The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (94,526 square miles, population 60,975,000, GDP $2.23 trillion in 2007) is an industrialized country of islands off the northwest coast of the European continent, consisting of four constituent countries: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. National administrative offices exist in all four countries, but are principally based in London, England. Its 14 overseas territories are the remnants of the British Empire, the largest empire in history, and the British head of state—presently Queen Elizabeth II (b. April 21, 1926)—presides over the Commonwealth of Nations as she does over the United Kingdom (UK) itself.
Terminology And Distinctions
There is a tendency to conflate nonsynonymous terms in relation to the United Kingdom and the British Isles. There are both geographical and political distinctions to make.
Great Britain refers to the largest island in the archipelago, on which are located the countries of England, Scotland, and Wales. Ireland is the second largest island, off the west coast of Great Britain. Britain is a political-cultural term used for the United Kingdom, which includes Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The British Isles include all the islands in the archipelago, and thus encompasses southern Ireland, the sovereign nation sometimes called the Republic of Ireland or Eire.
Citizens of the UK are thus British, but more likely to refer to themselves as English, Welsh, Irish, or Scots. Non-English British citizens may sometimes be referred to by foreigners as English, and may find the conflation insulting or simply bewildering, as those in the American South feel when all Americans are grouped together as “Yankees.”
Other islands within the United Kingdom include the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands (Guernsey and Jersey). These are Crown dependencies—nations over which the British monarch rules as head of state, but with their own heads of government handling the business of governance.
The Commonwealth of Nations consists of 53 sovereign states in a nonpolitical union, most of which were once part of the British Empire. Of those states, 16 are Commonwealth realms—those nations in which the British monarch is the head of state, often in a purely titular and honorary capacity: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and the United Kingdom. The remaining members are Bangladesh, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Cyprus, Dominica, Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, India, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, Nigeria, Pakistan, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, Vanuatu, and Zambia. The scope of the Commonwealth gives an indication as to the overwhelming size and ethnic and cultural heterogeneity of the British Empire at its peak.
Though the British Isles are considered part of the continent of Europe, the British will usually refer to “Europe” or “the Continent” to mean the mainland only, to distinguish it from Britain; “Europe” sometimes also designates the European Union, especially as an object of derision.
Inhabited since prehistoric times, the history of the British Isles was marked by a series of invasions and settlements by various groups from the Continent. The Roman Empire controlled the isles for four centuries, ending in 410, and the Latin name for the lands—Brittania—is still used to poetic ends. The Roman occupation brought Britain up to speed with the continent in the areas of agriculture, industry, and urbanization, and strengthened trade ties that remained when Rome did not. The Anglo-Saxon period followed, named for the invading Germanic tribes. The English language is descended from a mixture of their Germanic dialects with a strong Latin influence, and is one of the few major languages of western Europe that falls outside the Latin-derived Romance group; indeed, much of the Romance influence in English comes from dictionaries and grammar texts written in the 18th century with an eye toward “sophisticating” the language by making it more like French.
The first injection of French into the English language, though, came with the Norman Conquest of 1066, which removed the Anglo-Saxon rulers from power, replacing them with a French-born aristocracy. A long rivalry with France began, and a lovehate relationship with its culture and language (with some British patriots to this day pronouncing the “t” in “buffet” as a show of support for the Crown). They remained rivals during the age of exploration, as both nations carved out pieces of North America. The political unit of the United Kingdom originated in 1707, formalizing the union of Scotland and England that had begun 100 years earlier, when James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth I of England to become James I, King of England. The 1707 treaty created the Kingdom of Great Britain, unified under a single parliament, a single monarch, a single constitution. The union was pivotal in strengthening the country for the massive expansions of its empire that followed over the next two centuries.
After the Seven Years War (1756–63), Britain became the world’s dominant superpower, and arguably the most dominant such power since the fall of Rome. Winston Churchill later described the war as “the first world war,” and the scope was indeed extraordinary. All the major powers of Europe were involved: Britain and its colonies, Prussia, Portugal, and the Electorate of Brunswick-Luneburg allied against Austria, Russia, France and its colonies, Sweden, Spain, and Saxony. The war began with Prussia’s invasion of Saxony, and in a larger sense was precipitated by the rapid growth of the colonial powers and a thirst for dwindling resources.
Battles were fought in Europe, India, the Caribbean, the Philippines, Africa, and North America; the North American campaign is called the French and Indian War. After-effects of the war were far-reaching: France’s colonial days were ended almost completely; dissent against British rule and involvement in European conflicts flared in the American colonies, leading to the war for independence a dozen years later, and the British emerged as the largest colonial power with the greatest mastery of the sea. The war was one of the key conflicts studied by Napoleon Bonaparte, whose own ambitions led to the continent-spanning Napoleonic Wars a century and a half later.
Britain’s empire expanded quickly without France to compete with, despite the loss of the United States; imperial efforts shifted to the already settled areas of Asia and Africa, rather than injecting settlements into new lands to grow British populations, as had been done with North America. Ireland joined the union in 1801. In 1921, the empire encompassed so much of the globe that the British monarch ruled over one quarter of the world’s population. But the following year, southern Ireland succeeded in its campaign for “home rule,” seceding from the union while leaving Northern Ireland—Protestant, and in fear of a tyranny of a Catholic majority—to the rule of the UK.
The empire, like most of the empires of Europe, was dissolved after World War II, when the formation of the United Nations and attempts to prevent another world war led to a restructuring of the global distribution of power. At the end of the 20th century, legislative bodies were established for Wales and Scotland—the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament—and in the decade since, the nations of the United Kingdom have become more distinct from one another, as services such as healthcare vary according to the decisions of their various legislations. The Northern Ireland Assembly has comparable powers. A growing concern is the question of where this leaves England, which continues to be ruled by a body that is not exclusively English.
Though the strongest prime minister (PM) in recent British history was the Conservative Margaret Thatcher, the left-wing Labour Party has been in control since 1997, currently led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Like much of the world, in 2008 Britain entered an economic crisis, the full effects of and solution to which have not yet revealed themselves.
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy, but lacks a written codified constitution—a situation so rare that many people forget that a “constitution” is a system of law establishing the procedures and foundational rules of a government, and that it need not necessarily take the form of a specific document. The Constitution of the United Kingdom thus includes Acts of Parliament, treaties, laws of the European Union, common law, informal constitutional conventions, and the royal prerogative: those powers that belong to the monarch (and are exercised, traditionally, by the prime minister in the monarch’s name) that have no source in legal statutes. Because there are no statutes defining the royal prerogative, the specific limits and extent of the power of the monarch is undefined, but includes (based on previous royal actions) the power to issue passports and ratify treaties, the power to summon or dissolve Parliament, the power to declare war and peace, and the power to regulate the Civil Service.
Basic principles of the British constitution include the supremacy of Parliament (the exact limits of which have been under frequent debate for years) and the maxim that “the monarch reigns, but does not rule.” The monarch traditionally abstains from active involvement in politics. Whether the monarch has any real authority or is just a figurehead is another matter of debate, though foreigners from non-monarchies outside the Commonwealth may have difficulty understanding that to be “just” a figurehead is still to be something sublime.
The bicameral Parliament system used in the United Kingdom is much like the system that has been adopted throughout the world. The 646 members of the House of Commons are elected via a first-past-the-post system from various electoral districts, while the 746 members of the House of Lords are appointed (and once consisted of hereditary peerages). The British Parliament is sovereign over the legislatures of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and technically has the right to dissolve them at will.
The member of Parliament (from the House of Commons) who is selected by a majority in his house becomes the prime minister. This is traditionally, and nearly always, the leader of the majority party in that house. The monarch appoints the prime minister and his cabinet, but follows the PM-elect’s recommendations in doing so.
The major political parties in the United Kingdom are the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, and the Liberal Democrats (formed in 1988 by the merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party).
The United Kingdom is one of the largest economies in the world—the fifth-largest by market exchange rates, and the sixth-largest by purchasing power parity. The capital city of London is one of the financial centers of the world, and has been for centuries, rivaled if not matched only by New York, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Once “the sick man of Europe” in the 1970s, Britain’s economy was revitalized by the administration of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who privatized many of the industries that had been nationalized in the 1940s. Despite the economic malaise of the world at large, the UK experienced steady economic growth from 1992 to 2008, its longest stretch of uninterrupted growth since the heyday of the British Empire 150 years ago. Inflation and unemployment are low, and have been low for some time.
The service industry accounts for 81 percent of the workforce, with industry at 18 percent, and agriculture a scant one percent; the British dependence on the Continent for much of its food supply is behind such disparate phenomena as the reputation of British food as rich but bland (a reputation dating to a time of more expensive and unwieldy transport, when fresh produce was unavailable in cold months) to the traditional giving of oranges as Christmas gifts, as their seasonality in southern Europe and the appropriateness of their expense coincided with the holiday.
British industry includes machine tools and industrial equipment, aircraft and motor vehicles, computers and electronics, metals, chemicals, coal and oil, paper, and textiles. The United States, Germany, France, and Ireland account for nearly half of their $442 billion (2007) in exports.
- David Abernethy, The Dynamics of Global Dominance, European Overseas Empires 1415–1980 (Yale University Press, 2000);
- Alfred Barnard, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (Birlinn Ltd., 2008);
- Sydney J. Chapman, A History of the Trade Between the United Kingdom and the United States: With Special Reference to the Effects of Tariffs (Routledge, 2006);
- Jonathan Hollowell, Britain Since 1945 (Blackwell Publishing, 2002);
- Caroline Lloyd, Geoff Mason, and Ken Mayhew, Low-Wage Work in the United Kingdom (Russell Sage Foundation, 2008);
- Angus Maddison, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2001);
- Alistair Mutch, Strategic and Organizational Change: From Production to Retailing in UK Brewing 1950– 1990 (Routledge, 2006);
- Timothy H. Parsons, The British Imperial Century, 1815–1914: A World History Perspective (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999);
- Simon Smith, British Imperialism 1750–1970 (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
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