|UNITED KINGDOM COAT OF ARMS|
United Kingdom within the continent of Europe
Map of United Kingdom
Description of Flag United Kingdom : blue field with the red cross of Saint George (patron saint of England) edged in white superimposed on the diagonal red cross of Saint Patrick (patron saint of Ireland), which is superimposed on the diagonal white cross of Saint Andrew (patron saint of Scotland); properly known as the Union Flag, but commonly called the Union Jack; the design and colors (especially the Blue Ensign) have been the basis for a number of other flags including other Commonwealth countries and their constituent states or provinces, and British overseas territories
Official name United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Form of government constitutional monarchy with two legislative houses (House of Lords ; House of Commons )
Head of state Sovereign: Queen Elizabeth II
Head of government Prime Minister: David Cameron
Official languages English; both English and Scots Gaelic in Scotland; both English and Welsh in Wales
Official religion See footnote 2.
Monetary unit pound sterling (£)
Population (2013 est.) 64,229,000COLLAPSE
Total area (sq mi) 93,851
Total area (sq km) 243,073
- Urban: (2011) 79.6%
- Rural: (2011) 20.4%
Life expectancy at birth
- Male: (2008–2010) 78.1 years
- Female: (2008–2010) 82.1 years
Literacy: percentage of population age 15 and over literate
- Male: (2006) 99%
- Female: (2006) 99%
GNI per capita (U.S.$) (2013) 39,110
1Active members as of December 2013, including 89 hereditary peers, 646 life peers, and 25 archbishops and bishops.
2Church of England “established” (protected by the state but not “official”); Church of Scotland “national” (exclusive jurisdiction in spiritual matters per Church of Scotland Act 1921); no established church in Northern Ireland or Wales.
Background of United Kingdom
The United Kingdom has historically played a leading role in developing parliamentary democracy and in advancing literature and science. At its zenith in the 19th century, the British Empire stretched over one-fourth of the earth's surface. The first half of the 20th century saw the UK's strength seriously depleted in two world wars and the Irish Republic's withdrawal from the union. The second half witnessed the dismantling of the Empire and the UK rebuilding itself into a modern and prosperous European nation. As one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council and a founding member of NATO and the Commonwealth, the UK pursues a global approach to foreign policy. The UK is also an active member of the EU, although it chose to remain outside the Economic and Monetary Union. The Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Northern Ireland Assembly were established in 1999. The latter was suspended until May 2007 due to wrangling over the peace process, but devolution was fully completed in March 2010.
It is also an island country located off the northwestern coast of mainland Europe. The United Kingdom comprises the whole of the island of Great Britain—which contains England, Wales, and Scotland—as well as the northern portion of the island of Ireland. The name Britain is sometimes used to refer to the United Kingdom as a whole. The capital is London, which is among the world’s leading commercial, financial, and cultural centres. Other major cities include Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester in England, Belfast and Londonderry in Northern Ireland, Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland, and Swansea and Cardiff in Wales.
The origins of the United Kingdom can be traced to the time of the Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan, who in the early 10th century ce secured the allegiance of neighbouring Celtic kingdoms and became “the first to rule what previously many kings shared between them,” in the words of a contemporary chronicle. Through subsequent conquest over the following centuries, kingdoms lying farther afield came under English dominion. Wales, a congeries of Celtic kingdoms lying in Great Britain’s southwest, was formally united with England by the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1542; Scotland, ruled by an English monarch since 1603, formally was joined with England and Wales in 1707 to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain. (The adjective “British” came into use at this time to refer to all the kingdom’s peoples.) Ireland came under English control during the 1600s and was formally united with Great Britain through the Act of Union of 1800. The republic of Ireland gained its independence in 1922, but six of Ulster’s nine counties remained part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. Relations between these constituent states and England have been marked by controversy and, at times, open rebellion and even warfare. These tensions relaxed somewhat during the late 20th century, when devolved assemblies were introduced in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Nonetheless, even with the establishment of a power-sharing assembly after referenda in both Northern Ireland and the Irish republic, relations between Northern Ireland’s unionists (who favour continued British sovereignty over Northern Ireland) and nationalists (who favour unification with the republic of Ireland) remained tense into the 21st century.
The United Kingdom has made significant contributions to the world economy, especially in technology and industry. Since World War II, however, the United Kingdom’s most prominent exports have been cultural, including literature, theatre, film, television, and popular music that draw on all parts of the country. Perhaps Britain’s greatest export has been the English language, now spoken in every corner of the world as one of the leading international mediums of cultural and economic exchange.
The United Kingdom retains links with parts of its former empire through the Commonwealth. It also benefits from historical and cultural links with the United States and is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Moreover, the United Kingdom is a member of the European Union, if a sometimes reluctant one. Many of its people hold to the sentiments of the great wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, who sonorously remarked, “We see nothing but good and hope in a richer, freer, more contented European commonalty. But we have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked, but not comprised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed.” Yet a cosmopolitan, resolutely multicultural United Kingdom—incorporating African, Caribbean, and Asian as well as Anglo-Saxon and Celtic influences—is now firmly joined to the European continent, and the country’s former insularity—both literal and metaphorical—and sense of exceptionalism have at least for many given way to a new vision of its place in the world, which continues to be an important one.
Geography of United Kingdom
The United Kingdom comprises four geographic and historical parts—England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom contains most of the area and population of the British Isles—the geographic term for the group of islands that includes Great Britain, Ireland, and many smaller islands. Together England, Wales, and Scotland constitute Great Britain, the larger of the two principal islands, while Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland constitute the second largest island, Ireland. England, occupying most of southern Great Britain, includes the Isles of Scilly off the southwest coast and the Isle of Wight off the southern coast. Scotland, occupying northern Great Britain, includes the Orkney and Shetland islands off the northern coast and the Hebrides off the northwestern coast. Wales lies west of England and includes the island of Anglesey to the northwest.
Apart from the land border with the Irish republic, the United Kingdom is surrounded by sea. To the south of England and between the United Kingdom and France is the English Channel. The North Sea lies to the east. To the west of Wales and northern England and to the southeast of Northern Ireland, the Irish Sea separates Great Britain from Ireland, while southwestern England, the northwestern coast of Northern Ireland, and western Scotland face the Atlantic Ocean. At its widest the United Kingdom is 300 miles (500 km) across. From the northern tip of Scotland to the southern coast of England, it is about 600 miles (1,000 km). No part is more than 75 miles (120 km) from the sea. The capital, London, is situated on the tidal River Thames in southeastern England.
The archipelago formed by Great Britain and the numerous smaller islands is as irregular in shape as it is diverse in geology and landscape. This diversity stems largely from the nature and disposition of the underlying rocks, which are westward extensions of European structures, with the shallow waters of the Strait of Dover and the North Sea concealing former land links. Northern Ireland contains a westward extension of the rock structures of Scotland. These common rock structures are breached by the narrow North Channel.
On a global scale, this natural endowment covers a small area—approximating that of the U.S. state of Oregon or the African country of Guinea—and its internal diversity, accompanied by rapid changes of often beautiful scenery, may convey to visitors from larger countries a striking sense of compactness and consolidation. The peoples who, over the centuries, have hewed an existence from this Atlantic extremity of Eurasia have put their own imprint on the environment, and the ancient and distinctive palimpsest of their field patterns and settlements complements the natural diversity.
Great Britain is traditionally divided into a highland and a lowland zone. A line running from the mouth of the River Exe, in the southwest, to that of the Tees, in the northeast, is a crude expression of this division. The course of the 700-foot (213-metre) contour, or of the boundary separating the older rocks of the north and west from the younger southeastern strata, provides a more accurate indication of the extent of the highlands.
- THE HIGHLAND ZONE
The creation of the highlands was a long process, yet elevations, compared with European equivalents, are low, with the highest summit, Ben Nevis, only 4,406 feet (1,343 metres) above sea level. In addition, the really mountainous areas above 2,000 feet (600 metres) often form elevated plateaus with relatively smooth surfaces, reminders of the effects of former periods of erosion.
Scotland’s three main topographic regions follow the northeast-to-southwest trend of the ancient underlying rocks. The northern Highlands and the Southern Uplands are separated by the intervening rift valley, or subsided structural block, called the Midland Valley (or Central Lowlands). The core of the Highlands is the elevated, worn-down surface of the Grampian Mountains, 1,000–3,600 feet (300–1,100 metres) above sea level, with the Cairngorm Mountains rising to elevations of more than 4,000 feet (1,200 metres). This majestic mountain landscape is furrowed by numerous wide valleys, or straths. Occasional large areas of lowland, often fringed with long lines of sand dunes, add variety to the east. The Buchan peninsula, the Moray Firth estuarine flats, and the plain of Caithness—all low-lying areas—contrast sharply with the mountain scenery and show smoother outlines than do the glacier-scoured landscapes of the west, where northeast-facing hollows, or corries, separated by knife-edge ridges and deep glens, sculpt the surfaces left by earlier erosion. The many freshwater lochs (lakes) further enhance a landscape of wild beauty. The linear Glen Mor—where the Caledonian Canal now threads the chain of lakes that includes Loch Ness—is the result of a vast structural sideways tear in the whole mass of the North West Highlands. To the northwest of Glen Mor stretches land largely divided among agricultural smallholdings, or crofts; settlement is intermittent and mostly coastal, a pattern clearly reflecting the pronounced dissection of a highland massif that has been scored and plucked by the Ice Age glaciers. Many sea-drowned, glacier-widened river valleys (fjords) penetrate deeply into the mountains, the outliers of which rise from the sea in stately, elongated peninsulas or emerge in hundreds of offshore islands.
In comparison with the Scottish Highlands, the Southern Uplands of Scotland present a more subdued relief, with elevations that never exceed 2,800 feet (850 metres). The main hill masses are the Cheviots, which reach 2,676 feet (816 metres) in elevation, while only Merrick and Broad Law have elevations above the 2,700-foot (830-metre) contour line. Broad plateaus separated by numerous dales characterize these uplands, and in the west most of the rivers flow across the prevailing northeast-southwest trend, following the general slope of the plateau, toward the Solway Firth or the Firth of Clyde. Bold masses of granite and the rugged imprint of former glaciers occasionally engender mountainous scenery. In the east the valley network of the River Tweed and its many tributaries forms a broad lowland expanse between the Lammermuir and Cheviot hills.
The Midland Valley lies between great regular structural faults. The northern boundary with the Highlands is a wall-like escarpment, but the boundary with the Southern Uplands is sharp only near the coast. This vast trench is by no means a continuous plain, for high ground—often formed of sturdy, resistant masses of volcanic rock—meets the eye in all directions, rising above the low-lying areas that flank the rivers and the deeply penetrating estuaries of the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth.
In Northern Ireland, structural extensions of the Scottish Highlands reappear in the generally rugged mountain scenery and in the peat-covered summits of the Sperrin Mountains, which reach an elevation of 2,241 feet (683 metres). The uplands in the historic counties Down and Armagh are the western continuation of Scotland’s Southern Uplands but reach elevations of more than 500 feet (150 metres) only in limited areas; the one important exception is the Mourne Mountains, a lovely cluster of granite summits the loftiest of which, Slieve Donard, rises to an elevation of 2,789 feet (850 metres) within 2 miles (3.2 km) of the sea. In the central region of Northern Ireland that corresponds to Scotland’s Midland Valley, an outpouring of basaltic lavas has formed a huge plateau, much of which is occupied by the shallow Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles.
The highland zone of England and Wales consists, from north to south, of four broad upland masses: the Pennines, the Cumbrian Mountains, the Cambrian Mountains, and the South West Peninsula. The Pennines are usually considered to end in the north at the River Tyne gap, but the surface features of several hills in Northumberland are in many ways similar to those of the northern Pennines. The general surface of the asymmetrically arched backbone (anticline) of the Pennines is remarkably smooth because many of the valleys, though deep, occupy such a small portion of the total area that the windswept moorland between them appears almost featureless. This is particularly true of the landscape around Alston, in Cumbria (Cumberland), which—cut off by faults on its north, west, and south sides—stands out as an almost rectangular block of high moorland plateau with isolated peaks (known to geographers as monadnocks) rising up above it. Farther south, deep and scenic dales (valleys) dissect the Pennine plateau. The dales’ craggy sides are formed of millstone grit, and beneath them flow streams stepped by waterfalls. The most southerly part of the Pennines is a grassy upland. More than 2,000 feet (610 metres) above sea level in places, it is characterized by the dry valleys, steep-sided gorges, and underground streams and caverns of a limestone drainage system rather than the bleak moorland that might be expected at this elevation. At lower levels the larger dales are more richly wooded, and the trees stand out against a background of rugged cliffs of white-gray rocks. On both Pennine flanks, older rocks disappear beneath younger layers, and the uplands merge into flanking coastal lowlands.
The Cumbrian Mountains, which include the famous Lake District celebrated in poetry by William Wordsworth and the other Lake poets, constitute an isolated, compact mountain group to the west of the northern Pennines. Many deep gorges, separated by narrow ridges and sharp peaks, characterize the northern Cumbrian Mountains, which consist of tough slate rock. Greater expanses of level upland, formed from thick beds of lava and the ash thrown out by ancient volcanoes, lie to the south. The volcanic belt is largely an irregular upland traversed by deep, narrow valleys, and it includes England’s highest point, Scafell Pike, with an elevation of 3,210 feet (978 metres), and Helvellyn, at 3,116 feet (950 metres). Nine rivers flowing out in all directions from the centre of this uplifted dome form a classic radial drainage pattern. The valleys, often containing long, narrow lakes, have been widened to a U shape by glacial action, which has also etched corries from the mountainsides and deposited the debris in moraines. Glacial action also created a number of “hanging valleys” by truncating former tributary valleys.
The Cambrian Mountains, which form the core of Wales, are clearly defined by the sea except on the eastern side, where a sharp break of slope often marks the transition to the English lowlands. Cycles of erosion have repeatedly worn down the ancient and austere surfaces. Many topographic features derive from glacial processes, and some of the most striking scenery stems largely from former volcanism. The mountain areas above 2,000 feet (610 metres) are most extensive in North Wales. These include Snowdonia—named for Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa), the highest point in Wales, with an elevation of 3,560 feet (1,085 metres)—and its southeastern extensions, Cader Idris and Berwyn. With the exception of Plynlimon and the Radnor Forest, central Wales lacks similar high areas, but the monadnocks of South Wales—notably the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons—stand out in solitary splendour above the upland surfaces. There are three such surfaces: a high plateau of 1,700 to 1,800 feet (520 to 550 metres); a middle peneplain, or worn-down surface, of 1,200 to 1,600 feet (370 to 490 metres); and a low peneplain of 700 to 1,100 feet (210 to 340 metres). These smooth, rounded, grass-covered moorlands present a remarkably even skyline. Below 700 feet (210 metres) lies a further series of former wave-cut surfaces. Several valleys radiate from the highland core to the coastal regions. In the west these lowlands have provided a haven for traditional Welsh culture, but the deeply penetrating eastern valleys have channeled English culture into the highland. A more extensive lowland—physically and structurally an extension of the English lowlands—borders the Bristol Channel in the southeast. The irregularities of the 600-mile (970-km) Welsh coast show differing adjustments to the pounding attack of the sea.
The South West—England’s largest peninsula—has six conspicuous uplands: Exmoor, where Dunkery Beacon reaches an elevation of 1,704 feet (519 metres); the wild, granite uplands of Dartmoor, which reach 2,038 feet (621 metres) at High Willhays; Bodmin Moor; Hensbarrow; Carn Brea; and the Penwith upland that forms the spectacular extremity of Land’s End. Granite reappears above the sea in the Isles of Scilly, 28 miles (45 km) farther southwest. Despite the variation in elevation, the landscape in the South West, like that of so many other parts of the United Kingdom, has a quite marked uniformity of summit heights, with a high series occurring between 1,000 and 1,400 feet (300 and 430 metres), a middle group between 700 and 1,000 feet (210 and 300 metres), and coastal plateaus ranging between 200 and 400 feet (60 and 120 metres). A network of deep, narrow valleys alternates with flat-topped, steplike areas rising inland. The South West derives much of its renowned physical attraction from its peninsular nature; with both dramatic headlands and magnificent drowned estuaries created by sea-level changes, the coastline is unsurpassed for its diversity.
- THE LOWLAND ZONE
Gauged by the 700-foot (210-metre) contour line, the lowland zone starts around the Solway Firth in the northwest, with a strip of low-lying ground extending up the fault-directed Vale of Eden (the valley of the River Eden). Southward the narrow coastal plain bordering the Lake District broadens into the flat, glacial-drift-covered Lancashire and Cheshire plains, with their slow-flowing rivers. East of the Pennine ridge the lowlands are continuous, except for the limestone plateau north of the River Tees and, to the south, the North York Moors, with large exposed tracts that have elevations of more than 1,400 feet (430 metres). West of the North York Moors lies the wide Vale of York, which merges with the east Midland plain to the south. The younger rocks of the Midlands terminate at the edge of the Cambrian Mountains to the west. The lowland continues southward along the flat landscapes bordering the lower River Severn, becomes constricted by the complex Bristol-Mendip upland, and opens out once more into the extensive and flat plain of Somerset. The eastern horizon of much of the Midland plain is the scarp face of the Cotswolds, part of the discontinuous outcrop of limestones and sandstones that arcs from the Dorset coast in southern England as far as the Cleveland Hills on the north coast of Yorkshire. The more massive limestones and sandstones give rise to noble 1,000-foot (300-metre) escarpments, yet the dip slope is frequently of such a low angle that the countryside resembles a dissected plateau, passing gradually on to the clay vales of Oxford, White Horse, Lincoln, and Pickering. The flat, often reclaimed landscapes of the once-marshy Fens are also underlain by these clays, and the next scarp, the western-facing chalk outcrop (cuesta), undergoes several marked directional changes in the vicinity of the Wash, a shallow arm of the North Sea.
The chalk scarp is a more conspicuous and continuous feature than the sandstone and limestone outcrops farther west. It begins in the north with the open rolling country known as the Yorkshire Wolds, where elevations of 750 feet (230 metres) occur. It is breached by the River Humber and then continues in the Lincolnshire Wolds. East of the Fens the scarp is very low, barely attaining 150 feet (45 metres), but it then rises gradually to the 807-foot (246-metre) Ivinghoe Beacon in the attractive Chiltern Hills. Several wind gaps, or former river courses, interrupt the scarp, and the River Thames actually cuts through it in the Goring Gap. Where the dip slope of the chalk is almost horizontal, as in the open Salisbury Plain, the landscape forms a large dissected plateau with an elevation of 350 to 500 feet (110 to 150 metres). The main valleys contain rivers, while the other valleys remain dry.
The chalk outcrop continues into Dorset, but in the south the chalk has been folded along west-to-east lines. Downfolds, subsequently filled in by geologically recent sands and clays, now floor the London and Hampshire basins. The former, an asymmetrical synclinal (or structurally downwarped) lowland rimmed by chalk, is occupied mainly by gravel terraces and valley-side benches and has relatively little floodplain; the latter is similarly cradled by a girdle of chalk, but the southern rim, or monocline, has been cut by the sea in two places to form the scenic Isle of Wight.
Between these two synclinal areas rises the anticlinal, or structurally upwarped, dome of the Weald of Kent and Sussex. The arch of this vast geologic upfold has long since been eroded away, and the bounding chalk escarpments of the North and South Downs are therefore inward-facing and enclose a concentric series of exposed clay vales and sandstone ridges. On the coast the waters of the English Channel have undermined and eroded the upfold to produce a dazzling succession of chalk cliffs facing the European mainland, 21 miles (34 km) distant at the Strait of Dover, the narrowest part of the English Channel.
The main drainage divide in Great Britain runs from north to south, keeping well to the west until the basin of the River Severn. Westward-flowing streams empty into the Atlantic Ocean or Irish Sea over relatively short distances. The Clyde in Scotland, the Eden and Mersey in northwestern England, and the Dee, Teifi, and Tywi in Wales are the only significant westward-flowing rivers north of the Severn estuary. The drainage complex that debouches into the Severn estuary covers a large part of Wales and the South West and West Midlands of England. To the south the Avon (flowing through Bristol) and the Parret watershed extend somewhat to the east, but subsequently, with the exception of the Taw and Torridge valleys, they run very close to the western coast in Devon and Cornwall.
The rivers draining east from the main divide are longer, and several coalesce into wide estuaries. The fast-flowing Spey, Don, Tay, Forth, and Tweed of eastern Scotland run generally across impermeable rocks, and their discharges increase rapidly after rain. From the northern Pennines the Tyne, Wear, and Tees flow independently to the North Sea, but thereafter significant estuary groupings occur. A number of rivers—including the Ouse, Aire, and Trent—drain into the Humber after they leave the Pennines. To the south another group of rivers (including the Ouse, Welland, and Nene) enters the Wash after sluggishly draining a large, flat countryside. The large drainage complex of the River Thames dominates southeastern England. Its source is in the Cotswolds, and, after receiving many tributaries as it flows over the Oxford Clay, the mainstream breaches the chalk escarpment in the Goring Gap. A number of tributaries add their discharges farther downstream, and the total area draining into the Thames estuary is nearly 4,000 square miles (10,000 square km). The important rivers flowing into the English Channel are the Tamar, Exe, Avon, Test, Arun, and Ouse. The major rivers in Northern Ireland are the Erne, Foyle, and Bann.
The regional pattern of soil formation correlates with local variations of relief and climate. Although changes are gradual and soils can vary locally, a division of Britain into four climatic regimes largely explains the distribution of soils.
At the higher altitudes of the highland zone, particularly in Scotland, the weather is characterized by a cold, wet regime of more than 40 inches (1,000 mm) rainfall and less than 47 °F (8 °C) mean temperature annually; these areas have blanket peat and peaty podzol soils, with their organic surface layer resting on a gray, leached base. A regime similarly wet but with a mean annual temperature exceeding 47 °F characterizes most of the remainder of the highland zone, particularly on the lower parts of the Southern Uplands, the Solway Firth–Lake District area, the peripheral plateaus of Wales, and most of southwestern England. These areas are covered by acid brown soils and weakly podzolized associates. On the lower-lying areas within the highland zone, particularly in eastern Scotland and the eastern flanks of the Pennines, a relatively cold, dry regime gives rise to soils intermediate between the richer brown earths and the podzols.
Over the entire lowland zone, which also has a mean annual temperature above 47 °F but less than 40 inches of rainfall, leached brown soils are characteristic. Calcareous, and thus alkaline, parent materials are widespread, particularly in the southeast, so acid soils and podzols are confined to the most quartz-laden parent materials. In Northern Ireland at elevations of about 460 feet (140 metres), brown earths give way to semipodzols, and these grade upslope into more intensively leached podzols, particularly in the Sperrins and the Mournes. Between these mountains in the Lough Neagh lowland, rich brown earth soils predominate.
The climate of the United Kingdom derives from its setting within atmospheric circulation patterns and from the position of its landforms in relation to the sea. Regional diversity does exist, but the boundaries of major world climatic systems do not pass through the country. Britain’s marginal position between the European landmass to the east and the ever-present relatively warm Atlantic waters to the west exposes the country to air masses with a variety of thermal and moisture characteristics. The main types of air masses, according to their source regions, are polar and tropical; by their route of travel, both the polar and tropical may be either maritime or continental. For much of the year, the weather depends on the sequence of disturbances within the midlatitude westerlies that bring in mostly polar maritime and occasionally tropical maritime air. In winter occasional high-pressure areas to the east allow biting polar continental air to sweep over Britain. All of these atmospheric systems tend to fluctuate rapidly in their paths and to vary both in frequency and intensity by season and also from year to year. Variability is characteristic of British weather, and extreme conditions, though rare, can be very important for the life of the country.
The polar maritime winds that reach the United Kingdom in winter create a temperature distribution that is largely independent of latitude. Thus, the north-to-south run of the 40 °F (4 °C) January isotherm, or line of equal temperature, from the coast in northwestern Scotland south to the Isle of Wight betrays the moderating influence of the winds blowing off the Atlantic Ocean. In summer polar maritime air is less common, and the 9° difference of latitude and the distance from the sea assume more importance, so that temperatures increase from north to south and from the coast inland. Above-average temperatures usually accompany tropical continental air, particularly in anticyclonic, or high-pressure, conditions. On rare occasions these southerly or southeasterly airstreams can bring heat waves to southern England with temperatures of 90 °F (32 °C). The mean annual temperature ranges from 46 °F (8 °C) in the Hebrides to 52 °F (11 °C) in southwestern England. In spring and autumn a variety of airstreams and temperature conditions may occur.
Rain-producing atmospheric systems arrive from a westerly direction, and some of the bleak summits of the highest peaks of the highland zone can receive as much as 200 inches (5,100 mm) of rainfall per year. Norfolk, Suffolk, and the Thames estuary, in contrast, can expect as little as 20 inches (510 mm) annually. Rain is fairly well distributed throughout the year. June, on average, is the driest month throughout Britain; May is the next driest in the eastern and central parts of England, but April is drier in parts of the west and north. The wettest months are typically October, December, and August, but in a given year almost any month can prove to be the wettest, and the association of Britain with seemingly perpetual rainfall (a concept popularly held among foreigners) is based on a germ of truth. Some precipitation falls as snow, which increases with altitude and from southwest to northeast. The average number of days with snow falling can vary from as many as 30 in blizzard-prone northeastern Scotland to as few as five in southwestern England. Average daily hours of sunshine vary from less than three in the extreme northeast to about four and one-half along the southeastern coast.
- Plant and animal life
Except for northern Scotland, the highest hills of the north and west, the saturated fens and marshes, and the seacoast fringes, the natural vegetation of the British Isles is deciduous forest dominated by oak. Human occupation has left only scattered woodlands and areas of wild or seminatural vegetation outside the enclosed cultivated fields. Few of the fine moorlands and heathlands, wild though they may appear, can lay claim to any truly natural plant communities. Nearly all show varying degrees of adjustment to grazing, swaling (controlled burning), or other activities. Woodland now covers less than one-tenth of the country, and, although the Forestry Commission has been active since its creation in 1919, nearly two-thirds of this woodland remains in private hands. The largest areas of woodland now stand in northeastern Scotland, Kielder and other forests in Northumberland, Ashdown Forest in Sussex, Gwynedd in Wales, and Breckland in Norfolk.
The moorlands and heathlands that occupy about one-fourth of the total area of the United Kingdom consist of arctic-alpine vegetation on some mountain summits in Scotland and the much more extensive peat moss, heather, bilberry, and thin Molinia and Nardus grass moors of the highland zone. Similar vegetation exists on high ground in eastern Northern Ireland and on the Mournes, and there are considerable areas of peat moss vegetation on the mountains of Antrim. In the lowland zone, where light sandy soils occur, the most common plant of the moorlands is the common heather—whose deep purple adds a splash of colour to the autumn countryside—but these areas also contain bilberry and bell heather. A strip of land immediately bordering the coastline has also largely escaped exploitation by humans and domesticated animals, so that patches of maritime vegetation often appear in approximately their natural state.
The survival of the wild mammals, amphibians, and reptiles of the United Kingdom depends on their ability to adapt to the changing environment and to protect themselves from attacks by their enemies, the most dangerous of whom are human. British mammals survive in a greater range of habitats than do amphibians or reptiles. Most of the formerly abundant larger mammals—such as boars, reindeer, and wolves—have become extinct, but red deer survive in the Scottish Highlands and in Exmoor Forest and roe deer in the wooded areas of Scotland and southern England. Smaller carnivores (badgers, otters, foxes, stoats, and weasels) thrive in most rural areas. Rodents (rats, squirrels, mice) and insectivores (hedgehogs, moles, shrews) are also widely distributed. Rabbits are widespread, and their numbers are increasing. The other nocturnal vegetarian, the brown hare, lives in open lowland country, while the mountain hare is native to Scotland. Amphibians include three species of newt and five species of frogs and toads, while reptiles comprise three species of snakes, of which only the adder is venomous, and three species of lizards. There are no snakes in Northern Ireland.
In many respects the British Isles are an ornithologist’s paradise. The islands lie at the focal point of a migratory network, and the coastal, farmland, and urban habitats for birds are diverse. Some 200 species of birds occur in the United Kingdom, of which more than one-half are migratory. Many species are sufficiently versatile to adapt to changing conditions, and it is estimated that suburban gardens have a higher bird density than any kind of woodland. The most common game birds are the wild pigeon, pheasant, and grouse. Most numerous are the sparrow, blackbird, chaffinch, and starling.
Marshland reclamation has displaced waterfowl to various bird sanctuaries. A continuous effort by ornithological organizations has promoted and encouraged research and conservation. It also has led to the creation of bird refuges, sanctuaries, and reserves. These developments, along with a more sympathetic and enlightened attitude, may help to redress some of the worst effects of environmental changes on bird life.
Many British rivers, once renowned for their salmon, trout, roach, perch, pike, and grayling, have become polluted, and inland fisheries have consequently declined. Freshwater fishing is now largely for recreation and sport. The Dogger Bank in the North Sea, one of the richest fishing grounds in the world, has provided excellent fishing for centuries. Other good waters for fishing lie in the Irish Sea and also off the western coast of Scotland. Chief offshore species are cod, haddock, whiting, mackerel, coalfish, turbot, herring, and plaice.
Demography of United Kingdom
- Ethnic groups
For centuries people have migrated to the British Isles from many parts of the world, some to avoid political or religious persecution, others to find a better way of life or to escape poverty. In historic times migrants from the European mainland joined the indigenous population of Britain during the Roman Empire and during the invasions of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, and Normans. The Irish have long made homes in Great Britain. Many Jews arrived in Britain toward the end of the 19th century and in the 1930s. After 1945 large numbers of other European refugees settled in the country. The large immigrant communities from the West Indies and South Asia date from the 1950s and ’60s. There are also substantial groups of Americans, Australians, and Chinese, as well as various other Europeans, such as Greeks, Russians, Poles, Serbs, Estonians, Latvians, Armenians, Turkish Cypriots, Italians, and Spaniards. Beginning in the early 1970s, Ugandan Asians (expelled by Idi Amin) and immigrants from Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Sri Lanka have sought refuge in Britain. People of Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi origin account for more than half of the total ethnic minority population, and people of West Indian origin are the next largest group. The foreign-born element of the population is disproportionately concentrated in inner-city areas, and more than half live in Greater London.
All the traditional languages spoken in the United Kingdom ultimately derive from a common Indo-European origin, a tongue so ancient that, over the millennia, it has split into a variety of languages, each with its own peculiarities in sounds, grammar, and vocabulary. The distinct languages in what became the United Kingdom originated when languages from the European continent developed independently in the British Isles, cut off from regular communication with their parent languages.
Of the surviving languages the earliest to arrive were the two forms of Celtic: the Goidelic (from which Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic derive) and Brythonic (from which the old Cornish language and modern Welsh have developed). Among the contemporary Celtic languages Welsh is the strongest: about one-fifth of the total population of Wales are able to speak it, and there are extensive interior upland areas and regions facing the Irish Sea where the percentage rises to more than half. Scottish Gaelic is strongest among the inhabitants of the islands of the Outer Hebrides and Skye, although it is still heard in the nearby North West Highlands. Because less than 2 percent of Scots are able to speak Gaelic, it has long since ceased to be a national language, and even in northwestern areas, where it remains the language of religion, business, and social activity, Gaelic is losing ground. In Northern Ireland very little Irish is spoken. Similarly, Manx no longer has any native speakers, although as late as 1870 it was spoken by about half the people of the Isle of Man. The last native speakers of Cornish died in the 18th century.
The second link with Indo-European is through the ancient Germanic language group, two branches of which, the North Germanic and the West Germanic, were destined to make contributions to the English language. Modern English is derived mainly from the Germanic dialects spoken by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (who all arrived in Britain in the 5th century ad) and heavily influenced by the language of the Danes (Vikings), who began raiding the British Isles about 790 and subsequently colonized parts of northern and eastern England. The Humber became an important linguistic as well as a geographic boundary, and the English-speaking territory was divided into a Northumbrian province (roughly corresponding to the kingdom of Northumbria) and a Southumbrian province (in which the most important kingdoms were Mercia, Wessex, and Kent). In the 8th century Northumbria was foremost in literature and culture, followed for a short time by Mercia; afterward Wessex predominated politically and linguistically until the time of King Edward the Confessor.
Although the French-speaking Normans were also of Viking stock, the English population initially regarded them as much more of an alien race than the Danes. Under the Norman and Angevin kings, England formed part of a continental empire, and the prolonged connection with France retained by its new rulers and landlords made a deep impression on the English language. A hybrid speech combining Anglo-Saxon and Norman French elements developed and remained the official language, sometimes even displacing Latin in public documents, until the mid 14th century, when late Middle English, a language heavily influenced by Norman French, became the official language. This hybrid language subsequently evolved into modern English. Many additions to the English language have been made since the 14th century, but the Normans were the last important linguistic group to enter Britain.
The various Christian denominations in the United Kingdom have emerged from schisms that divided the church over the centuries. The greatest of these occurred in England in the 16th century, when Henry VIII rejected the supremacy of the pope. This break with Rome facilitated the adoption of some Protestant tenets and the founding of the Church of England, still the state church in England, although Roman Catholicism has retained adherents. In Scotland the Reformation gave rise to the Church of Scotland, which was governed by presbyteries—local bodies composed of ministers and elders—rather than by bishops, as was the case in England. Roman Catholicism in Ireland as a whole was almost undisturbed by these events, but in what became Northern Ireland the Anglican and Scottish (Presbyterian) churches had many adherents. In the 17th century further schisms divided the Church of England as a consequence of the Puritan movement, which gave rise to so-called Nonconformist denominations, such as the Baptists and the Congregationalists, that reflected the Puritan desire for simpler forms of worship and church government. The Society of Friends (Quakers) also originated at that time. Religious revivals of the mid 18th century gave Wales a form of Protestantism closely linked with the Welsh language; the Presbyterian Church of Wales (or Calvinistic Methodism) remains the most powerful religious body in the principality. The great Evangelical revivals of the 18th century, associated with John Wesley and others, led to the foundation of Methodist churches, particularly in the industrial areas. Northumberland, Durham, and Yorkshire in northeastern England and Cornwall in the southwestern peninsula still have the largest percentages of Methodists. In the 19th century the Salvation Army and various fundamentalist faiths developed. Denominations from the United States also gained adherents, and there was a marked increase in the practice of Judaism in Britain. In 1290 Jews were expelled from Britain, as they would be from other countries in the 14th and 15th centuries, a reflection of medieval anti-Semitism. The first Jewish community to be reestablished in Britain was in London in the 17th century, and in the 19th century Jews also settled in many of the large provincial cities. More than half of all British Jews live in Greater London, and nearly all the rest are members of urban communities. Britain now has the second largest Jewish community in Europe.
The British tradition of religious tolerance has been particularly important since the 1950s, when immigrants began to introduce a great variety of religious beliefs. There are large and growing communities that practice Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism. The largest number of Muslims came from Pakistan and Bangladesh, with sizable groups from India, Cyprus, the Arab world, Malaysia, and parts of Africa. The large Sikh and Hindu communities originated in India. There are also many Buddhist groups.
- Settlement patterns
British culture preserves regional variations, though they have become more muted over time. Still, the cultural identities of the Northern Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and Cornish—to say nothing of the rivalry between a North and South Walian or a Highland and Lowland Scot—are as distinct as the obvious geographic identities of these parts of the highland zone.
- RURAL SETTLEMENT
The diverse forms and patterns of settlement in the United Kingdom reflect not only the physical variety of the landscape but also the successive movements of peoples arriving as settlers, refugees, or conquerors from continental Europe, along with the changing economic contexts in which settlement has occurred. Social and economic advantages led some people to cluster, whereas others had an equally strong desire for separateness. Both tendencies mark settlement forms in Britain from very early times, and regional contrasts in the degree of dispersion and nucleation are frequent.
Single farmsteads, the many surviving old clachans (clusters or hamlets), and occasional villages and small towns still characterize much of the highland zone. Some nucleated settlement patterns, however, have undergone radical change. In Wales hamlets began to disappear in the late Middle Ages through the related processes of consolidation and enclosure that accompanied the decline in the size of the bond (feudally tied) population. The Black Death of 1349, which spread quickly among poorer inhabitants, reinforced this trend. Many surviving bondsmen fled their servile obligations amid the turmoil of the nationalistic uprising led by Owen Glendower. Thus, many Welsh hamlets had fallen into decay by 1410, when the rebellion was crushed. In Scotland great changes accompanied the late 18th-century Highland clearances, in which landlords forcibly evicted tenants and converted their holdings to sheep pastures. As late as the 1880s many clachans disappeared in Northern Ireland as part of a deliberate policy of reallocating land to new dispersed farmsteads. Great changes have also occurred in the lowland zone, where the swing to individual ownership or tenancy from the medieval custom of landholding in common brought about not only dispersion and deserted villages but the enclosure of fields by hedges and walls. Villages remain remarkably stable features of the rural landscape of Britain, however, and linear, round, oval, and ring-shaped villages survive, many with their ancient greens still held in common by the community.
- URBAN SETTLEMENT
By any standard the United Kingdom is among the most urbanized of countries, for towns not only typify the national way of life but are unusually significant elements in the geography of the country. The greatest overall change in settlement was, in fact, the massive urbanization that accompanied Britain’s early industrial development. The increasing percentage of employees in offices and service industries ensures continued urban growth. Of every 10 people in the United Kingdom, nine live in towns and more than three of them in one of the country’s 10 largest metropolitan areas. The Greater London metropolitan area—the greatest port, the largest centre of industry, the most important centre of office employment, and the capital city—is by far the largest of these. The need for accommodating business premises has displaced population from Inner London, and this outward movement, in part, has led to the development of new towns outside the 10-mile- (16-km-) wide Green Belt that surrounds London’s built-up area.
Large metropolitan areas also formed in industrial areas during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although coalfields or textile manufacture underpinned the initial growth of many of these urban areas, coal mining had virtually ceased in all of them by the end of the 20th century, and the economic predominance of heavy industry and textile production had given way to a more diverse blend of manufacturing and service activities. Birmingham dominates the extensive built-up area of the West Midlands metropolitan area, but the industrial Black Country—named for its formerly polluted skies and grimy buildings—also has several large and flourishing towns. In Greater Manchester, with a similar number of inhabitants, urbanization accompanied the mechanization of the cotton textile industry. Across the Pennines similar mechanization of wool textiles created the West Yorkshire metropolitan area, with Leeds and Bradford as its twin centres. The metropolitan area of Tyne and Wear (centred on Newcastle upon Tyne) and the Greater Glasgow metropolitan area are also located on coalfields. Greater Glasgow houses about one-third of Scotland’s people. Merseyside (centred on Liverpool) has traditionally served as a seaport and distribution centre for Greater Manchester and the rest of Lancashire. Other large metropolitan areas in Great Britain include South Yorkshire (centred on Sheffield), Nottingham, and Bristol. About one-fifth of Northern Ireland’s population live in Belfast. In addition to these large metropolitan areas, there are many other minor urban agglomerations and large towns, several of which line the coast.
With so much urban and suburban concentration, the problems of air, water, and noise pollution have attracted much concern in the United Kingdom. Clean-air legislation has brought considerable progress in controlling air pollution, partly by establishing smoke-control areas in most cities and towns, and there has been a shift from coal to cleaner fuels. Pollution of the rivers remains a large problem, particularly in the highly industrialized parts of the United Kingdom, but vigilance, research, and control by the National River Authorities and general public concern for the environment are encouraging features of contemporary Britain. Several statutory and voluntary organizations support measures to protect the environment. They aim to conserve the natural amenity and beauty not only of the countryside but also of the towns and cities.
- Demographic trends
- POPULATION GROWTH
The population of the United Kingdom has been increasing since at least 1086, the date of Domesday Book, which provides the earliest reasonable estimate of England’s population (the survey did not cover other areas). This growth has continued despite some setbacks, by far the most serious of which was the Black Death of the mid 14th century, in which it is estimated that about one-third of the population died. There is little concrete information, however, concerning birth or death rates, immigration, or emigration until 1801, the date of the first official census. The assumption is that a population of about three million lived in what became the United Kingdom at the end of the 11th century and that this figure had increased to about 12 million by 1801. This slow growth rate, in contrast with that of more modern times, resulted mainly from the combination of a high birth rate with an almost equally high death rate. Family monuments in old churches show many examples of men whose “quivers were full” but whose hearths were not crowded. It is estimated that in the first half of the 18th century three-fourths of the children born in London died before they reached puberty. Despite the appalling living conditions it produced, the Industrial Revolution resulted in an acceleration of the birth rate. Gradually the greater medical knowledge, improved nutrition, and concern for public health that characterized the 19th and 20th centuries yielded a lower mortality rate and an overall increase in population, even as birth rates began to drop.
Since the 1930s the population has experienced a complete cycle in its pattern of growth. A low rate of increase during the 1930s was followed by a post-World War II marriage boom that accelerated the rate of growth, culminating in a peak during the mid-1960s. After 1964 a considerable fall in the birth rate brought about a dramatic decline in growth, with a small absolute decline in population between 1974 and 1978. However, modest population growth resumed during the 1980s, and the population of the United Kingdom rose from 56 million in 1980 to about 60 million by the end of the 20th century. The main cause of these abrupt shifts was the erratic nature of the birth rate, with the interaction of two opposing trends: on one hand, a long-term general decline in fertility and, on the other, a rising longevity and a decline in death rates. Such processes also have affected the age composition of the population, which has grown decidedly older. There has been a decline in the proportion of youths and an increase in the proportion of older people, especially those age 85 and older.
- MIGRATION PATTERNS
Beginning in the 1950s, the immigration of nonwhite (“New Commonwealth”) people from such developing nations as India, Pakistan, and the countries of the West Indies became significant, and from 1957 until 1962 there was a net migration gain. Since then restriction on the entry of New Commonwealth citizens has lessened the primary inflow, but dependents of immigrants already in the United Kingdom are still admitted. The reasons for restricting entry were in part economic but were also associated with the resistance of the existing population to the new arrivals. Nevertheless, the United Kingdom continues to gain people from the New Commonwealth.
Although historical records refer to emigration to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, there is little quantitative information about such movements before the middle of the following century. The greatest numbers appear to have left Great Britain in the 1880s and between 1900 and the outbreak of World War I. Emigration, particularly to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (“Old Commonwealth” countries), continued at a high rate after the war until 1930, when unfavourable economic conditions in the British Empire and in the United States reversed the movement. During the same years, there also was an influx of refugees from Europe. After World War II both inward and outward movements were considerable. Emigration to the countries of the Old Commonwealth and, to a lesser degree, to the United States continued, but until 1951 immigration into Britain roughly equaled British emigration to the rest of the world. Since the mid-1960s there has been a slackening of emigration, as Canada and Australia no longer maintain an open-door policy to citizens of the United Kingdom, accepting only those whose skills are in demand. Nevertheless, the United Kingdom continues to be an exporter of population, albeit on a declining scale, to the Old Commonwealth, while emigration to the nations of the European Union and other foreign countries has increased.
Migration within the United Kingdom has at times been sizable. Until 1700 the relatively small population was sparsely distributed and largely rural and agricultural, much as it had been in medieval times. From the mid 18th century, scientific and technological innovations created the first modern industrial state. At the same time, agriculture underwent technical and tenurial changes that allowed increased production with a smaller workforce, and revolutionary improvements in transport facilitated the movement of materials and people. As a result, by the late 19th century a theretofore mainly rural population had largely become a nation of industrial workers and town dwellers.
The rural exodus was a long process. The breakdown of communal farming started before the 14th century. Subsequently enclosures advanced steadily, especially after 1740, until a century later open fields had virtually disappeared from the landscape. Many of the displaced landless agricultural labourers were attracted to the better employment opportunities and the higher wage levels of the growing industries. Meanwhile, a rapid rise in the birth rate had produced a growing population of young people in the countryside who faced little prospect of agricultural employment. These groups contributed to a high volume of internal migration toward the towns.
Industry, as well as the urban centres that inevitably grew up around it, concentrated near the coalfields, while the railway network, which grew rapidly after 1830, enhanced the commercial importance of many towns. The migration of people, especially young people, from the country to industrialized towns took place at an unprecedented rate in the early railway age, and such movements were relatively confined geographically. Migration from agricultural Ireland provided an exception, for, when the disastrous potato disease of 1845–49 led to widespread famine, large numbers moved to Great Britain to become urban workers in Lancashire, Clydeside (the Glasgow region), and London. The rural exodus continued, but on a greatly reduced scale, after 1901.
Soon after World War I, new interregional migration flows commenced when the formerly booming 19th-century industrial and mining districts lost much of their economic momentum. Declining or stagnating heavy industry in Clydeside, northeastern England, South Wales, and parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire swelled the ranks of the unemployed, and many migrated to the relatively more prosperous Midlands and southern England. This movement of people continued until it was arrested by the relatively full employment conditions that obtained soon after the outbreak of World War II.
In the 1950s opportunities for employment in the United Kingdom improved with government-sponsored diversification of industry, reducing the volume of migration to the south. The decline of certain northern industries—coal mining, shipbuilding, and cotton textiles in particular—had nevertheless reached a critical level by the late 1960s, and the emergence of new growth points in the West Midlands and southeastern England made the drift to the south a continuing feature of British economic life. During the 1960s and ’70s the areas of most rapid growth were East Anglia, the South West, and the East Midlands, partly because of limitations on growth in Greater London and the development of peripheral new towns in surrounding areas.
During the 1980s the government largely abandoned subsidies for industry and adopted a program of rationalization and privatization. The result was the collapse of coal mining and heavy industry in the north and the West Midlands of England and in the Lowlands of Scotland and a similar loss of heavy industry in Northern Ireland; this unleashed a wave of migration from these regions to the more prosperous south of England, especially East Anglia, the East Midlands, and the South West. As the economy stabilized during the 1990s, migration from Scotland, Northern Ireland, and northern England subsided. While the South East (including Greater London) was the chief destination of external immigrants into Britain, this region, along with the West Midlands, produced a growing internal migration to surrounding regions of England during the 1990s. This pattern reflected a larger trend of migration out of older urban centres throughout Britain to surrounding rural areas and small towns at the end of the 20th century.
Economy of United Kingdom
The United Kingdom has a fiercely independent, developed, and international trading economy that was at the forefront of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution. The country emerged from World War II as a military victor but with a debilitated manufacturing sector. Postwar recovery was relatively slow, and it took nearly 40 years, with additional stimulation after 1973 from membership in the European Economic Community (ultimately succeeded by the European Union [EU]), for the British economy to improve its competitiveness significantly. Economic growth rates in the 1990s compared favourably with those of other top industrial countries. Manufacturing’s contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) has declined to about one-fifth of the total, with services providing the source of greatest growth. The United Kingdom’s chief trading ties have shifted from its former empire to other members of the EU, which account for more than half its trade in tangible goods. The United States is a major investment and trading partner, and Japan has become a significant investor in local production. American and Japanese companies often choose the United Kingdom as their European base. In addition, other fast-developing East Asian countries with export-oriented economies include the United Kingdom’s open market among their important outlets.
During the 1980s the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher pursued the privatization, or denationalization, of publicly owned corporations that had been nationalized by previous governments. Privatization, accompanied by widespread labour unrest, resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the coal-mining and heavy industrial sectors. Although there was some improvement in the standard of living nationally, in general there was greater prosperity in the South East, including London, than in the heavily industrialized regions of the West Midlands, northern England, Clydeside, and Belfast, whose economies suffered during the 1980s. During the 1980s and ’90s, income disparity also increased. Unemployment and inflation rates were gradually reduced but remained high until the late 1990s. The country’s role as a major world financial centre remained a source of economic strength. Moreover, its exploitation of offshore natural gas since 1967 and oil since 1975 in the North Sea has reduced dependence on coal and imported oil and provided a further economic boost.
- Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
The United Kingdom is unusual, even among western European countries, in the small proportion of its employed population (about 2 percent) engaged in agriculture. With commercial intensification of yields and a high level of mechanization, supported initially by national policy and subsequently by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the EU, the output of some agricultural products has exceeded demand. Employment in agriculture has declined gradually, and, with the introduction of policies to achieve reduction of surpluses, the trend is likely to continue. Efforts have been made to create alternative employment opportunities in rural areas, some of which are remote from towns. The land area used for agriculture (about three-quarters of the total) has also declined, and the arable share has fallen in favour of pasture.
Official agricultural policy conforms to the CAP and has aimed to improve productivity, to ensure stable markets, to provide producers a fair standard of living, and to guarantee consumers regular food supplies at reasonable prices. To achieve these aims, the CAP provides a system of minimum prices for domestic goods and levies on imports to support domestic prices. Exports are encouraged by subsidies that make up the difference between the world market price and the EU price. For a few products, particularly beef and sheep, there are additional payments made directly to producers. More recent policies have included milk quotas, land set-asides (to compensate farmers for taking land out of agricultural use), and reliance on the price mechanism as a regulator.
The most important farm crops are wheat, barley, oats, sugar beets, potatoes, and rapeseed. While significant proportions of wheat, barley, and rapeseed provide animal feed, much of the remainder is processed for human consumption through flour milling (wheat), malting and distilling (barley), and the production of vegetable oil (rapeseed). The main livestock products derive from cattle and calves, sheep and lambs, pigs, and poultry. The United Kingdom has achieved a high level of self-sufficiency in the main agricultural products except for sugar and cheese.
About one-tenth of the United Kingdom’s land area is devoted to productive forestry. The government-supported Forestry Commission manages almost half of these woodlands, and the rest are in private hands. Domestic timber production supplies less than one-fifth of the United Kingdom’s demand. The majority of new plantings are of conifers in upland areas, but the commission encourages planting broad-leaved trees where appropriate.
Although the United Kingdom is one of Europe’s leading fishing countries, the industry has been in long-term decline. Fishing limits were extended to 200 nautical miles (370 km) offshore in the mid-1970s, and, because a significant part of the area fished by other EU members lies within British waters, it has been necessary to regulate catches on a community-wide basis. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has lost opportunities to fish in some more-distant waters (e.g., those off Iceland), and this has reduced its total catch more than those of other countries of the EU. The United Kingdom’s fishing industry now supplies only half the country’s total demand. The most important fish landed are cod, haddock, mackerel, whiting, and plaice, as well as shellfish, including Nephrops (Norway lobsters), lobsters, crabs, and oysters. Estuarine fish farming—mainly of trout and salmon—has expanded considerably.
- Resources and power
The United Kingdom has relatively limited supplies of economically valuable mineral resources. The once-important extraction of iron ore has dwindled to almost nothing. Other important metals that are mined include tin, which supplies about half the domestic demand, and zinc. There are adequate supplies of nonmetallic minerals, including sand and gravel, limestone, dolomite, chalk, slate, barite, talc, clay and clay shale, kaolin (china clay), ball clay, fuller’s earth, celestine, and gypsum. Sand, gravel, limestone, and other crushed rocks are quarried for use in construction.
By contrast, the United Kingdom has larger energy resources—including oil, natural gas, and coal—than any other EU member. Coal, the fuel once vital to the British economy, has continued to decrease in importance. Compared with its peak year of 1913, when more than one million workers produced more than 300 million tons, current output has fallen by more than four-fifths, with an even greater reduction in the labour force. Power stations are the major customers for coal, but, with growth in the use of other fuels and the increasing closing of pits that have become uneconomical to operate, the industry remains under considerable pressure.
The discovery of oil in the North Sea and the apportionment of its area to surrounding countries led to the rapid development of oil exploitation. Since the start of production in 1975, the quantities brought ashore have grown each year, and the United Kingdom has become virtually self-sufficient in oil and even an exporter. With an average output of nearly three million barrels per day at the beginning of the 21st century, the country was one of the world’s largest producers. The balance of payments has benefited considerably from oil revenues, and a substantial proportion has been invested abroad to offset diminishing oil income in the future. Proven reserves were estimated at around 700 million tons in the late 1990s.
Since offshore natural gas supplies from the North Sea began to be available in quantity in 1967, they have replaced the previously coal-based supplies of town gas. A national network of distribution pipelines has been created. Proven reserves of natural gas were estimated at 26.8 trillion cubic feet (760 billion cubic metres) in the late 1990s.
Self-sufficiency in oil and natural gas and the decline of coal mining has transformed Britain’s energy sector. Nuclear fuel has slightly expanded its contribution to electricity generation, and hydroelectric power contributes a small proportion (mainly in Scotland), but conventional steam power stations provide most of the country’s electricity.
The manufacturing sector as a whole has continued to shrink both in employment and in its contribution (now around one-fifth) to the GDP. The decline in manufacturing largely accounted for the rapid rise in unemployment in the early 1980s. Once economic growth returned, however, there was great improvement in productivity and profits in British manufacturing.
In terms of their relative importance to the GDP, the most important manufacturing industries are engineering; food, beverages (including alcoholic beverages), and tobacco; chemicals; paper, printing, and publishing; metals and minerals; and textiles, clothing, footwear, and leather. The fastest-growing sectors have been chemicals and electrical engineering. Within the chemical industry, pharmaceuticals and specialty products have shown the largest increases. Within the engineering industry, electrical and instrument engineering and transport engineering—including motor vehicles and aerospace equipment—have grown faster than mechanical engineering and metal goods, and electronic products have shown the fastest growth. On the other hand, the growth in motor vehicle production has occurred among foreign-owned, especially Japanese, companies investing in the United Kingdom. British automobile manufacturers have been in decline since the 1970s. After a period of restructuring during the 1980s, the British steel industry substantially increased its productivity, output, and exports during the 1990s. However, food, beverages, tobacco, leather, and engineering as a whole have had below-average growth. Textiles, clothing, and footwear have been in absolute decline because British companies have faced increasing difficulty competing with imports, especially from Asia.
During the 1980s imports of manufactured products increased dramatically, and, although exports of finished manufactured products increased in value, the surplus in the balance of trade disappeared and was transformed into a large deficit. Nevertheless, after a period of restructuring in the 1980s, Britain’s manufacturing sector increased its productivity and competitiveness, and the trade balance improved and stabilized during the 1990s.
Construction in Britain stagnated during the 1990s because of a decline in prices and in demand for new housing and because of decreased government investment in infrastructure during the first half of the decade. About half the labour force in construction is self-employed. More than half of all construction work is on new projects, the remainder on repair and maintenance. There has been a marked switch from housing funded and owned by public authorities toward private development. Considerable efforts have also been made to encourage tenants of publicly owned rented houses to become owner-occupiers, with the result that the proportion of owner-occupied homes has grown considerably since the early 1970s. The supply of privately rented accommodations became scarcer because of statutory rent controls that discouraged new construction, but changes during the 1980s both in the economic climate and in official policy began to stimulate the supply. The average price of a new house, particularly in London and the South East, has generally continued to increase more rapidly than the prevailing rate of inflation, although prices have fluctuated considerably. In turn, the rising price of new homes has created considerable pressure on the land available for housing, which has been relatively tightly controlled. Here, too, public policy has been changing in favour of greater permissiveness.
Private industrial and commercial construction and public projects account for the remainder of construction. During the 1980s and ’90s the United Kingdom embarked on a series of major infrastructure projects, including the Channel Tunnel between Britain and France, the rebuilding of large parts of London’s traditional Docklands as a new commercial centre, and extensions to London’s rail and Underground systems.
The United Kingdom, particularly London, has traditionally been a world financial centre. Restructuring and deregulation transformed the sector during the 1980s and ’90s, with important changes in banking, insurance, the London Stock Exchange, shipping, and commodity markets. Some long-standing distinctions between financial institutions have become less clear-cut. For example, housing loans used to be primarily the responsibility of building societies, but increasingly banks and insurance companies have entered this area of lending. Two related developments have occurred: the transformation of building-society branch offices into virtual banks with personal cashing facilities and the diversification of all three of these types of institutions into real estate services. Building societies also participate to a limited extent in investment services, insurance, trusteeship, executorship, and land services.
At the end of the 20th century, the financial services industry employed more than one million people and contributed about one-twelfth of the GDP. Although financial services have grown rapidly in some medium-sized cities, notably Leeds and Edinburgh, London has continued to dominate the industry and has grown in size and influence as a centre of international financial operations. Capital flows have increased, as have foreign exchange and securities trading. Consequently, London has more foreign banks than any other city in the world. Increased competition and technological developments have accelerated change. The International Stock Exchange was reorganized, and the historical two-tier structure of brokers, who executed investors’ instructions to buy and sell stocks and shares, and jobbers, who “made” markets in these securities, was abolished. As a result, new companies link British and foreign banks with former brokers and jobbers. The Financial Services Act of 1986, the Building Societies Act of 1987, and the Banking Act of 1987 regulate these new financial organizations.
In 1997 the government established the Financial Services Authority (FSA) to regulate the financial services industry; it replaced a series of separate supervisory organizations, some of them based on self-regulation. Among other tasks, the FSA took over the supervision of the United Kingdom’s commercial banks from the Bank of England. The FSA was widely criticized for its response to the financial crisis that erupted in 2008 and led to a government bailout for a number of prominent British banks. As a result, the Financial Services Act of 2012 abolished the FSA, and the “tripartite” system of financial regulation (the FSA, the Bank of England, and the Treasury) was replaced in 2013 with three new bodies—the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), mandated with regulating financial service firms and protecting consumers, the Financial Policy Committee (FPC), and the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA)—the last two of which were embedded in the Bank of England, to which the supervision and regulation of banks were returned.
The Bank of England retains the sole right to issue banknotes in England and Wales (banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland have limited rights to do this in their own areas). In 1997 the Bank of England was given the power to set the “repo,” or benchmark, interest rate, which influences the general structure of interest rates. The bank’s standing instruction from the government is to set an interest rate that will meet a target inflation rate of 2.5 percent per annum. The bank also intervenes actively in foreign exchange markets and acts as the government’s banker. The pound sterling is a major internationally traded currency.
A variety of institutions, including insurance companies, pension funds, and investment and unit trusts, channel individual savings into investments. Finance houses are the primary providers of home mortgages and corporate lending and leasing. There are also companies that finance the leasing of business equipment; factoring companies that provide immediate cash to creditors and subsequently collect the corporate debts owed; and finance corporations that provide venture capital funding for innovations or high-risk companies and that supplement the medium- and long-term capital markets, otherwise supplied by the banks or the Stock Market.
The United Kingdom has a number of organized financial markets. The securities markets comprise the International Stock Exchange, which deals in officially listed stocks and shares (including government issues, traded options, stock index options, and currency options); the Unlisted Securities Market, for smaller companies; and the Third Market, for small unlisted companies. Money market activities include the trading of bills, certificates of deposit, short-term deposits, and, increasingly, sterling commercial paper. Other markets are those dealing in Eurocurrency, Eurobonds, foreign exchange, financial futures, gold, ship brokerage, freight futures, and agricultural and other commodity futures.
The share of invisible trade (receipts and payments from financial services; interest, profits, and dividends; and transfers between the United Kingdom and other countries) has been rising steadily since the 1960s—from about one-third to one-half of the country’s total foreign earnings. Within this area, service transactions have grown rapidly, and financial services have grown the fastest.
Trade has long been pivotal to the United Kingdom’s economy. The total value of imports and exports represents nearly half the country’s GDP. (By comparison, the value of foreign trade amounts to about one-fifth of the GDP of the United States.) The volume of both the exports and the imports of the United Kingdom has grown steadily in recent years. Principal British exports include machinery, automobiles and other transport equipment, electrical and electronic equipment (including computers), chemicals, and oil. Services, particularly financial services, are another major export and contribute positively to Britain’s trade balance. The country imports about one-tenth of its foodstuffs and about one-third of its machinery and transport equipment.
An increasing share of the United Kingdom’s trade is with other developed countries. Joining the European Economic Community caused a major reorientation of trade flows; more than half of all trade is now with European partners, although at the beginning of the 21st century the United States remained the United Kingdom’s single largest export market and its second largest supplier. Germany was the leading supplier and the second most important export market.
The United Kingdom’s current overall balance of payments (including trade in services and transfer payments), which historically had been generally favourable, fell into deficit from the mid-1980s until the late 1990s because visible imports (i.e., tangible goods imported) exceeded visible exports. Meanwhile there was considerable overseas investment, and foreign earnings grew. The government has supported trade liberalization and participated in international trade organizations. By the late 1990s the steady growth in exports of goods and services and in foreign earnings had produced the first balance-of-payments surplus in more than a decade.
The most remarkable economic development in the United Kingdom has been the growth of service industries, which now provide about two-thirds of the GDP and three-fourths of total employment. This reflects the rise in real personal incomes, changes in patterns of consumer expenditure, and the elaboration and increasing outsourcing of business services. Although some services—for example, public transportation, laundries, and movie theatres—have declined in favour of privately owned goods—such as automobiles, washing machines, and television sets—this has stimulated increased demand for the related services that distribute, maintain, and repair such products. Other growing service industries include hotels and catering, air travel and other leisure-related activities, distribution (particularly retailing), and finance. Especially rapid growth has occurred in other business-support services, including computing systems and software, management consultancy, advertising, and market research, as well as the provision of exhibition and conference facilities. Britain is also the base for some of the world’s leading art auction houses.
The United Kingdom’s many cultural treasures—e.g., its historic castles, museums, and theatres—make it a popular tourist destination. The tourism industry is a leading sector in the British economy, and each year more than 25 million tourists visit the country. London is among the world’s most-visited cities.
Labour and taxation Government revenues are derived from several main sources, including income taxes, corporate taxes, taxes on the sale of goods and services, and national insurance contributions. After World War II the government adopted individual income tax rates that were among the highest in Europe. During the last two decades of the 20th century, individual income tax rates dropped, and corporate tax rates increased slightly. A value-added tax, which levies a 20 percent tax on purchases, generates nearly one-third of government revenues.
During the 1980s the Thatcher government adopted policies that placed limits on the power and influence of trade unions and provided training for those entering the workforce or changing careers. The Labour government of the late 1990s retained many of Thatcher’s policies, but they abandoned the Conservative objective of unlimited tax reduction and instead sought to stabilize the overall burden of taxation at about 37 percent of GDP.
Just under half the total population is in the labour force, including a small but expanding proportion who are self-employed. About three-tenths of workers are members of a trade union, a share that dropped significantly with the adoption of legislation restricting trade union rights in the last two decades of the 20th century. Among the various influential trade organizations are the public-sector union UNISON and the general-services unions Unite and GMB. Although manufacturing once dominated employment, it now involves less than one-sixth of all workers. In contrast, the service sector employs more than two-thirds of employees, with financial services and distribution the two largest components.
- Transportation and telecommunications
The United Kingdom, which is relatively small in area and has a fairly high population density, has undergone considerable change in its patterns of transport. The growth of automobile ownership (by the turn of the 21st century, nearly two-thirds of all households had one automobile, and some had two or more), the decline in the use of local buses, and the transfer of much internal freight from rail to road increased the importance of maintaining and developing road networks, particularly motorways (superhighways) and trunk roads. Intercity rail services have been improved, as have commuter services in major metropolitan areas. Similarly, air traffic has grown, particularly international flights. Although there has been a downward trend in shipping and sea travel, most foreign trade still moves by sea. However, the opening of the Channel Tunnel rail link between England and France in 1994 had a big impact on cross-Channel passenger and freight patterns. At peak periods the tunnel accommodates up to four passenger and four freight shuttletrains per hour in each direction. By the end of the decade, these trains carried about half of the car traffic and more than one-third of the coach and truck traffic on the Dover/Folkestone–Calais route—the principal artery linking Britain to mainland Europe. In addition, the tunnel accommodates through freight trains and high-speed passenger trains between London and Paris or Brussels. Substantial passenger and cargo traffic moves by sea between the ports of the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Europe. Oil and natural gas, each of which has a national bulk-distribution pipeline system, do not rely on the road and rail networks.
Investment in transportation has sometimes failed to meet rising demand—for example, the M25 motorway around London showed signs of overload soon after it was opened in 1986; there is overcrowding on commuter rail services, including London’s Underground; congested traffic moves at a snail’s pace in cities; and there is continuous pressure to build more motorways and airports to serve London.
During the 1980s British Telecom (BT) was privatized, and the government subsequently deregulated the country’s telecommunications sector. Although BT has continued to be the largest telecommunications company, several additional operators provide extensive service for cable, wireless, fibre-optic, and other telecommunications services. An independent regulatory agency, the Office of Communications (Ofcom), oversees the sector.
Government and politics of United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is a liberal democracy and a constitutional monarchy. Hereditary monarch Queen Elizabeth II has been head of state since February 6, 1952, while the Heir Apparent is Prince Charles, the son of the Queen, born November 14, 1948. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been head of government since June 27, 2007. After legislative elections, the leader of the majority party or the leader of the majority coalition is usually the prime minister, who appoints a cabinet.
The bicameral parliament consists of a House of Lords, which has 618 seats consisting of approximately 500 life peers, 92 hereditary peers, and 26 clergy, and a House of Commons, which has 646 members elected by popular vote to serve terms of five-years, or less if the House is dissolved earlier. The parliament is traditionally considered to be "supreme" in that it is able to legislate on any matter and not bound by decisions of its predecessors.
In the House of Lords, elections are held only as vacancies in the hereditary peerage arise, whereas in the House of Commons, elections were last held in May 2005. In those elections, Labour took 35.2 percent of the vote, the Conservative took 32.3 percent, Liberal Democrats 22 percent, and others took 10.5 percent. In 1998, elections were held for a Northern Ireland Assembly. Because of unresolved disputes, the transfer of power from London to Northern Ireland came only at the end of 1999 and has been suspended four times, the latest occurring in October 2002 and lasting until May 2007. In 1999, there were elections for a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly.
The United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the world today that does not have a codified constitution, relying instead on traditional customs and separate pieces of constitutional law. The British system of government has been emulated around the world—a legacy of the British Empire's colonial past—most notably in the other Commonwealth Realms.
In the United Kingdom, the monarch has extensive latent powers which she would be expected to use if necessary. The monarch is an integral part of Parliament (as the "Crown-in-Parliament") and gives Parliament the authority to meet and pass legislation. An Act of Parliament does not become law until it has been signed by the monarch (known as Royal Assent), although none has refused assent to a bill that has been approved by Parliament since Queen Anne in 1708. Although the abolition of the monarchy has been suggested, the popularity of the monarchy remains strong in the United Kingdom.
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 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. The Liberal Democrats, the third largest party, seek a reform to proportional representation to address the dominance of the two-party system.
Though many in the United Kingdom consider themselves "British" as well as "English," "Scottish," "Welsh," 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 Scotland and Wales, and among the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. Independence for the Republic of Ireland in 1922 provided only a partial solution to what had been termed since the nineteenth 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 has not occurred since the 1970s. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland each possess a legislature and government alongside that of the United Kingdom. However, this increased autonomy and devolution of executive and legislative powers has not contributed to a reduction in support for independence from the United Kingdom, with increased support for pro-independence parties. Furthermore there has developed within England a demand that Scottish and Welsh MPs should not be able to vote on legislation that only affects England.
The resurgence in the Celtic language and identity, as well as "regional" politics and development, has contributed to forces pulling against the unity of the state. In Northern Ireland, there has been a significant decrease in violence over the last 20 years, though the situation remains tense, with the more hardline parties, such as Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists, now holding the most parliamentary seats.
The United Kingdom has three distinct systems of law. English law, which applies in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland law, which applies in Northern Ireland, are based on common law principles. Scots law, which applies in Scotland, is a hybrid system based on both common law and civil law principles. The Act of Union 1707 guarantees the continued existence of a separate legal system for Scotland. The UK also comes under the law of the European Union which is based on civil law and which takes precedent over national law.
The Appellate Committee of the House of Lords is the highest court in the land for all criminal and civil cases in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and for all civil cases in Scots law. Recent constitutional changes will see the judicial powers of the House of Lords transfer to a new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
In England and Wales, the court system is headed by the Supreme Court of Judicature 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). In Scotland, the chief courts are the Court of Session, for civil cases, and the High Court of Justiciary, for criminal cases, while the sheriff court is the Scottish equivalent of the county court. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is the highest court of appeal for several independent Commonwealth countries, the UK overseas territories, and the British crown dependencies.
- Administrative subdivisions
The United Kingdom is divided into four parts, commonly referred to as the constituent countries. Each nation is further subdivided into counties, unitary authorities and parishes for the purposes of local government. City status is governed by Royal Charter. In 2007, there were 66 British cities (50 in England, six in Scotland, five in Wales, and five in Northern Ireland). The Queen appoints a Lord-Lieutenant as her personal representative in lieutenancy areas across the UK, which is little more than a ceremonial role.
The City of London has a special constitutional status within the UK. It has had a continuous self-governing history since its foundation by the Romans. Unlike the rest of England it was not conquered by William I and retained its traditional freedoms. This has enabled it to attain its pre-eminent status in world finance.
England has been further divided by the European Union into nine intermediate-level Government Office Regions.
The British crown has sovereignty over the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey, and the Isle of Man, known collectively as the crown dependencies. These are islands owned by the British monarch, but are not part of the United Kingdom, and are not in the European Union. However the British government manages their foreign affairs and defense.
The UK also has 14 overseas territories around the world, the last remaining territories of the British Empire. The overseas territories are not considered part of the UK, but in some cases the local populations have British citizenship and the right to live in the UK.
The armed forces of the United Kingdom are known as Her Majesty's Armed Forces. Their Commander-in-Chief is the British monarch, they are managed by the Ministry of Defence, and are controlled by the Defence Council.
The United Kingdom fields one of the most powerful and comprehensive armed forces in the world. It has significant global capabilities, with total allied naval tonnage second only to the United States military and the third largest share of tactical combat aircraft to the US and France. The UK has the second or third highest military expenditure in the world, after the United States and China. The United Kingdom possesses a comprehensive nuclear arsenal, one of the small number of countries to do so, utilizing the submarine-based Trident II ballistic missile system with nuclear warheads.
The British Armed Forces are active participants in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other coalition operations.
The British Army had a reported strength of 102,440 in 2005, and the Royal Air Force a strength of 49,210. The 36,320-member Royal Navy operates the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent, which consists of four Trident missile-armed submarines, while the Royal Marines are the Royal Navy's Light Infantry units for amphibious operations and for specialist reinforcement forces in and beyond the NATO area. This puts total active duty military troops in the 190,000 range, currently deployed in over 80 countries.
There are also reserve forces supporting the regular military. These include an army reserve, the Territorial Army (TA); the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR), Royal Marines Reserve (RMR) and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force (RAuxAF). About 9 percent of the regular armed forces is made up of women, with more in the reserve forces.
The United Kingdom Special Forces, principally the Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS), but including others, provide troops trained for quick, mobile, military responses in counter-terrorism, land, maritime and amphibious operations, often where secrecy or covert operations are required. The last war in which the British military fought alone was the Falklands War of 1982, with full-scale combat operations lasting almost three months.
The United Kingdom is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. It is also a large member state of the European Union, and is one of the three "big powers" along with Germany and France. The United Kingdom also has close relations with the United States, the Special Relationship. Britain's close allies outside of Europe include members of the Anglosphere and Commonwealth of Nations, a legacy of the British Empire. With its membership of the G8 and NATO, Britain has a certain influence in international institutions. Britain's global presence is amplified further through its trading relations and its armed forces, which maintains approximately 80 military installations and other deployments around the globe.
Culture Life of United Kingdom
History of United Kingdom
Early Period to the Norman Conquest
Although evidence of human habitation in Great Britain dates to more than 800,000 years ago, ice sheets forced the inhabitants from the island several times, and modern settlement dates only from about 12,000 years ago. Little is known about the earliest modern prehistoric inhabitants of Britain, but the remains of their tor and causewayed enclosures, dolmens, and barrows and the great stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury are evidence of the developed culture of the prehistoric Britons. They had developed a Bronze Age culture by the time the first Celtic invaders (early 5th cent. B.C.) brought their energetic Iron Age culture to Britain. It is believed that Julius Caesar's successful military campaign in Britain in 54 B.C. was aimed at preventing incursions into Gaul from the island.
In A.D. 43 the emperor Claudius began the Roman conquest of Britain, establishing bases at present-day London and Colchester. By A.D. 85, Rome controlled Britain south of the Clyde River. There were a number of revolts in the early years of the conquest, the most famous being that of Boadicea. In the 2d cent. A.D., Hadrian's Wall was constructed as a northern defense line. Under the Roman occupation towns developed, and roads were built to ensure the success of the military occupation. These roads were the most lasting Roman achievement in Britain (see Watling Street), long serving as the basic arteries of overland transportation in England. Colchester, Lincoln, and Gloucester were founded by the Romans as colonia, settlements of ex-legionaries.
Trade contributed to town prosperity; wine, olive oil, plate, and furnishings were imported, and lead, tin, iron, wheat, and wool were exported. This trade declined with the economic dislocation of the late Roman Empire and the withdrawal of Roman troops to meet barbarian threats elsewhere. The garrisons had been consumers of the products of local artisans as well as of imports; as they were disbanded, the towns decayed. Barbarian incursions became frequent. In 410 an appeal to Rome for military aid was refused, and Roman officials subsequently were withdrawn.
As Rome withdrew its legions from Britain, Germanic peoples—the Anglo-Saxons and the Jutes—began raids that turned into great waves of invasion and settlement in the later 5th cent. The Celts fell back into Wales and Cornwall and across the English Channel to Brittany, and the loosely knit tribes of the newcomers gradually coalesced into a heptarchy of kingdoms (see Kent, Sussex, Essex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria).
Late in the 8th cent., and with increasing severity until the middle of the 9th cent., raiding Vikings (known in English history as Danes) harassed coastal England and finally, in 865, launched a full-scale invasion. They were first effectively checked by King Alfred of Wessex and were with great difficulty confined to the Danelaw, where their leaders divided land among the soldiers for settlement. Alfred's successors conquered the Danelaw to form a united England, but new Danish invasions late in the 10th cent. overcame ineffective resistance (see Æthelred, 965?–1016). The Dane Canute ruled all England by 1016. At the expiration of the Scandinavian line in 1042, the Wessex dynasty (see Edward the Confessor) regained the throne. The conquest of England in 1066 by William, duke of Normandy (William I of England), ended the Anglo-Saxon period.
The freeman (ceorl) of the early Germanic invaders had been responsible to the king and superior to the serf. Subsequent centuries of war and subsistence farming, however, had forced the majority of freemen into serfdom, or dependence on the aristocracy of lords and thanes, who came to enjoy a large measure of autonomous control over manors granted them by the king (see manorial system). The central government evolved from tribal chieftainships to become a monarchy in which executive and judicial powers were usually vested in the king. The aristocracy made up his witan, or council of advisers (see witenagemot). The king set up shires as units of local government ruled by earldormen. In some instances these earldormen became powerful hereditary earls, ruling several shires. Subdivisions of shires were called hundreds. There were shire and hundred courts, the former headed by sheriffs, the latter by reeves. Agriculture was the principal industry, but the Danes were aggressive traders, and towns increased in importance starting in the 9th cent.
The Anglo-Saxons had been Christianized by missionaries from Rome and from Ireland, and the influence of Christianity became strongly manifest in all phases of culture (see Anglo-Saxon literature). Differences between Irish and continental religious customs were decided in favor of the Roman forms at the Synod of Whitby (663). Monastic communities, outstanding in the later 7th and in the 8th cent. and strongly revived in the 10th, developed great proficiency in manuscript illumination. Church scholars, such as Bede, Alcuin, and Aelfric—as well as King Alfred himself—preserved and advanced learning.
- Medieval England
A new era in English history began with the Norman Conquest. William I introduced Norman-style political and military feudalism. He used the feudal system to collect taxes, employed the bureaucracy of the church to strengthen the central government, and made the administration of royal justice more efficient.
After the death of William's second son, Henry I, the country was subjected to a period of civil war that ended one year before the accession of Henry II in 1154. Henry II's reign was marked by the sharp conflict between king and church that led to the murder of Thomas à Becket. Henry carried out great judicial reforms that increased the power and scope of the royal courts. During his reign, in 1171, began the English conquest of Ireland. As part of his inheritance he brought to the throne Anjou, Normandy, and Aquitaine. The defense and enlargement of these French territories engaged the energies of successive English kings. In their need for money the kings stimulated the growth of English towns by selling them charters of liberties.
Conflict between kings and nobles, which had begun under Richard I, came to a head under John, who made unprecedented financial demands and whose foreign and church policies were unsuccessful. A temporary victory of the nobles bore fruit in the most noted of all English constitutional documents, the Magna Carta (1215). The recurring baronial wars of the 13th cent. (see Barons' War; Montfort, Simon de, earl of Leicester) were roughly contemporaneous with the first steps in the development of Parliament.
Edward I began the conquest of Wales and Scotland. He also carried out an elaborate reform and expansion of the central courts and of other aspects of the legal system. The Hundred Years War with France began (1337) in the reign of Edward III. The Black Death (see plague) first arrived in 1348 and had a tremendous effect on economic life, hastening the breakdown (long since under way) of the manorial and feudal systems, including the institution of serfdom. At the same time the fast-growing towns and trades gave new prominence to the burgess and artisan classes.
In the 14th cent. the English began exporting their wool, rather than depending on foreign traders of English wool. Later in the century, trade in woolen cloth began to gain on the raw wool trade. The confusion resulting from such rapid social and economic change fostered radical thought, typified in the teachings of John Wyclif (or Wycliffe; see also Lollardry, and the revolt led by Wat Tyler. Dynastic wars (see Roses, Wars of the), which weakened both the nobility and the monarchy in the 15th cent., ended with the accession of the Tudor family in 1485.
- Tudor England
The reign of the Tudors (1485–1603) is one of the most fascinating periods in English history. Henry VII restored political order and the financial solvency of the crown, bequeathing his son, Henry VIII, a full exchequer. In 1536, Henry VIII brought about the political union of England and Wales. Henry and his minister Thomas Cromwell greatly expanded the central administration. During Henry's reign commerce flourished and the New Learning of the Renaissance came to England. Several factors—the revival of Lollardry, anticlericalism, the influence of humanism, and burgeoning nationalism—climaxed by the pope's refusal to grant Henry a divorce from Katharine of Aragón so that he could remarry and have a male heir—led the king to break with Roman Catholicism and establish the Church of England.
As part of the English Reformation (1529–39), Henry suppressed the orders of monks and friars and secularized their property. Although these actions aroused some popular opposition (see Pilgrimage of Grace), Henry's judicious use of Parliament helped secure support for his policies and set important precedents for the future of Parliament. England moved farther toward Protestantism under Edward VI; after a generally hated Roman Catholic revival under Mary I, the Roman tie was again cut under Elizabeth I, who attempted without complete success to moderate the religious differences among her people.
The Elizabethan age was one of great artistic and intellectual achievement, its most notable figure being William Shakespeare. National pride basked in the exploits of Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins, and the other "sea dogs." Overseas trading companies were formed and colonization attempts in the New World were made by Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh. A long conflict with Spain, growing partly out of commercial and maritime rivalry and partly out of religious differences, culminated in the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588), although the war continued another 15 years.
Inflated prices (caused, in part, by an influx of precious metals from the New World) and the reservation of land by the process of inclosure for sheep pasture (stimulated by the expansion of the wool trade) caused great changes in the social and economic structure of England. The enclosures displaced many tenant farmers from their lands and produced a class of wandering, unemployed "sturdy beggars." The Elizabethan poor laws were an attempt to deal with this problem. Rising prices affected the monarchy as well, by reducing the value of its fixed customary and hereditary revenues. The country gentry were enriched by the inclosures and by their purchase of former monastic lands, which were also used for grazing. The gentry became leaders in what, toward the end of Elizabeth's reign, was an increasingly assertive Parliament.
- The Stuarts
The accession in 1603 of the Stuart James I, who was also James VI of Scotland, united the thrones of England and Scotland. The chronic need for money of both James and his son, Charles I, which they attempted to meet by unusual and extralegal means; their espousal of the divine right of kings; their determination to enforce their high Anglican preferences in religion; and their use of royal courts such as Star Chamber, which were not bound by the common law, to persecute opponents, together produced a bitter conflict with Parliament that culminated (1642) in the English civil war.
In the war the parliamentarians, effectively led at the end by Oliver Cromwell, defeated the royalists. The king was tried for treason and beheaded (1649). The monarchy was abolished, and the country was governed by the Rump Parliament, the remainder of the last Parliament (the Long Parliament) Charles had called (1640), until 1653, when Cromwell dissolved it and established the Protectorate. Cromwell brutally subjugated Ireland, made a single commonwealth of Scotland and England, and strengthened England's naval power and position in international trade. When he died (1658), his son, Richard, succeeded as Lord Protector but governed ineffectively.
The threat of anarchy led to an invitation by a newly elected Parliament (the Convention Parliament) to Charles, son of Charles I, to become king, ushering in the Restoration (1660). It was significant that Parliament had summoned the king, rather than the reverse; it was now clear that to be successful the king had to cooperate with Parliament. The Whig and Tory parties developed in the Restoration period. Although Charles II was personally popular, the old issues of religion, money, and the royal prerogative came to the fore again. Parliament revived official Anglicanism (see Clarendon Code), but Charles's private sympathies lay with Catholicism. He attempted to bypass Parliament in the matter of revenue by receiving subsidies from Louis XIV of France.
Charles's brother and successor, James II, was an avowed Catholic. James tried to strengthen his position in Parliament by tampering with the methods of selecting members; he put Catholics in high university positions, maintained a standing army (which later deserted him), and claimed the right to suspend laws. The birth (1688) of a male heir, who, it was assumed, would be raised as a Catholic, precipitated a crisis.
In the Glorious Revolution, Whig and Tory leaders offered the throne to William of Orange (William III), whose Protestant wife, Mary, was James's daughter. William and Mary were proclaimed king and queen by Parliament in 1689. The Bill of Rights confirmed that sovereignty resided in Parliament. The Act of Toleration (1689) extended religious liberty to all Protestant sects; in subsequent years, religious passions slowly subsided.
By the Act of Settlement (1701) the succession to the English throne was determined. Since 1603, with the exception of the 1654–60 portion of the interregnum, Scotland and England had remained two kingdoms united only in the person of the monarch. When it appeared that William's successor, Queen Anne, Mary's Protestant sister, would not have an heir, the Scottish succession became of concern, since the Scottish Parliament had not passed legislation corresponding to the Act of Settlement. England feared that under a separate monarch Scotland might ally itself with France, or worse still, permit a restoration of the Catholic heirs of James II—although a non-Protestant succession had been barred by the Scottish Parliament. On its part, Scotland wished to achieve economic equality with England. The result was the Act of Union (1707), by which the two kingdoms became one. Scotland obtained representation in (what then became) the British Parliament at Westminster, and the Scottish Parliament was abolished.
The Growth of Empire and Eighteenth-Century Political Developments The beginnings of Britain's national debt (1692) and the founding of the Bank of England (1694) were closely tied with the nation's more active role in world affairs. Britain's overseas possessions (see British Empire) were augmented by the victorious outcome of the War of the Spanish Succession, ratified in the Peace of Utrecht (1713). Britain emerged from the War of the Austrian Succession and from the Seven Years War as the possessor of the world's greatest empire. The peace of 1763 (see Paris, Treaty of) confirmed British predominance in India and North America. Settlements were made in Australia toward the end of the 18th cent.; however, a serious loss was sustained when 13 North American colonies broke away in the American Revolution. Additional colonies were won in the wars against Napoleon I, notable for the victories of Horatio Nelson and Arthur Wellesley, duke of Wellington.
In Ireland, the Irish Parliament was granted independence in 1782, but in 1798 there was an Irish rebellion. A vain attempt to solve the centuries-old Irish problem was the abrogation of the Irish Parliament and the union (1801) of Great Britain and Ireland, with Ireland represented in the British Parliament.
Domestically the long ministry of Sir Robert Walpole (1721–42), during the reigns of George I and George II, was a period of relative stability that saw the beginnings of the development of the cabinet as the chief executive organ of government.
The 18th cent. was a time of transition in the growth of the British parliamentary system. The monarch still played a very active role in government, choosing and dismissing ministers as he wished. Occasionally, sentiment in Parliament might force an unwanted minister on him, as when George III was forced to choose Rockingham in 1782, but the king could dissolve Parliament and use his considerable patronage power to secure a new one more amenable to his views.
Great political leaders of the late 18th cent., such as the earl of Chatham (see Chatham, William Pitt, 1st earl of) and his son William Pitt, could not govern in disregard of the crown. Important movements for political and social reform arose in the second half of the 18th cent. George III's arrogant and somewhat anachronistic conception of the crown's role produced a movement among Whigs in Parliament that called for a reform and reduction of the king's power. Edmund Burke was a leader of this group, as was the eccentric John Wilkes. The Tory Pitt was also a reformer. These men also opposed Britain's colonial policy in North America.
Outside Parliament, religious dissenters (who were excluded from political office), intellectuals, and others advocated sweeping reforms of established practices and institutions. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, advocating laissez-faire, appeared in 1776, the same year as the first publication by Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism. The cause of reform, however, was greatly set back by the French Revolution and the ensuing wars with France, which greatly alarmed British society. Burke became Britain's leading intellectual opponent of the Revolution, while many British reformers who supported (to varying degrees) the changes in France were branded by British public opinion as extreme Jacobins.
- Economic, Social, and Political Change
George III was succeeded by George IV and William IV. During the last ten years of his reign, George III was insane, and sovereignty was exercised by the future George IV. This was the "Regency" period. In the mid-18th cent., wealth and power in Great Britain still resided in the aristocracy, the landed gentry, and the commercial oligarchy of the towns. The mass of the population consisted of agricultural laborers, semiliterate and landless, governed locally (in England) by justices of the peace. The countryside was fragmented into semi-isolated agricultural villages and provincial capitals.
However, the period of the late 18th and early 19th cent. was a time of dynamic economic change. The factory system, the discovery and use of steam power, improved inland transportation (canals and turnpikes), the ready supply of coal and iron, a remarkable series of inventions, and men with capital who were eager to invest—all these elements came together to produce the epochal change known as the Industrial Revolution.
The impact of these developments on social conditions was enormous, but the most significant socioeconomic fact of all from 1750 to 1850 was the growth of population. The population of Great Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) grew from an estimated 7,500,000 in 1750 to about 10,800,000 in 1801 (the year of the first national census) and to about 23,130,000 in 1861. The growing population provided needed labor for industrial expansion and was accompanied by rapid urbanization. Urban problems multiplied. At the same time a new period of inclosures (1750–1810; this time to increase the arable farmland) deprived small farmers of their common land. The Speenhamland System (begun in 1795), which supplemented wages according to the size of a man's family and the price of bread, and the Poor Law of 1834 were harsh revisions of the relief laws.
The social unrest following these developments provided a fertile field for Methodism, which had been begun by John Wesley in the mid-18th cent. Methodism was especially popular in the new industrial areas, in some of which the Church of England provided no services. It has been theorized that by pacifying social unrest Methodism contributed to the prevention of political and social revolution in Britain.
In the 1820s the reform impulse that had been largely stifled during the French Revolution revived. Catholic Emancipation (1829) restored to Catholics political and civil rights. In 1833 slavery in the British Empire was abolished. (The slave trade had been ended in 1807.) Parliamentary reform was made imperative by the new patterns of population distribution and by the great growth during the industrial expansion in the size and wealth of the middle class, which lacked commensurate political power. The general elections that followed the death of George IV brought to power a Whig ministry committed to parliamentary reform. The Reform Bill of 1832 (see under Reform Acts) enfranchised the middle class and redistributed seats to give greater representation to London and the urban boroughs of N England. Other parliamentary legislation established the institutional basis for efficient city government and municipal services and for government inspection of factories, schools, and poorhouses.
The competitive advantage British exports had gained from the Industrial Revolution lent new force to the arguments for free trade. The efforts of the Anti-Corn-Law League, organized by Richard Cobden and John Bright, succeeded in 1846 when Robert Peel was converted to the cause of free trade, and the corn laws were repealed. But Chartism, a mass movement for more thorough political reform, was unsuccessful (1848). Further important reforms were delayed nearly 20 years.
The Reform Bill of 1867, sponsored by Disraeli and the Conservatives for political reasons, enfranchised the urban working classes and was followed shortly (under Gladstone and the Liberals) by enactment of the secret ballot and the first steps toward a national education system. In 1884 a third Reform Bill extended the vote to agricultural laborers. (Women could not vote until 1918.) In the 1880s trade unions, which had first appeared earlier in the century, grew larger and more militant as increasing numbers of unskilled workers were unionized. A coalition of labor and socialist groups, organized in 1900, became the Labour party in 1906. In the 19th cent. Britain's economy took on its characteristic patterns. Trade deficits, incurred as the value of food imports exceeded the value of exports such as textiles, iron, steel, and coal, were overcome by income from shipping, insurance services, and foreign investments.
- Victorian Foreign Policy
The reign of Victoria (1837–1901) covered the period of Britain's commercial and industrial leadership of the world and of its greatest political influence. Initial steps toward granting self-government for Canada were taken at the start of Victoria's reign, while in India conquest and expansion continued. Great Britain's commercial interests, advanced by the British navy, brought on in 1839 the first Opium War with China, which opened five Chinese ports to British trade and made Hong Kong a British colony. The aggressive diplomacy of Lord Palmerston in the 1850s and 60s, including involvement in the Crimean War, was popular at home.
From 1868 to 1880 political life in Great Britain was dominated by Benjamin Disraeli and William E. Gladstone, who differed dramatically over domestic and foreign policy. Disraeli, who had attacked Gladstone for failing to defend Britain's imperial interests, pursued an active foreign policy, determined by considerations of British prestige and the desire to protect the route to India. Under Disraeli (1874–80) the British acquired the Transvaal, the Fiji Islands, and Cyprus, fought frontier wars in Africa and Afghanistan, and became the largest shareholder in the Suez Canal Company. Gladstone strongly condemned Disraeli's expansionist policies, but his later ministries involved Britain in Egypt, Afghanistan, and Uganda.
Gladstone's first ministry (1868–74) had disestablished the Church of England in Ireland, and in 1886, Gladstone unsuccessfully advocated Home Rule for Ireland. The proposal split the Liberal party and overturned his ministry. In the last decades of the 19th cent. competition with other European powers and enchantment with the glories of empire led Britain to acquire vast territories in Asia and Africa. By the end of the century the country was entangled in the South African War (1899–1902). Great Britain's period of hegemony was ending, as both Germany and the United States were surpassing it in industrial production.
- World War I and Its Aftermath
Victoria was succeeded by her son Edward VII, then by his son, George V. The Liberals, in power 1905–15, enacted much social legislation, including old-age pensions, health and unemployment insurance, child health laws, and more progressive taxation. The budget sponsored by David Lloyd George to finance the Liberals' program brought on a parliamentary struggle that ended in a drastic reduction of the power of the House of Lords (1911). Growing military and economic rivalry with Germany led Great Britain to form ententes with its former colonial rivals, France and Russia (see Triple Alliance and Triple Entente).
In 1914, Germany's violation of Belgium's neutrality, which since 1839 Britain had been pledged to uphold, caused Britain to go to war against Germany (see World War I). Although the British emerged as victors, the war took a terrible toll on the nation. About 750,000 men had died and seven million tons of shipping had been lost. In the peace settlement (see Versailles, Treaty of) Britain acquired, as League of Nations mandates, additional territories in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. But the four years of fighting had drained the nation of wealth and manpower.
The postwar years were a time of great moral disillusionment and material difficulties. To the international problems stemming directly from the war, such as disarmament, reparations, and war debts, were added complex domestic economic problems, the task of reorganizing the British Empire, and the tangled Irish problem. Northern Ireland was created in 1920, and the Irish Free State (see Ireland, Republic of) in 1921–22.
The basic domestic economic problem of the post–World War I years was the decline of Britain's traditional export industries, which made it more difficult for the country to pay for its imports of foods and raw materials. A Labour government, under Ramsay MacDonald, was in power for the first time briefly in 1924. In 1926 the country suffered a general strike. Severe economic stress increased during the worldwide economic depression of the late 1920s and early 30s. During the financial crisis of 1931, George V asked MacDonald to head a coalition government, which took the country off the gold standard, ceased the repayment of war debts, and supplanted free trade with protective tariffs modified by preferential treatment within the empire (see Commonwealth of Nations) and with treaty nations.
Recovery from the depression began to be evident in 1933. Although old export industries such as coal mining and cotton manufacturing remained depressed, other industries, such as electrical engineering, automobile manufacture, and industrial chemistry, were developed or strengthened. George V was succeeded by Edward VIII, after whose abdication (1936) George VI came to the throne. In 1937, Neville Chamberlain became prime minister.
The years prior to the outbreak of World War II were characterized by the ineffective attempts to stem the rising tide of German and Italian aggression. The League of Nations, in which Britain was a leader, declined rapidly by failing to take decisive action, and British prestige fell further because of a policy of nonintervention in the Spanish civil war. Appeasement of the Axis powers, which was the policy of the Chamberlain government, reached its climactic failure (as became evident later) in the Munich Pact of Sept., 1938. Great Britain had begun to rearm in 1936 and, after Munich, instituted conscription. With the signing of the Soviet-German pact of Aug., 1939, war was recognized as inevitable.
World War II and the Welfare State On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland. Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, and all the dominions of the Commonwealth except Ireland followed suit (see World War II). Chamberlain broadened his cabinet to include Labour representatives, but after German victories in Scandinavia he resigned (May, 1940) and was replaced by Winston S. Churchill. France fell in June, 1940, but the heroic rescue of a substantial part of the British army from Dunkirk (May–June) enabled Britain, now virtually alone, to remain in the war.
The nation withstood intensive bombardment (see Battle of Britain), but ultimately the Royal Air Force was able to drive off the Luftwaffe. Extensive damage was sustained, and great urban areas, including large sections of London, were devastated. The British people rose to a supreme war effort; American aid (see lend-lease) provided vital help. In 1941, Great Britain gained two allies when Germany invaded the USSR (June) and the United States entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7). Britain declared war on Japan on Dec. 8.
The wartime alliance of Great Britain, the USSR, and the United States led to the formation of the United Nations and brought about the defeat of Germany (May, 1945) and Japan (Sept., 1945). The British economy suffered severely from the war. Manpower losses had been severe, including about 420,000 dead; large urban areas had to be rebuilt, and the industrial plant needed reconstruction and modernization. Leadership in world trade, shipping, and banking had passed to the United States, and overseas investments had been largely liquidated to pay the cost of the world wars. This was a serious blow to the British economy because the income from these activities had previously served to offset the import-export deficit.
In 1945, the first general elections in ten years were held (they had been postponed because of the war) and Clement Attlee and the Labour party were swept into power. Austere wartime economic controls were continued, and in 1946 the United States extended a large loan. The United States made further assistance available in 1948 through the Marshall Plan. In 1949 the pound was devalued (in terms of U.S. dollars, from $4.03 to $2.80) to make British exports more competitive.
The Labour government pursued from the start a vigorous program of nationalization of industry and extension of social services. The Bank of England, the coal industry, communications facilities, civil aviation, electricity, and internal transport were nationalized, and in 1948 a vast program of socialized medicine was instituted (many of these programs followed the recommendations of wartime commissions). Also in 1948, Labour began the nationalization of the steel industry, but the law did not become effective until 1951, after Churchill and the Conservatives had returned to office. The Conservatives denationalized the trucking industry and all but one of the steel companies and ended direct economic controls, but they retained Labour's social reforms. Elizabeth II succeeded George VI in 1952.
In postwar foreign affairs Great Britain's loss of power was also evident. Britain had undertaken to help Greece and Turkey resist Communist subversion, but the financial burden proved too great, and the task was assumed (1947) by the United States. The British Empire underwent rapid transformation. British India was partitioned (1947) into two self-governing states, India and Pakistan. In Palestine, unable to maintain peace between Arabs and Jews, Britain turned its mandate over to the United Nations. Groundwork was laid for the independence of many other colonies; like India and Pakistan, most of them remained in the Commonwealth after independence. Great Britain joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (1949) and fought on the United Nations' side in the Korean War (1950–53).
The Conservative governments of Churchill and his successor, Anthony Eden (1955), were beset by numerous difficulties in foreign affairs, including the nationalization (1951) of British petroleum fields and refineries in Iran, the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya (1952–56), turmoil in Cyprus (1954–59), and the problem of apartheid in South Africa. The nationalization (1956) of the Suez Canal by Egypt touched off a crisis in which Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt. Opposition by the United States brought about a halt of the invasion and withdrawal of the troops.
- The 1960s and 70s
Great Britain helped to form (1959) the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), but in 1961 the government of Harold Macmillan announced its decision to seek membership in the European Economic Community. Because of French opposition as well as Britain's request for special considerations for the countries of the Commonwealth and of EFTA, agreement on British entry was not reached until 1971. Britain finally entered what had become the European Community (now the European Union [EU]) in Jan., 1973.
Labour returned to power in 1964 under Harold Wilson, and the steel industry was renationalized. The country faced the compound economic problems of a very unfavorable balance of trade, the instability of the pound sterling, a lagging rate of economic growth, and inflationary wages and prices. A number of sterling crises were followed by government controls and cutbacks.
Britain supported U.S. policy in Vietnam. The policy of granting independence to colonial possessions continued; however, Rhodesia (see Zimbabwe) became a problem when its government, representing only the white minority, unilaterally declared its independence in 1965. Another problem was Spain's demand for the return of Gibraltar. A major crisis erupted in Northern Ireland in late 1968 when Catholic civil-rights demonstrations turned into violent confrontations between Catholics and Protestants. British army units were dispatched in an unsuccessful attempt to restore calm. In 1972 the British government suspended the Northern Ireland Parliament and government and assumed direct control of the province. The sectarian terrorist violence that resulted from the unrest continued to be a significant problem in Northern Ireland into the 1990s.
The Conservatives under Edward Heath returned to power in Britain in 1970. At the end of 1973 the country underwent its worst economic crisis since World War II. The balance of payments deficit, after improving in the late 1960s, had worsened. Serious inflation had led to widespread labor unrest in the critical coal-mining, railroad, and electrical industries, leading to a shortage of coal, Britain's main energy source. A further blow, following the 1973 war in the Middle East, was the reduction in oil shipments by several Arab states and a steep increase in the price of oil.
When coal miners voted to strike in early 1974, Heath called an election in an attempt to bolster his position in resisting the miners' demands. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives emerged from that election with a plurality in the Commons. After an unsuccessful attempt to form a minority government, Heath resigned (Mar., 1974) and was succeeded as prime minister by Harold Wilson, who moved immediately to settle the miners' dispute.
In the elections of Oct., 1974, the Labour party won a slim majority; Wilson continued as prime minister. The early 1970s brought the development of oil and natural gas fields in the North Sea, which helped to decrease Britain's reliance on coal and foreign fuel. Wilson resigned and was succeeded by James Callaghan in Apr., 1976. Neither Wilson nor Callaghan was able to resolve growing disagreements with the unions, and unrest among industrial workers became the dominant note of the late 1970s. In Mar., 1979, Callaghan left office after losing a no-confidence vote.
- The Thatcher Era to the Present
In May, 1979, the Conservatives returned to power under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, who set out to reverse the postwar trend toward socialism by reducing government borrowing, freezing expenditures, and privatizing state-owned industries. Thatcher also managed to break union resistance through a series of laws that included the illegalization of secondary strikes and boycotts. A violent, unsuccessful yearlong miners' strike (1984–85) was Thatcher's most serious union confrontation.
Thatcher gained increased popularity by her actions in the Falkland Islands conflict with Argentina; she led the Conservatives to victory again in 1983 and 1987, the latter an unprecedented third consecutive general election win. In 1985, Great Britain agreed that Hong Kong would revert to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. In 1986, the Channel Tunnel project was begun with France; the rail link with the European mainland opened in 1994.
A decade of Thatcher's economic policies resulted in a marked disparity between the developed southern economy and the decaying industrial centers of the north. Her unpopular stands on some issues, such as her opposition to greater British integration in Europe, caused a Conservative party revolt that led her to resign in Nov., 1990, whereupon John Major became party leader and prime minister. Despite a lingering recession, the Conservatives retained power in the 1992 general election.
A peace initiative opened by Prime Minister Major in 1993 led to cease-fires in 1994 by the Irish Republican Army and Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. Peace efforts foundered early in 1996, as the IRA again resorted to terrorist bombings. In July, 1997, the IRA declared a new cease-fire, and talks begun in September of that year included Sinn Féin. An accord reached in 1998 provided for a new regional assembly to be established in Belfast, but formation of the government was hindered by disagreement over guerrilla disarmament. With resolution of those issues late in 1999, direct rule was ended in Northern Ireland, but tensions over disarmament have led to several lengthy suspensions of home rule since then.
The Major government was beset by internal scandals and by an intraparty rift over the degree of British participation in the European Union (EU), but Major called a Conservative party leadership election for July, 1995, and easily triumphed. In Nov., 1995, three divisions of British Rail were sold off in Britain's largest-ever privatization by direct sale. Britain's sometimes stormy relationship with the EU was heightened in 1996 when an outbreak of "mad cow disease" (see prion) in England led the EU to ban the sale of British beef; the crisis eased when British plans for controlling the disease were approved by the EU. Although the EU ban was ended in 1999, France continued its own ban on British beef, causing a strain in British-French relations and within the EU. In 2001, British livestock farmers were again hurt by an outbreak of disease, this time foot-and-mouth disease.
In the elections of May, 1997, Labour won 418 seats in the House of Commons by following a centrist political strategy. Tony Blair, head of what he called the "New Labour" party, became prime minister. In August, Britain mourned Princess Diana, the former wife of Prince Charles, who was killed in a car accident in Paris. Blair's pledge to decentralize government was endorsed in September, when Scotland and Wales both voted to establish legislative bodies, giving them a stronger voice in their domestic affairs. A bill passed by both houses of Parliament in 1999 stripped most hereditary peers of their right to sit and vote in the House of Lords; the shape of the reconstituted upper chamber is to be studied by a commission. Blair and Labour again trounced the Conservatives in June, 2001, though the victory was not so much a vote of confidence in Labour as a rejection of the opposition.
Following the devastating Sept., 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the British government became the most visible international supporter of the Bush administration in its war on terrorism. Government officials visited Muslim nations to seek their participation in the campaign, and British forces joined the Americans in launching attacks against Afghanistan after the Taliban government refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. The Blair government was also a strong supporter of the United States' position that military action should be taken against Iraq if UN weapons inspections were not resumed under new, stricter conditions, and committed British forces to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that began in Mar., 2003.
Blair's strong support for the invasion, and the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, were factors in Labour's third-place finish in the June, 2004, local elections; the results reflected the British public's dissatisfaction with the country's involvement in Iraq. Labour, and the Conservative party as well, suffered losses in the subsequent European parliament elections, which saw the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence party double its vote to 16%. In the 2005 parliamentary elections the issue of Iraq again hurt Blair and Labour, whose large parliamentary majority was significantly reduced. Nonetheless, the election marked the first time a Labour government had secured a third consecutive term at the polls.
On July, 7, 2005, London experienced four coordinated bombing on its underground and bus system that killed more 50 people and injured some 700. The attacks, which broadly resembled the Mar., 2004, bombings in Madrid, appeared to be the work of Islamic suicide bombers; three of the suspected bombers were born in Britain. Evidence uncovered by the British police indicated that the attacks may have been directed by a member of Al Qaeda. A second set of suicide bombings was attempted later in the month, but the bombs failed to detonate.
Prime Minister Blair suffered the first legislative defeat of his tenure in Nov., 2005, when the House of Commons refused to extend, to the degree that he had sought, the time that a terror suspect could be held in custody without being charged. He subsequently had difficulties in early 2006 securing passage of education reforms, and he and the Labour party also were embarrassed by revelations that wealthy individuals who had made campaign loans to the party that had been kept secret (a legal practice) had been nominated for peerages. In the May, 2006, local elections in England, Labour placed third in terms of the overall vote, leading Blair to reshuffle his cabinet.
Under pressure from many in his party step aside for a successor, Blair announced in September that he would resign as prime minister sometime in 2007. When he stepped down in June, 2007, Gordon Brown, who had served a decade as chancellor of the exchequer under Blair, succeeded him as prime minister. In July, England experienced its worst flooding in 60 years, primarily on the Severn, Thames, and Ock. Local electons in May, 2008, were seen as a rejection of Brown and Labour, as Labour again placed third in the popular vote. Great Britain was among the nations strongly affected by the global financial crisis in 2008 and subsequent recession, and in Oct., 2008, as the severity of the crisis became evident, Prime Minister Brown took the lead internationally in attempting to stabilize the financial system by recapitalizing a number of major banks with government funds. However, his government also used Britain's antiterrorist laws to freeze British assets of Icelandic banks in an attempt to protect their British depositors, a move that accelerated and aggravated the collapse of those banks.
In May, 2009, Britain's political parties became enveloped in a scandal over inappropriate expenses claimed by members of Parliament. Revelations concerning those expenses led a number of legislators to announce they would not run again. Several government ministers resigned—some as a result of the scandal, some in protest against it and the prime minister—and the speaker of the House of Commons, accused of failing to prevent the abuses and of trying to prevent release of the information, was forced to step down. Some £500,000 in expenses were returned. The scandal affected all the parties, but especially Labour, which suffered significant losses in the local English and European parliament elections held in June.
In the May, 2010, parliamentary elections, the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession, the parliamentary expenses scandal, and other issues led to a Labour defeat, but the Conservatives failed to win a majority and formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Britain's first coalition government since the 1940s. Conservative leader David Cameron became prime minister. The new government adopted plans for sizable government budget cuts and tax increases as well as other measures to reduce the government deficit and debt, the most significant such changes since Margaret Thatcher's prime ministership.
The deficit and debt reduction measures, however, created tensions among the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservative party's strident campaign against an alternative voting method for British elections, a referendum on which had been secured by the Liberal Democrats when they joined the coalition, also led to tensions. Voters subsequently rejected (May, 2011) the voting proposal and also handed Liberal Democrat candidates a sweeping defeat in the concurrent local elections. Tensions within the coalition were visible again in Dec., 2011, when Cameron vetoed European Union treaty changes, proposed as part of a EU response to the financial crisis affecting a number of eurozone nations, after he failed to win protection guarantees from other EU nations for British financial companies. Liberal Democrats were publicly critical of the veto.
The country experienced several days of riots in Aug., 2011, after a man was killed by police in Tottenham, London; rioting and looting spread first to other parts of London and then to other English cities. The riots ultimately were suppressed by the use of police in force. In October, Britain and those Commonwealth nations having the British monarch as head of state agreed to alter the terms of succession so that in the future the children of an heir to the throne would inherit the throne on the basis of birth order; previously, male children had precedence over female ones. (The Succession to the Crown Act 2013 enacted the Commonwealth decision of Oct., 2011, in Great Britain.)
The country slipped back into recession in late 2011 and early 2012. In mid-2012, attempts by the governing coalition to reform the House of Lords as a largely elected body, a goal of the Liberal Democrats, failed when a large number of Conservative members of Parliament opposed the plan. In Jan., 2013, Cameron promised a referendum on Britain's EU membership if his party remained in power after the 2015 elections.
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