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United Kingdom

United Kingdom is a country in northwestern Europe.  It consists of four political divisions--England, Scotland, and Wales, which make up the island of Great Britain, and Northern Ireland, which occupies the northeastern part of the island of Ireland.  The nation's official name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  When people refer to the country, most shorten its name to (1) the United Kingdom, (2) the U.K., (3) Great Britain, or (4) Britain.  London is the capital and largest city.


More than 70 countries are larger in size than the United Kingdom, and the country has only about 1 percent of the world's people.  But the United Kingdom has a rich history.  The British started the Industrial Revolution, a period of rapid industrialization that began in the 1700's.  They founded the largest empire in history.  They have produced some of the world's greatest scientists, explorers, artists, and political leaders.

The landscape of the United Kingdom varies dramatically.  Northern Scotland is a wild, windswept region, broken by long arms of the sea that reach far inland.  Much of Northern Ireland has low mountains and rolling fields.  Wales is famous for its rugged mountains and deep, green valleys.  Most of England is covered by rolling plains, laid out in a patchwork of fields and meadows.  The coastline is a shifting scene of steep cliffs, golden beaches, jagged rocks, and fishing towns tucked in sheltered bays.  The United Kingdom has magnificent old castles and modern nuclear laboratories, snug villages and sprawling cities, and ancient universities and new factories.

The English Channel separates the island of Great Britain from France.  This narrow stretch of water helped shape the character and history of the British people.  It helped protect Britain from invasion and gave the people a feeling of security.  In 1066, a group of Vikings called the Normans sailed across the channel from northwestern France and conquered England.  After the Norman Conquest, no enemy ever again crossed the channel and invaded the country.

Cut off from the rest of Europe by the sea and secure from invasion, the British developed their own character and way of life.  They came to respect privacy and to value old traditions.  They developed a dry wit, a love for personal freedom, and a high degree of self-criticism.  The British have shown themselves at their best--brave and united--in times of crisis.  Their courage against German bombs and overwhelming odds during World War II (1939-1945) won the admiration of the world.

The history of Britain is the story of how a small country became the world's most powerful nation--and then declined.  In the 1700's, the Industrial Revolution made Britain the world's richest manufacturing country.  The British ruled the seas and were the world's greatest traders.  By 1900, they had an empire that covered about a fourth of the world's land and included about a fourth of its people.  The British spread their way of life throughout their empire.

Then came the 1900's--and the shock of two crippling world wars.  The British Empire began to break up as Britain's colonies sought independence.  Britain faced one economic crisis after another.  Today, the United Kingdom is still a leading industrial and trading nation.  But it is no longer the world power it once was.

This article describes the United Kingdom's people, geography, and economy and its history since 1707, when the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed.  For detailed information on each division, see ENGLAND; NORTHERN IRELAND; SCOTLAND; and WALES.


National government.  The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy.  Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state, but a cabinet of senior politicians called ministers actually governs the country.  The prime minister is the head of the government.  Parliament is the chief lawmaking body.  It consists of the monarch, the House of Commons, and the House of Lords.

The constitution of the United Kingdom is not one document, as are the constitutions of many other countries.  Much of it is not even in writing, and so the country is often said to have an unwritten constitution.

Some of the written parts of the constitution are laws passed by Parliament.  Some written parts come from such historic documents as Magna Carta, which dates from 1215.  Other written parts come from common law, a body of laws and judgments based on people's customs and beliefs and on ancient royal practice.

The unwritten parts of the constitution include many ideas and practices that British society has developed over the years.  They include the cabinet system of government and the relationship between the Cabinet and the monarch.

The monarchy in Britain can be traced back almost 1,200 years.  The monarch must approve all bills passed by Parliament before they can become laws.  The monarch may reject a bill, but no monarch has done so since the early 1700's.

The prime minister is usually the leader of the political party that has the most seats in the House of Commons.  The king or queen appoints the prime minister after each general election.  The monarch asks the prime minister to form a government--that is, to select ministers to head governmental departments and to hold various offices.  The prime minister selects about 100 ministers.  From them, the prime minister picks a special group of about 20 to make up the Cabinet.

The Cabinet watches over the general conduct of the government.  It decides what new laws and what amendments to existing laws will be introduced to Parliament.  The prime minister chairs the Cabinet.  Ministers who head the most important government departments are always included in the Cabinet.  These departments include the Treasury, the Home Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department of Health, and the Ministry of Defence.

The largest political party in the House of Commons that opposes the party in power is called Her (or His) Majesty's Opposition.  The head of that party is the leader of the opposition.  The leader is elected by his or her fellow party members but is paid a salary from government funds.  The opposition has the duty of criticizing the government in power and standing ready to set up a new government.  For this reason, the leading members of the opposition party are popularly referred to as the Shadow Cabinet.

Parliament makes the laws of the United Kingdom.  The British Parliament has been called the Mother of Parliaments because many of the world's legislatures have copied features from it.

The House of Commons, often called simply the Commons, is by far the more powerful of Parliament's two houses.  The House of Commons has 659 members, elected from the four divisions that make up the United Kingdom.  Each member represents a district called a constituency.  A member does not have to live in the constituency he or she represents.  Members are chosen in a general election, in which the whole nation votes.  A general election must be held at least every five years.  However, an election may be called anytime by the prime minister.  Almost all citizens 18 years old or older may vote.  Those who cannot vote include peers (members of the nobility) and the mentally ill.

The House of Lords, often called the Lords, has little power.  It can delay, but not defeat, any bill that the Commons is determined to pass.  The House of Lords has about 1,200 members.  Nearly 800 members are dukes, earls, countesses, and other hereditary peers and peeresses.  Their right to sit in the Lords is handed down, with their title, usually to their oldest sons.  The 2 archbishops and 24 of the bishops of the Church of England have seats in the House of Lords.  The members also include about 20 law lords, who are judges appointed for life to handle legal matters that come to Parliament.  The remaining members are life peers and peeresses, given the rank of baron or baroness in honor of some outstanding accomplishment.  Their titles do not descend to their children.

Regional government.  In referendums held in 1997, Welsh voters approved plans for a 60-member assembly for Wales, and the Scots voted to accept plans calling for the election of 129 representatives to a Scottish legislative body.  Elections of assembly members were scheduled for 1999.  The assemblies are to have control in certain domestic affairs.  The Scottish body will also have the power to raise or lower taxes by 3 percent.

In 1998, peace talks on Northern Ireland concluded in an agreement that was put to voters in referendums in Northern Ireland and Ireland.  The voters supported the agreement, which called for the establishment of a Northern Ireland assembly, a North-South Ministerial Council, and a Council of the Isles.

The Northern Ireland assembly is to have responsibility for enacting laws on many domestic matters.  The North-South Ministerial Council will include representatives from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  The Council of the Isles will bring together representatives from the parliaments of Ireland and the United Kingdom; the assemblies of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales; and the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

Local government.  The units of local government inScotland and Wales are unitary authorities.  Northern Ireland is divided into districts.  England has various administrative units, including counties, metropolitan districts, and unitary authorities.  The counties are divided into shire districts.

Each unit of local government has its own elected council.  The councils deal with such matters as education, housing, recreation, refuse collection, and roads.  Local governments may collect taxes, but about half of their income comes from the national government.

Politics.  The two largest political parties in the United Kingdom are the Conservative Party and the Labour Party.  The Conservative Party developed from the Tory Party, which began in the late 1600's.  The Labour Party began in 1900.  Much of its support comes from labor unions, called trade unions.  A third party, the Liberal Democrats, was formed in 1988.

Other parties in Britain include nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.  These parties favor independence from the United Kingdom.

Courts of the United Kingdom operate under three separate legal systems--one for England and Wales, one for Northern Ireland, and one for Scotland.  In each system, some courts hear only criminal cases and other courts handle only civil cases.  Decisions made by lower courts may be appealed to higher courts.

In all three systems, the House of Lords is the highest court of appeal in civil cases.  It is also the highest court of appeal in criminal cases, except in Scotland.  In Scotland, people convicted of a crime may appeal their case to the High Court of Justiciary.  They have no further appeal to the House of Lords.

The monarch appoints all British judges on the advice of the government.  Judges serve until retirement, and thus they are free from political pressure.

Armed forces of the United Kingdom are made up of volunteers.  About 215,000 volunteers serve in the nation's army, navy, and air force.


Population.  The United Kingdom is more thickly populated than most countries.  Most of its people live in cities and towns.  About one third of the country's residents live in England's seven metropolitan areas.  Greater London, the largest metropolitan area, has about 10 percent of the United Kingdom's total population.  The six other metropolitan areas are as follows, with the largest city of each area shown in parentheses: Greater Manchester (Manchester), Merseyside (Liverpool), South Yorkshire (Sheffield), Tyne and Wear (Newcastle upon Tyne), West Midlands (Birmingham), and West Yorkshire (Leeds).

More than four-fifths of the population of the United Kingdom live in England.  London and England as a whole have great influence over the rest of the United Kingdom because of their large populations.

Ancestry.  Celtic-speaking people lived in what is now Britain by the mid-600's B.C. Over the next 1,700 years, the land was invaded by the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, and Normans.  Most of the British are descendants of these early peoples.

Since the 1950's, many immigrants have come to Britain from countries that belong to the Commonwealth.  The Commonwealth is an association of countries and other political units that were once part of the British Empire.  Many immigrants have come from Commonwealth countries in Asia and the West Indies.  Most of the newcomers have settled in cities and towns already facing housing shortages.  In the early 1960's, the British government began restricting immigration.

Language.  English is the official language of the United Kingdom and is spoken throughout most of the country.  English developed chiefly from the language of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman invaders.

Less than a fifth of the people of Wales speak both English and Welsh, a language that developed from one of the languages of the Celts.  A few people of Wales speak only Welsh.

Thousands of people in Scotland speak the Scottish form of Gaelic, which is another Celtic language.  The Irish form of Gaelic is spoken by a small number of people in Northern Ireland.

Way of life

City life.  A number of the United Kingdom's important cities grew rapidly in the 1700's and early 1800's, during the Industrial Revolution.  But today, many of those cities--including London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, and Leeds--are in decline.  They are faced with such problems as falling employment, rising crime, and poor housing.  They are losing population as people move from the inner cities into the suburbs and beyond.  Greater London's population, for example, peaked in 1939 and has been falling ever since.

The industries that supported the growth of the large cities have declined or disappeared.  New industries, such as electronics, have developed outside the cities, many near motorways (expressways) or near research establishments and universities.

The British government in 1988 launched an urban renewal program called Action for Cities.  The purpose of the program is to revive the inner cities by means of new housing and new development.  The government also established areas called enterprise zones to attract new businesses to inner cities.  Businesses within enterprise zones receive tax cuts and other advantages.  However, people continue to move away from the inner cities to find jobs, and these areas do not attract enough private investment.  The cost of such basic services as street lighting and road repair is increasingly falling upon fewer people.  And many of these people are the members of society who can least afford such costs--the elderly, single-parent families, the poorly paid, and the unemployed.

Rural life.  At one time, the rural areas of the United Kingdom were devoted mainly to farming.  But the availability of convenient transportation enables people to work in a city and live in the countryside.  In many rural communities, full-time farmers are outnumbered by retired people, commuters, and workers who serve the needs of tourists.

The attractiveness and variety of rural Britain is one of the tourist industry's prime assets.  These qualities also attract many retired people.  In some rural areas, more than a fifth of the population is over retirement age.  These areas include the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, East and West Sussex, and the Isle of Wight; the Scottish Borders; and parts of rural Wales.

Food and drink.  Most British cooking is simple.  A typical meal includes roast beef, mutton, or pork with potatoes and one or more other vegetables.  Since the 1960's, the British have increased their consumption of poultry, fresh fruit, and frozen vegetables.  Consumption of lamb, beef, veal, bread, potatoes, eggs, butter, and sugar has fallen.

Pizza houses, Chinese restaurants, and hamburger places that offer takeaway and fast food have grown in popularity.  They rival the shops offering fish and chips, a popular meal of fried fish and French fried potatoes.  The traditional Sunday midday meal of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, a battercake baked in meat fat, is still a family favorite, however.

The British diet tends to be high in fat, salt, and sugar and low in fiber.  These eating habits can contribute to a variety of health problems, including heart disease.  The country has a high level of heart disease, especially in northern Britain.  There is evidence, however, that health considerations have begun to influence food consumption.  People are drinking more low-fat milk instead of whole milk and eating more whole grain bread, which has more fiber than white bread.

Tea with milk and sugar is the most popular hot beverage.  Beer, including ale and lager, is the favorite alcoholic drink.  A high proportion of beer drinking takes place in pubs (public houses), which provide a focus of social life for many people.

Recreation.  The British love the outdoors.  They flock to Blackpool, Brighton, and other seaside resorts on vacation.  Several million vacationers visit Spain, France, and other countries.  Other vacationers prefer mountain climbing or walking in Wales or in the beautiful Lake District of northwestern England.  Still others enjoy automobile or bicycle trips through the country.

The British also spend much time in their gardens.  About half of the families in the United Kingdom have a garden.

The British are enthusiastic sports fans.  The most popular spectator sport by far is soccer, which the British also call football.  During the football season, thousands of fans jam the stadiums every Saturday.  Cricket has been popular in England for hundreds of years.  It is played with bats and a ball and two 11-player teams.  Schools, universities, and almost all towns and villages have cricket teams.  Other popular sports include archery, bowls (a sport similar to bowling), golf, hockey, horseback riding, horse racing, rugby football, sailing, and tennis.

Religion.  The United Kingdom has two established (national) churches.  They are the Church of England, which is Episcopal, and the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian.  The monarch must belong to the Church of England and is its worldly head.  The spiritual head of the English Church is the archbishop of Canterbury.

The Church of England has about 27 million members, but most of them do not attend services.  The Church of Scotland has about 2 million members.  The other Protestant churches have a total of about 8 million members.  Of these churches, the largest are the Baptist, Methodist, and United Reformed.  The country has about 51/2 million Roman Catholics.  It also has about 330,000 Jews, one of the largest groups of Jews in Europe.

Education.  Each division of the United Kingdom has its own system of public education.  Each system is run by its own department of education, which works closely with local elected education authorities.  The four systems differ in many ways, including the way schools are organized.  Traditionally, teachers throughout the United Kingdom have had much freedom in selecting the courses they teach and in developing their own teaching methods.  However, teachers are being increasingly guided by a national curriculum.

Most British children are required by law to begin school at the age of 5 and continue until they are 16.  Children in Northern Ireland must begin school at the age of 4.  Generally, students attend elementary school until they are 11 years old, and then they go on to high school.  There are several types of high schools.  Some students attend grammar schools, which provide a college preparatory education.  Some attend schools that stress a more general, technical, or vocational education.  However, most students attend comprehensive schools, which provide all types of high school education.

Most schools in the state system are free.  About 95 percent of all schoolchildren attend elementary schools and high schools supported by public funds.  The rest go to independent schools.

The independent schools are private schools supported by fees paid by parents and by private gifts of money.  There are several types of independent schools.  The best known are the English public schools, which provide a high school education.  Although they are private schools, they are called public because the earliest of these schools were established for the children of the middle classes. Traditionally, these schools have emphasized discipline, the building of character, and scholarship.  The reputation of some of these schools, such as Eton, Harrow, and Winchester, is extremely high.  The leading public schools stress preparation for Oxford or Cambridge, which are Britain's oldest and most honored universities.

Oxford University was founded in the 1100's, and Cambridge University was established in the 1200's.  They have a greater reputation than other universities because of their age, traditions, and high standards of scholarship.  The United Kingdom has about 75 other universities.  The University of London is Britain's largest traditional university.  England's Open University has more students, but it has no regular classrooms.  Instruction is carried out through radio, television, correspondence, audiotapes, and videocassettes.

Museums and libraries.  The United Kingdom has about 2,500 museums and art galleries.  The largest collections are owned by about 20 national museums and art galleries, most of which are in London.  The world-famous British Museum, in London, is noted for its outstanding collections in archaeology and many other fields.  The National Gallery and the Tate Gallery, also in London, have some of the world's greatest paintings.

Britain's public library system serves people throughout the country.  The nation's largest library, the British Library, has about 18 million volumes.  The national libraries of Scotland and Wales have about 5 million volumes each.  Other important libraries include Oxford's Bodleian Library and the Cambridge University Library.

The arts.  The government encourages and supports the arts in the United Kingdom chiefly through agencies called arts councils.  There is an arts council for England, Scotland, and Wales and another one for Northern Ireland.  Each council receives a government grant and, in turn, makes grants to help pay for musical, theatrical, and other artistic activities.  Many local areas have their own arts councils to coordinate and finance local artistic activities.

The United Kingdom is one of the world's major centers for theater.  Visitors come from all parts of the world to see British theater productions.  About 50 theaters operate in the central London district known as the West End.  The Royal National Theatre performs at its three stages on London's South Bank.  The Royal Shakespeare Company is based at Stratford-upon-Avon and also performs at the Barbican Centre in London.  The English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre in London performs the works of talented new playwrights.  Notable regional theaters include the Bristol Old Vic, the Festival Theatre in Chichester, the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, and the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh.

The United Kingdom has 11 principal professional symphony orchestras and several smaller orchestras.  Five of the principal orchestras have their headquarters in London.  The best-known orchestras outside London include the Halle Orchestra of Manchester and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

The most famous British arts festival is the Edinburgh International Festival, which was founded in 1947.  It is held every August.  Its program includes operas, concerts, ballets, and plays.  The Cheltenham Festival, held in July, specializes in music by contemporary British composers.  A summer drama festival takes place in Chichester.  Glyndebourne, near Brighton, has an annual summer opera festival of international fame.

The land

The United Kingdom covers most of an island group called the British Isles.  The British Isles consist of two large islands--Great Britain and Ireland--and thousands of small islands.  England, Scotland, and Wales occupy the island of Great Britain.  Northern Ireland occupies the northeastern part of the island of Ireland.  The independent Republic of Ireland occupies the rest of the island of Ireland.

The island of Great Britain is the eighth largest island in the world.  It covers 84,550 square miles (218,980 square kilometers).  The North Sea on the east and the English Channel on the south separate the island from the mainland of Europe.  The island of Ireland lies to the west, across the Irish Sea.  The island of Great Britain is separated from mainland Europe by only about 20 miles (32 kilometers) of water at the closest point.  Most of the coastline of Great Britain is so broken by deep bays and inlets that no point on the island is more than 75 miles (121 kilometers) from the sea.

Britain can be divided into eight main land regions.  Seven of these regions occupy the island of Great Britain.  They are (1) the Scottish Highlands, (2) the Central Lowlands, (3) the Southern Uplands, (4) the Pennines, (5) Wales, (6) the Southwest Peninsula, and (7) the English Lowlands.  Northern Ireland makes up the eighth region.

The Scottish Highlands cover the northern half of Scotland.  They are a region of mountain ranges, plateaus, and deep valleys.  The highest point in the British Isles, 4,406-foot (1,343-meter) Ben Nevis, rises in the Highlands.  Many bays cut into the region's Atlantic Ocean and North Sea coasts.  Some narrow bays, called sea lochs, are flanked by steep mountain slopes and reach far inland.  Most of the Highlands is a moor--an area of coarse grasses, a few small trees, and low evergreen shrubs called heather.  The soil of this rugged, windswept region is thin and poor.  Few people live there.  Most of them raise sheep, or they fish in the seas.

The Central Lowlands lie south of the Scottish Highlands, in the valleys of the Rivers Clyde, Forth, and Tay.  This region is a gently rolling plain.  It has Scotland's best farmland and its richest coal deposits.  Most of the Scottish people live there, and most of Scotland's industry is in the Lowlands.

The Southern Uplands rise gently south of the Central Lowlands.  This is a region of rounded, rolling hills.  Sheep graze on the short grass that covers much of the hills.  Their fleece goes to Scotland's woolen mills in the region's Tweed Valley.  In the south, the Uplands rise to the Cheviot Hills, which form the border between Scotland and England.

The Pennines are a region of rounded uplands that extend from the Scottish border about halfway down the length of England.  They are also known as the Pennine Chain or Pennine Hills, and they are often called the backbone of England.  Their flanks are rich in coal.  West of the Pennines lies the Lake District, a scenic area of clear, quiet lakes and low mountains.  The Lake District is one of England's most famous recreation areas.

Wales lies southwest of the Pennines.  It is separated from the Pennines by a narrow strip of the English Lowlands.  The Cambrian Mountains cover most of Wales.  These mountains are especially rugged and beautiful in the north and are more rounded in central Wales.  Southern Wales is largely a plateau deeply cut by river valleys.  Most of the people live on the narrow coastal plains or in the deep, green river valleys.  These are the best areas for crop farming and raising dairy cattle.  The rest of the land is too steep for raising crops and is used mostly for grazing sheep and some beef cattle.  Wales has large deposits of coal in the south, though most of its mines have been closed.  Much of the country's industry is centered in the large coastal towns.

The Southwest Peninsula lies south of Wales, across the Bristol Channel.  It is a plateau whose surface is broken by great masses of granite.  Near much of the coast, the plateau ends sharply in magnificent cliffs that tower above the sea.  Tiny fishing villages lie in sheltered bays along the coast.  The region has mild winters and summers that are not too dry.  This climate helps make agriculture important in the fertile lowland areas.  Farmers grow vegetables and raise dairy cattle.

The peninsula was once famous for its tin and copper mines, but most of these metals have been worked out.  More important today is the region's fine white china clay, used to make pottery.  The Southwest Peninsula's beauty and pleasant climate attract many artists and retired people and thousands of vacationers every year.

The English Lowlands cover all England south of the Pennines and east of Wales and the Southwest Peninsula.  This region has most of the United Kingdom's farmable land, industry, and people.  The Lowlands consist chiefly of broad, gently rolling plains, broken here and there by low hills and ridges.  Much of the land is a patchwork of fields and meadows, bordered by tall hedges, stone fences, or rows of trees.

A grassy plain called the Midlands lies in the center of the English Lowlands, just south of the Pennines.  Parts of the Midlands extend along the western and eastern borders of the Pennines.  The Midlands are the industrial heart of the United Kingdom.  Birmingham and the surrounding communities form the country's chief manufacturing center.

South of the Midlands, a series of hills and valleys crosses the land to the valley of the River Thames.  London, the United Kingdom's capital and great commercial and cultural center, stands on the Thames.  Most of the land north of the Thames and up to a bay of the North Sea called The Wash is low and flat.  This area has some of the country's richest farmland.  A great plain called The Fens borders The Wash.  In The Fens, near Ely, is the lowest point on the island of Great Britain.  It ranges from sea level to 15 feet (4.6 meters) below sea level, depending on the tide of the North Sea.

South of the Thames, low chalk hills and valleys cross the land.  Where the hills reach the sea, they form great white cliffs.  The most famous cliffs are near Dover.  On clear days, people in Calais, France, can look across the Strait of Dover and see the white cliffs of Dover gleaming in the sun.

Northern Ireland is a region of low mountains, deep valleys, and fertile lowlands.  The land is lowest near the center and rises to its greatest heights near the north and south coasts.  The chief natural resources are rich fields and pastures, and most of the land is used for crop farming or grazing.  About a fifth of the people of Northern Ireland live in Belfast, the capital and main industrial center.

Rivers and lakes.  Britain's longest rivers are the Severn, which is 220 miles (354 kilometers) long, and the Thames, which is 215 miles (346 kilometers) long.  Many British rivers have drowned, or sunken, mouths called estuaries, up which the ocean tides flow.  These rivers include the Clyde and Forth of Scotland; the Humber, Mersey, and Thames of England; and the Severn of England and Wales.  The estuaries of these rivers make excellent harbors.  Bristol, Hull, Liverpool, London, Southampton, and other cities on or near estuaries are important ports.

Lough Neagh (pronounced lahk NAY) in Northern Ireland is the largest lake in the British Isles.  It is about 18 miles (29 kilometers) long and about 11 miles (18 kilometers) wide.  Loch Lomond in Scotland is the largest lake on the island of Great Britain.  It is 23 miles (37 kilometers) long and 5 miles (8 kilometers) wide at its widest point.  England's biggest lakes are in the Lake District.  The largest, Windermere, is about 10 miles (16 kilometers) long and up to 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) wide.


The United Kingdom has a mild climate, even though it lies as far north as bitterly cold Labrador.  Winter temperatures rarely drop as low as 10 °F (-12 °C), and summer temperatures seldom rise above 90 °F (32 °C).  The climate is influenced by the Gulf Stream, a warm ocean current that sweeps up from the equator and flows past the British Isles.  Steady southwest winds blow across this current and bring warmth in winter.  In summer, the ocean is cooler than the land.  Winds over the ocean come to Britain as refreshing breezes.

The sea winds also bring plentiful rain.  The heaviest rains fall in the highland areas of western Scotland.  Some of these areas get 150 to 200 inches (380 to 510 centimeters) a year.  Less than 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain falls yearly in some parts of southeastern England.  The United Kingdom has rain throughout the year, and rarely is any section of the country dry for as long as three weeks.  Much of the rain comes in light, but steady, drizzles.

Mild fogs hang over parts of the country from time to time.  But the famous "pea soup" fogs of London and other big cities seldom occur any more.  These thick, heavy fogs were caused chiefly by smoke and other pollution released into the air by factories, automobiles, and homes where coal was burned for heat.  Antipollution laws have helped make such fogs much less severe than they once were.


The United Kingdom is an important manufacturing and trading nation.  In fact, Britain can survive only by manufacturing and trading.  The country's farms produce only about two-thirds of the food needed by the people.  Except for coal, natural gas, and oil, Britain has few natural resources.  The country must import about a third of its food and many of the raw materials it needs for manufacturing.

Service industries account for about two-thirds of the United Kingdom's gross domestic product (GDP).  The GDP is the total value of goods and services produced within the country annually.  More than 70 percent of British workers are employed in service industries.  The country's service industries are concentrated in and near its largest cities, especially London.

Community, government, and personal services contribute a larger portion of the United Kingdom's GDP than any other service industry group.  This group employs more people than any other industry in Britain.  It includes such activities as education, health care, legal services, and military operations.

Finance, insurance, real estate, and business services rank second among the service industries of Britain in terms of the GDP. Most of the country's financial companies operate in London, one of the world's leading financial cities.  Major financial institutions in London include the Bank of England, the United Kingdom's national bank; the London Stock Exchange; and Lloyd's of London insurance society.  Britain has many firms that offer such business services as accounting, advertising, data processing, and engineering.

Trade, hotels, and restaurants rank next among the service industries.  Aberdeen and London are important centers of petroleum distribution.  Leeds is the chief center for the wholesale trade of clothing.  Tourist activities in Britain, especially in the London area, provide important income to hotels, restaurants, and retail shops.

Utilities provide electricity and water services to people of the United Kingdom.  Britain's other service industries, transportation and communication, are discussed later in this section.

Manufacturing.  The United Kingdom is a leading industrial nation.  Most British industries are in central England, the London area, the Scottish Central Lowlands, the Newcastle upon Tyne area, and southern Wales.  Early factories were located near the coal fields because coal powered the steam engines that moved the machinery.  Today, the use of electricity, oil, and gas has enabled many new industries to develop far from the coal fields, especially in southern England.

Britain ranks as an important steel-producing country.  It exports nearly half of its finished steel.  The rest is used in Britain to make hundreds of products.  Much steel is used in the manufacture of automobiles, buses, trucks, and motorcycles.

Britain also produces heavy machinery for industry, farming, and mining.  The country is one of the world's largest producers of tractors.  Other products include cranes, earth movers, road graders, harvesters, and drilling machines.  British factories also make railway equipment, household appliances, and machine tools.  The city of Sheffield is famous for its high-quality knives and hand tools.

British Aerospace makes a wide range of jet aircraft.  It is the largest aerospace company in Europe.  Rolls-Royce is world famous for airplane engines as well as luxury automobiles.  Space satellites and weapons defense systems are also produced in Britain.  Aerospace equipment and heavy machinery are major British exports.

An increasing percentage of Britain's manufactured goods consists of sophisticated electronic equipment.  Much of this equipment is exported.  Factories produce such items as cable television equipment, data processing equipment, fiber-optic communications systems, radar devices, and undersea telephone cables.

The chemical industry in Britain produces a variety of products--from industrial chemicals to plastics and soap.  Britain is the fourth largest exporter of pharmaceuticals.  The country's pottery industry is centered in Stoke-on-Trent.  Outstanding names in British pottery include Worcester, Spode, and Wedgwood.

The United Kingdom is one of the world's chief centers of printing and publishing.  British companies print paper money and postage stamps for many countries.  Books published in Britain are exported to countries throughout the world.

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain's textile industry.  Today, Britain remains an important producer of cotton and woolen textiles.  British manufacturers also make synthetic fibers and fabrics.  England's east Midlands region is a center for the production of lace and knitwear.  Cotton and wool are produced in northern England.  Scotland produces knitwear and is famous for its fine woolen products.  Northern Ireland has a worldwide reputation for its linen goods.

Britain has one of Europe's largest clothing industries.  The biggest centers are Leicester, Leeds, London, and Manchester.  British clothing has long been famous for its quality.  But today, Britain imports more clothing than it exports because many countries with lower labor costs can produce clothing more cheaply than the British can.

Processing of foods and beverages ranks as one of Britain's major industries.  Most processed foods and beverages are consumed in Britain.  But some are exported.  Scotch whisky has a large world market.  Other British industries manufacture bricks and cement, furniture, leather goods, glassware, and paper.

Agriculture.  Britain imports about a third of its food supply.  The imports include avocados, bananas, citrus fruits, peppers, pineapples, and other items that cannot be easily grown in Britain's climate.

Farmland covers about 70 percent of the United Kingdom's land area.  The nation has about 240,000 farms.  About two-thirds of Britain's farmers own the farms on which they live.  The rest rent their farms.  About half the people who operate or work on farms do so on a part-time basis.

Many British farmers practice mixed farming--that is, they raise a variety of crops and animals.  Methods of mixed farming vary from farm to farm.  In the rough highlands of Scotland, Wales, and western England, grass grows much better than farm crops.  There, farmers use most of their land for grazing.  The land in southern and eastern England is drier and flatter, and it is more easily worked.  Farmers in eastern England use most of their land for raising crops.

Britain's most important crops are barley, potatoes, rapeseed, sugar beets, and wheat.  Farmers in southern and eastern England grow almost all the country's rapeseed, sugar beets, and wheat and most of its barley.  Potatoes are grown throughout the United Kingdom.  Farmers in southern England grow most of Britain's fruits and garden vegetables.  One of the most productive regions is the county of Kent in southeastern England.  It is called the Garden of England and is famous for the beautiful blossoms of its apple and cherry orchards in springtime.  Farmers in Kent also grow hops, which are used in making beer.

Sheep are Britain's chief livestock.  Farmers in almost every part of the country raise sheep for meat and wool.  British farmers also raise beef cattle, dairy cattle, and hogs.  Chickens are raised mainly in special mass-production plants.

Mining.  The United Kingdom is a major world producer of petroleum, coal, and natural gas.  These three fuels account for about 85 percent of the value of total mineral production in the country.

Petroleum is Britain's most valuable mineral.  British oil wells produce more than 800 million barrels of petroleum a year.  In the past, the country had to import petroleum to meet its needs.  But during the 1970's, Britain began producing petroleum from wells in the North Sea.  Today, Britain's oil wells provide nearly all the petroleum that the country uses and also supply petroleum for export.

Britain's largest coal-mining region lies near the River Trent in central England.  Coal from this area is an important fuel source for the country's electric power plants.

Britain obtains natural gas from deposits below the North Sea.  These deposits provide enough gas to meet most of the country's needs.

Britain's next most important minerals, in order of value, are sand and gravel, limestone, and clays.  The Southwest Peninsula has fine china clay, used in making pottery.  Southeastern England has large deposits of chalk, used for cement.  Other British minerals include sandstone and gypsum.

Fishing.  The United Kingdom is an important fishing nation.  The British fishing industry supplies about 925,000 short tons (840,000 metric tons) of fish yearly.  About half this catch comes from the waters surrounding Britain, especially the North Sea.  The principal catches include cod, haddock, herring, mackerel, plaice, and whiting.  Large catches of shellfish are also brought in.  The main fishing ports are on the east coast and in the southwestern part of the island of Great Britain.

Fish farms in the United Kingdom produce salmon, trout, and shellfish.  Scotland is especially known for its salmon farms.

Energy sources.  Fuel-burning plants provide about 70 percent of Britain's electric power.  Nuclear energy provides most of the remaining electric power.  In 1956, Britain opened the world's first large-scale nuclear power station at Calder Hall, Cumbria, in northwestern England.  Natural gas fields under the North Sea provide most of the country's natural gas needs.  Petroleum deposits off the coast of Scotland supply enough oil to meet the United Kingdom's needs.

International trade.  The United Kingdom ranks as a leading trading nation.  Britain once imported chiefly raw materials and exported mostly manufactured products.  However, manufactured goods now account for about 85 percent of British imports and about 80 percent of its exports.

Britain exports aerospace equipment, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, foods and beverages, machinery, motor vehicles, petroleum, and scientific and medical equipment.  Its imports include chemicals, clothing, foods (especially fruit, vegetables, meat, coffee, and tea), machinery, metals, motor vehicles, paper and newsprint, petroleum products, and textiles.

Most of the United Kingdom's trade is with other developed countries, especially other members of an organization known as the European Union.  France, Germany, and the United States are Britain's leading customers and suppliers.  Other major trade partners include Belgium, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland.

The value of Britain's imports of goods usually exceeds the value of its exports.  British banks and insurance companies make up part of the difference by selling their services to people and firms in other lands.  Another important source of income is the spending by the more than 15 million tourists who visit the United Kingdom each year.  The British merchant fleet also brings in money by carrying cargoes for other countries.  The income from all these invisible exports exceeds $200 billion a year.

Transportation.  Roads and railways carry most passenger and freight traffic within the United Kingdom.  An excellent system of high-speed motorways links major cities and towns.  Bus systems provide local and intercity transportation.  Lorries (trucks) carry about 80 percent of the inland freight.

An extensive rail network crisscrosses the United Kingdom.  The railroads provide excellent high-speed passenger service, as well as freight hauling.

Britain has a large merchant fleet.  The ships in the fleet carry British-made goods to ports throughout the world and bring back needed imports.  British ships also carry freight for other countries.  There are about 80 ports of commercial significance throughout the United Kingdom.

The country's inland waterways are used to carry freight, as well as for recreational boating.  The Thames, which flows through London, is Britain's busiest river and one of the busiest in the world.

Ferry services connect coastal and island communities in Britain.  Hovercraft (vehicles that ride over water on a cushion of air) carry passengers mainly across the English Channel between England and France.  In 1987, work began on a railroad tunnel to link Britain and France beneath the channel.  This railroad tunnel opened in 1994.

British Airways, the United Kingdom's largest airline, operates flights to all parts of the world.  Smaller airlines provide service within Britain and to other countries.  Britain's largest airports are Heathrow and Gatwick, both near London, and those at Birmingham, Glasgow, and Manchester.

Communication.  Britain has about 100 daily newspapers.  About 15 have nationwide circulation.  Their main offices are in London.  The Sun and the Daily Mirror have the largest circulations.  Leading papers include The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Independent.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), a public corporation, provides commercial-free radio and television service.  The BBC is financed chiefly by yearly licenses that people must buy to own a television set.  Television stations controlled by the Independent Television Commission and radio stations controlled by the Radio Authority broadcast commercials, but advertisers do not sponsor programs.

The British Post Office provides many services in addition to handling mail.  For example, local post offices sell TV licenses, dog licenses, and national insurance stamps.  People can draw pensions and family allowances and also bank their savings at the country's post offices.


In 1707, the Parliament of the Kingdom of England and Wales and the Parliament of the Kingdom of Scotland each passed the Act of Union.  This act joined the two kingdoms under one government as the Kingdom of Great Britain.

By 1707, the English Parliament had won a controlling influence over the monarchy, and the Tory and Whig political parties had developed.  England controlled the seas and possessed the beginnings of an empire.  For the history of the area before 1707, see the articles ENGLAND; SCOTLAND; WALES.

The beginning of cabinet government.  Queen Anne, the first British monarch, died in 1714.  Her second cousin George, a German prince, was her closest Protestant relative and became king.  British law prohibited a Roman Catholic from being monarch.  George I did not speak English well.  He chose his council of ministers from the Whig Party and seldom attended council meetings.  His chief minister, Sir Robert Walpole, took control of the council--and the British cabinet system of government began to develop.  Walpole is considered Britain's first prime minister.  George I's son became king in 1727.  George II was also a German and, like his father, left much authority to his Cabinet.

George III succeeded his grandfather George II in 1760 and reigned until 1820.  George III was born in England.  He wanted to regain some of the king's powers and tried to build up his following in Parliament.  But after the Revolutionary War in America broke out in 1775, Parliament began to lose faith in the king's policies.  A sickness that made George appear to be mentally ill further weakened his influence.  Since George's reign, no monarch has had such a direct role in the activities of the British government.

The growing empire.  In the late 1600's, Britain and France had begun to challenge each other for commercial and colonial control of North America.  Troops, traders, and settlers of both nations battled in the New World.  British and French trading companies also competed for control in India.  In Europe, Britain had fought France in a series of wars.  But none of these conflicts had settled the rivalry between the two countries.  Another war was inevitable.

The Seven Years' War began in Europe in 1756.  It had already begun in North America in 1754, when British and French troops clashed.  In America, the war was called the French and Indian War.  In Europe, Britain and its ally, Prussia, fought France and its allies, Austria and Russia.  Prussia did most of the fighting in Europe, while Britain battled France in North America and India.  The war ended in 1763 in a brilliant triumph for Britain.  France lost almost all its territories in North America and India.  Britain won Canada and all French possessions east of the Mississippi River.

The Revolutionary War in America cost Britain the most valuable part of its empire--the American Colonies.  One of the war's main causes was taxation.  The colonists insisted that Britain had no right to tax them without their consent.  King George III and his Tory advisers disagreed.  Britain sent troops to support its authority, and the colonists met force with force.  As the war dragged on, Parliament increasingly urged George to give up.  The king refused.  He feared that if Britain lost the colonies, it would become a second-rate power.  Britain did lose the war, and in 1783 it recognized the independence of the American Colonies.  But Britain did not become a second-rate power.  It soon had a more prosperous trade with the independent United States than it ever had with the American Colonies.

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the 1700's.  It made Britain the world's richest country.  The revolution started in the cotton textile industry and spread to mining, transportation, and other fields.  Before the revolution, people had worked at home, spinning cotton into yarn and weaving the yarn into cloth.  Machines gradually replaced hand labor, and the factory system developed.  At first, water wheels and horses on treadmills powered the machines.  By the late 1700's, steam engines provided much of the power.  Steam engines needed coal, and coal mining expanded to meet the demand.  Coal was also needed to smelt iron ore.  Factory towns sprang up around the coal fields.  Better transportation was needed, and an era of road and canal building began.  In the early 1800's, steam railways started operating.

The Industrial Revolution was one part of a general economic revolution that swept over Britain.  Agriculture improved as small farms were combined into larger units and scientific farming methods were introduced.  The industrial and agricultural improvements, in turn, stimulated trade.  The need for larger amounts of cash led to the growth of banks and joint-stock companies, businesses owned in shares by stockholders.

The Napoleonic Wars.  The French Revolution began in 1789.  At first, many British approved the revolution as a triumph of liberty for the French people.  But they changed their mind after the revolution grew more violent.  Then the new French government seized Belgium and threatened the Netherlands.  Britain protested.  In 1793, Britain and France again went to war.

Britain feared a strong power in Europe.  Its foreign policy was based on keeping the balance of power so that no European nation could control the others.  To maintain this balance, Britain often aided weak countries and formed various alliances.  By keeping the balance of power, Britain protected its own freedom, trade, and sea power.  In addition, Britain's rulers--like those of other European countries--feared the democratic ideas of the French revolutionaries.

Beginning in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte, a man of endless ambitions, led the French.  At the height of his glory in 1812, Napoleon controlled most of Europe.  In 1803, he began a plan to invade Britain.  But in 1805, Admiral Horatio Nelson of Britain won a great victory over the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, off the southern coast of Spain.  The Battle of Trafalgar crushed Napoleon's naval power and ended all his hopes of invading Britain.  Napoleon next tried to defeat Britain by striking at its dependence on trade.  He ordered all countries under his control to close their markets to Britain.  Britain struck back with a naval blockade of France and its allies.  But British interference with United States shipping brought on the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States.  Napoleon was finally defeated in 1815 in the Battle of Waterloo.

Troubles with Ireland flared up during the Napoleonic Wars.  The English had governed Ireland for centuries, but the Irish hated English rule.  Most of the people in Ireland were Roman Catholics, and most of the English were Protestants.  In 1798, the Irish rebelled.  British leaders then decided to make Ireland part of Britain.  The Act of Union, passed in 1800, ended Ireland's Parliament and created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  The act became effective in 1801.  But Catholic men, as well as women of any religion, could not serve in the British Parliament or hold public offices.  Catholic men won these rights in 1829.  Women did not gain full political rights until 1928.

The era of reform.  Social, economic, and political reform had been needed in Britain for many years.  After the Napoleonic Wars, the people's demands for reform became so strong that Parliament had to act.

Britain's criminal laws badly needed reforming.  People convicted of crimes were whipped or given other brutal public punishment.  Dreadful conditions existed in prisons.  About 200 offenses--even stealing a rabbit--were punishable by death.  During the 1820's, many of these abuses were corrected.

In 1824, Parliament struck down the laws forbidding workers to form trade unions.  In 1833, it passed the Factory Act.  This act provided that no child under 9 years of age could work in a factory, and no one under 18 could work more than 12 hours a day.

But the most burning issue was for Parliament to reform itself.  Great landowners controlled most seats in Parliament, and few citizens had the right to vote.  Some members of Parliament represented districts that had few or no voters.  On the other hand, many districts with large populations had little or no representation.

In 1830, the Whig Party came to power.  The Whigs had promised parliamentary reform.  In 1831, they introduced a reform bill in Parliament.  The Tories fiercely opposed it.  The struggle over the bill became so great that people rioted and revolution almost broke out.  Parliament finally passed the bill, which became the Reform Act of 1832.

The Reform Act of 1832 redistributed the seats in the House of Commons.  Property qualifications to vote were lowered, so that most men of the middle class received the right to vote.  In addition, the act made the right to vote a matter of national law, rather than of local custom.  Yet only about 15 percent of Britain's adult males could vote because the act ignored the working class.

The Victorian Age.  In 1837, an 18-year-old woman named Victoria became queen.  She reigned for 63 years, until 1901--the longest reign in British history.  This period is called the Victorian Age.  During this period, the British Empire reached its height.  It included about a quarter of the world's land and about a quarter of the world's people.  Wealth poured into Britain from its colonies.  British industry continued to expand, and the country was called the workshop of the world.  Railways and canals covered Britain, and telephone and telegraph lines linked the big cities.  Literature and science flourished.

Establishment of free trade.  The Victorian Age began during hard times.  Farmers had poor harvests, and a depression swept across Britain.  Many people blamed their troubles on the Corn Laws, which taxed imports of grain (called corn in Britain).  The taxes protected landowners by helping keep foreign grain out of Britain.  But the taxes also raised the price of bread.

In 1841, Sir Robert Peel, a Tory, became prime minister.  Like many other government leaders, Peel came to believe that restrictions on trade hurt the economy.  He ended all export duties and ended or reduced import duties on hundreds of items.  But the Corn Laws remained.  Peel did not repeal these laws because many members of his party strongly favored them.  Then, in 1845 and 1846, the potato crop failed in Ireland.  In addition, the English had a bad wheat harvest.  Peel felt he had to repeal the Corn Laws and let foreign wheat come into Britain.  In 1846, he did so--and split his party and ended his career.  But Britain prospered under free trade as never before.

Political confusion followed Peel's fall from power and lasted until about 1865.  Tories who agreed with Peel's free trade policy were called Peelites.  They refused to work with the members of their party who favored tariffs.  The Whigs were also split into a liberal and a conservative group.  During this period, many shifts in politics occurred.  Finally, the Peelites joined the Whigs in forming a new party, the Liberal Party.  Meanwhile, the Tory Party became known as the Conservative Party.

The outstanding statesman of the period was Viscount Palmerston.  Palmerston served as foreign minister almost continuously from 1830 to 1851 and as home secretary from 1852 to 1855.  He was prime minister from 1855 to 1858 and from 1859 to 1865.  Palmerston cared mostly about defending Britain's colonies, stopping Russian expansion, and restoring good relations with France.  During the 1830's, he supported Belgium in its revolt against the Netherlands.  In the 1840's, he forced China to open its ports to British trade and acquired Hong Kong.  From 1854 to 1856, he led Britain in the Crimean War against Russia.

Although Palmerston supported political reform in other countries, he promoted only minor reforms in Britain.  In spite of his conflicting policies, he was very popular, which helped keep the political situation confused.  After Palmerston's death in 1865, a strong two-party system was born with the battle between two political giants--William Gladstone, a Liberal, and Benjamin Disraeli, a Conservative.

Gladstone and Disraeli had much in common.  Both came from wealthy families and were well educated, hard working, and courageous.  They were also bitter rivals.  Their brilliant debates in Parliament made them the centers of political storms.  Gladstone and Disraeli alternated as prime minister from 1868 to 1885.  Their rivalry began over the Reform Act of 1867.

In 1866, Gladstone introduced a reform bill to give more people the right to vote.  His bill was defeated.  Disraeli knew that a bill had to be passed because of public pressure.  In 1867, he introduced his own bill, which Parliament passed.  The Reform Act of 1867 nearly doubled the number of voters by giving the vote to many small farmers and city workers.  Disraeli hoped the new voters would gratefully elect Conservatives in the next election.  Instead, they voted overwhelmingly in 1868 for Liberals.  Gladstone became prime minister.

Gladstone's first term, which lasted until 1874, brought some of the most liberal reforms of the 1800's.  Under the Irish Church Act of 1869, the Irish no longer had to pay taxes to the Church of England, which had few Irish members.  The Education Act of 1870 set up locally elected school boards, which could require children to attend school until the age of 13.  In 1870, the civil service system was improved by making tests the basis for employment.  Government officials could no longer simply give civil service jobs to friends or relatives.  In 1872, the secret ballot was introduced.  Gladstone angered various groups with each of these reforms and lost the election of 1874.

Disraeli then served as prime minister until 1880.  British imperialism reached its height under Disraeli, who tried to extend Britain's control over its colonies and over other countries.  In 1875, he bought a controlling interest in the Suez Canal from Egypt's ruler.  In 1876, he declared Queen Victoria empress of India.  At the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Disraeli helped block Russian expansion in the Balkans, a region in southeastern Europe, and he won Cyprus for Britain.  British people of all classes watched proudly as Britain expanded its influence in China, the Middle East, and Africa.

Disraeli also desired social reforms to help the working class.  But his party, which included many wealthy people, supported only minor reforms.  In the election campaign of 1880, Gladstone attacked Disraeli's imperialistic policies.  The election brought the Liberals--and Gladstone--back to power.  Disraeli died the next year.

Gladstone's second term as prime minister lasted until 1885.  It produced the Reform Act of 1884, which gave the vote to almost all adult males.  Gladstone served twice more as prime minister--in 1886 and from 1892 to 1894.  He shattered his party and went down to defeat during his third and fourth terms because he supported more home rule (self-government) for Ireland.  The Irish question split the Liberal Party into Gladstonian Liberals, who supported home rule, and Liberal Unionists, who opposed it.  The Unionists later combined forces with the Conservatives.

At the turn of the century, Britain fought the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa.  The war was costly, and general worldwide reaction against it left Britain isolated.  The nation had followed a foreign policy of splendid isolation.  But with the rise of Germany in the late 1800's, Britain began to feel that it needed allies.  In 1902, it made an alliance with Japan.  In 1904, Britain signed a treaty of friendship, the Entente Cordiale, with France.  This agreement became the Triple Entente in 1907, when Russia joined.

In 1906, the Liberal Party won a great election victory.  The Liberals then put through a sweeping reform program to aid the working class.  In 1909, the Liberals introduced a budget calling for sharply increased taxes.  The House of Lords rejected the budget.  A political struggle followed over the veto power of the Lords.  The struggle ended in 1911, when the Lords agreed to a bill that allowed them to delay--but not to veto--bills passed by the House of Commons.

World War I began in 1914.  The Allies--Britain, France, the United States, and other countries--fought the Central Powers--Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria.  The war was caused chiefly by political and economic rivalry among the various nations.  Part of this rivalry was between Britain and Germany.  German industry was growing rapidly, and Germany also had built a powerful navy.

Britain entered the war on Aug. 4, 1914, after German troops invaded neutral Belgium on their way to attack France.  The fighting lasted until 1918, when the Allies finally defeated Germany.

David Lloyd George, a Liberal, served as prime minister during the second half of the war.  He helped write the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended the war with Germany.  The treaty set up the League of Nations, a forerunner of the United Nations, and gave Britain control over German colonies in Africa.  The Treaty of Sevres, signed with the Ottoman Empire, gave Britain control over some of the Ottomans' possessions in the Middle East.

The war had a shattering effect on Britain.  About 750,000 members of the British armed forces died.  German submarines sank almost 8 million short tons (7 million metric tons) of British shipping.  The war also created severe economic problems for Britain and shook its position as a world power.

Postwar problems.  British industry thrived briefly after World War I, but the prosperous times ended in 1920.  During the war, Britain's factories produced war goods, and the country lost some of its markets to competitors.  Two of Britain's best customers before the war--Germany and Russia--could not afford its goods after the war.  In addition, the United States and Japan had taken much of its export business.  With the decline in foreign trade, a depression swept Britain.

Meanwhile, the Irish question had become explosive.  In 1919, Irish leaders declared Ireland independent.  Bitter fighting followed between the Irish rebels and a special British police force called the Black and Tans.  In 1921, southern Ireland agreed to become a British dominion.  That is, it would be a self-governing member of the British Empire, while maintaining its allegiance to the Crown.  The new dominion was called the Irish Free State.  Most of the people of northern Ireland were Protestants, and they did not want to be part of the Roman Catholic Irish Free State.  Northern Ireland remained in the United Kingdom, which was renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The rise of the Labour Party.  In January 1924, a new party, the Labour Party, came to power under James Ramsay MacDonald.  The party represented socialist groups and trade unions.  It began to develop in the late 1800's and gathered strength through the years.  While the Labour Party grew stronger, the Liberal Party declined.  Many voters could see little difference between Conservatives and Liberals.  They saw the Labour Party, with its socialistic aims, as an alternative to the Conservative Party.  The Labour Party held office only until November 1924.  It lacked a majority in the House of Commons and needed the Liberal Party's support.  The Liberals soon withdrew their support.  The Conservatives, under Stanley Baldwin, then held control of the government until 1929.

In the 1929 elections, the Labour Party became the largest party for the first time.  MacDonald returned as prime minister.  A few months later, the worldwide Great Depression began.  In 1931, MacDonald formed a government of Labour, Conservative, and Liberal leaders to deal with the emergency.  The government raised taxes, abandoned free trade, and cut its own spending.  But by 1932, about 3 million British workers had no job.

"Peace in our time."  In 1933, in the depth of the depression, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party won control of Germany.  Germany began to rearm, but few leaders in Britain, or elsewhere, saw the danger.

Meantime, Britain faced an unusual problem at home.  King George V died in 1936, and his oldest son became King Edward VIII. Edward wanted to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Warfield Simpson.  The government, the Church of England, and many British people objected.  Edward then gave up the throne to marry "the woman I love."  His brother became king as George VI.

Neville Chamberlain, a Conservative, became prime minister in 1937.  In 1938, Hitler seized Austria and then demanded part of Czechoslovakia.  Chamberlain and Premier edouard Daladier of France flew to Munich, Germany, to confer with Hitler.  They gave in to Hitler's demands after the German dictator said he would seek no more territory.  Chamberlain returned to Britain and said: "I believe it is peace in our time."  But he met sharp attacks in the House of Commons.  Winston Churchill, a Conservative, called the Munich Agreement "a disaster of the first magnitude."

World War II.  In March 1939, Germany seized the rest of Czechoslovakia.  On September 1, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began.  Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany.  In April 1940, German troops invaded Denmark and Norway.  Chamberlain resigned on May 10, and Churchill became prime minister.  That same day, Germany attacked Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands and advanced toward France.

Churchill told the British people he had nothing to offer but "blood, toil, tears, and sweat" to win "victory at all costs."  Germany conquered France in June, and Britain stood alone against the Nazi war machine.

Britain prepared for invasion, and Churchill urged the British people to make this "their finest hour."  He inspired them to heights of courage, unity, and sacrifice.  Hundreds of German planes bombed Britain nightly.  German submarines tried to cut Britain's lifeline by torpedoing ships bringing food and other supplies to the island country.  Severe rationing limited each person's share of food, clothing, coal, and oil.  The British refused to be beaten, and Hitler gave up his invasion plans.

In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union.  In December, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, and the United States entered the war.  Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the other Allies finally defeated Germany and Japan in 1945.  Near the end of the war, Britain helped establish the United Nations.

About 360,000 British servicemen, servicewomen, and civilians died in the war.  Great sections of London and other cities had been destroyed by German bombs.  The war had shattered Britain's economy.  The United States and the Soviet Union came out of the war as the world's most powerful nations.

The welfare state.  The Labour Party won a landslide victory in 1945.  The party had campaigned on a socialistic program.  Clement Attlee became prime minister, and the Labour Party stayed in power until 1951.  During those six years, Britain became a welfare state.  The nation's social security system was expanded to provide welfare for the people "from the cradle to the grave."  The Labour government also nationalized key industries by putting them under public control.  The nationalized industries included the Bank of England, the coal mines, the iron and steel industry, the railways, and the trucking industry.

Although the Labour government struggled to restore Britain's economy, conditions improved little.  Rationing and other wartime controls continued.  Britain borrowed heavily from the United States.

Decline of the empire.  World War II sealed the fate of the British Empire, though Britain had begun loosening control over its empire earlier.  In 1931, Britain granted independence within the empire to Australia, Canada, the Irish Free State, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and South Africa.  These countries became the first members of the Commonwealth of Nations, an association of countries and dependencies that succeeded the empire.

After World War II, the peoples of Africa and Asia increased their demands for independence.  Britain could no longer keep control of its colonies.  In 1947, India and Pakistan became independent nations within the Commonwealth.  In 1948, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) became an independent Commonwealth country.  That same year, Burma achieved independence--and left the Commonwealth.  In 1949, the Irish Free State declared itself the independent Republic of Ireland and also left the Commonwealth.  That same year, Newfoundland became a province of Canada.  South Africa was not a member of the Commonwealth from 1961 to 1994 because Britain had criticized its racial policies.  Blacks made up a majority of the population in South Africa, but whites controlled the government.  Also, the South African government had an official policy of racial segregation called apartheid.  South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth when it ended its apartheid and gave blacks greater voice in the government.

Since the early 1950's, many more British possessions have become independent nations.  They include Brunei, Cyprus, Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia, Malta, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Sudan, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uganda.  In 1965, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) declared its independence from Britain.  There, as in South Africa, whites controlled the government even though blacks made up a majority of the population.  Britain had refused to grant Rhodesia independence until blacks were given a greater voice in the government.  In 1980, after a long struggle for more power, blacks gained control of the government, and Britain recognized Rhodesia's independence.  Rhodesia's name was changed to Zimbabwe.  Generally, the British Empire was disbanded in an orderly way.  Most independent countries stayed in the Commonwealth.

European unity.  While Britain was breaking up its empire during the postwar years, other nations of Western Europe joined together in various organizations to unite economically and politically.  Britain was reluctant to join them.  Throughout history, Britain had preferred to stay out of European affairs--except to keep the balance of power in Europe.  By joining the new organizations, Britain feared it might lose some of its independence and felt it would also be turning its back on the Commonwealth.

In the 1950's, Britain refused to join the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom).  Most important, it did not join the European Economic Community (EEC).  This association, sometimes called the European Common Market, was set up by France and five other nations.  After the EEC showed signs of succeeding, Britain set up the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) with six other nations.  But EFTA was only a mild success, and Britain later regretted its refusal to join the EEC.

In the years after World War II, Britain's foreign policy was closely allied with that of the United States.  Britain joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)--a defense alliance of European and North American nations--and fought in the Korean War (1950-1953).

In July 1956, Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, which was owned mainly by the British and French.  In October, Israel invaded Egypt, its enemy.  Britain and France then attacked Egypt in an attempt to retake the canal.  The attempt did not succeed.  Pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Nations forced Britain, France, and Israel to withdraw from Egypt.

Economic recovery--and collapse.  A Conservative government had returned to power in 1951 under Winston Churchill.  The Conservatives accepted most of the changes the Labour Party had made.  By 1955, rationing and most other wartime controls had ended.  Industry was thriving, jobs were plentiful, and wages were good.  Churchill retired in 1955, and Sir Anthony Eden succeeded him as prime minister.  Eden resigned in 1957.  He had been greatly criticized for his decision that Britain join France in trying to seize the Suez Canal in 1956.  Harold Macmillan succeeded Eden.

The British economy continued to expand until the early 1960's.  Hoping to improve the economy, Britain applied for membership in the European Economic Community.  By joining the EEC, Macmillan hoped Britain would be able to expand its export trade.  But in January 1963, Britain's application was rejected, largely because of opposition from French President Charles de Gaulle.  The rejection was a defeat for Macmillan.  That year, the government was shaken by a scandal involving the secretary for war.  The 1964 election brought the Labour Party back to power under Harold Wilson.

Wilson faced mounting economic problems.  Britain was importing far more goods than it was exporting, and its industrial growth rate was too slow.  Britain's financial reserves shrank, and the nation had to borrow more and more money from other countries and international agencies.  In 1966, the government began an austerity program by raising taxes and putting a ceiling on wages and prices.  The EEC, the European Coal and Steel Community, and Euratom merged their executive agencies in 1967 and became known as the European Community (EC).  That year, Britain was again rejected for membership in the EC. The government devalued the pound in response to the serious economic situation.

In the 1970 elections, the Conservative Party regained control of the government.  Edward Heath became prime minister.  In 1971, agreement was reached on terms for Britain's entry into the EC. Britain joined the EC in 1973.  But continuing inflation, fuel shortages, strikes, and other matters caused serious problems for the government.  Elections in 1974 brought the Labour Party back to power, and Harold Wilson again became prime minister.  Wilson retired in 1976.  James Callaghan succeeded him as prime minister and Labour Party leader.

Long-standing conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland became a serious problem for Britain during the late 1960's and the 1970's.  In 1969, Britain began sending troops to Northern Ireland to try to stop riots there.  But the violence continued.  The unstable situation caused a series of political crises in Northern Ireland during the 1970's.  Britain established direct rule over the country, while attempts were made to form a stable government in which Catholics and Protestants shared power.

Many people in Scotland and some in Wales demanded complete independence from Britain.  Many others believed Scotland and Wales should have their own legislatures.  Still others favored no changes in the relations between Scotland and Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom.  In 1979, the British government allowed the people of Scotland and Wales to vote on the question of whether they should have their own legislatures.  The voters in both areas failed to approve the establishment of the legislatures.

Thatcher.  Elections in 1979 returned the Conservatives to power.  Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher replaced Callaghan as prime minister.  She became the first woman ever to hold the office.  She served as prime minister for the next 111/2 years, longer than any other person in the 1900's.

As prime minister, Thatcher worked to reduce government involvement in the economy.  For example, the government sold its interests in many industries to private citizens and businesses.  It also sold thousands of public-housing units to their tenants, promoting home ownership.  In addition, direct taxes were reduced.

In 1982, Thatcher won praise for her decisive handling of a conflict with Argentina.  Since 1833, Britain has ruled the Falkland Islands, which lie about 320 miles (515 kilometers) east of the southern coast of Argentina.  But Argentina has long claimed ownership of the islands.  In April 1982, Argentine troops invaded and occupied the Falklands.  Britain then sent troops, ships, and planes.  British and Argentine forces fought air, sea, and land battles for control of the Falkland Islands.  The Argentine forces surrendered to Britain in June 1982.

In 1985, Thatcher and Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald of Ireland signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, an agreement that established an advisory conference for Northern Ireland.  The conference, consisting of officials of Britain and Ireland, gave Ireland an advisory role in Northern Ireland's government.

By the mid-1980's, Britain's productivity had improved, but unemployment, inflation, and other economic problems continued.  During the late 1980's, unemployment declined, but inflation began to rise.  Roads, hospitals, and schools were declining through lack of public investment.  The number of homeless people was increasing.  In 1990, the economy entered a recession.  Unemployment rose.

Thatcher resigned as Conservative Party leader and prime minister in 1990.  She had been under growing pressure from her own party to do so.  Her party was divided over two issues--Thatcher's reluctance to seek further economic and political union with the European Community and her support of a new household tax.  John Major succeeded Thatcher as party leader and prime minister.  He had been serving as chancellor of the exchequer, which involves managing the economy.

As prime minister, Major abandoned the household tax.  He also negotiated with the European Community for closer union.  In 1993, Britain and the other EC countries formed the European Union (EU) to increase their economic and political cooperation.  Many people began to accuse Major of failing to protect British interests as he sought closer ties with the EU. Disagreements over the EU caused divisions within the Conservative Party and weakened Major's government.

However, gradual economic growth continued during the middle and late 1990's.  Recovery from the economic recession had begun in mid-1992.

Recent developments.  In 1997 elections, the Labour Party defeated the Conservatives by a landslide.  Labour leader Tony Blair became prime minister.  He called for referendums to be held in Scotland and Wales to allow these areas to vote on whether or not they wanted their own legislatures.  In September 1997, Scotland and Wales approved the plans for their own parliaments.

Also in September 1997, the first peace talks began that included all parties involved in the Northern Ireland conflict.  Limited talks had begun in 1994 but had been disrupted by outbreaks of violence in Northern Ireland.  The talks concluded in an agreement in April 1998.  In May, the agreement was put to referendums in Northern Ireland and Ireland.  In the referendums, the voters supported the agreement.

The agreement included a commitment to using peaceful means to resolve political differences.  It called for the establishment of three bodies: (1) a legislative assembly for Northern Ireland,(2) a North-South Ministerial Council that would include representatives from Northern Ireland and Ireland, and (3) a Council of the Isles that would include representatives from the Irish parliament and the various legislative assemblies of the United Kingdom.