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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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