The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known as the United Kingdom (UK) or Britain, is a sovereign state located off the north-western coast of continental Europe. The country includes the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland, and many smaller islands. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a land border with another sovereign state—the Republic of Ireland. Apart from this land border the UK is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, the English Channel and the Irish Sea.
The United Kingdom is a unitary state governed under a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary system, with its seat of government in the capital city of London. It is a country in its own right and consists of four administrative divisions (or countries): England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The latter three of these are devolved administrations, each with varying powers, based in their capital cities Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff respectively. Associated with the UK, but not constitutionally part of it, are the three Crown dependencies: Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man. The United Kingdom has fourteen British Overseas Territories. These are remnants of the British Empire which, at its height in 1922, encompassed almost a quarter of the world's land surface and was the largest empire in history. British influence can still be observed in the language, culture and legal systems of many of its former territories.
The UK is a developed country and has the world's seventh-largest economy by nominal GDP and eighth-largest economy by purchasing power parity. It was the world's first industrialised country and the world's foremost power during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The UK remains a great power with leading economic, cultural, military, scientific and political influence. It is a recognised nuclear weapons state and its military expenditure ranks fourth in the world.
The UK has been a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council since its first session in 1946. It has been a member of the European Union and its predecessor the European Economic Community since 1973. It is also a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Council of Europe, the G7, the G8, the G20, NATO, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Trade Organization.
Etymology and terminology
The name "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" was introduced in 1927 by the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act. It reflected the reality that the de facto independence of the Irish Free State, created by the partitioning of Ireland in 1922, left Northern Ireland as the only part of the island of Ireland still within the UK. Prior to this, the Acts of Union 1800, that united the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland in 1801, had given the new state the name of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Great Britain before 1801 is occasionally referred to as the "United Kingdom of Great Britain". However, Section 1 of both of the 1707 Acts of Union declare that England and Scotland are "United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain". The term united kingdom is found in informal use during the 18th century to describe the new state but only became official with the union with Ireland in 1801.
Although the United Kingdom, as a sovereign state, is a country, England, Scotland, Wales and (more controversially) Northern Ireland are also referred to as countries, although they are not sovereign states and only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved self-government. The British Prime Minister's website has used the phrase "countries within a country" to describe the United Kingdom. With regard to Northern Ireland, the descriptive name used "can be controversial, with the choice often revealing one's political preferences." Other terms used for Northern Ireland include "region" and "province".
The United Kingdom is often referred to as Britain. British government sources frequently use the term as a short form for the United Kingdom, whilst media style guides generally allow its use but point out that the longer term Great Britain refers only to the main island which includes England, Scotland and Wales. However, some foreign usage, particularly in the United States, uses Great Britain as a loose synonym for the United Kingdom. Also, the United Kingdom's Olympic team competes under the name "Great Britain" or "Team GB".GB and GBR are the standard country codes for the United Kingdom (see ISO 3166-2 and ISO 3166-1 alpha-3) and are consequently commonly used by international organisations to refer to the United Kingdom.
In 2006, a new design of British passport entered into use. Its first page shows the long form name of the state in English, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic. In Welsh, the long form name of the state is "Teyrnas Unedig Prydain Fawr a Gogledd Iwerddon" with "Teyrnas Unedig" being used as a short form name on government websites. In Scottish Gaelic, the long form is "Rìoghachd Aonaichte na Breatainne Mòire is Èireann a Tuath" and the short form "Rìoghachd Aonaichte".
The adjective British is commonly used to refer to matters relating to the United Kingdom. The term has no definite legal connotation, however, it is used in law to refer to UK citizenship and matters to do with nationality.British people use a number of different terms to describe their national identity and may identify themselves as being British; or as being English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, or Irish; or as being both.
Settlement by anatomically modern humans of what was to become the United Kingdom occurred in waves beginning by about 30,000 years ago. By the end of the region's prehistoric period, the population is thought to have belonged, in the main, to a culture termed Insular Celtic, comprising Brythonic Britain and Gaelic Ireland. The Roman conquest, beginning in 43 AD, and the 400-year rule of southern Britain, was followed by an invasion by Germanic Anglo-Saxon settlers, reducing the Brythonic area mainly to what was to become Wales. Most of the region settled by the Anglo-Saxons became unified as the Kingdom of England in the 10th century. Meanwhile, Gaelic-speakers in north west Britain (with connections to the north-east of Ireland and traditionally supposed to have migrated from there in the 5th century) united with the Picts to create the Kingdom of Scotland in the 9th century.
In 1066, the Normans invaded England and after its conquest, seized large parts of Wales, conquered much of Ireland and settled in Scotland bringing to each country feudalism on the Northern French model and Norman-French culture. The Norman elites greatly influenced, but eventually assimilated with, each of the local cultures. Subsequent medieval English kings completed the conquest of Wales and made an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to annex Scotland. Thereafter, Scotland maintained its independence, albeit in near-constant conflict with England. The English monarchs, through inheritance of substantial territories in France and claims to the French crown, were also heavily involved in conflicts in France, most notably the Hundred Years War.
The early modern period saw religious conflict resulting from the Reformation and the introduction of Protestant state churches in each country. Wales was fully incorporated into the Kingdom of England, and Ireland was constituted as a kingdom in personal union with the English crown. In what was to become Northern Ireland, the lands of the independent Catholic Gaelic nobility were confiscated and given to Protestant settlers from England and Scotland. In 1603, the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland were united in a personal union when James VI, King of Scots, inherited the crowns of England and Ireland and moved his court from Edinburgh to London; each country nevertheless remained a separate political entity and retained its separate political institutions. In the mid-17th century, all three kingdoms were involved in a series of connected wars (including the English Civil War) which led to the temporary overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the short-lived unitary republic of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. Although the monarchy was restored, it ensured (with the Glorious Revolution of 1688) that, unlike much of the rest of Europe, royal absolutism would not prevail. The British constitution would develop on the basis of constitutional monarchy and the parliamentary system. During this period, particularly in England, the development of naval power (and the interest in voyages of discovery) led to the acquisition and settlement of overseas colonies, particularly in North America.
Since the Acts of Union of 1707
On 1 May 1707 a new kingdom of Great Britain was created by the political union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland in accordance with the Treaty of Union, negotiated the previous year and ratified by the English and Scottish Parliaments passing Acts of Union.
In the 18th century, the country played an important role in developing Western ideas of the parliamentary system and in making significant contributions to literature, the arts, and science. The British-led Industrial Revolution transformed the country and fuelled the growing British Empire. During this time Britain, like other great powers, was involved in colonial exploitation, including the Atlantic slave trade, although with the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 the UK took a leading role in battling the trade in slaves. The colonies in North America had been the main focus of British colonial activity. With their loss in the American War of Independence, imperial ambition turned elsewhere, particularly to India.
In 1800, while the wars with France still raged, the Parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland each passed an Act of Union, uniting the two kingdoms and creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which came into being on 1 January 1801.
After the defeat of France in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), the UK emerged as the principal naval and economic power of the 19th century (with London the largest city in the world from about 1830)Unchallenged at sea, Britain adopted the role of global policeman, a state of affairs later known as the Pax Britannica. It was also a period of rapid economic, colonial, and industrial growth. Britain was described as the "workshop of the world", and the British Empire grew to include India, large parts of Africa, and many other territories. Alongside the formal control it exerted over its own colonies, Britain's dominant position in world trade meant that it effectively controlled the economies of many countries, such as China, Argentina and Siam. Domestically, there was a shift to free trade and laissez-faire policies and a very significant widening of the voting franchise. The country experienced a huge population increase during the century, accompanied by rapid urbanisation, causing significant social and economic stresses. By the end of the century, other states began to challenge Britain's industrial dominance.
The UK, along with Russia, France and (after 1917) the US, was one of the major powers opposing the German Empire and its allies in World War I (1914–18). The UK armed forces grew to over five million people engaged across much of its empire and several regions of Europe, and increasingly took a major role on the Western front. The nation suffered some two and a half million casualties and finished the war with a huge national debt. After the war the United Kingdom received the League of Nations mandate over former German and Ottoman colonies, and the British Empire had expanded to its greatest extent, covering a fifth of the world's land surface and a quarter of its population. The rise of Irish Nationalism and disputes within Ireland over the terms of Irish Home Rule led eventually to the partition of the island in 1921, and the Irish Free State became independent with Dominion status in 1922, while Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. The Great Depression (1929–32) occurred when the UK had not recovered from the effects of the war, and led to hardship as well as political and social unrest.
The United Kingdom was one of the Allies of World War II and an original signatory to the Declaration of the United Nations. Following the defeat of its European allies in the first year of the war, the United Kingdom continued the fight against Germany, notably in the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic. After the victory, the UK was one of the Big Three powers that met to plan the postwar world. The war left the country financially damaged. Marshall Aid and loans from both the United States and Canada helped the UK on the road to recovery.
The Labour government in the immediate post-war years initiated a radical programme of changes, with a significant impact on British society in the following decades. Domestically, major industries and public utilities were nationalised, a Welfare State was established, and a comprehensive publicly funded healthcare system, the National Health Service, was created. In response to the rise of local nationalism, the Labour government's own ideological sympathies and Britain's now diminished economic position, a policy of decolonisation was initiated, starting with the granting of independence to India and Pakistan in 1947. Over the next three decades, most territories of the Empire gained independence and became sovereign members of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Although the new postwar limits of Britain's political role were illustrated by the Suez Crisis of 1956, the UK nevertheless became one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and was the third country to develop a nuclear weapons arsenal (with its first atomic bomb test in 1952). The international spread of the English language also ensured the continuing international influence of its literature and culture, while from the 1960s its popular culture also found influence abroad. As a result of a shortage of workers in the 1950s, the British Government encouraged immigration from Commonwealth countries, thereby transforming Britain into a multi-ethnic society in the following decades. In 1973, the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC), and when the EEC became the European Union (EU) in 1992, it was one of the 12 founding members. From the late 1960s Northern Ireland suffered communal and paramilitary violence (sometimes affecting other parts of the UK and also the Republic of Ireland) conventionally known as the Troubles. It is usually considered to have ended with the Belfast "Good Friday" Agreement of 1998.
Following a period of widespread economic slowdown and industrial strife in the 1970s, the Conservative Government of the 1980s initiated a radical policy of deregulation, particularly of the financial sector, flexible labour markets, the sale of state-owned companies (privatisation), and the withdrawal of subsidies to others. Aided, from 1984, by the inflow of substantial North Sea oil revenues, the UK experienced a period of significant economic growth. Around the end of the 20th century there were major changes to the governance of the UK with the establishment of devolved national administrations for Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales following pre-legislative referendums, and the statutory incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Domestic controversy surrounded some of Britain's overseas military deployments in the 2000s (decade), particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The total area of the United Kingdom is approximately 243,610 square kilometres (94,060 sq mi). The country occupies the major part of the British Islesarchipelago and includes the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern one-sixth of the island of Ireland and some smaller surrounding islands. It lies between the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea with the south-east coast coming within 35 kilometres (22 mi) of the coast of northern France, from which it is separated by the English Channel. As of 1993[update] 10% of the UK was forested, 46% used for pastures and 25% used for agriculture. The Royal Greenwich Observatory in London is the defining point of the Prime Meridian.
The United Kingdom lies between latitudes 49° to 61° N, and longitudes 9° W to 2° E. Northern Ireland shares a 360-kilometre (224 mi) land boundary with the Republic of Ireland. The coastline of Great Britain is 17,820 kilometres (11,073 mi) long. It is connected to continental Europe by the Channel Tunnel, which at 50 kilometres (31 mi) (38 kilometres (24 mi) underwater) is the longest underwater tunnel in the world.
England accounts for just over half of the total area of the UK, covering 130,395 square kilometres (50,350 sq mi). Most of the country consists of lowland terrain, with mountainous terrain north-west of the Tees-Exe line; including the Cumbrian Mountains of the Lake District, the Pennines and limestone hills of the Peak District, Exmoor and Dartmoor. The main rivers and estuaries are the Thames, Severn and the Humber. England's highest mountain is Scafell Pike (978 metres (3,209 ft)) in the Lake District. Its principal rivers are the Severn, Thames, Humber, Tees, Tyne, Tweed, Avon, Exe and Mersey.
Scotland accounts for just under a third of the total area of the UK, covering 78,772 square kilometres (30,410 sq mi) and including nearly eight hundred islands, predominantly west and north of the mainland; notably the Hebrides, Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands. The topography of Scotland is distinguished by the Highland Boundary Fault—a geological rock fracture—which traverses Scotland from Arran in the west to Stonehaven in the east. The faultline separates two distinctively different regions; namely the Highlands to the north and west and the lowlands to the south and east. The more rugged Highland region contains the majority of Scotland's mountainous land, including Ben Nevis which at 1,343 metres (4,406 ft) is the highest point in the British Isles. Lowland areas, especially the narrow waist of land between the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth known as the Central Belt, are flatter and home to most of the population including Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, and Edinburgh, its capital and political centre.
Wales accounts for less than a tenth of the total area of the UK, covering 20,779 square kilometres (8,020 sq mi). Wales is mostly mountainous, though South Wales is less mountainous than North and mid Wales. The main population and industrial areas are in South Wales, consisting of the coastal cities of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, and the South Wales Valleys to their north. The highest mountains in Wales are in Snowdonia and include Snowdon (Welsh: Yr Wyddfa) which, at 1,085 metres (3,560 ft), is the highest peak in Wales. The 14, or possibly 15, Welsh mountains over 3,000 feet (914 m) high are known collectively as the Welsh 3000s. Wales has over 1,200 kilometres (746 miles) of coastline. There are several islands off the Welsh mainland, the largest of which is Anglesey (Ynys Môn) in the northwest.
Northern Ireland accounts for just 14,160 square kilometres (5,470 sq mi) and is mostly hilly. It includes Lough Neagh which, at 388 square kilometres (150 sq mi), is the largest lake in the British Isles by area. The highest peak in Northern Ireland is Slieve Donard in the Mourne Mountains at 852 metres (2,795 ft).
The United Kingdom has a temperate climate, with plentiful rainfall all year round. The temperature varies with the seasons seldom dropping below −11 °C (12 °F) or rising above 35 °C (95 °F). The prevailing wind is from the south-west and bears frequent spells of mild and wet weather from the Atlantic Ocean, although the eastern parts are mostly sheltered from this wind—as the majority of the rain falls over the western regions the eastern parts are therefore the driest. Atlantic currents, warmed by the Gulf Stream, bring mild winters; especially in the west where winters are wet and even more so over high ground. Summers are warmest in the south-east of England, being closest to the European mainland, and coolest in the north. Heavy snowfall can occur in winter and early spring on high ground, and occasionally settles to great depth away from the hills.
Each country of the United Kingdom has its own system of administrative and geographic demarcation, which often has origins that pre-date the formation of the United Kingdom itself. Consequently there is "no common stratum of administrative unit encompassing the United Kingdom". Until the 19th century there was little change to those arrangements, but there has since been a constant evolution of role and function. Change did not occur in a uniform manner and the devolution of power over local government to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland means that future changes are unlikely to be uniform either.
The organisation of local government in England is complex, with the distribution of functions varying according to the local arrangements. Legislation concerning local government in England is decided by the UK parliament and the Government of the United Kingdom, as England does not have a devolved parliament. The upper-tier subdivisions of England are the nine Government office regions or European Union government office regions. One region, Greater London, has had a directly elected assembly and mayor since 2000 following popular support for the proposal in a referendum. It was intended that other regions would also be given their own elected regional assemblies, but a proposed assembly in the North East region was rejected by a referendum in 2004 Below the region level England has either county councils and district councils or unitary authorities and London which consists of 32 London boroughs. Councillors are elected by the first-past-the-post system in single-member wards or by the multi-member plurality system in multi-member wards.
Local government in Scotland is divided on a basis of 32 council areas, with wide variation in both size and population. The cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee are separate council areas as is the Highland Council which includes a third of Scotland's area but just over 200,000 people. The power invested in local authorities is administered by elected councillors, of which there are currently 1,222 and are each paid a part-time salary. Elections are conducted by single transferable vote in multi-member wards that elect either three or four councillors. Each council elects a Provost, or Convenor, to chair meetings of the council and to act as a figurehead for the area. Councillors are subject to a code of conduct enforced by the Standards Commission for Scotland. The representative association of Scotland's local authorities is the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA).
Local government in Wales consists of 22 unitary authorities. These include the cities of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport which are unitary authorities in their own right. Elections are held every four years under the first-past-the-post system. The most recent elections were held in May 2008. The Welsh Local Government Association represents the interests of local authorities in Wales.
Local government in Northern Ireland has, since 1973, been organised into 26 district councils, each elected by single transferable vote. Their powers are limited to services such as collecting waste, controlling dogs, and maintaining parks and cemeteries. On 13 March 2008 the executive agreed on proposals to create 11 new councils and replace the present system. The next local elections were postponed until 2011 to facilitate this.
The United Kingdom has sovereignty over seventeen territories which do not form part of the United Kingdom itself: fourteen British Overseas Territories and three Crown Dependencies.
The fourteen British Overseas Territories are: Anguilla; Bermuda; the British Antarctic Territory; the British Indian Ocean Territory; the British Virgin Islands; the Cayman Islands; the Falkland Islands; Gibraltar; Montserrat; Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha; the Turks and Caicos Islands; the Pitcairn Islands; South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; and the Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus. British claims in Antarctica are not universally recognised. Collectively Britain's overseas territories encompass an approximate land area of 667,018 square miles (1,727,570 km2) and a population of approximately 260,000 people. They are the remnants of the British Empire and several have specifically voted to remain British territories (Bermuda in 1995 and Gibraltar in 2002).
The Crown Dependencies are British possessions of the Crown, as opposed to overseas territories of the UK. They comprise the Channel Island Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey in the English Channel and the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. Being independently administered jurisdictions they do not form part of the United Kingdom or of the European Union, although the UK government manages their foreign affairs and defence and the UK Parliament has the authority to legislate on their behalf. The power to pass legislation affecting the islands ultimately rests with their own respective legislative assemblies, with the assent of the Crown (Privy Council or, in the case of the Isle of Man, in certain circumstances the Lieutenant-Governor). Since 2005 each Crown dependency has had a Chief Minister as its head of government.
The United Kingdom is a unitary state under a constitutional monarchy. Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state of the UK as well as of fifteen other independent Commonwealth countries. The monarch has "the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn". The United Kingdom has an uncodified constitution, as do only three other countries in the world. The Constitution of the United Kingdom thus consists mostly of a collection of disparate written sources, including statutes, judge-made case law and international treaties, together with constitutional conventions. As there is no technical difference between ordinary statutes and "constitutional law" the UK Parliament can perform "constitutional reform" simply by passing Acts of Parliament and thus has the political power to change or abolish almost any written or unwritten element of the constitution. However, no Parliament can pass laws that future Parliaments cannot change.
The UK has a parliamentary government based on the Westminster system that has been emulated around the world—a legacy of the British Empire. The parliament of the United Kingdom that meets in the Palace of Westminster has two houses; an elected House of Commons and an appointed House of Lords. Any bill passed requires Royal Assent to become law.
The position of prime minister, the UK's head of government, belongs to the member of parliament who can obtain the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons, usually the current leader of the largest political party in that chamber. The prime minister and cabinet are formally appointed by the monarch to form Her Majesty's Government, though the prime minister chooses the cabinet and, by convention, the Queen respects the prime minister's choices.
The cabinet is traditionally drawn from members of the Prime Minister's party in both legislative houses, and mostly from the House of Commons, to which they are responsible. Executive power is exercised by the prime minister and cabinet, all of whom are sworn into the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, and become Ministers of the Crown. The Rt. Hon. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, has been Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service since 11 May 2010. For elections to the House of Commons, the UK is currently divided into 650 constituencies with each electing a single member of parliament by simple plurality. General elections are called by the monarch when the prime minister so advises. The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 require that a new election must be called within five years of the previous general election.
The UK's three major political parties are the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. During the 2010 general election these three parties won 622 out of 650 seats available in the House of Commons: 621 seats at the general election and 1 more at the delayed by-election in Thirsk and Malton. Most of the remaining seats were won by minor parties that only contest elections in one part of the UK: the Scottish National Party (Scotland only); Plaid Cymru (Wales only); and the Democratic Unionist Party, Social Democratic and Labour Party, Ulster Unionist Party, and Sinn Féin (Northern Ireland only, though Sinn Féin also contests elections in the Republic of Ireland). In accordance with party policy no elected Sinn Féin member of parliament has ever attended the House of Commons to speak on behalf of their constituents – this is because members of parliament are required to take an oath of allegiance to the monarch. The current five Sinn Féin MPs have however, since 2002, made use of the offices and other facilities available at Westminster. For elections to the European Parliament the UK currently has 72 MEPs, elected in 12 multi-member constituencies.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own government or executive, led by a First Minister (or, in the case of Northern Ireland, a diarchal First Minister and deputy First Minister), and a devolved unicameral legislature. England, the largest country of the United Kingdom, has no devolved executive or legislature and is administered and legislated for directly by the UK government and parliament on all issues. This situation has given rise to the so-called West Lothian question which concerns the fact that MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can vote, sometimes decisively, on matters affecting England that are handled by devolved legislatures for their own constituencies.
The Scottish Government and Parliament have wide-ranging powers over any matter that has not been specifically 'reserved' to the UK parliament, including education, healthcare, Scots law and local government. At the 2011 elections the SNP won re-election and achieved an overall majority in the Scottish parliament, with its leader, Alex Salmond, as First Minister of Scotland. The Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales have more limited powers than those devolved to Scotland. The Assembly is able to legislate on devolved matters through Acts of the Assembly, which require no prior consent from Westminster. The 2011 elections resulted in a minority Labour administration led by Carwyn Jones. The Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly have powers closer to those already devolved to Scotland. The Executive is led by a diarchy representing unionist and nationalist members of the Assembly. Currently, Peter Robinson (Democratic Unionist Party) and Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin) are First Minister and deputy First Minister respectively.
The United Kingdom does not have a codified constitution and constitutional matters are not among the powers devolved to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Under the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty, the UK Parliament could, in theory, therefore, abolish the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly or Northern Ireland Assembly. Indeed, in 1972, the UK Parliament unilaterally prorogued the Parliament of Northern Ireland, setting a precedent relevant to contemporary devolved institutions. In practice, the circumstances in which the UK Parliament would abolish devolution given the political constraints created by referendum decisions are unclear. The political constraints placed upon the UK Parliament's power to interfere with devolution in Northern Ireland are greater than in relation to Scotland and Wales, given that devolution in Northern Ireland rests upon an international agreement with the Government of Ireland.
Law and criminal justice
The United Kingdom does not have a single legal system, as Article 19 of the 1706 Treaty of Union provided for the continuation of Scotland's separate legal system. Today the UK has three distinct systems of law: English law, Northern Ireland law and Scots law. A new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom came into being in October 2009 to replace the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, including the same members as the Supreme Court, is the highest court of appeal for several independent Commonwealth countries, the British Overseas Territories, and the Crown Dependencies.
Both English law, which applies in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland law are based on common-law principles. The essence of common law is that, subject to statute, the law is developed by judges in courts, applying statute, precedent and common sense to the facts before them to give explanatory judgements of the relevant legal principles, which are reported and binding in future similar cases (stare decisis). The courts of England and Wales are headed by the Senior Courts of England and Wales, consisting of the Court of Appeal, the High Court of Justice (for civil cases) and the Crown Court (for criminal cases). The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land for both criminal and civil appeal cases in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland and any decision it makes is binding on every other court in the same jurisdiction, often having a persuasive effect in other jurisdictions.
Scots law is a hybrid system based on both common-law and civil-law principles. The chief courts are the Court of Session, for civil cases, and the High Court of Justiciary, for criminal cases. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom serves as the highest court of appeal for civil cases under Scots law.Sheriff courts deal with most civil and criminal cases including conducting criminal trials with a jury, known as sheriff solemn court, or with a sheriff and no jury, known as sheriff summary Court. The Scots legal system is unique in having three possible verdicts for a criminal trial: "guilty", "not guilty" and "not proven". Both "not guilty" and "not proven" result in an acquittal with no possibility of retrial.
Crime in England and Wales increased in the period between 1981 and 1995, though since that peak there has been an overall fall of 48% in crime from 1995 to 2007/08, according to crime statistics. The prison population of England and Wales has almost doubled over the same period, to over 80,000, giving England and Wales the highest rate of incarceration in Western Europe at 147 per 100,000.Her Majesty's Prison Service, which reports to the Ministry of Justice, manages most of the prisons within England and Wales. Crime in Scotland fell to its lowest recorded level for 32 years in 2009/10, falling by ten percent. At the same time Scotland's prison population, at over 8,000, is at record levels and well above design capacity. The Scottish Prison Service, which reports to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, manages Scotland's prisons. In 2006 a report by the Surveillance Studies Network found that the UK had the highest level of mass surveillance among industrialised western nations.
The United Kingdom is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, G7, G8, G20, NATO, the OECD, the WTO, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and is a member state of the European Union. The UK has a "Special Relationship" with the United States and a close partnership with France – the "Entente cordiale" – and shares nuclear weapons technology with both countries. The UK is also closely allied with the Republic of Ireland; the two countries share a Common Travel Area and many Irish citizens serve in the British Army. The UK also shares a close alliance with Portugal, which dates back to the Treaty of Windsor in 1386 and is the oldest alliance in the world still in force. Other close allies include other European Union and NATO members, Commonwealth nations, and Japan. Britain's global presence and influence is further amplified through its trading relations, foreign investments, official development assistance and armed forces.
Her Majesty's Armed Forces also known as the British Armed Forces and sometimes as the Armed Forces of the Crown are the armed forces of the United Kingdom. They encompass three professional service branches, the Naval Service (including the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Fleet Auxiliary), the British Army, and the Royal Air Force. The forces are all managed by the Ministry of Defence and controlled by the Defence Council, chaired by the Secretary of State for Defence. The Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty's Armed Forces is the British monarch,Queen Elizabeth II, to whom members of the forces swear allegiance.
Historically, the British Armed Forces had played a key role in establishing the British Empire as the dominant world power. Having seen action in a number of major wars involving other world powers, such as the Seven Years' War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, World War I and World War II - repeatedly emerging victorious allowed Britain to influence world events with its policies and emerge as the world's leading military and economic power. Since the end of the British Empire, the United Kingdom has nonetheless remained a great power and the British Armed Forces are among the largest and most technologically sophisticated armed forces in the world. Recent defence policy has a stated assumption that "the most demanding operations" will be undertaken as part of a coalition. Setting aside the intervention in Sierra Leone, UK military operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and, most recently, Libya, have followed this approach. The last war in which the British military fought alone was the Falklands War of 1982, in which they were victorious.
The Armed Forces are charged with protecting the UK and its overseas territories, promoting the UK's global security interests and supporting international peacekeeping efforts. They are active and regular participants in NATO, including the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, as well as the Five Power Defence Arrangements, RIMPAC and other worldwide coalition operations. Overseas garrisons and facilities are maintained in Ascension Island, Belize, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Diego Garcia, the Falkland Islands, Germany, Gibraltar, Kenya and Qatar.
According to various sources, including the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the Ministry of Defence, the United Kingdom has the fourth-highest military expenditure in the world. Total defence spending currently accounts for around 2.3% – 2.6% of total national GDP.
The Royal Navy is a prominent blue-water navy, currently one of only three world wide, with the French Navy and the United States Navy being the other two. As well as being responsible for delivering the UKs Nuclear Deterrent via the UK Trident programme and four Vanguard class submarines, the Royal Navy operates a large operational fleet of ships, including an aircraft carrier, a helicopter carrier, landing platform docks, nuclear fleet submarines, guided missile destroyers, frigates, mine-countermeasure vessels and patrol vessels. In the near future two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will enter service in the Royal Navy. The United Kingdom Special Forces, such as the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service, provide troops trained for quick, mobile, military responses in counter-terrorism, land, maritime and amphibious operations, often where secrecy or covert tactics are required.
The UK has a partially regulated market economy. Based on market exchange rates the UK is today the sixth-largest economy in the world and the third-largest in Europe after Germany and France, having fallen behind France for the first time in over a decade in 2008.HM Treasury, led by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is responsible for developing and executing the British government's public finance policy and economic policy. The Bank of England is the UK's central bank and is responsible for issuing the nation's currency, the pound sterling. Banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland retain the right to issue their own notes, subject to retaining enough Bank of England notes in reserve to cover their issue. Pound sterling is the world's third-largest reserve currency (after the U.S. Dollar and the Euro). Since 1997 the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, headed by the Governor of the Bank of England, has been responsible for setting interest rates at the level necessary to achieve the overall inflation target for the economy that is set by the Chancellor each year.
The UK service sector makes up around 73% of GDP. London is one of the three "command centres" of the global economy (alongside New York City and Tokyo), is the world's largest financial centre alongside New York, and has the largest city GDP in Europe. Edinburgh is also one of the largest financial centres in Europe.Tourism is very important to the British economy and, with over 27 million tourists arriving in 2004, the United Kingdom is ranked as the sixth major tourist destination in the world and London has the most international visitors of any city in the world. The creative industries accounted for 7% GVA in 2005 and grew at an average of 6% per annum between 1997 and 2005.
The Industrial Revolution started in the UK with an initial concentration on the textile industry, followed by other heavy industries such as shipbuilding, coal mining, and Steelmaking. The empire created an overseas market for British products, allowing the UK to dominate international trade in the 19th century. As other nations industrialised, coupled with economic decline after two world wars, the United Kingdom began to lose its competitive advantage and heavy industry declined, by degrees, throughout the 20th century. Manufacturing remains a significant part of the economy but accounted for only 16.7% of national output in 2003.
The automotive industry is a significant part of the UK manufacturing sector and employs over 800,000 people, with a turnover of some £52 billion, generating £26.6 billion of exports. The aerospace industry of the UK is the second- or third-largest national aerospace industry depending upon the method of measurement and has an annual turnover of around £20 billion. The pharmaceutical industry plays an important role in the UK economy and the country has the third highest share of global pharmaceutical R&D expenditures (after the United States and Japan).
In the final quarter of 2008 the UK economy officially entered recession for the first time since 1991.Unemployment increased from 5.2% in May 2008 to 7.6% in May 2009 and by January 2012 the unemployment rate among 18 to 24-year-olds had risen from 11.9% to 22.5%, the highest since current records began in 1992. Total UK government debt rose from 44.4% of GDP in 2007 to 82.9% of GDP in 2011.
The poverty line in the UK is commonly defined as being 60% of the median household income. In 2007–2008 13.5 million people, or 22% of the population, lived below this line. This is a higher level of relative poverty than all but four other EU members. In the same year 4.0 million children, 31% of the total, lived in households below the poverty line after housing costs were taken into account. This is a decrease of 400,000 children since 1998–1999. The UK imports 40% of its food supplies.
Science and technology
England and Scotland were leading centres of the Scientific Revolution from the 17th century and the United Kingdom led the Industrial Revolution from the 18th century, and has continued to produce scientists and engineers credited with important advances. Major theorists from the 17th and 18th centuries include Isaac Newton, whose laws of motion and illumination of gravity have been seen as a keystone of modern science, from the 19th century Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution by natural selection was fundamental to the development of modern biology, and James Clerk Maxwell, who formulated classical electromagnetic theory, and more recently Stephen Hawking, who has advanced major theories in the fields of cosmology, quantum gravity and the investigation of black holes. Major scientific discoveries from the 18th century include hydrogen by Henry Cavendish, from the 20th century penicillin by Alexander Fleming, and the structure of DNA, by Francis Crick and others. Major engineering projects and applications by people from the UK in the 18th century include the steam locomotive, developed by Richard Trevithick and Andrew Vivian, from the 19th century the electric motor by Michael Faraday, the incandescent light bulb by Joseph Swan, and the first practical telephone, patented by Alexander Graham Bell, and in the 20th century the world's first working television system by John Logie Baird and others, the jet engine by Frank Whittle, the basis of the modern computer by Alan Turing, and the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee. Scientific research and development remains important in British universities, with many establishing science parks to facilitate production and co-operation with industry. Between 2004 and 2008 the UK produced 7% of the world's scientific research papers and had an 8% share of scientific citations, the third and second highest in the world (after the United States and China, and the United States, respectively). Scientific journals produced in the UK include Nature, the British Medical Journal and The Lancet.
A radial road network totals 29,145 miles (46,904 km) of main roads, 2,173 miles (3,497 km) of motorways and 213,750 miles (344,000 km) of paved roads. In 2009 there were a total of 34 million licensed vehicles in Great Britain. The National Rail network of 10,072 route miles (16,116 km) in Great Britain and 189 route miles (303 route km) in Northern Ireland carries over 18,000 passenger and 1,000 freight trains daily. Plans are now being considered to build new high-speed railway lines by 2025.
In the year from October 2009 to September 2010 UK airports handled a total of 211.4 million passengers. In that period the three largest airports were London Heathrow Airport (65.6 million passengers), Gatwick Airport (31.5 million passengers) and London Stansted Airport (18.9 million passengers). London Heathrow Airport, located 15 miles (24 km) west of the capital, has the most international passenger traffic of any airport in the world and is the hub for the UK flag carrier British Airways, as well as BMI and Virgin Atlantic.
In 2006 the UK was the world's ninth-largest consumer of energy and the 15th largest producer. In 2007 the UK had a total energy output of 9.5 quadrillion Btus, of which the composition was oil (38%), natural gas (36%), coal (13%), nuclear (11%) and other renewables (2%). In 2009 the UK produced 1.5 million barrels per day (bbl/d) of oil and consumed 1.7 million bbl/d. Production is now in decline and the UK has been a net importer of oil since 2005. As of 2010[update] the UK has around 3.1 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves, the largest of any EU member state.
In 2009 the UK was the 13th largest producer of natural gas in the world and the largest producer in the EU. Production is now in decline and the UK has been a net importer of natural gas since 2004. In 2009 the UK produced 19.7 million tons of coal and consumed 60.2 million tons. In 2005 it had proven recoverable coal reserves of 171 million tons. It has been estimated that identified onshore areas have the potential to produce between 7 billion tonnes and 16 billion tonnes of coal through underground coal gasification (UCG). Based on current UK coal consumption, these volumes represent reserves that could last the UK between 200 and 400 years. The UK is home to a number of large energy companies, including two of the six oil and gas "supermajors" – BP and Royal Dutch Shell – and BG Group.
A census is taken simultaneously in all parts of the UK every ten years. The Office for National Statistics is responsible for collecting data for England and Wales, the General Register Office for Scotland and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency each being responsible for censuses in their respective countries. In the 2001 census the total population of the United Kingdom was 58,789,194, the third largest in the European Union, the fifth largest in the Commonwealth and the twenty-first largest in the world. By mid-2010 this was estimated to have grown to 62,262,000. 2010 was the third successive year in which natural change contributed more to population growth than net long-term international migration. Between 2001 and 2010 the population increased by an average annual rate of 0.6 per cent. This compares to 0.3 per cent per year in the period 1991 to 2001 and 0.2 per cent in the decade 1981 to 1991. The mid-2007 population estimates revealed that, for the first time, the UK was home to more people of pensionable age than children under the age of 16. It has been estimated that the number of people aged 100 or over will rise steeply to reach over 626,000 by 2080.
England's population in mid-2010 was estimated to be 52.23 million. It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with 383 people resident per square kilometre in mid-2003, with a particular concentration in London and the south-east. The mid-2010 estimates put Scotland's population at 5.22 million, Wales at 3.01 million and Northern Ireland at 1.80 million, with much lower population densities than England. Compared to England's 383 inhabitants per square kilometre (990 /sq mi), the corresponding figures were 142 /km2 (370 /sq mi) for Wales, 125 /km2 (320 /sq mi) for Northern Ireland and 65 /km2 (170 /sq mi) for Scotland in mid-2003. In percentage terms Northern Ireland has had the fastest growing population of any country of the UK in each of the four years to mid-2008.
In 2009 the average total fertility rate (TFR) across the UK was 1.94 children per woman. While a rising birth rate is contributing to current population growth, it remains considerably below the 'baby boom' peak of 2.95 children per woman in 1964, below the replacement rate of 2.1, but higher than the 2001 record low of 1.63. In 2010, Scotland had the lowest TFR at only 1.75, followed by Wales at 1.98, England at 2.00, and Northern Ireland at 2.06.
Historically, indigenous British people were thought to be descended from the various ethnic groups that settled there before the 11th century: the Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Norse and the Normans. Welsh people could be the oldest ethnic group in the UK. Recent genetic studies have shown that more than 50 percent of England's gene pool contains Germanic Y chromosomes, though other recent genetic analysis indicates that "about 75 per cent of the traceable ancestors of the modern British population had arrived in the British isles by about 6,200 years ago, at the start of the British Neolithic or Stone Age", and that the British broadly share a common ancestry with the Basque people.
The UK has a history of small-scale non-white immigration, with Liverpool having the oldest Black population in the country dating back to at least the 1730s, and the oldest Chinese community in Europe, dating to the arrival of Chinese seamen in the 19th century. In 1950 there were probably fewer than 20,000 non-white residents in Britain, almost all born overseas.
Since 1945 substantial immigration from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia has been a legacy of ties forged by the British Empire. Migration from new EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe since 2004 has resulted in growth in these population groups but, as of 2008[update], the trend is reversing and many of these migrants are returning home, leaving the size of these groups unknown. As of 2001[update], 92.1% of the population identified themselves as White, leaving 7.9% of the UK population identifying themselves as mixed race or of an ethnic minority.
Ethnic diversity varies significantly across the UK. 30.4% of London's population and 37.4% of Leicester's was estimated to be non-white as of June 2005[update], whereas less than 5% of the populations of North East England, Wales and the South West were from ethnic minorities according to the 2001 census. As of 2011[update], 26.5% of primary and 22.2% of secondary pupils at state schools in England are members of an ethnic minority.
In 2009,, official estimates have shown that the non-white British population of England and Wales has increased by 38% from 6.6 million in 2001 to 9.1 million in 2009. The fastest growing group is the mixed-race population that doubled from 672,000 in 2001 to 986,600 in 2009. Also in the same period, a decrease of 36,000 white British people was recorded.
The UK's de facto official language is English (British English), a West Germanic language descended from Old English which features a large number of borrowings from Old Norse, Norman French, Greek and Latin. The English language has spread across the world, initially because of the British Empire from the 17th to the mid-20th century, and subsequently due to the dominance of the United States, and has become the main international language of business as well as the most widely taught second language.
There are four Celtic languages in use in the UK: Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Cornish. The first three are recognised as regional or minority languages subject to specific measures of protection and promotion under relevant European law, while Cornish is recognised but not specifically protected. In the 2001 Census over a fifth (21%) of the population of Wales said they could speak Welsh, an increase from the 1991 Census (18%). In addition it is estimated that about 200,000 Welsh speakers live in England. In the same census in Northern Ireland 167,487 people (10.4%) stated that they had "some knowledge of Irish" (see Irish language in Northern Ireland), almost exclusively in the nationalist (mainly Catholic) population. Over 92,000 people in Scotland (just under 2% of the population) had some Gaelic language ability, including 72% of those living in the Outer Hebrides. The number of schoolchildren being taught through Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish is increasing. Among emigrant-descended populations some Scottish Gaelic is still spoken in Canada (principally Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island), and Welsh in Patagonia, Argentina.
Scots, a language descended from early northern Middle English, has limited recognition alongside its regional variant, Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland, without specific commitments to protection and promotion.
It is compulsory for pupils to study a second language up to the age of 14 in England, and up to age 16 in Scotland. French and German are the two most commonly taught second languages in England and Scotland. In Wales, all pupils up to age 16 are taught Welsh as a second language, or taught in Welsh.
Forms of Christianity have dominated religious life in what is now the United Kingdom for over 1,400 years. Although a majority of citizens still identify with Christianity in many surveys, regular church attendance has fallen dramatically since the middle of the 20th century, while immigration and demographic change have contributed to the growth of other faiths, most notably Islam. This has led some commentators to variously describe the UK as a multi-faith,secularised, or post-Christian society.
In the 2001 census 71.6% of all respondents indicated that they were Christians, with the next largest faiths (by number of adherents) being Islam (2.8%), Hinduism (1.0%), Sikhism (0.6%), Judaism (0.5%), Buddhism (0.3%) and all other religions (0.3%). 15% of respondents stated that they had no religion, with a further 7% not stating a religious preference. A Tearfund survey in 2007 showed only one in ten Britons actually attend church weekly.
The (Anglican) Church of England is the established church in England. It retains a representation in the UK Parliament and the British monarch is its Supreme Governor. In Scotland the Presbyterian Church of Scotland is recognised as the national church. It is not subject to state control, and the British monarch is an ordinary member, required to swear an oath to "maintain and preserve the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government" upon his or her accession. The (Anglican) Church in Wales was disestablished in 1920 and, as the (Anglican) Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1870 before the partition of Ireland, there is no established church in Northern Ireland. Although there are no UK-wide data in the 2001 census on adherence to individual Christian denominations, Ceri Peach has estimated that 62% of Christians are Anglican, 13.5% Roman Catholic, 6% Presbyterian, 3.4% Methodist with small numbers of other Protestant denominations or Orthodox churches.
The United Kingdom has experienced successive waves of migration. The Great Famine in Ireland resulted in a large population migrating to others parts of the United Kingdom. Over 120,000 Polish veterans settled in Britain after World War II, unable to return home. In the 20th century there was significant immigration from the colonies and newly independent former colonies, driven largely by post-World War II labour shortages. Many of these migrants came from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent.
In 2010, there were 7.0 million foreign-born residents in the UK, corresponding to 11.3% of the total population. Of these, 4.76 million (7.7%) were born outside the EU and 2.24 million (3.6%) were born in another EU Member State. The proportion of foreign-born people in the UK remains slightly below that of many other European countries, although immigration is now contributing to a rising population, with arrivals and UK-born children of migrants accounting for about half of the population increase between 1991 and 2001. Analysis of Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows that a net total of 2.3 million migrants moved to the UK in the 15 years from 1991 to 2006. In 2008 it was predicted that migration would add 7 million to the UK population by 2031, though these figures are disputed. The ONS reported that net migration rose from 2009 to 2010 by 21 percent to 239,000. In 2011 the net increase was 251,000: immigration was 589,000, while the number of people emigrating (for more than 12 months) was 338,000.
195,046 foreign nationals became British citizens in 2010, compared to 54,902 in 1999. A record 241,192 people were granted permanent settlement rights in 2010, of whom 51 per cent were from Asia and 27 per cent from Africa. 25.1 per cent of babies born in England and Wales in 2010 were born to mothers born outside the UK, according to official statistics released in 2011.
At least 5.5 million British-born people are living abroad, the top four destinations being Australia, Spain, the United States and Canada. Emigration was an important feature of British society in the 19th century. Between 1815 and 1930 around 11.4 million people emigrated from Britain and 7.3 million from Ireland. Estimates show that by the end of the 20th century some 300 million people of British and Irish descent were permanently settled around the globe.
Citizens of the European Union, including those of the UK, have the right to live and work in any member state. The UK applied temporary restrictions to citizens of Romania and Bulgaria which joined the EU in January 2007. Research conducted by the Migration Policy Institute for the Equality and Human Rights Commission suggests that, between May 2004 and September 2009, 1.5 million workers migrated from the new EU member states to the UK, two-thirds of them Polish, but that many subsequently returned home, resulting in a net increase in the number of nationals of the new member states in the UK of some 700,000 over that period. The late-2000s recession in the UK reduced the economic incentive for Poles to migrate to the UK, with the migration becoming temporary and circular. In 2009, for the first time since enlargement, more nationals of the eight central and eastern European states that had joined the EU in 2004 left the UK than arrived. In 2011, citizens of the new EU member states made up 13% of the immigrants entering the country.
The UK government has introduced a points-based immigration system for immigration from outside the European Economic Area to replace former schemes, including the Scottish Government's Fresh Talent Initiative. In June 2010 the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government introduced a temporary limit of 24,000 on immigration from outside the EU, aiming to discourage applications before a permanent cap was imposed in April 2011. The cap has caused tension within the coalition: business secretary Vince Cable has argued that it is harming British businesses.
Education in the United Kingdom is a devolved matter, with each country having a separate education system.
Education in England is the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Education, though the day-to-day administration and funding of state schools is the responsibility of local authorities. Universally free of charge state education was introduced piecemeal between 1870 and 1944, with education becoming compulsory for all 5 to 14 year-olds in 1921. Education is now mandatory from ages five to sixteen (15 if born in late July or August). The majority of children are educated in state-sector schools, only a small proportion of which select on the grounds of academic ability. State schools which are allowed to select pupils according to intelligence and academic ability can achieve comparable results to the most selective private schools: out of the top ten performing schools in terms of GCSE results in 2006 two were state-run grammar schools. Despite a fall in actual numbers the proportion of children in England attending private schools has risen to over 7%. Over half of students at the leading universities of Cambridge and Oxford had attended state schools. The universities of England include some of the top universities in the world; the University of Cambridge, University College London, the University of Oxford and Imperial College London are all ranked in the global top 10 in the 2010 QS World University Rankings, with Cambridge ranked first.Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) rated pupils in England 7th in the world for maths and 6th for science. The results put England's pupils ahead of other European countries, including Germany and the Scandinavian countries.
Education in Scotland is the responsibility of the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, with day-to-day administration and funding of state schools the responsibility of Local Authorities. Two non-departmental public bodies have key roles in Scottish education: the Scottish Qualificat
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