The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a state in western Europe, usually known simply as the United Kingdom, the UK, or, inaccurately, as Britain or Great Britain. The UK was formed by a series of Acts of Union which united the formerly distinct nations of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland under a single government in London. The greater part of Ireland left the United Kingdom (then formally 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, surrounded by the North Sea, the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. Also under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, though not part of the United Kingdom itself, are the Crown dependencies of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man and a number of overseas territories.
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 refers to an archipelago of islands including Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Isle of Wight, Orkney, the Hebrides, Shetland Isles, Channel Islands and others. The term is unpopular in Ireland.
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. 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 1603, to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, 26 of the counties of Ireland including three Ulster counties, namely Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal were formed into the Irish Free State (the other six Ulster counties remaining part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland) and the state became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the name being officially changed in 1927.
The United Kingdom, the dominant industrial and maritime power of the 19th century, played a leading role in developing parliamentary democracy and in advancing 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 EU, it has not chosen to adopt the euro, owing to internal political considerations. Constitutional reform is also a current issue in the UK. The House of Lords has been subjected to ongoing reforms, Scotland's parliament reconvened in 1999 and in the same year, national assemblies were created in Wales and Northern Ireland. Local assemblies for the English regions are also under consideration. 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.
The United Kingdom is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations (successor organisation to the former Empire), the European Union and NATO. It is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council and holds a veto power. It is one of only seven acknowledged 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 invested in an elected government headed by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. The government's actions are carried out in the name of the monarch and are accountable to Parliament. The British electorate therefore control the actions of the government indirectly through elections of Members of Parliament.
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 ceremonial, with the UK's real political power being delegated to the Prime Minister by Parliament. The Prime Minister is the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons, currently 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 the office 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. However, recent devolution has begun to change this. In 1999, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales were established, the former having primary legislative power. Northern Ireland was also granted a self-governing Assembly as part of the Good Friday Agreement, but it is currently suspended.
The British system of government has been emulated around the world because of the UK's colonial legacy. Nations that follow British-style parliamentarism are said to operate under the Westminster system. This system of government is generally very stable and creates strong government, with normally only one party in power at a time.
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)
Map of the United Kingdom
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 the province of 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 home nations have historically been divided into counties, England's population is an order of magnitude larger than its sisters'; 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.
There are also a number of different dependencies belonging to the United Kingdom, see Crown colony.
The Isle of Man and Channel Islands are not legally part of the United Kingdom; they are British crown dependencies, though the United Kingdom is responsible for their external affairs.
The monarchy of the United Kingdom is symbolically shared with 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.
See also: City status in the United Kingdom, Towns of the United Kingdom, and Local government in 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 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 and Newcastle upon Tyne. Near Dover, the Channel Tunnel links the United Kingdom with France.
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. 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. 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 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 and Charles Darwin.
Many believe that a great number of major sports originated in the United Kingdom, including: association football (soccer), golf, cricket, boxing, rugby, and billiards .
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, and Charles Dickens. Important poets include Lord Byron, Robert Burns, and Thomas Hardy.
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. (see main article: Music of the United Kingdom).
Main article: list of United Kingdom-related topics
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