU treaties that bring about further economic and political integration – for instance, the Treaty of Lisbon of 2007.

The first referendum on whether the country should continue to be a member of the EU was held in 1975 after a Labour government had been re-elected. More than 67 per cent of those who voted supported the motion. After a Conservative government was elected in May 2015 a second referendum on the same question was to be held before the end of 2017, following negotiations with the other member states on reform of the EU.

History of Great Britain

Who are the British People - Ancient British History

Learn more about the United Kingdom on The Commonwealth site Society, Economy, Constitution & politics, History and Travel.

See for an indepth history of Scotland and the Scots Irish. Also under the Scots Diaspora section you'll find histories of England and Wales.

London (United Kingdom) Vacation Travel Video Guide

Tourism in the United Kingdom

England Tourism & Vacations 2017

Scotland Vacation Travel Video Guide

Wales: Where the World Meets

Belfast and the Best of Northern Ireland

Business in the Commonwealth
Web site of the Country

Return to our Commonwealth Page


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