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United Kingdom

United Kingdom, officially, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known as Great Britain, constitutional monarchy consisting of most of the British Isles located off the northwestern coast of Europe. With a total area of 94,251 sq mi (244,110 sq km), the United Kingdom is entirely surrounded by water, bounded on the east by the North Sea, on the west by the North Atlantic Ocean, and on the south by the English Channel. The island of Great Britain is separated from Northern Ireland, located in the northeast part of the island of Ireland, by the North Channel and the Irish Sea. The Strait of Dover is the narrowest part of the English Channel and is a passage of 21 mi (34 km) between Great Britain and France. In addition to Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the British Isles consists of thousands of smaller islands, including the Shetland Islands, the Orkneys, the Outer Hebrides, the Isle of Man, and the Scilly Islands. The capital is London.

Land and People

Geographically, the island of Great Britain is divisible into 7 distinct zones. The northernmost section of the island is the Scottish Highlands, a mountainous area and the site of Britain's highest mountain, Ben Nevis, 4,400 ft (1,343 m). Most of Scotland's people and its best farmland are in the Central Lowlands, a fertile plain just south of the Highlands. The Southern Uplands are the southernmost part of Scotland. It is hilly country culminating in Cheviot Hills, which separates England from Scotland.

The hilly country continues south of the Cheviot Hills in the Pennines of England, an area that includes England's famous Lake District. Below the Pennines and extending to the Channel are the English Lowlands. It is on this undulating plain that most of England's farms, villages, mines, industries, and major cities are located. West of the Central Lowlands lies Wales, dominated in the north by the Cambrian Mountains and in the south by fertile river valleys. The Bristol Channel separates Wales from the Southwest Peninsula, an uneven plateau that ends in cliffs facing the open seas. Northern Ireland, situated at the northeast end of the island of Ireland, has fertile land somewhat similar to the Central Lowlands of Scotland. Great Britain contains many bays and inlets, several navigable rivers, and numerous lakes. Though Britain is located in a relatively high northern latitude, its climate is comparatively mild, moderated by the influence of the Gulf Stream. In addition, the island gets regular and adequate rainfall.

The people of Great Britain have a mixed ancestry of Celtic peoples and Romans, as well as Germanic, Scandinavian, and Norman peoples. Over the centuries, the population has tended toward a certain homogeneity, but clear distinctions are still discernible and are reinforced by differences in language, religion, and custom. Welsh remains a distinct Celtic language. The native Scots and Irish speak varieties of Gaelic. And even the dominant English language has strong regional variants, though they began to disappear with the advent of television. Since World War II England has also become a racially varied society, thanks to a large influx of immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly from Asia, Africa, and the West Indies. The established church in England is the Church of England, headed by Archbishop of Canterbury. In Scotland, the established church is the Church of Scotland. Both churches are Protestant, but there are sizable minorities of Roman Catholics and Jews.

The United Kingdom is governed as a constitutional monarchy. In modern times, England's monarchs have reigned, but they have not governed. The monarch's role, though almost entirely symbolic, is important to England's social and political system and to the maintenance of the traditions that are the sources of authority. Power resides in the Parliament, a representative body divided into an upper and lower house. Members of the upper house, the House of Lords, hold their seats as privileges attached to rank; they are not elected. Members of the House of Commons must be elected. Effective political power is in the House of Commons. Elections must be held at least once every five years, but are usually held more often, and can be called at any time. After an election, the head of the winning party is designated prime minister and forms a government of ministers from among the most important members of the party. These leading ministers make up the cabinet, or inner council. Although Great Britain has a constitution, it is not in the form of a single written document as it is in the United States. It is made up, in part, of certain documents, like the Magna Carta, and, more loosely, of the vast body of Common Law, but it also consists, to a very large degree, of traditions that have continued over many generations. The British people are at liberty to reconstitute their government at any time. In addition to the monarchy and parliament, the system relies upon an independent judiciary with courts of appeal and judges who are appointed for life. It also relies upon a professional civil service to staff the government's many ministries. British civil servants hold their jobs regardless of the party in power.


Surrounded by water and with limited natural resources, England has long grown accustomed to and made a virtue of looking beyond its own borders for its economic well-being. Though not nearly as rich and powerful as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries, England remains a competitive manufacturing and trading economy. The country does not have enough arable land to meet all its farm needs: Agriculture accounts for just 2% of the gross national product. It has also used up the best of its once-rich coal reserves, though since the mid-1960s it has been self-sufficient in natural gas from the North Sea, and since the late 1970s it has also been self-sufficient in petroleum, also from the North Sea wells.

Trade is critical to the British economy. Britain ranks fifth in the world in foreign trade, after the United States, Germany, Japan, and France, and trades principally in manufactured goods, though one-third of its trade volume is given to food and raw materials. Britain has one of the world's largest merchant marine fleets. The country also continues to be a leading manufacturer, producing steel, automobiles and other vehicles, heavy machinery, appliances, machine tools, products of advanced technology (including jet engines and aircraft for military and civilian use), and electronic equipment. The economy is aided by advanced scientific and technological research at its great universities. Great Britain also supplies markets in the chemical industries, pharmaceuticals, textiles and apparel, and food processing and beverages. Worldwide printing and publishing concerns are headquartered in England.

Government continues to be a strong presence in the British economy, and service industries are the major part of its economy, employing some two-thirds of its work force. The service sector includes education and the health-care system. It also includes wholesale and retail trade and the various institutions that provide financial services, including banks and insurance companies. The financial services industry contributes substantially to Great Britain's economy, and London continues to be one of the world's leading financial centers.


Evidence of Bronze Age civilization in England can be seen in the ruins of Stonehenge, but comparatively little is known about England before the arrival of the Romans in the 1st century B.C. The Romans were followed in the 5th century A.D. by Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who set up petty kingdoms. These in turn were overrun by Vikings, chiefly Danes, in the 9th and 10th centuries. The last successful invasion of England was in 1066, under William the Conqueror, of Normandy. The political and social organization the Normans imposed upon England laid the foundations of customs and traditions that would prove remarkably durable over the centuries and contribute much to the distinctive character of the people. In the 13th century, a group of English barons won concessions from King John set forth in the Magna Carta in 1215, marking an important development in the growth of Britain's unique political institutions. The 14th century was dominated by the Hundred Years War and the final unsuccessful bid by England's monarchs to establish effective control over their French lands and vassals. The 15th century witnessed the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses, dynastic struggles, which led to the rise of the Tudors, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, whose combined reigns embraced the 16th century. Henry VIII embodied the English Renaissance and established England's independence from the papacy by seizing all church properties and establishing the Church of England. Elizabeth presided over the England of William Shakespeare and Sir Francis Drake. England, after destroying the Spanish Armada in 1588, claimed supremacy at sea and began expanding its overseas colonies and markets, an expansion that was to lead to a great empire. This was after nearly a century of civil and religious warfare centered upon the throne and, in particular, the Stuarts. The issue was finally put to rest with the Glorious Revolution and the accession of William III and Mary II in 1689, but only after bitter fighting and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, leader of the Puritans. It was in the course of the conflicts of the 17th century that Parliament rose to prominence as a governing institution and the groundwork was laid for the governance of England in modern times. Modern Great Britain, with sovereignty residing in Parliament, was born with the Act of Union of 1707, which joined the formerly separate kingdoms of England and Scotland to form the United Kingdom. Through the laws of succession, the heirs to the British throne in the 18th century were German and this, as well as George III's disastrous policy leading to the loss of the American colonies, contributed to the reduction of the monarch to a symbolic head of state. Sovereignty resided in Parliament and the official leader of the government became the prime minister.

In the 18th century, Great Britain increased its power tremendously by using both the raw materials and markets of its growing empire to fuel the Industrial Revolution. Using modern technology, especially the steam engine, to build the first modern industries and turning its populace from agricultural work to industrial labor, Great Britain rapidly increased its wealth and power. At the end of the century, Great Britain faced a determined adversary in Napoleon Bonaparte of France. Defeated first at sea by Admiral Nelson in 1805 and on land by Lord Wellington at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon, in fact, marked Britain's passage to world dominance. The 19th century also saw England's attempt to resolve the centuries' old hostilities with the Irish with the Act of Union of 1800, which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The 19th century was a period of political conflict and reform occasioned by Great Britain's wealth and power. There were bitter debates in Parliament over laws to ameliorate the harsh conditions in factories, and equally bitter disputes over the Corn Laws and the franchise. These debates would lay the foundations for the political parties that would dominate British politics throughout the 20th century, with the Whigs representing Liberal policies and the Tories conservative policies. These differences developed at the height of Britain's empire under Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901 and the rival views of politics were embodied in her two brilliant prime ministers, Benjamin Disraeli, the conservative, and William Gladstone, the liberal. By the time of Queen Victoria's death, the British empire consisted of about one-quarter of the world.

The 20th century proved much harder on England's fortunes. Great Britain entered World War I in 1914 against its economic rival, Germany. Great Britain helped win the war but lost 750,000 men in the fighting and did not adequately recover economically. The Irish problem continued to vex England, and in 1921 the British agreed to the independence of southern Ireland, but retained Northern Ireland. The worldwide depression hit England hard, and the 1930s saw the rise of fascism and the Nazis. Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasing Hitler proved disastrous, and, led by Winston Churchill, England resisted Nazi ambitions. The English not only defended their own country, but in union with the United States and other allies, they destroyed the Nazis. England lost 360,000 men in World War II and its economy was in decline. In 1945, the Labour Party acceded to power and established England's welfare state with unemployment benefits, a comprehensive program of national health insurance, and the nationalization of key industries. The changes were dramatic, but the economy continued to lag. The same period saw the beginning of the breakup of Britain's empire. In 1947, India and Pakistan became independent, then in succession, one foreign policy and possession after another asserted its independence in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

In the 1950s Great Britain decided not to join the European Coal and Steel Community, nor would it join the European Economic Community, the Common Market. These proved costly decisions. The British economy expanded for a time but began to contract in the 1960s, and in 1963 and 1967 bids by Britain to gain admission to the Common Market were rejected, principally by France. Britain finally succeeded in joining the EEC in 1973, in the grip of the deepest economic downturn in the postwar years. In addition, the conflict in Northern Ireland turned violent. In May 1979 the Conservative Party, led by Margaret Thatcher, the first woman prime minister, came to power. The Conservatives drastically reduced government holdings, curbed the power of the unions, and strove to increase investment, all with some positive results. But after 11 years as prime minister, Mrs. Thatcher resigned in Nov. 1990 after losing Conservative Party leadership over her opposition to England's participation in European economic union, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the economy continued to be the major issue and challenge confronting England. Thatcher was succeeded by John Major as Conservative leader and prime minister. In 1997 the Constervative Party was defeated by Labour, led by Tony Blair. Blair contributed to the popularization of the British royal family, after Princess Diana's death.


Additional topics

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