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The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known as the United Kingdom (UK) or Britain, is a country in Northwestern Europe, off the north-western coast of the continental mainland. It comprises England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It includes the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland, and most of the smaller islands within the British Isles. Northern Ireland shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland; otherwise, the United Kingdom is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, the English Channel, the Celtic Sea, and the Irish Sea. The total area of the United Kingdom is 94,354 square miles (244,376 km2), with an estimated population of just over 67 million people in 2021.
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
|Anthem: "God Save the King"
|Coats of arms:
Used in relation to Scotland (right) and elsewhere (left)
and largest city
and national language
|Regional and minority languages
|Unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy
|House of Lords
|House of Commons
|1535 and 1542
|24 March 1603
|22 July 1706
|1 May 1707
|1 January 1801
|6 December 1922
|244,376 km2 (94,354 sq mi) (78th)
|242,741 km2 (93,723 sq mi)
• 2021 estimate
• 2011 census
|276/km2 (714.8/sq mi) (51st)
|$3.872 trillion (9th)
• Per capita
|$3.332 trillion (6th)
• Per capita
very high · 18th
|Pound sterling (GBP)
|UTC+0 (Greenwich Mean Time, WET)
• Summer (DST)
|UTC+1 (British Summer Time, WEST)
|ISO 3166 code
The United Kingdom has evolved from a series of annexations, unions and separations of constituent countries over several hundred years. The Treaty of Union between the Kingdom of England (which included Wales) and the Kingdom of Scotland in 1707 resulted in their unification to become the Kingdom of Great Britain. Its union in 1801 with the Kingdom of Ireland created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Most of Ireland seceded from the UK in 1922, leaving the present United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which formally adopted its name in 1927. The nearby Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey are not part of the UK, being Crown Dependencies, but the British government is responsible for their defence and international representation.
The UK became the first industrialised country and was the world's foremost power for the majority of the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly during the "Pax Britannica" between 1815 and 1914. The British Empire, at its height in the 1920s, encompassed almost a quarter of the world's landmass and population, and was the largest empire in history; however, its involvement in the First World War and the Second World War damaged Britain's economic power and a global wave of decolonisation led to the independence of most British colonies. British influence can be observed in the legal and political systems of many of its former colonies, and the UK's culture remains globally influential, particularly in language, literature, music and sport. English is the world's most widely spoken language and the third-most spoken native language.
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. The capital and largest city of the United Kingdom (as well as the capital of England) is London. The cities of Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast are respectively the national capitals of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Other major cities include Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, and Leeds. The UK consists of three distinct legal jurisdictions: England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. This is due to these areas retaining their existing legal systems even after joining the UK. Since 1998, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland also have their own devolved governments and legislatures, each with varying powers.
The UK has the world's sixth-largest economy by nominal gross domestic product (GDP), and the ninth-largest by purchasing power parity. It is a recognised nuclear state and is ranked fourth globally in military expenditure. The UK has been a permanent member of the UN Security Council since its first session in 1946. It is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Council of Europe, the G7, the OECD, NATO, the Five Eyes, AUKUS and the CPTPP.
Etymology and terminology
In 43 AD, Britannia referred to the Roman province that encompassed modern England and Wales. Great Britain encompassed the whole island, taking in the land north of the River Forth known to the Romans as Caledonia in modern Scotland (i.e. "greater" Britain). In the Middle Ages, the name "Britain" was also applied to a small part of France now known as Brittany. As a result, Great Britain (likely from the French "Grande Bretagne") came into use to refer specifically to the island, with Brittany often referred to as "Little Britain". However, that name had no official significance until 1707, when the island's kingdoms of England and Scotland were united as the Kingdom of Great Britain.
The Acts of Union 1707 declared that the Kingdom of England and Kingdom of Scotland were "United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain". The term "United Kingdom" has occasionally been used as a description for the former Kingdom of Great Britain, although its official name from 1707 to 1800 was simply "Great Britain". The Acts of Union 1800 united the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801, forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Following the partition of Ireland and the independence of the Irish Free State in 1922, which left Northern Ireland as the only part of the island of Ireland within the United Kingdom, the name was changed in 1927 to the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".
Although the United Kingdom is a sovereign country, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also widely referred to as countries. The UK Prime Minister's website has used the phrase "countries within a country" to describe the United Kingdom. Some statistical summaries, such as those for the twelve NUTS 1 regions refer to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as "regions". Northern Ireland is also referred to as a "province". With regard to Northern Ireland, the descriptive name used "can be controversial, with the choice often revealing one's political preferences".
The term "Great Britain" conventionally refers to the island of Great Britain, or politically to England, Scotland and Wales in combination. It is sometimes used as a loose synonym for the United Kingdom as a whole. The word England is occasionally used incorrectly to refer to the United Kingdom as a whole, a mistake principally made by people from outside the UK.
The term "Britain" is used as a synonym for Great Britain, and the United Kingdom. Usage is mixed: the UK Government prefers to use the term "UK" rather than "Britain" or "British" on its website (except when referring to embassies), while acknowledging that both terms refer to the United Kingdom and that elsewhere "British government" is used at least as frequently as "United Kingdom government". The UK Permanent Committee on Geographical Names recognises "United Kingdom", "UK" and "U.K." as shortened and abbreviated geopolitical terms for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in its toponymic guidelines; it does not list "Britain" but notes that "it is only the one specific nominal term 'Great Britain' which invariably excludes Northern Ireland". The BBC historically preferred to use "Britain" as shorthand only for Great Britain, though the present style guide does not take a position except that "Great Britain" excludes Northern Ireland.
The adjective "British" is commonly used to refer to matters relating to the United Kingdom and is used in law to refer to United Kingdom citizenship and matters to do with nationality. People of the United Kingdom use several different terms to describe their national identity and may identify themselves as being British, English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, or Irish; or as having a combination of different national identities. The official designation for a citizen of the United Kingdom is "British citizen".
Prior to the Treaty of Union
Settlement by Cro-Magnons of what was to become the United Kingdom occurred in waves beginning by about 30,000 years ago. By the end of the region's prehistoric period, the population is thought to have belonged largely to a culture termed Insular Celtic, comprising Brittonic Britain and Gaelic Ireland.
The Roman conquest, beginning in 43 AD, and the 400-year rule of southern Britain, was followed by an invasion by Germanic Anglo-Saxon settlers, reducing the Brittonic area mainly to what was to become Wales, Cornwall and, until the latter stages of the Anglo-Saxon settlement, the Hen Ogledd (northern England and parts of southern Scotland). Most of the region settled by the Anglo-Saxons became unified as the Kingdom of England in the 10th century. Meanwhile, Gaelic-speakers in north-west Britain (with connections to the north-east of Ireland and traditionally supposed to have migrated from there in the 5th century) united with the Picts to create the Kingdom of Scotland in the 9th century.
In 1066, the Normans invaded England from northern France. After conquering England, they seized large parts of Wales, conquered much of Ireland and were invited to settle in Scotland, bringing to each country feudalism on the Northern French model and Norman-French culture. The Anglo-Norman ruling class greatly influenced, but eventually assimilated with, the local cultures. Subsequent medieval English kings completed the conquest of Wales and tried unsuccessfully to annex Scotland. Asserting its independence in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, Scotland maintained its independence thereafter, albeit in near-constant conflict with England.
The English monarchs, through inheritance of substantial territories in France and claims to the French crown, were also heavily involved in conflicts in France, most notably the Hundred Years' War, while the Kings of Scots were in an alliance with the French during this period. Early modern Britain saw religious conflict resulting from the Reformation and the introduction of Protestant state churches in each country. The English Reformation ushered in political, constitutional, social and cultural change in the 16th century and established the Church of England. Moreover, it defined a national identity for England and slowly, but profoundly, changed people's religious beliefs. Wales was fully incorporated into the Kingdom of England, and Ireland was constituted as a kingdom in personal union with the English crown. In what was to become Northern Ireland, the lands of the independent Catholic Gaelic nobility were confiscated and given to Protestant settlers from England and Scotland.
In 1603, the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland were united in a personal union when James VI, King of Scots, inherited the crowns of England and Ireland and moved his court from Edinburgh to London; each country nevertheless remained a separate political entity and retained its separate political, legal, and religious institutions.
In the mid-17th century, all three kingdoms were involved in a series of connected wars (including the English Civil War) which led to the temporary overthrow of the monarchy, with the execution of King Charles I, and the establishment of the short-lived unitary republic of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Although the monarchy was restored, the Interregnum along with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the subsequent Bill of Rights 1689 in England and Claim of Right Act 1689 in Scotland ensured that, unlike much of the rest of Europe, royal absolutism would not prevail, and a professed Catholic could never accede to the throne. The British constitution would develop on the basis of constitutional monarchy and the parliamentary system. With the founding of the Royal Society in 1660, science was greatly encouraged. During this period, particularly in England, the development of naval power and the interest in voyages of discovery led to the acquisition and settlement of overseas colonies, particularly in North America and the Caribbean.
Though previous attempts at uniting the two kingdoms within Great Britain in 1606, 1667, and 1689 had proved unsuccessful, the attempt initiated in 1705 led to the Treaty of Union of 1706 being agreed and ratified by both parliaments.
Kingdom of Great Britain
On 1 May 1707, the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed, the result of the Acts of Union 1707.
In the 18th century, cabinet government developed under Robert Walpole, in practice the first prime minister (1721–1742). A series of Jacobite uprisings sought to remove the Protestant House of Hanover from the throne and restore the Catholic House of Stuart. The Jacobites were finally defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, after which the Scottish Highlanders were forcibly assimilated into Scotland by revoking the feudal independence of clan chiefs. The British colonies in North America that broke away in the American War of Independence became the United States, recognised by Britain in 1783. British imperial ambition turned towards Asia, particularly to India.
Britain played a leading part in the Atlantic slave trade, mainly between 1662 and 1807 when British or British-colonial slave ships transported nearly 3.3 million slaves from Africa. The slaves were taken to work on plantations, principally in the Caribbean but also North America. Slavery coupled with the Caribbean sugar industry had a significant role in strengthening the British economy in the 18th century. However, with pressure from the abolitionism movement, Parliament banned the trade in 1807, banned slavery in the British Empire in 1833, and Britain took a role in the movement to abolish slavery worldwide through the blockade of Africa and pressing other nations to end their trade with a series of treaties.
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
After the defeat of France at the end of the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), the United Kingdom emerged as the principal naval and imperial power (with London the largest city in the world from about 1830). Unchallenged at sea, British dominance was later described as Pax Britannica ("British Peace"), a period of relative peace among the great powers (1815–1914) during which the British Empire became the global hegemon and adopted the role of global policeman. By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, Britain was described as the "workshop of the world". From 1853 to 1856, Britain took part in the Crimean War, allied with the Ottoman Empire against Tsarist Russia, participating in the naval battles of the Baltic Sea known as the Åland War in the Gulf of Bothnia and the Gulf of Finland, among others. Following the Indian Rebellion in 1857, the British government led by Lord Palmerston assumed direct rule over India. Alongside the formal control it exerted over its own colonies, British dominance of much of world trade meant that it effectively controlled the economies of regions such as East Asia and Latin America.
Throughout the Victorian era, political attitudes favoured free trade and laissez-faire policies, as well as a gradual widening of the voting franchise, with the 1884 Reform Act championed by William Gladstone granting suffrage to a majority of males for the first time. The British population increased at a dramatic rate, accompanied by rapid urbanisation, causing significant social and economic stresses. By the late 19th century, the Conservatives under Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury initiated a period of imperial expansion in Africa, maintained a policy of splendid isolation in Europe, and attempted to contain Russian influence in Afghanistan and Persia, in what came to be known as the Great Game. During this time, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were granted self-governing dominion status. At the turn of the century, Britain's industrial dominance became challenged by the German Empire and the United States. The Edwardian era saw social reform and home rule for Ireland become important domestic issues, while the Labour Party emerged from an alliance of trade unions and small socialist groups in 1900, and suffragettes campaigned for women's right to vote.
World wars and partition of Ireland
Britain was one of the principal Allies that defeated the Central Powers in the First World War (1914–1918). Alongside their French, Russian and (after 1917) American counterparts, British armed forces were engaged across much of the British Empire and in several regions of Europe, particularly on the Western Front. The high fatalities of trench warfare caused the loss of much of a generation of men, with lasting social effects in the nation and a great disruption in the social order. Britain had suffered 2.5 million casualties and finished the war with a huge national debt. The consequences of the war persuaded the government to expand the right to vote in national and local elections with the Representation of the People Act 1918. After the war, Britain became a permanent member of the Executive Council of the League of Nations and received a mandate over a number of former German and Ottoman colonies. Under the leadership of David Lloyd George, the British Empire reached its greatest extent, covering a fifth of the world's land surface and a quarter of its population.
By the mid-1920s, most of the British population could listen to BBC radio programmes. Experimental television broadcasts began in 1929 and the first scheduled BBC Television Service commenced in 1936. The rise of Irish nationalism, and disputes within Ireland over the terms of Irish Home Rule, led eventually to the partition of the island in 1921. The Irish Free State became independent, initially with Dominion status in 1922, and unambiguously independent in 1931. Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. The 1928 Equal Franchise Act gave women electoral equality with men in national elections. Strikes in the mid-1920s culminated in the General Strike of 1926, which ended in a victory for the government led by Stanley Baldwin. Britain had still not recovered from the effects of the First World War when the Great Depression (1929–1932) led to considerable unemployment and hardship in the old industrial areas, as well as political and social unrest with rising membership in communist and socialist parties. A coalition government was formed in 1931.
Nonetheless, "Britain was a very wealthy country, formidable in arms, ruthless in pursuit of its interests and sitting at the heart of a global production system." After Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Britain entered the Second World War. Winston Churchill became prime minister and head of a coalition government in 1940. Despite the defeat of its European allies in the first year, Britain and its Empire continued the war against Germany. Churchill engaged industry, scientists and engineers to support the government and the military in the prosecution of the war effort.
In 1940, the Royal Air Force defeated the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Urban areas suffered heavy bombing during the Blitz. The Grand Alliance of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union formed in 1941, leading the Allies against the Axis powers. There were eventual hard-fought victories in the Battle of the Atlantic, the North Africa campaign and the Italian campaign. British forces played important roles in the Normandy landings of 1944 and the liberation of Europe. The British Army led the Burma campaign against Japan, and the British Pacific Fleet fought Japan at sea. British scientists contributed to the Manhattan Project whose task was to build an atomic weapon. Once built, it was decided, with British consent, to use the weapon against Japan. The wartime net losses in British national wealth amounted to 18.6% (£4.595 billion) of the prewar wealth (£24.68 billion), at 1938 prices.
Postwar 20th century
The UK was one of the Big Three powers (along with the US and the Soviet Union) who met to plan the post-war world; it was an original signatory to the Declaration by United Nations and became one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. It worked closely with the United States to establish the IMF, World Bank and NATO. The war left the UK severely weakened and financially dependent on the Marshall Plan, but it was spared the total war that devastated eastern Europe.
In the immediate post-war years, the Labour government under Clement Attlee initiated a radical programme of reforms, which significantly impacted British society in the following decades. Major industries and public utilities were nationalised, a welfare state was established, and a comprehensive, publicly funded healthcare system, the National Health Service, was created. The rise of nationalism in the colonies coincided with Britain's much-diminished economic position, so that a policy of decolonisation was unavoidable. Independence was granted to India and Pakistan in 1947. Over the next three decades, most colonies of the British Empire gained their independence, and many became members of the Commonwealth of Nations.
The UK was the third country to develop a nuclear weapons arsenal (with its first atomic bomb test, Operation Hurricane, in 1952), but the post-war limits of Britain's international role were illustrated by the Suez Crisis of 1956. The international spread of the English language ensured the continuing international influence of its literature and culture. As a result of a shortage of workers in the 1950s, the government encouraged immigration from Commonwealth countries. In the following decades, the UK became a more multi-ethnic society. Despite rising living standards in the late 1950s and 1960s, the UK's economic performance was less successful than many of its main competitors such as France, West Germany and Japan.
In the decades-long process of European integration, the UK was a founding member of the Western European Union, established with the London and Paris Conferences in 1954. In 1960 the UK was one of the seven founding members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), but in 1973 it left to join the European Communities (EC). In a 1975 referendum 67% voted to stay in it. When the EC became the European Union (EU) in 1992, the UK was one of the 12 founding member states.
From the late 1960s, Northern Ireland suffered communal and paramilitary violence (sometimes affecting other parts of the UK) conventionally known as the Troubles. It is usually considered to have ended with the 1998 Belfast "Good Friday" Agreement.
Following a period of widespread economic slowdown and industrial strife in the 1970s, the Conservative government of the 1980s led by Margaret Thatcher initiated a radical policy of monetarism, deregulation, particularly of the financial sector (for example, the Big Bang in 1986) and labour markets, the sale of state-owned companies (privatisation), and the withdrawal of subsidies to others.
In 1982, Argentina invaded the British territories of South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, leading to the 10-week Falklands War in which Argentine forces were defeated. The inhabitants of the islands are predominantly descendants of British settlers, and strongly favour British sovereignty, expressed in a 2013 referendum. From 1984, the UK economy was helped by the inflow of substantial North Sea oil revenues.
Around the end of the 20th century, there were major changes to the governance of the UK with the establishment of devolved administrations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The statutory incorporation followed acceptance of the European Convention on Human Rights. The UK remained a great power with global diplomatic and military influence and a leading role in the United Nations and NATO.
The UK broadly supported the United States' approach to the "war on terror" in the early 21st century. British troops fought in the War in Afghanistan, but controversy surrounded Britain's military deployment in Iraq, which saw the largest protest in British history demonstrating in opposition to the government led by Tony Blair.
The 2008 global financial crisis severely affected the UK economy. The Cameron–Clegg coalition government of 2010 introduced austerity measures intended to tackle the substantial public deficits. Studies have suggested that policy led to significant social disruption and suffering. A referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 resulted in the Scottish electorate voting by 55.3 to 44.7% to remain part of the United Kingdom.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a severe impact on the UK's economy, caused major disruptions to education and had far-reaching impacts on society and politics in 2020 and 2021. The United Kingdom was the first country in the world to use an approved COVID-19 vaccine, developing its own vaccine through a collaboration between Oxford University and AstraZeneca, which allowed the UK's vaccine rollout to be among the fastest in the world.
On 8 September 2022, Elizabeth II, the longest-living and longest-reigning British monarch, died at the age of 96. Upon the Queen's death, her eldest child Charles, Prince of Wales, acceded to the British throne as Charles III.