For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.
Area: 243,000 sq. km. (93,000 sq. mi.); slightly smaller than Oregon.
Cities: Capital--London (metropolitan pop. about 7.56 million). Other cities--Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Bradford, Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol, Belfast.
Terrain: 30% arable, 50% meadow and pasture, 12% waste or urban, 7% forested, 1% inland water.
Land use: 25% arable, 46% meadows and pastures, 10% forests and woodland, 19% other.
Climate: Generally mild and temperate; weather is subject to frequent changes but to few extremes of temperature.
Nationality: Noun--Briton(s). Adjective--British.
Population (2008 est.): 61.4 million.
Annual population growth rate (2008 est.): 0.7%.
Major ethnic groups: British, Irish, West Indian, South Asian.
Major religions: Church of England (Anglican), Roman Catholic, Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), Muslim.
Major languages: English, Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic.
Education: Years compulsory--12. Attendance--nearly 100%. Literacy--99%.
Health: Infant mortality rate (2008 est.)--5/1,000. Life expectancy (2008 est.)--males 77.2 yrs.; females 81.5 yrs.; total 79.4 years.
Work force (2008, 31.36 million): Services--81.5%; industry—16.9%; agriculture--1.6%.
Type: Constitutional monarchy.
Constitution: Unwritten; partly statutes, partly common law and practice.
Branches: Executive--monarch (head of state), prime minister (head of government), cabinet. Legislative--bicameral Parliament: House of Commons, House of Lords; Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and Northern Ireland Assembly. Judicial--magistrates' courts, county courts, high courts, appellate courts, House of Lords.
Subdivisions: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland (municipalities, counties, and parliamentary constituencies).
Political parties: Great Britain--Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats; also, in Scotland--Scottish National Party. Wales--Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales). Northern Ireland--Ulster Unionist Party, Social Democratic and Labour Party, Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein, Alliance Party, and other smaller parties.
Suffrage: British subjects and citizens of other Commonwealth countries and the Irish Republic resident in the U.K., at 18.
GDP (at current market prices, 2008): $2.68 trillion.
Annual growth rate (2008): 0.7%.
Per capita GDP (at current market prices, 2008): $43,734.
Natural resources: Coal, oil, natural gas, tin, limestone, iron ore, salt, clay, chalk, gypsum, lead, silica.
Agriculture (1% of GDP): Products--cereals, oilseed, potatoes, vegetables, cattle, sheep, poultry, fish.
Industry: Types--steel, heavy engineering and metal manufacturing, textiles, motor vehicles and aircraft, construction (6% of GDP), electronics, chemicals.
Services (75% of GDP): Types--financial, business, distribution, transport, communication, hotels.
Trade (2008): Exports of goods and services--$458.8 billion: manufactured goods, fuels, chemicals; food, beverages, tobacco. Major markets--U.S., European Union. Imports of goods and services--$630.7 billion: manufactured goods, machinery, fuels, foodstuffs. Major suppliers--U.S., European Union, Japan, and China.
The United Kingdom's population in 2004 surpassed 60 million--the third-largest in the European Union. Its overall population density is one of the highest in the world. Almost one-third of the population lives in England's prosperous and fertile southeast and is predominantly urban and suburban--with about 7.5 million in the capital of London, which remains the largest city in Europe. The United Kingdom's high literacy rate (99%) is attributable to universal public education introduced for the primary level in 1870 and secondary level in 1900. Education is mandatory from ages 5 through 16. The Church of England and the Church of Scotland are the official churches in their respective parts of the country, but most religions found in the world are represented in the United Kingdom.
A group of islands close to continental Europe, the British Isles have been subject to many invasions and migrations, especially from Scandinavia and the continent, including Roman occupation for several centuries. Contemporary Britons are descended mainly from the varied ethnic stocks that settled there before the 11th century. The pre-Celtic, Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse influences were blended in Britain under the Normans, Scandinavian Vikings who had lived in Northern France. Although Celtic languages persist in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, the predominant language is English, which is primarily a blend of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French.
The Roman invasion of Britain in 55 BC and most of Britain's subsequent incorporation into the Roman Empire stimulated development and brought more active contacts with the rest of Europe. As Rome's strength declined, the country again was exposed to invasion--including the pivotal incursions of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in the fifth and sixth centuries AD--up to the Norman conquest in 1066. Norman rule effectively ensured Britain's safety from further intrusions; certain institutions, which remain characteristic of Britain, could develop. Among these are a political, administrative, cultural, and economic center in London; a separate but established church; a system of common law; distinctive and distinguished university education; and representative government.
Both Wales and Scotland were independent kingdoms that resisted English rule. The English conquest of Wales succeeded in 1282 under Edward I, and the Statute of Rhuddlan established English rule 2 years later. To appease the Welsh, Edward's son (later Edward II), who had been born in Wales, was made Prince of Wales in 1301. The tradition of bestowing this title on the eldest son of the British Monarch continues today. An act of 1536 completed the political and administrative union of England and Wales.
While maintaining separate parliaments, England and Scotland were ruled under one crown beginning in 1603, when James VI of Scotland succeeded his cousin Elizabeth I as James I of England. In the ensuing 100 years, strong religious and political differences divided the kingdoms. Finally, in 1707, England and Scotland were unified as Great Britain, sharing a single Parliament at Westminster.
Ireland's invasion by the Anglo-Normans in 1170 led to centuries of strife. Successive English kings sought to conquer Ireland. In the early 17th century, large-scale settlement of the north from Scotland and England began. After its defeat, Ireland was subjected, with varying degrees of success, to control and regulation by Britain.
The legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland was completed on January 1, 1801, under the name of the United Kingdom. However, armed struggle for independence continued sporadically into the 20th century. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 established the Irish Free State, which subsequently left the Commonwealth and became a republic after World War II. Six northern, predominantly Protestant, Irish counties have remained part of the United Kingdom.
British Expansion and Empire
Begun initially to support William the Conqueror's (c. 1029-1087) holdings in France, Britain's policy of active involvement in continental European affairs endured for several hundred years. By the end of the 14th century, foreign trade, originally based on wool exports to Europe, had emerged as a cornerstone of national policy.
The foundations of sea power were gradually laid to protect English trade and open up new routes. Defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 firmly established England as a major sea power. Thereafter, its interests outside Europe grew steadily. Attracted by the spice trade, English mercantile interests spread first to the Far East. In search of an alternate route to the Spice Islands, John Cabot reached the North American continent in 1498. Sir Walter Raleigh organized the first, short-lived colony in Virginia in 1584, and permanent English settlement began in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia. During the next two centuries, Britain extended its influence abroad and consolidated its political development at home.
Great Britain's industrial revolution greatly strengthened its ability to oppose Napoleonic France. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the United Kingdom was the foremost European power, and its navy ruled the seas. Peace in Europe allowed the British to focus their interests on more remote parts of the world, and, during this period, the British Empire reached its zenith. British colonial expansion reached its height largely during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Queen Victoria's reign witnessed the spread of British technology, commerce, language, and government throughout the British Empire, which, at its greatest extent, encompassed roughly one-fifth to one-quarter of the world's area and population. British colonies contributed to the United Kingdom's extraordinary economic growth and strengthened its voice in world affairs. Even as the United Kingdom extended its imperial reach overseas, it continued to develop and broaden its democratic institutions at home.
By the time of Queen Victoria's death in 1901, other nations, including the United States and Germany, had developed their own industries; the United Kingdom's comparative economic advantage had lessened, and the ambitions of its rivals had grown. The losses and destruction of World War I, the depression of the 1930s, and decades of relatively slow growth eroded the United Kingdom's preeminent international position of the previous century.
Britain's control over its empire loosened during the interwar period. Ireland, with the exception of six northern counties, gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1921. Nationalism became stronger in other parts of the empire, particularly in India and Egypt.
In 1926, the United Kingdom, completing a process begun a century earlier, granted Australia, Canada, and New Zealand complete autonomy within the empire. They became charter members of the British Commonwealth of Nations (now known as the Commonwealth), an informal but closely-knit association that succeeded the empire. Beginning with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, the remainder of the British Empire was almost completely dismantled. Today, most of Britain's former colonies belong to the Commonwealth, almost all of them as independent members. There are, however, 13 former British colonies--including Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and others--which have elected to continue their political links with London and are known as United Kingdom Overseas Territories.
Although often marked by economic and political nationalism, the Commonwealth offers the United Kingdom a voice in matters concerning many developing countries. In addition, the Commonwealth helps preserve many institutions deriving from British experience and models, such as parliamentary democracy, in those countries.
The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution. The equivalent body of law is based on statute, common law, and "traditional rights." Changes may come about formally through new acts of Parliament, informally through the acceptance of new practices and usage, or by judicial precedents. Although Parliament has the theoretical power to make or repeal any law, in actual practice the weight of 700 years of tradition restrains arbitrary actions.
Executive power rests nominally with the monarch but actually is exercised by a committee of ministers (cabinet) traditionally selected from among the members of the House of Commons and, to a lesser extent, the House of Lords. The prime minister is normally the leader of the largest party in the Commons, and the government is dependent on its support.
Parliament represents the entire country and can legislate for the whole or for any constituent part or combination of parts. The maximum parliamentary term is 5 years, but the prime minister may ask the monarch to dissolve Parliament and call a general election at any time. The focus of legislative power is the 646-member House of Commons, which has sole jurisdiction over finance. The House of Lords, although shorn of most of its powers, can still review, amend, or delay temporarily any bills except those relating to the budget. The House of Lords has more time than the House of Commons to pursue one of its more important functions--debating public issues. In 1999, the government removed the automatic right of hereditary peers to hold seats in the House of Lords. The current house consists of appointed life peers who hold their seats for life and 92 hereditary peers who will hold their seats only until final reforms have been agreed upon and implemented. The judiciary is independent of the legislative and executive branches but cannot review the constitutionality of legislation.
The separate identities of each of the United Kingdom's constituent parts are also reflected in their respective governmental structures. Up until the recent devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, a cabinet minister (the Secretary of State for Wales) handled Welsh affairs at the national level with the advice of a broadly representative council for Wales. Scotland maintains, as it did before union with England, different systems of law (Roman-French), education, local government, judiciary, and national church (the Church of Scotland instead of the Church of England). In addition, separate departments grouped under a Secretary of State for Scotland, who also is a cabinet member, handled most domestic matters. In late 1997, however, following approval of referenda by Scottish and Welsh voters (though only narrowly in Wales), the British Government introduced legislation to establish a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. The first elections for the two bodies were held May 6, 1999. The Welsh Assembly opened on May 26, and the Scottish Parliament opened on July 1, 1999. The devolved legislatures have largely taken over most of the functions previously performed by the Scottish and Welsh offices.
Northern Ireland had its own Parliament and prime minister from 1921 to 1973, when the British Government imposed direct rule in order to deal with the deteriorating political and security situation. From 1973, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, based in London, was responsible for the region, including efforts to resolve the issues that lay behind the "the troubles."
By the mid-1990s, gestures toward peace encouraged by successive British governments and by President Clinton began to open the door for restored local government in Northern Ireland. An Irish Republican Army (IRA) cease-fire and nearly 2 years of multiparty negotiations, led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, resulted in the Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998, which was subsequently approved by majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Key elements of the agreement include devolved government, a commitment of the parties to work toward "total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations," police reform, and enhanced mechanisms to guarantee human rights and equal opportunity. The Good Friday Agreement also called for formal cooperation between the Northern Ireland institutions and the Government of the Republic of Ireland, and it established the British-Irish Council, which includes representatives of the British and Irish Governments as well as the devolved Governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Devolved government was reestablished in Northern Ireland in December 1999.
The Good Friday Agreement provides for a 108-member elected Assembly, overseen by a 12-minister Executive Committee (cabinet) in which unionists and nationalists share leadership responsibility. Northern Ireland elects 18 representatives to the Westminster Parliament in London. However, the five Sinn Fein Members of Parliament (MPs), who won seats in the last election, have refused to claim their seats. Progress has been made on each of the key elements of the Good Friday Agreement. Most notably, a new police force has been instituted; the IRA has undertaken two acts of decommissioning of its weapons, and some measures to normalize the security situation in Northern Ireland have been taken. Disagreements over the implementation of elements of the agreement and allegations about the IRA's continued engagement in paramilitary activity, however, have troubled the peace process for several years. In October 2002, Northern Ireland's devolved institutions were suspended amid allegations of IRA intelligence gathering at Stormont, the seat of Northern Ireland's government. Assembly elections scheduled for May 2003 were postponed. Elections were held in November 2003, but the Assembly remained suspended. Finally, in 2007, the parties signed the St. Andrews Agreement, which paved the way for the Northern Ireland Government to stand up and for the devolution of powers to Belfast to occur. Responsibility for police and justice issues in Northern Ireland remains the last component of devolution to take place. The parties reached agreement on the mechanism for administration of police and justice issues in 2008, and legislation to legally transfer this authority is now before the Parliament in London. The United States remains firmly committed to the peace process in Northern Ireland and to the Good Friday Agreement, which it views as the best means to ensure lasting peace. The United States has condemned all acts of terrorism and violence, perpetrated by any group.
The United States also is committed to Northern Ireland's economic development and to date has given or pledged contributions of more than $300 million to the International Fund for Ireland. The fund provides grants and loans to businesses to improve the economy, redress inequalities of employment opportunity, and improve cross-border business and community ties.
Principal Government Officials
Head of State--Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Prime Minister (Head of Government)--The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown, MP
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs--The Rt. Hon. David Miliband, MP
Ambassador to the U.S.--Sir Nigel Sheinwald
Ambassador to the UN--Sir John Sawers
The United Kingdom maintains an embassy in the United States at 3100 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-588-6500; fax 202-588-7870).
Tony Blair became the first Labour Prime Minister ever to win a third consecutive term when he was re-elected on May 5, 2005. Labour has a 62-seat majority in the House of Commons. The Conservative (Tory) Party and Liberal-Democrats (LibDems) form the major opposition parties. Blair stepped down as Prime Minister in June 2007. Labour Party leader Gordon Brown succeeded him. The main British parties support a strong transatlantic link, but are increasingly absorbed by European issues as Britain's economic and political ties to the continent grow in the post-Cold War world. Prime Minister Brown has continued Blair’s policy of having the United Kingdom play a leading role in Europe even as the United Kingdom maintains its strong bilateral relationship with the United States.
DEFENSE AND FOREIGN RELATIONS
The United Kingdom is a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and is one of NATO's major European maritime, air, and land powers; it ranks third among NATO countries in total defense expenditure. The United Kingdom has been a member of the European Community (now European Union) since 1973. In the United Nations, the United Kingdom is a permanent member of the Security Council. The U.K. held the Presidency of the G-8 during 2005; it held the EU Presidency from July to December 2005.
The British Armed Forces are charged with protecting the United Kingdom and its overseas territories, promoting Britain's wider security interests, and supporting international peacekeeping efforts. The 37,000-member Royal Navy, which includes 6,000 Royal Marine commandos, is in charge of the United Kingdom's independent strategic nuclear arm, which consists of four Trident missile submarines. The British Army, consisting of approximately 99,200 personnel, the Royal Air Force, with 42,000 personnel, along with the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, are active and regular participants in NATO and other coalition operations. Approximately 9% of the British Armed Forces is female, and 4% of British forces represent ethnic minorities.
The United Kingdom stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., and its military forces are, after U.S. forces, the second largest contingent of the coalition force in Afghanistan. The U.K. force in Afghanistan stood at 9,000 as of October 10, 2009. U.K. forces are primarily based in the Helmand region, where they are on the front line in the war against continued Taliban operations. In addition, the U.K. has contributed more than £510 million (approximately $723.4 million) to Afghan reconstruction--the second-largest donor after the United States. The U.K. was the United States' main coalition partner in Operation Iraqi Freedom; its combat forces withdrew from Iraq in July 2009.
The United Kingdom has the sixth-largest economy in the world, is the third-largest economy in the European Union, and is a major international trading power. A highly developed, diversified, market-based economy with extensive social welfare services provides most residents with a high standard of living. Unemployment and inflation levels are amongst the lowest within the European Union.
The United Kingdom’s economy was hit by turmoil in the financial markets. It entered a recession in the third quarter of 2008, accompanied by rising unemployment which increased from 5.2% in January 2008 to 7.9% in July 2009. In response, the British Government implemented a wide-ranging stability and recovery plan that included a fiscal stimulus package, bank recapitalization, and credit stimulus schemes.
London remains a leading international financial center, but has been affected by recent financial market turbulence. London banks have laid off workers and many have scaled back their international operations. Two U.K. banks, Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley, have been nationalized while the British Government has taken a significant share in two others. London’s financial exports contribute greatly to the United Kingdom’s gross domestic product, but its contribution is expected to be considerably lessened in the next few years. London is a global leader in emissions trading and is home to the Alternative Investment Market (AIM). It is also a government priority to make London the leading center of Islamic finance.
The United Kingdom is the European Union's only significant energy exporter. It is also one of the world's largest energy consumers, and most analysts predict a shift in U.K. status from net exporter to net importer of energy by 2020, possibly sooner. Oil production in the U.K. is leveling off. While North Sea natural gas production continues to rise, gains may be offset by ever-increasing consumption. North Sea oil and gas exploration activities are shifting to smaller fields and to increments of larger, developed fields, presenting opportunities for smaller, independent energy operators to become active in North Sea production.
U.S.-UNITED KINGDOM RELATIONS
The United Kingdom is one of the United States' closest allies, and British foreign policy emphasizes close coordination with the United States. Bilateral cooperation reflects the common language, ideals, and democratic practices of the two nations. Relations were strengthened by the United Kingdom's alliance with the United States during both World Wars, and its role as a founding member of NATO, in the Korean conflict, in the Persian Gulf War, and in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The United Kingdom and the United States continually consult on foreign policy issues and global problems and share major foreign and security policy objectives.
The United Kingdom is the sixth-largest market for U.S. goods exports after Canada, Mexico, China, Japan and Germany, and the sixth-largest supplier of U.S. imports after Canada, China, Mexico, Japan, and Germany. U.S. exports of goods and services to the United Kingdom in 2008 totaled $116 billion, while U.S. imports from the U.K. totaled $104 billion. The United Kingdom is a large source of foreign tourists in the United States. In 2008, 2.95 million U.S. residents visited the United Kingdom, while 4 million U.K. residents visited the United States.
The United States and the United Kingdom share the world's largest foreign direct investment partnership. U.S. investment in the United Kingdom reached $421 billion in 2008, while U.K. direct investment in the U.S. totaled $454 billion. This investment sustains more than 1 million American jobs.
Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Louis B. Susman
Deputy Chief of Mission--Richard LeBaron
Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs--Gregory Berry
Minister-Counselor for Commercial Affairs--Dorothy Lutter
Minister-Counselor for Economic Affairs--Richard Albright
Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs--Sandra Kaiser
Minister-Counselor for Management Affairs--James Melville
Minister-Counselor for Consular Affairs--Derwood Staeben
Regional Security Officer--Mark J. Hipp
U.S. Consul General in Belfast--Kamala S. Lakhdhir
Principal Officer in Edinburgh--Dana M. Linnet
The U.S. Embassy in the United Kingdom is located at 24 Grosvenor Sq., W1A 1AE, London (tel.  (207) 499-9000; fax  (207) 409-1637).