THE UNITED KINGDOM
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (usually shortened to the United Kingdom, U.K. or the UK) is a country situated in the British Isles off the north-western coast of continental Europe, and surrounded by the North Sea, the English Channel, the Celtic Sea, the Irish Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.
The United Kingdom, often (inaccurately) referred to simply as 'Britain', is a constitutional monarchy and a unitary state, composed by the political union of four constituent parts: the three constituent countries of England, Scotland, and Wales on the island of Great Britain, and the province of Northern Ireland on the island of Ireland. The UK has several overseas territories, including Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, and has sovereignty over the Crown dependencies of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The UK has close relationships with the fifteen other Commonwealth Realms, which share the same monarch as head of state.
H.M. Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Canada
The UK is also one of the more populous member states of the European Union and a founding partner of both the UN (with a permanent seat on the ) and NATO.
The present United Kingdom is the latest of several unions formed over the last 1000 years. Scotland and England have existed as separate political entities since the 10th century. Wales, under the control of English monarchs from the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284, became part of the Kingdom of England by the Laws in Wales Act 1535. 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 1691, to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Independence for the now Republic of Ireland in 1922 brought the partition of the island of Ireland, with six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster remaining within the UK, which changed to the current name in 1929 in recognition.
The United Kingdom, the dominant industrial and maritime power of the 19th century, played a leading role in developing Western ideas of property, liberty, capitalism and parliamentary democracy—to say nothing of its part in advancing world literature and science. At its zenith, the British Empire stretched over one quarter of the Earth's surface and encompassed a third of its population - making it the largest empire in history. The first half of the 20th century saw the UK's strength seriously depleted from the effects of World War I and World War II. The second half witnessed the dismantling of the Empire and the UK rebuilding itself into a modern and prosperous nation.
The UK has been a member of the European Union since 1973. The attitude of the present government towards further integration is conservative, with the official opposition favouring a return of some powers and competencies to the UK. It has not chosen to adopt the Euro as domestic political opinion runs strongly against such a move, whilst the government itself has not seen fit to advance membership based on a judgement of the economic costs and benefits in doing so.
GOVERNMENT and POLITICS
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy, with executive power exercised on behalf of the Queen by the Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers who head departments. The cabinet, including the Prime Minister, and other ministers collectively make up Her Majesty's Government. These ministers are drawn from and are responsible to Parliament, the legislative body, which is traditionally considered to be "supreme" (that is, able to legislate on any matter and not bound by decisions of its predecessors). The UK is one of the few countries in the world today that does not have a codified constitution, relying instead on customs and separate pieces of constitutional law.
While the monarch is Head of State and holds all executive power, it is the Prime Minister who is the head of government. The government is answerable chiefly to the House of Commons and the Prime Minister is drawn from this chamber of Parliament by constitutional convention. The majority of cabinet members will be from the House of Commons, the rest from the House of Lords. Ministers do not, however, legally have to come from Parliament, though that is the modern day custom. The British system of government has been emulated around the world - a legacy of the United Kingdom's colonial past - most notably in the other Commonwealth Realms. The Prime Minister is chosen as the MP who can command a majority in the House of Commons - usually the leader of the largest party or, if there is no majority party, the largest coalition. The current Prime Minister is Tony Blair of the Labour Party, who has been in office since 1997.
In the United Kingdom the monarch has extensive theoretical powers, but his or her role is mainly, though not exclusively, ceremonial. The monarch is an integral part of Parliament (as the "Crown-in-Parliament") and theoretically gives Parliament the power to meet and create legislation. An Act of Parliament does not become law until it has been signed by the Queen (being given Royal Assent), although no monarch has refused to assent to a bill that has been approved by Parliament since Queen Anne in 1708. Although the abolition of the monarchy has been suggested several times, the popularity of the monarchy remains strong in spite of recent controversies. Support for a British republic usually fluctuates between 15% and 25% of the population, with roughly 10% undecided or indifferent . The current monarch is Queen Elizabeth II who acceded to the throne in 1952 and was crowned in 1953.
Parliament is the national legislature of the United Kingdom. It is the ultimate legislative authority in the United Kingdom, according to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. It is bicameral, composed of the elected House of Commons and the un-elected House of Lords, whose members are mostly appointed. The House of Commons is the more powerful of the two houses. The House of Commons has 646 members who are directly elected from single-member constituencies based on population. The House of Lords has 724 members (though this number is not fixed), constituted of hereditary peers, life peers, and bishops of the Church of England. The Church of England is the established church of the state in England.
The Palace of Westminster, on the banks of the River Thames
Since the 1920s, the two largest political parties in British politics have been the Labour Party and Conservative Party. Though coalition and minority governments have been an occasional feature of Parliamentary politics, the first-past-the-post electoral system used for general elections tends to maintain the dominance of these two parties, though each has in the past century relied upon a third party to deliver a working majority in Parliament. The Liberal Democrats are the third major party in the UK parliament and actively seek a reform of the electoral system to address the dominance of the two-party system.
Though many in the United Kingdom consider themselves 'British' as well as 'Welsh', 'English', 'Scottish' or 'Irish' (and increasingly also 'Afro-Caribbean', 'Indian' or 'Pakistani'), there has long been a widespread sense of separate national identities in the nations of Wales and Scotland and amongst the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. Independence for the Republic of Ireland in 1922 provided only a partial solution to what had been termed in the 19th Century the 'Irish Question', and competing demands for a united Ireland or continued union with Great Britain have brought civil strife and political instability up to the present day.
Though 'nationalist' (as opposed to 'unionist') tendencies have shifted over time in Scotland and Wales, with the Scottish National Party founded in 1934 and Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales) in 1925, a serious political crisis threatening the integrity of the United Kingdom as a state has not occurred since the 1970s. However, increased autonomy and devolved executive and legislative powers within the state, with both Scotland and Wales now possessing a legislature and government alongside that for the United Kingdom as a whole, have not reduced support for independence. The contradictions this places upon the state may yet prove to be considerable, where the largest constituent country England seeks no separate legislature and is therefore governed according to the balance of parties across the whole of the United Kingdom (see West Lothian Question). The well-received resurgence in Celtic (Welsh, Scottish, Irish) cultures and languages, as well as 'regional' politics and development, contribute to the forces pulling against the unity of the state, except in the special case of Northern Ireland (where, arguably, crisis is the natural state) there is at present little sign of any imminent crisis.
The Laws in Wales Act 1535 incorporated Wales and England into England and Wales for legal purposes.
Although all four have historically been divided into counties, England's population is an order of magnitude larger than the others so in recent years it has for some purposes been divided into nine intermediate-level Government Office Regions. 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 plan's future is uncertain, as of 2004, after the 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.
Also sometimes associated with the United Kingdom, though not constitutionally part of the United Kingdom itself, are the Crown dependencies (the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey, and the Isle of Man) as self-governing possessions of the Crown, and a number of overseas territories under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.
The armed forces of the United Kingdom are known as the British Armed Forces or Her Majesty's Armed Forces, officially the Armed Forces of the Crown. Their Commander-in-Chief is the Queen and they are managed by the Ministry of Defence.
Tri-service badge of Her Majesty's Armed Forces.
Anchor representing: Royal Navy crossed swords: Army Eagle: Royal Air Force
The British Armed Forces are charged with protecting the United Kingdom and its overseas territories, promoting the United Kingdom's wider security interests, and supporting international peacekeeping efforts. They are active and regular participants in NATO and other coalition operations. The United Kingdom fields one of the most powerful and comprehensive military forces in the World. Its global power projection capabilities are second only to those of the United States Armed Forces.
The British Army had a reported strength of 112,700 in 2004, including 7,600 women, and the Royal Air Force a strength of 53,400. The 40,900-member Royal Navy is in charge of the United Kingdom's independent strategic nuclear arm, which consists of four Trident Ballistic Missile Submarines, while the Royal Marines provide infantry units for amphibious assault and for specialist reinforcement forces in and beyond the NATO area. This puts total active duty military troops in the 210,000 range, currently deployed in over 80 countries.
The UK's special forces, principally the SAS, provides elite commandos trained for quick, mobile, military responses; often where secrecy or covert operations are required. The Royal Navy is the second largest navy in the World in terms of gross tonnage. Despite the United Kingdom's wide ranging capabilities, recent pragmatic defence policy has a stated assumption that any large operation would be undertaken as part of a coalition. Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq (Granby, No-Fly-Zones, Desert Fox and Telic) may all be taken as precedent - indeed the last true war in which the British military fought alone was the Falklands War of 1982, in which military action was initiated by Argentina and the UK was fighting a defensive, rather than offensive, campaign.
The British Empire in 1897
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 and chalk downs of the Southern England Chalk Formation. The main rivers and estuaries are the Thames, Severn and the Humber Estuary. The largest urban area is Greater London. Near Dover, the Channel Tunnel links the United Kingdom with France. There is no peak in England that is 1000 metres (3,300 ft) or greater.
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 at 1343 metres (4,406 ft). 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. The capital city is Edinburgh, the centre of which is a World Heritage Site. The largest city is Glasgow.
Wales is mostly mountainous, the highest peak being Snowdon at 1085 metres (3,560 ft) above sea level. North of the mainland is the island of Anglesey. The largest and capital city is Cardiff, located in South Wales.
Northern Ireland, making up the north-eastern part of Ireland, is mostly hilly. The main cities are Belfast ('Beal Feirste' in Irish) and Londonderry / Derry ('Doire' in Irish). The province is home to one of the UK’s World Heritage Sites, the Giant's Causeway, which consists of more than 40,000 six-sided basalt columns up to 40 feet (12 m) high.
In total it is estimated that the UK includes 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.
UK's biggest cities:
The United Kingdom, a leading trading power and financial centre, has an essentially capitalist economy, the fourth largest in the world in terms of market exchange rates and the sixth largest by purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates. Over the past three 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. Industry continues to decline in importance, although the UK is still Europe's largest manufacturer of armaments, petroleum products, personal computers, televisions, and mobile telephones. Tourism is also important: with over 24 million tourists a year, the United Kingdom is ranked as the sixth major tourist destination in the world, between China (33) and Austria (19.1).
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.
At the April 2001 census, the United Kingdom's population was 58,789,194, the third-largest in the European Union (behind Germany and France) and the twenty-first largest in the world. Its overall population density is one of the highest in the world. Almost one-third of the population lives in England's prosperous south-east and is predominantly urban and suburban--with about 7.2 million in the capital of London. The United Kingdom's high literacy rate (99%) is attributable to universal public education introduced for the primary level in 1870 and secondary level in 1900 (except in Scotland where it was introduced in 1696). Education is mandatory from ages five to sixteen.
The Church of England and the Church of Scotland function as the official national religions in their respective countries, but most religions found in the world are represented in the United Kingdom. Anglicanism is the state religion that has been established in England since 1534 during the reign of King Henry VIII. During his reign, England broke ties with the Roman Catholic church and established the Church of England as the official religion of England. Reforms to the nature of the church's relationship to the state have been ongoing, especially concerning the nature of the House of Lords and the appointment of a fixed amount of the lordships going to Lords Spiritual, Bishops of the Church of England.
A group of islands close to continental Europe, the British Isles have been subject to many invasions and migrations, especially from Scandinavia and the continent, including Roman occupation for several centuries. Contemporary Britons are descended mainly from the varied ethnic stocks that settled there before the eleventh century. The pre-Celtic, Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse influences were blended on Great Britain under the Normans, Scandinavian Vikings who had lived in Northern France. Although Celtic languages persist in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, the predominant language is English, which is a West Germanic language descended from Old English, featuring a large amount of borrowings from Norman French. The other indigenous languages include the Celtic languages; Welsh, the closely related Irish and Scots Gaelic, and the Cornish language; as well as Lowland Scots, which is closely related to English; Romany; and British Sign Language (Northern Ireland Sign Language is also used in Northern Ireland). Celtic dialectal influences from Cumbric persisted in Northern England for many centuries, most famously in a unique set of numbers used for counting sheep.
Recent immigrants, especially from the Commonwealth, speak many other languages, including Bengali, Cantonese, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu. The United Kingdom has the largest number of Hindi speaking peoples outside of the Indian sub continent.
The United Kingdom contains many of the world's leading universities, including the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, the University of Edinburgh and the University of London (which incorporates, amongst others, Imperial College and University College London), and has produced many great scientists and engineers including Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Isambard Kingdom Brunel; the nation is credited with many inventions including the locomotive, vaccination, television, the railway, and both the internal combustion, jet engine and solar powered world navigator, not to mention the Joystick controlled car and the battery cartridge refueling system for electric vehicles.
The English language has spread to all corners of the world (primarily because of the country’s empire and the influence of the United States) and is referred to as a ‘global language’. It is taught as a second language more than any other around the world.
Playwright William Shakespeare is arguably the most famous writer in the history of the English language; other well-known writers from the United Kingdom include the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne), Jane Austen, William Thackeray, J. R. R. Tolkien, John Milton, H. G. Wells, Charles Dickens, and J.K. Rowling. Important poets include Lord Byron, Robert Burns, Lord Tennyson and William Blake.
Notable composers from the United Kingdom have included William Byrd, John Taverner, William Lawes, John Dowland, Thomas Tallis, and Henry Purcell from the 16th and early 17th centuries, and, more recently, Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Arthur Sullivan (most famous for working with librettist Sir W. S. Gilbert), Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten in the 19th and 20th. George Frideric Handel spent most of his composing life in England.
The BBC is the oldest and perhaps the most respected network on the globe, with the BBC World Service radio channel and its news output held in particularly high regard. The other main television networks are ITV, Channel 4, Five and Sky Television. Popular programmes in the UK include the three major soaps - Eastenders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale - as well as the comedy news quiz Have I Got News For You and Reality TV shows such as Big Brother. Various British TV formats have been exported to other nations, notably Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, The Weakest Link and The Office.
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 rock stars, including The Beatles, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, The Who, and many others. The UK was at the forefront of punk rock music in the 1970s with bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash, and the subsequent rebirth of heavy metal with bands such as Motörhead and Iron Maiden. In the mid to late 1990s, the Britpop phenomenon saw bands such as Oasis, Blur, Radiohead and Coldplay gain international fame. The UK is also at the forefront of electronica, with British artists such as The Prodigy, Aphex Twin, Nitin Sawhney and Lamb at the cutting edge. The United Kingdom is also associated with music from the Caribbean, with a large number of Jamaicans and other Caribbean nationals being present in the UK. Recent rock bands to emerge as great talents are the Kaiser Chiefs (all ex-temporary teachers from Leeds) and Franz Ferdinand.
The national sport of the UK is association football, but the UK does not compete as a nation in any major football tournament. Instead, the home nations compete individually as England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is because of this unique four-team arrangement that the UK currently does not compete in football events at the Olympic Games. However, a united team will probably take part in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, as these are hosted in London. The English and Northern Irish football associations have confirmed participation in this team while the Scottish FA and the Welsh FA have declined to participate.
The UK also hosts many world-renowned football clubs, such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in England and Rangers and Celtic in Scotland. Clubs compete in national leagues and competitions and some go on to compete in European competitions.
British teams are generally successful in European Competitions, including the following European Cup/UEFA Champions League winners: Liverpool (five times), Manchester United (twice), Nottingham Forest (twice), Aston Villa and Celtic.
Both forms of rugby are national sports. Rugby League originates from and is generally played in the North of England, whilst Rugby Union is played all over Britain. In Rugby League the UK plays as one nation - Great Britain - whilst in union it is represented by the four nations. England are the current holders of the Rugby Union World Cup. Every four years the British and Irish Lions (comprising the best players from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland) tour other countries.
The Wimbledon Championships are international tennis events held in Wimbledon in south London every summer and are seen as the most prestigious of the tennis calendar.
Thoroughbred racing is also very popular in England. It originated under Charles II of England as the "Sport of Kings" - and is a royal pastime to this day.
Golf is one of the most popular participation sports played in the UK and St Andrews in Scotland is the sport's home course. Cricket is also popular, though this is almost exclusive to England.
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