United Kingdom

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Editors: Timothy L. Gall , Susan Bevan Gall , and Derek M. Gleason
Date: 2012
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Country overview
Length: 10,204 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 1060L

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Capital: London
Flag: The Union Jack is a combination of the banners of England (St. George's FLAG: a red cross with extended horizontals on a white field), Scotland (St. Andrew's FLAG: a white saltire cross on a blue field), and Ireland (St. Patrick's FLAG: a red saltire cross on a white field). The arms of the saltire crosses do not meet at the center.
Anthem: God Save the Queen.
Monetary Unit: The pound sterling (£) is a paper currency of 100 pence. Before decimal coinage was introduced on 15 February 1971, the pound had been divided into 20 shillings, each shilling representing 12 pennies or pence; some old-style coins are still in circulation. Under the new system, there are coins of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 pence and 1 and 2 pounds, and notes of 5, 10, 20, and 50 pounds. £1 = US$1.5590 (or US$1 = £0.64) as of 2011.
Weights and Measures: Although the traditional imperial system of weights and measures is still in use (sample units: of weight, the stone of 14 pounds equivalent to 6.35 kilograms; of length, the yard equivalent to 0.914 meter; of capacity, a bushel equivalent to 36.37 liters), a changeover to the metric system is in progress.
Holidays: New Year's Day, 1 January; Good Friday; Easter Monday (except Scotland); Late Summer Holiday, last Monday in August or 1st in September (except Scotland); Christmas, 25 December; and Boxing Day, 1st weekday after Christmas. Also observed in Scotland are bank holidays on 2 January and on the 1st Monday in August. Northern Ireland observes St. Patrick's Day, 17 March; and Orangeman's Day, 12 July, commemorating the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
Time: GMT.

Location and Size

The United Kingdom is located off the northwest coast of Europe between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. It is separated from the Continent by the Strait of Dover and the English Channel, and from the Irish Republic by the Irish Sea and Saint George's Channel. Its total area is 243,610 square kilometers (94,058 square miles). It consists of the island of Great Britain—formed by England, Wales, and Scotland—and Northern Ireland, on the island of Ireland. Comparatively, the area occupied by the United Kingdom is slightly smaller than the state of Oregon.

The United Kingdom also comprises several island groups and hundreds of small single islands. Its total land boundary length is 360 kilometers (224 miles) and the total coastline length is 12,429 kilometers (7,723 miles).

The 0° meridian of longitude passes through the old Royal Observatory, located at Greenwich. The United Kingdom's capital city, London, is located in the southeast part of England.


England is divided into the hill regions of the north, west, and southwest and the rolling downs and low plains of the east and southeast. The Cheviot Hills run from east to west on the extreme north Scottish border. The Pennine Range runs north and south from the Scottish border to Derbyshire in central England. The rest of the countryside consists mainly of rich agricultural lands, occasional moors, and plains. South of the Pennines are the Midlands (East and West), a plains region with low, rolling hills and fertile valleys. The eastern coast is low-lying, much of it less than 5 meters (15 feet) above sea level.

The highest point in England is Scafell Pike, at 978 meters (3,210 feet). It is in the famed Lake District of the northwest. The longest of the rivers flowing from the central highlands to the sea are the Severn (about 340 kilometers/210 miles) in the west and the Thames (about 320 kilometers/200 miles) in the southeast.

Scotland has three distinct topographical regions. The Northern Highlands contain the highest point in the British Isles, Ben Nevis, at 1,343 meters (4,406 feet), as well as Loch Ness, site of the fabled "monster." The Central Lowlands contain the valleys of the Tay, Forth, and Clyde Rivers, as Scotland's largest lake, Loch Lomond. The Southern Uplands rise to their peak at Merrick (843 meters/2,766 feet). Its moorland is cut by many valleys and rivers.

Wales is largely mountainous and bleak. Much of the land can only be used for pasture. The Cambrian Mountains occupy almost the entire area and include Wales's highest point, Mount Snowdon, at 1,086 meters (3,563 feet). There are narrow coastal plains in the south and west and small lowland areas in the north, including the valley of the Dee.

Northern Ireland consists mainly of low-lying plateaus and hills, generally about 150 to 180 meters (500 to 600 feet) high. The Mourne Mountains in the southeast include Slieve Donard, at 852 meters (2,796 feet), the highest point in Northern Ireland. Lough Neagh, the largest lake in the United Kingdom, lies in a central depression. It has an area of 400 square kilometers (154 square miles).

The United Kingdom's long and rugged coastline has towering cliffs and headlands and numerous bays and inlets, among them the deep and narrow lochs and the wide firths of Scotland. Many river estuaries serve as fine harbors.


The United Kingdom generally has a temperate climate despite its northern latitude. Mean monthly temperatures range (north to south) from 3 to 5°C (37 to 41°F) in winter and from 12 to 16°C (54 to 61°F) in summer. Temperatures in summer rarely get higher than 32°C (90°F) or drop in winter below -10°C (14°F). Rainfall averages 78 centimeters (31 inches) throughout the United Kingdom. It is heaviest on the western and northern heights (more than 380 centimeters/150 inches), and lowest along the eastern and southeastern coasts. The United Kingdom is known for its mists and fogs and has little sunshine. It averages from half an hour to two hours a day in winter and from five to eight hours in summer.

Plants and Animals

There are 1,623 plant species in the United Kingdom. Originally, oak forests probably covered the lowland, except for the fens and marsh areas, while pine forests and patches of moorland covered the higher or sandy ground. Fairly extensive forests remain in east and north Scotland and in southeast England. Oak, elm, ash, and beech are the most common trees in England. Pine and birch are most common in Scotland. Almost all the lowland has varied grasses and flowering plants.

The United Kingdom is also home to 103 mammal, 557 bird, 16 reptile, and 12 amphibian species. Some of the larger mammals like wolves, bears, boars, and reindeer are extinct. The red and roe deer are protected for sport. Common smaller mammals include foxes, hares, hedgehogs, rabbits, weasels, stoats, shrews, rats, and mice. Otters are found in many rivers, and seals frequently appear along the coast. There are at least 50 species of mammal native to the region.

The most numerous bird species are the chaffinch, blackbird, sparrow, and starling. The number of large birds is declining except for game birds like pheasants, partridges, and red grouse. The rivers and lakes abound in salmon, trout, perch, pike, roach, dace, and grayling. There are also more than 21,000 species of insects.


Air pollution is a significant environmental concern for the United Kingdom. In 2008 the country's carbon dioxide emissions totaled 539,176. In addition, its sulphur contributes to the formation of acid rain in the surrounding countries of Western Europe. Air quality has improved greatly in the United Kingdom as a result of the Control of Pollution Act of 1974 and other legislation. London is no longer densely smog-ridden. Winter sunlight has been increasing in various industrial cities. Water pollution from agricultural sources is also a problem. The United Kingdom's cities produce an average of 22 million tons of solid waste per year.

The United Kingdom had designated 4.75 million hectares (11.74 million acres) of land for protection as of 2006. Protected areas included 168 Ramsar wetland sites and 5 natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In 2011 threatened species included 5 types of mammals, 2 birds, 43 fish, 5 mollusks, 9 other invertebrates, and 15 plants. The European otter, Atlantic sturgeon, Atlantic ridley, Eskimo curlew, and Spengler's freshwater mussel are classified as endangered. The great auk has become extinct.



The stone circles of Stonehenge in Wiltshire are the remains of Britain's earliest inhabitants, whose origin is unknown. Celtic tribes from the Continent invaded the islands sometime prior to the 6th century BC. In the 1st century AD the Romans occupied most of the present-day area of England, staying until the 5th century. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the Celtic tribes fought among themselves. Early raids by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes soon turned into full-scale invasions. The leaders of the invasions established kingdoms in the conquered territory. The native Celts retreated into the mountains of Wales and the southwest of England.

The kingdom of the West Saxons (Wessex) became the overall ruling kingdom, mostly through the leadership of Alfred the Great. The West Saxons were overthrown twice, however, first by the Danes in 1017 and later by William, Duke of Normandy, in 1066. William invaded England and defeated Harold the Saxon in the Battle of Hastings. This began the Norman Conquest, which lasted until 1070. He instituted a strong government, which continued through the reigns of his sons William II and Henry I. Henry II ascended the throne in 1154. Succeeding English kings expanded their holdings in France, beginning a long series of struggles between the two countries.


A long-standing conflict between the nobles and the kings reached a climax at Runnymede in 1215 when King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta. The document guaranteed fundamental rights and privileges to average citizens. In 1265 Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, summoned the first Parliament. It had representatives from the nobility and from the boroughs and towns. In 1282 the last Welsh king, Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, was killed in battle, and Edward I completed the conquest of Wales.

By the end of the 6th century, four separate kingdoms had been established in Scotland. Most of the country was unified under Duncan I (reigned 1034-40). The Scottish king William the Lion (reigned 1165-1214) was captured by Henry II of England in 1174 and forced to accept the Treaty of Falaise. It placed Scotland under English control. Scotland later purchased its freedom from Richard I. In 1305 Edward I reestablished English rule. However, after the decisive defeat of the English at Bannockburn, Edward III signed a treaty in 1328 that once again gave Scotland its freedom.


Under Edward III, the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) with France was begun. The war would eventually end with the English being driven out of France. The 14th and 15th centuries were a time of confusion and change for England. The plague known as the Black Death broke out in England in 1348. It wiped out a third of the population. John Wycliffe led a religious reform movement and criticized many established doctrines and practices. Richard II ruled from 1377 to 1399. He was overthrown and succeeded by Henry IV, the first king of the house of Lancaster. The War of the Roses (1455-85), in which the houses of Lancaster and York fought for the throne, ended with the accession of Henry VII, a member of the Tudor family. This marked the beginning of the modern history of England.

Under the Tudors, business and trade were expanded, English sailors ranged far and wide, and conflicts with Spain grew worse. In 1531 Henry VIII separated the Anglican Church from Rome and proclaimed himself its head in order to divorce the first of his six wives. After his death in 1547, the succession to the throne became a major issue during the reigns of Edward VI (1547-53), Mary I (1553-58), and Elizabeth I (1558-1603).

French influence in Scotland grew under James V (reigned 1513-42). His daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, married the prince of France, where she lived and later ruled as queen. By the time Mary returned to Scotland (1561), a pro-English faction had the support of Queen Elizabeth I against the pro-French faction. Mary, who claimed the throne of England, was imprisoned and executed in 1587 by Elizabeth. Under Elizabeth, England acquired its first colony, Newfoundland, in 1583 and in 1588 defeated the Spanish Armada. It also experienced the beginning of a golden age of drama, literature, and music, which produced many great artists, including William Shakespeare.


Elizabeth was succeeded by Mary's son, James VI of Scotland. He became James I of England (reigned 1603-25), establishing the Stuart line. Under James and his son, Charles I (reigned 1625-49), the rising middle classes wanted to make Parliament superior to the king. The English Civil War broke out in 1642, and Charles I was tried and executed in 1649. Oliver Cromwell, as Protector, ruled the new Commonwealth until his death in 1658. In 1660 Charles II, eldest son of the executed king, regained the throne.

The following period was known as the Restoration. It was marked by a reaction against Puritanism and by greater wealth. Charles II's younger brother, James II (reigned 1685-88) tried unsuccessfully to restore Roman Catholicism and was overthrown in 1688. He was succeeded by his daughter, Mary II, and her Dutch husband, William III, who were invited to rule by Parliament. This transfer of power is known as the Glorious Revolution.

English colonial expansion developed further in the 17th and 18th centuries. The English merchant marine became more successful than the Dutch. At home, the Act of Union of Scotland and England was approved by the two parliaments in 1707. The kingdom of Great Britain was formed under one crown and with a single Parliament composed of representatives of both countries.


George I of the House of Hanover took the throne in 1714 and established the modern cabinet system, with the king leaving much of the governing to his ministers. The 18th century was a time of rapid colonial expansion, internal stability, and literary and artistic achievement. Britain expanded its control of North America and India in the Seven Years' War, which ended in 1763 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The American Revolution (1775-83), however, cost Britain its most important group of colonies. A few years later, Britain colonized Australia and New Zealand.

The United Kingdom was born in 1800 with the Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland. The act established Irish representation in Parliament; the so-called Irish question continued to cause trouble. There was a growing division between the 26 counties of southern Ireland and the 6 counties of the north, popularly called Ulster. The north gradually became mostly Protestant and industrial, but the rest of Ireland remained Catholic and rural. Eventually, the northern Irish began a campaign that ended in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. It established separate governments for the north and south, as well as continued representation in the United Kingdom Parliament. The six northern counties accepted the act and became Northern Ireland. The 26 southern counties, however, did not. In 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed. The southern counties left the United Kingdom to become the Irish Free State, which was officially established in 1922.

The Industrial Revolution began in the second half of the 18th century. It funded British colonial and military expansion throughout the 1800s. The growth of factories and cities introduced new social problems, however. The Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884 increased the rights and power of the new middle and working classes. Factory acts, poor laws, and other humanitarian legislation corrected some of the worst abuses. The long reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) benefited from unprecedented commercial and industrial growth. Victoria was succeeded by her son, Edward VII (1841-1910), whose reign was marked by a period of great colonial expansion, especially in Africa, where Britain fought Dutch settlers in the Boer War at the end of the century.

20th and 21st Centuries

In World War I (1914-18) nearly 800,000 Britons were killed, causing serious economic and social disturbances in the United Kingdom. The economic depression of the 1930s resulted in the unemployment of millions of workers. During the late 1930s the government of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain hoped to avoid war by compromising with Nazi Germany. However, after German leader Adolph Hitler invaded Poland, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. It was the beginning of World War II (1939-45). Although it won the war, the United Kingdom suffered much destruction from German bombing. There were over 900,000 military and civilian deaths.

There was a succession of kings during this era. George V (1865-1936) succeeded his father, Edward VII, as king in 1910; George V's son, Edward VIII (1894-1972), succeeded his father in 1936. However, Edward VIII gave up the throne before the end of his first year as king so that he could marry the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. His brother, George VI (1895-1952), became king in his place. George VI ruled throughout World War II, serving as a role model to the British people by choosing to continue to live in Buckingham Palace during and after bombing raids. When he died, his daughter, Elizabeth II (b. 1926) became queen. Her eldest son, Prince Charles (b. 1948) was given the title of Prince of Wales in 1958. He is currently heir to the throne.

The United Kingdom has remained firmly within the Atlantic alliance since World War II. It was a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and joined the European Community (EC) on 1 January 1973. The principal domestic problems in the 1970s were rapid inflation, labor disputes, and the continuing conflict in Northern Ireland. Civil rights protests in 1969 by Catholics drew a violent Protestant reaction. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), sought the union of Ulster with the Irish Republic and began committing terrorist acts in both Northern Ireland and England. British troops were sent to Belfast and Londonderry in August 1969. In November 1985 the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic signed an agreement committing both governments to recognize Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and to cooperate with each other.

In 1979 a Conservative government headed by Margaret Thatcher came to power. They began a program of income tax cuts and reduced government spending. Thatcher won reelection in 1983 and 1987. She began a policy of privatizing many of the United Kingdom's government-run businesses. The United Kingdom fought a brief but intense war (2 April-14 June 1982) after Argentina occupied the Falkland Islands off the south Atlantic coast of South America. British government was restored to the islands at the end of the war. In November 1990 Thatcher withdrew from power and was replaced by John Major. Major's government sought to redefine Conservative values with a renewed emphasis on law and order.

Labour Party leader Tony Blair was elected prime minister in May 1997, ending 18 years of Conservative Party rule. Blair pledged to create regional assemblies for Scotland and Wales as well as a municipal government for London. Blair also promised not to exceed Conservative Party spending limits, and pledged no new taxes for five years. Blair also promised a referendum on the status of Northern Ireland, which its voters approved in May 1998. Voters in the Irish Republic also approved the same referendum. Under the settlement, Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom, but there will be a new elected assembly, administrative links between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, and a council with representatives from the United Kingdom.

On 15 August 1998, a car bomb exploded in Omagh, Northern Ireland, killing 28 people and wounding more than 200. The bombing appeared to be conducted by a Roman Catholic splinter group opposed to the referendum. The act of terror raised doubts about the new peace agreement. In May 2000 the Irish Republican Army (IRA) agreed to allow leading international figures to inspect arms dumps and to begin the process of disarmament. However, disarmament of the IRA did not progress in 2001. In October 2002 Sinn Féin's offices at Stormont were raided due to a large police investigation into alleged spying on behalf of Irish republicans. Due to the spying accusations, direct rule from London was reimposed on Northern Ireland. On 26 November 2003, however, elections were held for the Northern Ireland Assembly after Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders in Northern Ireland agreed to restore the assembly and executive branches.

Tony Blair and his Labour Party won a second landslide victory in the June 2001 parliamentary election. The central issue dividing the nation was the United Kingdom's relationship with the European Union (EU). Blair was reelected prime minister in 2005.

Blair offered strong support for the U.S-led war on terrorism that began after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. British forces took part in the campaign in Afghanistan to remove the Taliban regime. British forces also fought with U.S. forces in the war in Iraq that began on 19 March 2003.

On 7 July 2005, four suicide bombers struck the transit system in London, killing 52 people and injuring more than 700. Three underground trains were bombed, as was one double-decker bus. On 21 July, bombings of another three underground trains and one bus were attempted, but the suicide bombers' explosives failed to fully detonate.

In February 2007 then-Prime Minister Blair announced the first large-scale withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. Upon coming to power, Prime Minister Gordon Brown continued to move toward British troop withdrawal. David Cameron became prime minister in 2010.

In March 2007 Northern Ireland assembly elections were held. This led to the swearing-in of leaders of the Assembly on 8 May 2007, ending five years of direct rule from London.

The United Kingdom does not belong to the European economic and monetary union. It has kept its own currency, the pound, instead of switching to the euro.

In July 2008 the ruling General Synod of the Church of England approved by majority vote a controversial decision to allow the ordination of women as bishops. The traditional patriarchal Church began ordaining women as deacons in 1984 and priests in 1994. The earliest time for the potential consecration of the first woman bishop is projected for 2015.


The United Kingdom's net migration rate was estimated at 2.6 migrants per 1,000 citizens in 2011. The total number of emigrants living abroad was 4.67 million, and the total number of immigrants living in the United Kingdom was 6.96 million.

The United Kingdom has a five-tiered guest worker system: tier one, for highly skilled migrants and investors; tier two, for skilled workers in shortage occupations; tier three, for unskilled workers via accredited recruiters; tier four, for foreign students; and tier five, for cultural exchange workers.

Armed Forces

Armed forces in the United Kingdom totaled 178,470 members in 2011. The force was comprised of 102,600 members of the army, 35,480 of the navy, and 40,390 members of the air force. Defense spending totaled $52.3 billion and accounted for 2.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

In 2010 Prime Minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy signed two treaties that commit the countries to cooperation and shared resources in defense and nuclear testing.

The United Kingdom is a monarchy in form but a parliamentary democracy in substance. In British terms, the sovereign—Elizabeth II since 1952—reigns but does not rule. Although head of state, the sovereign is considered to be under the law rather than above it. She rules only by approval of Parliament and acts only on the advice of her ministers.

The United Kingdom is governed, in the name of the sovereign, by a body of ministers responsible to Parliament called Her Majesty's Government. Parliament itself is the supreme legislative authority in the realm. It consists of the sovereign, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. Northern Ireland had its own parliament (Stormont) that was subordinate to Westminster, in London; however, because of civil strife in Ulster, the Stormont was prorogued (suspended) on 30 March 1972, and direct rule was imposed from Westminster. A Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government came into being in 1999. It was suspended in October 2002, and direct rule from London returned. However, elections were held in March 2007, and new leaders sworn in on 8 May 2007, ending five years of direct rule from London. Regional parliaments for Scotland and Wales were ratified by referendum in 1997; they convened their first sessions in 1998.

The sovereign formally calls and dismisses Parliament. The House of Lords is comprised of about 741 peers, including hereditary peers, spiritual peers (archbishops and bishops of the Church of England), and life peers. Over the centuries, its powers have gradually been reduced. Today, its main function is to bring the wide experience of its members into the process of lawmaking. As of 2010 the House of Commons, which is elected, had 650 members. A general election must be held every five years, but is often held sooner. All British subjects 18 years old and over may vote in national elections.

Every Parliament may make or unmake any law during its lifetime. Parliamentary bills may be introduced by either house unless they deal with finance or representation; such bills are always introduced in the Commons, which has ultimate authority for lawmaking. The Speaker of the Parliament is the chief officer of the House of Commons. The Speaker is nonpartisan and functions impartially. The first female Speaker was elected in 1992.

Executive power rests with the prime minister, who, though formally appointed by the sovereign, is traditionally the leader of the majority party in Parliament. The prime minister is assisted by ministers chosen from the majority party—mostly from the House of Commons, which must approve general government policy and important specific measures. The ministers with the most seniority, about 20 or so, compose the cabinet, which meets regularly to decide policy on major issues.

The British constitution is made up of parliamentary statutes, common law, and traditional precepts and practices known as conventions, all of which have evolved through the centuries. Largely unwritten, this constitution has never been codified and is constantly changing.

Under the Local Government Act of 1972, the county system that had prevailed throughout England and Wales was replaced by a two-tier structure of counties and districts. In the 1990s local governmental structures were reorganized, and single-tier administrations with responsibility for all areas of local government were reestablished. In 2000 a two-tier structure was reestablished for London; it has 32 boroughs and the City of London.

Scotland is divided into 32 council areas, which in turn are divided into electoral wards and communities. Wales is subdivided into 22 unitary authorities, which in turn are divided into electoral divisions and communities. Northern Ireland is subject to the administration of both the U.K. government and the Northern Ireland Executive in Belfast. It is divided into 26 districts, which in turn are divided into electoral wards. The United Kingdom has more than 10,000 electoral wards/divisions.

Judicial System

The main civil courts in England and Wales are county courts for small cases. Appeals from the county courts may also be heard in the High Court of Justice, though the more important ones come before the Court of Appeal. A few appeals are heard before the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, which was created in 2009.

In Scotland, civil cases are heard at the sheriff courts and in the Court of Session, which is the supreme civil court in Scotland.

Criminal courts in England and Wales include magistrates' courts, which hear less serious offenses. These consist most often of three unpaid magistrates known as justices of the peace.

In Scotland, minor criminal cases are tried without a jury in the sheriff courts and district courts, and more serious cases with a jury in the sheriff courts. The supreme criminal court is the High Court of Justiciary.

Political Parties

The main political parties represented in Parliament today are the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, and the Liberal Democrats (a coalition of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties, which voted in favor of a formal merger in 1988). The largest minority party is officially designated as Her Majesty's Opposition.

The Liberal Party was a major force during the late 19th century. Since World War I, the Labour Party has replaced the Liberal Party as the official opposition to a Conservative government. The Labour Party favors public ownership of manufacturing, improvement of the social and economic conditions of the people, defense of human rights, cooperation with labor and socialist organizations of other countries, and peaceful solutions to international disputes. In foreign affairs, there has been little difference between the Labour and Conservative Parties since World War II. They differ mainly on the degree of state control to be applied to industry and commerce. The Conservative Party supports free enterprise, individual initiative, and restraining the power of the unions.

The Labour Party, under the leadership of Tony Blair, won a landslide victory in the general election of 1 May 1997. It was the first time in eighteen years that Labour won the majority. Of 659 possible seats, the Labour Party won 418 seats with 43.1 percent of vote. The Conservative Party won only 165 seats and 30.6 percent. The Liberal Democrats won 46 seats and 16.7 percent of the vote, the most held by that party since the 1920s.

In the May 2005 election, Labour lost 47 seats but retained its majority with 356 seats and 35.3 percent of the vote. The Conservatives gained 33 seats to end up with 198 and 32.3 percent. The Liberal Democrats held 62 seats and (22.1 percent). Other parties garnered 10.3 percent of the vote.

In the May 2010 elections, the Conservative Party gained 299 seats in the House of Commons, followed by the Labour Party with 255 seats, and the Liberal Democrats with 54 seats. Since neither the Conservatives nor the Labour Party gained the required majority, the Conservatives aligned with the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government. David Cameron was selected as the new prime minister.

Tourism and Recreation

The United Kingdom is rich in historic and cultural attractions. Among the many historic dwellings open to the public are medieval castles in Wales; 10-century-old Traquair House, the oldest continuously inhabited house in Scotland; the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh; and Warwick Castle, near Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare.

Distinguished cathedrals include Saint Paul's in London and those in Canterbury, Exeter, Norwich, Winchester, and York. The oldest distillery in the world is located at Bushmills, in Northern Ireland. Some of Scotland's 100 malt whiskey distilleries also offer tours.

Among London's attractions are Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, and Westminster Abbey. London is particularly noted for its theater, including the Royal Shakespeare Company. Traditional community gatherings for music and dancing, called ceilidhs, are held in Scotland, and Edinburgh is the site of many music festivals.

Scotland, where golf was developed in the 15th century, has many superb golf courses, as does the rest of the United Kingdom. Other popular sports include fishing, riding, sailing, rugby, cricket, and football (soccer). Wimbledon is the site of perhaps the world's best-known tennis competition. London hosted the summer Olympics in 1908 and 1948, and is scheduled to host again in 2012. England hosted and won the World Cup soccer championship in 1966.

There were 29.9 million incoming tourists to the United Kingdom in 2009. The country's 1.25 million available hotel beds had an occupancy rate of 43 percent.

Social Development

A system of social security provides national insurance, workers' compensation, family allowances, and national assistance throughout the United Kingdom. The National Insurance scheme provides benefits for sickness, unemployment, maternity, and widowhood, as well as guardians' allowances, retirement pensions, and death grants. Retirement pensions cover men at 65 and women at 60. Benefits increase annually to adjust for cost of living.

Financial assistance for the poor is provided through supplementary benefits in the form of either a pension or an allowance. For needy families in which the head of the household has full-time employment, a family income supplement is paid.

Sexual harassment is a problem in the workplace and women earn an average of 18 percent less than men. Violence against women persists, however there are many laws and substantial penalties providing protection.

People of Asian and African origin are subject to discrimination and harassment. Ethnic minorities are also more likely to be stopped and searched by police.

Ethnic Groups

The present-day English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish are descended from a long succession of early peoples, including Iberians, Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, and Normans. The Normans invaded and conquered England between 1066 and 1070. In 2001 an estimated 83.6 percent of United Kingdom residents were English. The Scottish formed about 8.6 percent of the population, Northern Irish made up 2.9 percent, Welsh accounted for 4.9 percent. About 1.8 percent of the population is Indian, and 1.3 percent are Pakistani. There are about 300,000 persons who belong to a group known as Travellers, a blend of Roma, Irish, and other ethnic groups who maintain an itinerant lifestyle.


English is spoken throughout the United Kingdom. It is second only to Mandarin Chinese in the number of speakers in the world. In northwestern Wales, Welsh is the first language of most of the inhabitants. Approximately 26 percent of those living in Wales speak Welsh. Some 60,000 or so persons in western Scotland speak the Scottish form of Gaelic. A few families in Northern Ireland speak Irish Gaelic. On the Isle of Man, the Manx variety of Celtic is used in official pronouncements. Some people still speak a Norman-French dialect in the Channel Islands. French remains the language of Jersey for official ceremonies.


Christians make up about 72 percent of the population. The Church of England (Anglican) claims about 29 percent of the population. The Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) and the Methodist Church in Britain both have significant membership, as does the Roman Catholic Church. Many immigrants have established community religious centers in the United Kingdom. These include Greek, Russian, Polish, Serb-Orthodox, Estonian and Latvian Orthodox, and the Armenian Church.

There are also active communities of Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), Christian Scientists, and Unitarians. The Anglo-Jewish community has an estimated 300,000 members. It is the second-largest group of Jews in Western Europe. Muslims account for about 3 percent of the population. In Northern Ireland, about 53 percent of the population is Protestant and 44 percent Catholic.

There is complete religious freedom in the United Kingdom. All churches and religious societies may own property and conduct schools. The Church of England and the Church of Scotland are considered to be established state churches. The monarchy must be a member of the Church of England. Good Friday, Easter Monday, and Christmas are observed as national holidays.


The United Kingdom has a total of 394,428 kilometers (245,086 miles) of roads, all of which are paved. There are 526 vehicles per 1,000 people in the country.

The country also has 5,248 kilometers (3,261 miles) of electrified rail track. Eurotunnel, a British-French company, built two high-speed 50-kilometer (31-mile) rail tunnels beneath the seabed of the English Channel. The Channel Tunnel, referred to as the "Chunnel," links points near Dover, England, with Calais, France.

Great Britain has about 3,200 kilometers (1,988 miles) of navigable inland waterways. They are mainly canals dating back to the pre-railroad age. Great Britain has around 300 ports, including the Port of London, one of the largest in the world.

Other major ports are Liverpool, Southampton, Hull, Clydeport, the inland port of Manchester, and Bristol. The British merchant fleet consisted of 518 ships of 1,000 gross registered tons (GRT) or more in 2008.

There are 505 airports, which served 102.5 million passengers in 2009. There are also 11 heliports. International flights operate from London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports, Glasgow, in Scotland, Ringway in Manchester, Aldergrove in Belfast, and Elmdon in Birmingham.

Famous Britons

Great English rulers include William I (the Conqueror, 1027-1087), Henry II (1133-1189), Richard I (the Lion-Hearted, 1157-1199), leader of the Third Crusade; and John (1167?-1216). Henry VIII (1491-1547) separated the Anglican Church from the Roman Catholic Church. During the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), England achieved great commercial, industrial, and political power, and the arts flourished. Under the reign of Victoria (1819-1901), Britain attained unprecedented prosperity and empire.

Among the statesmen distinguished in English history are Thomas à Becket (1118?-1170), archbishop of Canterbury; Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester (1208?-1265), who summoned the first parliament; and Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who ruled England during the Commonwealth period following the Civil War.

Outstanding statesmen of the 19th century were William Wilberforce (1759-1833); Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-1881); and William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898). 20th century leaders include David Lloyd George, First Earl of Dwyfor (1863-1945), prime minister during World War I; and Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874-1965), prime minister during World War II, historian, and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953. In 1979 Margaret (Hilda Roberts) Thatcher (b. 1925) became the nation's first woman prime minister. The reigning monarch since 1952 has been Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926). The heir to the throne is Charles, Prince of Wales (b. 1948), whose marriage on 29 July 1981 to Lady Diana Frances Spencer (1961-1997; at marriage, Diana, Princess of Wales) was seen by a worldwide television audience of 750 million people.

Sir Martin Frobisher (1535?-1594) sailed from England in search of the Northwest Passage. He reached Canada in 1576. Sir Francis Drake (1545?-1596) was the first Englishman to sail around the world. John Davis (1550?-1605) explored the Arctic and Antarctic, sailed to the South Seas, and discovered the Falkland Islands. Henry Hudson (d. 1611) explored the Arctic regions and North America. Sir Walter Raleigh (1552?-1618) was a historian, poet, navigator, and colonizer of the New World. James Cook (1728-1779) charted the coasts of Australia and New Zealand. Scottish-born David Livingstone (1813-1873) explored central Africa while doing missionary work.

Great British military figures include John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722); Horatio, Viscount Nelson (1758-1805), the Irish-born soldier-statesman; Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington (1769-1852); General Charles George Gordon (1833-1885); and Welsh-born Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935), known as "Lawrence of Arabia."

Roger Bacon (1214?-1292) was a philosopher and scientist who wrote treatises ranging over the whole field of human knowledge. William of Ockham (1300?-1349) laid the foundation of the modern theory of the separation of church and state. John Wesley (1703-1791) was the founder of Methodism. Chief among modern philosophers are Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704), George Berkeley (1685-1753), and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Noted anthropologists include Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (1903-1972) and his wife, Mary Leakey (1913-1996), who discovered important fossil remains of early hominids in Tanzania.

British scientists and inventors who won fame for major contributions to knowledge include William Harvey (1578-1657), physician and anatomist, who discovered the circulation of the blood; Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), natural philosopher and mathematician, who discovered gravity and made important advances in calculus and optics; James Watt (1736-1819), the Scottish-born engineer who invented the modern condensing steam engine; Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the great naturalist who advanced the theory of evolution; Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), bacteriologist, who received the 1945 Nobel Prize for medicine for the discovery of penicillin in 1928; and Francis Harry Compton Crick (1916-2004) and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins (b. New Zealand, 1916-2004), two of the three winners of the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their research into the structure of the DNA molecule.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400) wrote the Canterbury Tales and other works that marked the height of medieval English poetry. Two religious reformers who translated the Bible into English were John Wycliffe (1320?-1384), who made the first complete translation from Latin, and William Tyndale (1492?-1536), who made the first translation from the original languages (Hebrew and Greek).

During the reign of Elizabeth I, England's golden age, emerged the dramatist and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Other great writers of the time were Edmund Spenser (1552?-1599), Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), and Ben Jonson (1572-1637). Outstanding writers of the Stuart period include the philosopher, scientist, and essayist Francis Bacon (1561-1626); John Milton (1608-1674), author of Paradise Lost and other poems and political essays; and John Bunyan (1628-1688), who created the classic allegory Pilgrim's Progress.

Distinguished writers of the 18th century include the Irish-born satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), author of Gulliver's Travels; the poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744); and the Irish-born playwright Oliver Goldsmith (1730?-1774). The poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) worked in a unique mystical vein.

The English Romantic movement produced a group of major poets, including William Wordsworth (1770-1850); Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834); George Noel Gordon Byron, sixth Lord Byron (1788-1824); Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822); and John Keats (1795-1821). Victorian poets of note included Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892); Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861); her husband, Robert Browning (1812-1889); Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1822-1882); his sister, Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894); and Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900) was famous as a playwright, novelist, poet, and wit.

Major poets of the 20th century include Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936); U.S.-born Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965), winner of the Nobel Prize in 1949; Welsh-born Dylan Thomas (1914-1953); Philip Larkin (1922-1985); and Ted Hughes (1930-1998).

Well-known English novelists include Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), Jane Austen (1775-1817), Charles Dickens (1812-1870), the Brontë Sisters-Charlotte (1816-1855) and Emily (1818-1848), George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans, 1819—880), and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who was also a poet. The mathematician Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1832-1898) became world-famous for two children's books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), author of novels, stories, and poems, received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) is known throughout the world as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. J.R.R. Tolkien (b. South Africa, 1892-1973), is famous for his classic fantasy tales The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Twentieth century fiction writers of note include the Polish-born Joseph Conrad (Teodor Józef Konrad Korzeniowski, 1857-1924); Virginia Woolf (1882-1941); David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930); Dame Agatha Christie (1881-1976); Aldous Huxley (1894-1963); and George Orwell (Eric Blair, 1903-1950). Irish-born George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), known for his plays, criticism, and political writings, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. Prominent British writers in the second half of the century include Graham Greene (1904-1991), Kingsley Amis (1922-1995), Margaret Drabble (b. 1939), A. S. (Antonia Susan) Byatt (b. 1936; Drabble and Byatt are sisters), Salman Rushdie (b. India, 1947), and Martin Amis (b. 1949). Joanne "J. K." Rowling (b. 1965) is most famous as author of the Harry Potter fantasy series.

Luminaries of the modern theater are Laurence Olivier (Baron Olivier of Brighton, 1907-1989), Sir Michael Redgrave (1908-1985), and Derek George Jacobi (b. 1938). Major contributors to the cinema have included the comic actor and director Charlie (Sir Charles Spencer) Chaplin (1889-1977), Sir Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), Cary Grant (Archibald Alexander Leach, 1904-1986), Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000), Welsh-born Richard Burton (1925-1984), Irish-born Peter O'Toole (b. 1932), Vanessa Redgrave (b. 1937), Dame Judi Dench (b. 1934), Sir Anthony Hopkins (b. Wales, 1937), Jeremy Irons (b. 1948), Daniel Day-Lewis (b. 1957), Emma Thompson (b. 1959), Kenneth Branagh (b. 1960), and Kate Winslet (b. 1975).

English composers of note include the great lutenist and songwriter John Dowland (1563-1626); Henry Purcell (1659?-1695); German-born George Frederick Handel (Georg Friedrich Händel, 1685-1759); and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900), whose musical settings of the librettos of Sir William Schwenk Gilbert (1836-1911) are among the most popular comic operas of all time. Significant 20th-century figures include Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Popular music figures include John Winston Lennon (1940-1980) and James Paul McCartney (b. 1942) of the Beatles, Mick Jagger (b. 1943) of the Rolling Stones, and Elton John (b. 1947). Notable classical performers include violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) and guitarist-lutenist Julian Bream (b. 1933).

Notable British athletes include Sir Roger Bannister (b. 1929), who on 6 May 1954 became the first person to run a mile in under four minutes, and the yachtsman Sir Francis Chichester (1901-1972), winner of the first single-handed transatlantic race (1970) and the first sailor to make a solo circumnavigation of the globe (1966-67).

Those primarily associated with Scotland included Duncan I (reigned 1034-40), the first ruler of the historical kingdom of Scotland. Macbeth (reigned 1040-57), who killed Duncan and seized the throne, was the subject of one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. Mary, Queen of Scots (Mary Stuart, 1542-1587) is the subject of many plays and novels. Her son James VI (1566-1625) became England's King James I.

John Knox (1514?-1572) was the founder of Presbyterianism. David Hume (1711-1776) was an outstanding philosopher and historian. Economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) influenced the development of world economy and politics. The national poet of Scotland was Robert Burns (1759-1796). Scottish novelists of prominence include Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894).

Distinguished figures who were active primarily in Wales include the sixth-century monk Dewi (d. 588?), who became Saint David, the patron saint of Wales, and Owen Glendower (Owain ap Gruffydd, 1359?-1416), the national hero of Wales, who led a rebellion against English rule. Bishop William Morgan (1541?-1604) made a Welsh translation of the Bible that, with revisions, is still in use.

Two natives of Northern Ireland—Betty Williams (b. 1943), a Protestant, and Mairead Corrigan (b. 1944), a Roman Catholic—received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for their leadership of a peace movement in Ulster.


The central government is responsible for education in the United Kingdom, but schools are mainly administered by local education authorities. Education is compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 and 16. Since 1989 education in England and Wales comprised four key stages: five to seven (infants); 7 to 11 (juniors); 11 to 14 (pre-GCSE); and 14 to 16 (GCSE). Similar reforms are being introduced in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The main school examination, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is taken in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland at around the age of 16. A separate exam system exists in Scotland. Of the 2,500 registered schools not run by the state, the largest and most important include Winchester, Eton, and Harrow. They are known in England as "public schools." Many of them have centuries of tradition and are world famous.

In 2008, 100 percent of age-eligible children in the United Kingdom were enrolled in primary school. Secondary enrollment for age-eligible children was 93 percent. Most students complete their primary education. The United Kingdom had a literacy rate of 99 percent.

Britain had 47 universities in the 1990s. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge date from the 12th and 13th centuries, respectively. The Scottish universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh date from the 15th and 16th centuries. Besides the universities, there are more than 800 other institutions of higher education, including technical, art, and commercial colleges run by local authorities. Open University is a nonresidential institution. Its courses are conducted by television and radio broadcasts and correspondence texts.


Life expectancy in the United Kingdom was 80 years in 2011. Rising living standards, medical advances, the growth of medical facilities and their general availability, and the smaller size of the family are some factors in the improved health of the British people. In 2011 there were 27 physicians, 103 nurses and midwives, and 34 hospital beds per 10,000 inhabitants.

A comprehensive National Health Service (NHS) provides full medical care to all residents of the United Kingdom. NHS delivers health care through 129 health authorities, each of which receives money from the government. Included are general medical, dental, pharmaceutical, and optical services; hospital and specialist services for physical and mental illnesses; and local health authority services (maternity and child welfare, vaccination, prevention of illness, health visiting, home nursing, and other services). All hospitals, except a few run mostly by religious orders, are members of the NHS. In 2011 the country spent 8.7 percent of its GDP on healthcare.

Deaths from infectious diseases have been greatly reduced, but the number of heart attacks, strokes, and cancer has risen. Half the British population is currently overweight. These high rates have been attributed to a sedentary lifestyle during leisure time.

The infant mortality rate was 4.6 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2011. It was estimated that 86 percent of children were vaccinated against measles. The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in adults was 0.2 percent in 2009.


Between 2001 and 2010, 1.5 million more dwellings were built in the United Kingdom, for a total of 23.5 million. Over 50 percent of families live in a dwelling built after 1945. In 2007, 15.4 million of these dwellings were owner-occupied.

Most homeowners finance their purchase through a home mortgage loan from a building society, bank, insurance company, or other financial institution. The main providers of new subsidized housing are housing associations. These companies own, manage, and maintain more than 600,000 homes in England alone and built more than 30,000 new homes for rent or shared ownership in the mid-1990s.


The population of the United Kingdom was approximately 62,698,362 in 2011. Population density in the United Kingdom was calculated at 257 people per square kilometer (666 people per square mile). The population's annual rate of change was 0.5 percent. The projected population for the year 2025 is 68,600,000.

Nearly 80 percent of the population lived in urban areas. The largest urban areas included London, population 8.6 million; Birmingham, 2.3 million; Manchester, 2.2 million; West Yorkshire, 1.5 million; and Glasgow, 1.7 million.


In 2009 there were 32 million telephone landlines in the United Kingdom. Mobile phone subscriptions averaged 130 per 100 people.

Radio and television broadcasting services are provided by the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), the Independent Television Commission (ITC), and the Radio Authority. The BBC broadcasts on two television channels. The Independent Television Commission broadcasts on ITV and Channel Four, which began operating in 1982. BBC Radio offers five national radio networks, as well as FM programming and an overseas service in 37 languages. Both the BBC and IBA operate local radio services. The BBC has 39 local stations.

In 2010 the country had about 7 million Internet hosts. As of 2009, there were some 51.4 million Internet users in the United Kingdom.

There are over 100 daily and Sunday newspapers, some 2,000 weekly papers, numerous specialized papers, and about 7,000 periodicals in circulation throughout the United Kingdom. Nine Sunday papers and 12 daily morning papers circulate throughout Britain.

National dailies include The Sun, circulation 3,301,223; Daily Mail, 2,403,528; Daily Mirror, 1,777,408; Daily Telegraph, 907,048; Daily Express, 929,323; Daily Star, 882,709; The Times, 658;182; Observer, 433,934; Financial Times, 426,369; The Guardian, 371,494; and Evening Standard, 361,340.

During the 2000s, the newspaper with the highest circulation was the tabloid News of the World, which distributed nearly 4 million papers per week. The publication printed its final issue in July 2011, closing down abruptly in the wake of a phone-hacking scandal.

There is no government censorship of news or opinion, but strict libel and slander laws and restrictions governing the disclosure of court proceedings impose limitations on press freedom. Views critical of the government are well established.


Roughly 23 percent of the United Kingdom's total land is arable. The country's major crops include cereals, oilseed, potatoes, and vegetables. In Great Britain about 70 percent of the farms are owner-occupied; in Northern Ireland nearly all are.

Most British farms produce a variety of products. The type of farming varies with the soil and climate. The better farming land is generally in the lowlands. The eastern areas are predominantly arable, and the western predominantly for grazing. Cereal production in 2009 amounted to 22 million tons, fruit production 409,678 tons, and vegetable production 2.4 million tons.

Domesticated Animals

Livestock continues to be the largest sector of the farming industry. In England and Wales, fattening of animals for food is the predominant activity in the southeast, the east, and the Midlands, while stock rearing is widespread in northern England and in Wales. In Scotland, dairying predominates in the southwest, cropping and fattening in the east, and sheep raising in the hilly regions. Northern Ireland's livestock industry provides 90 percent of its agricultural income.

The United Kingdom dedicated 11.6 million hectares (28.7 million acres) to pasture or meadow in 2009. The country tended 159.3 million chickens, 9.9 million head of cattle, and 4.6 million pigs. These animals produced 1.34 million tons of beef and veal, 1.7 million tons of pork, 1.78 million tons of poultry, 627,952 tons of eggs, and 14.8 million tons of milk. The United Kingdom also produced 74,500 tons of cattle hide and 65,393 tons of raw wool.

Most of the internationally famous breeds of cattle, sheep, hogs, and farm horses originated in the United Kingdom. The most highly reputed beef breeds are Hereford and Aberdeen Angus. Distinguished dairy breeds are Guernsey, Jersey, and Ayrshire.

Energy and Power

The United Kingdom is the EU's largest petroleum and natural gas producer. It is also one of Europe's largest consumers of energy. In 2008 the United Kingdom produced 385.3 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and consumed 372.2 billion kilowatt hours. Around 90 percent of energy came from fossil fuels, while 7 percent came from alternative fuels.

The United Kingdom had proven oil reserves estimated at 2.9 billion barrels in 2011. The bulk of these reserves are located in the North Sea, on the U.K. Continental Shelf. The United Kingdom also has Europe's largest onshore oil field, the Wytch Farm field. In 2011 oil production averaged 1.4 million barrels per day. Domestic consumption was estimated at 1.6 million barrels per day in 2010.

As of 2011 the United Kingdom's proven natural gas reserves were estimated at 9 trillion cubic feet. In 2010 natural gas production totaled an estimated 2 trillion cubic feet. The nation is also had 251 million short tons of recoverable coal reserves.


The British Isles are surrounded by waters mainly less than 90 meters (300 feet) deep. They serve as excellent fishing grounds and breeding grounds for fish. Small fishing villages are found all along the coast. The modern large-scale industry is concentrated at Hull, Grimsby, Fleetwood, Yarmouth, and Lowestoft in England. The United Kingdom had 8,430 decked commercial fishing boats in 2008. The annual capture totaled 596,004 tons. The export value of seafood totaled $1.87 billion.

Salmon farming takes place primarily in Scotland. The U.K. exported 82,000 tons of salmon in 2010. Domestic demand for seafood grew during the late 1990s due to public concerns over beef tainted by Mad Cow disease.


The estimated total area of woodland in the United Kingdom in 2011 was 13 percent of its total land area. Roughly 42 percent of the area was in England, 45 percent in Scotland, 10 percent in Wales, and 3 percent in Northern Ireland. The principal species in the forest area are spruces, pines, and oak, with smaller amounts of beech, ash, birch, and fir.

The production of roundwood in 2009 was estimated at 7.5 million cubic meters (265 million cubic feet). The value of all forest products totaled $2.4 billion. The United Kingdom imports softwood lumber from Canada, hardwood lumber and softwood plywood from the United States, hardwood veneer from Germany, hardwood plywood from Russia, and particleboard from Belgium.


The United Kingdom had comparatively few mineral resources except for North Sea oil. An organized coal-mining industry has been in existence for over 300 years, and has traditionally been by far the most important mineral industry. Metals, chemicals, coal, and petroleum were among the country's leading industries in 2009. The United Kingdom was a leading world producer and exporter of ball clay and kaolin.

Other minerals extracted in 2009 included 65.8 million tons of common sand and gravel, 54.7 million tons of crushed limestone, 5 million tons of crushed dolomite, 40.1 million tons of crushed igneous rock, 1.1 million tons of china clay kaolin, 727,000 tons of ball and pottery clay, 600,000 tons of potash, 9,200,000 tons of dimension sandstone, 1.7 million tons of gypsum and anhydrite, 19,000 tons of fluorspar, and 6 million tons of crushed chalk. The output of iron ore was estimated at 100 metric tons in 2009. Alumina was produced from imported bauxite. Zinc and tungsten are no longer mined.


The United Kingdom is one of the most highly industrialized countries in the world. It is one of four countries in Western Europe with a trillion dollar economy. The country is driven by manufacture, trade, and financial and commercial services. It has few natural resources apart from coal and low-grade iron ore, some timber, building materials, hides and skins, natural gas, and North Sea oil.

The United Kingdom is one of the world's largest markets for food and agricultural products and one of the largest trading nations. Vast quantities of imported wheat, meat, butter, livestock feeds, tea, tobacco, wool, and timber have been balanced by exports of machinery, ships, locomotives, aircraft, and motor vehicles. Farming provides for almost 60 percent of the food needed.

Shipping, income from overseas investment, insurance, and tourism also make up an important part of the economy. London ranks with New York as an international financial center. A global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 weakened the banking sector. Financial markets dropped in response to the worldwide credit crunch. Two major U.K. banks were nationalized, while the British government took a significant share in two others.

By February 2012 the unemployment rate had risen to 8.4 percent, representing the highest number of unemployed persons since 1997. Some 1.04 million people between the ages of 16 and 24 were unemployed as of February 2012.

In 2010 the government enacted a tough austerity plan. Under the plan, the vast majority of government departments suffered a 25 percent budget reduction. The departments for health and international aid spending were exempt from these cuts. Additionally, significant tax increases were announced.


In 2010 the GDP of the United Kingdom was $2.2 trillion, or about $34,800 per person. Agriculture accounted for 1 percent of GDP, industry 22 percent, and services 77 percent. The annual growth rate of GDP was 1.3 percent. The average inflation rate was 3.3 percent. Unemployment was reported at 8.4 percent in 2012.


The United Kingdom is one of the most highly industrialized countries in the world. Since World War II, some traditional industries have become far less important, such as cotton textiles, steel, shipbuilding, locomotives. Newer industries, such as electronics, offshore oil and gas products, and synthetic fibers have taken their place. In the chemicals industry, plastics and pharmaceuticals have registered the most significant growth.

Metals, engineering, and allied industries like steel, nonferrous metals, vehicles, and machinery employ nearly half of all workers in manufacturing. The United Kingdom's automotive industry produced 1.27 million automobiles in 2010. Britain's aerospace industry is among the world's largest.

The United Kingdom continues to produce high-quality woolen textiles. The UK's pottery, jewelry, goldware, and silverware are known for their high quality. Other sectors are the cement industry; the rubber industry, the world's oldest; paper industries; and leather and footwear.


As of 2010 the United Kingdom had a total labor force of 31.5 million people. Within that labor force, 1.4 percent were employed in agriculture, 18.2 percent in industry, and 80.4 percent in the service sector.

In 2010, 26.6 percent of the British workforce was unionized. Hourly earnings for union members are 16.7 percent higher than non-union members in the workforce, and women are more likely to be union members than men.

The standard workweek is limited to 48 hours, which is averaged over a period of 17 to 26 weeks. Most employees have at least four weeks' annual vacation with pay, in addition to national holidays. Children under the age of 16 are not permitted to work unless it is part of an educational experience. Children under age 13 are prohibited from working at all. As of 2011 the national minimum wage rate varied from $5.77 per hour to $9.52 per hour, depending upon the employee's age.

Foreign Trade

The United Kingdom is highly dependent on foreign trade. It must import almost all its copper, ferrous metals, lead, zinc, rubber, and raw cotton; most of its tin, raw wool, hides and skins, and many other raw materials. It must also import about one-third of its food.

The country's major exports are manufactured items, crude petroleum, chemicals, food, beverages, and tobacco. Top sectors for trade and investment in the United Kingdom were aircraft and parts, apparel, automotive parts and service equipment, computers and peripherals, cosmetics and toiletries, drugs and pharmaceuticals, education and training, furniture, medical equipment, pollution control, renewable energy equipment, safety and security equipment, telecommunications equipment, and travel and tourism.

The United Kingdom imported $655 billion worth of goods and services in 2011. It exported $495.4 billion. Major trade partners in 2009 were Germany, United States, China, Netherlands, France, Belgium, Norway, and Ireland.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2171900004