United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Location of the United Kingdom (dark green)
in Europe (dark grey)
and largest city
and national language
|Recognised regional or minority languages[note 3]|
|Ethnic groups |
|House of Lords|
|House of Commons|
|1535 and 1542|
|24 March 1603|
|1 May 1707|
|1 January 1801|
|5 December 1922|
|1 January 1973|
|31 January 2020|
|242,495 km2 (93,628 sq mi) (78th)|
• Water (%)
• 2019 estimate
• 2011 census
|270.7/km2 (701.1/sq mi) (50th)|
|HDI (2017)|| 0.922|
very high · 14th
|Currency||Pound sterling[note 6] (GBP)|
|Time zone||UTC (Greenwich Mean Time, WET[note 7])|
• Summer (DST)
|UTC+1 (British Summer Time, WEST)|
|Mains electricity||230 V–50 Hz|
|Driving side||left[note 8]|
|Calling code||+44[note 9]|
|ISO 3166 code||GB|
|Internet TLD||.uk[note 10]|
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland or simply the United Kingdom (UK) is a sovereign country in Western Europe. It is a constitutional monarchy that is made up of four separate countries: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is a member of the United Nations, the Commonwealth, NATO, the G8, and formerly the EU. It had the sixth largest economy in the world by nominal GDP in 2019.
- England is the biggest country, where most people in the UK live. People who live in England are called English. Their native language is called English, which is spoken by most people in England.
- Scotland, north of England, is the second biggest country. People who live here are called Scottish, and a Scottish person may be called a Scot. Some speak a language other than English: Scottish Gaelic, a Celtic language. Scots, on the other hand, is a version of English.
- Wales is to the west of England. Its people are called Welsh and they have their own Celtic language which is also called Welsh. Not everyone in Wales can speak Welsh, but almost everyone can speak English.
- Northern Ireland is the smallest country. Unlike the other three countries, it is not on the island of Great Britain: it is part of the island called Ireland. Northern Ireland takes up about a sixth of Ireland (with the Republic of Ireland taking up the remainder). People who live in Northern Ireland are either Irish, British, or Northern Irish. The people who live there usually speak English.
The UK has many cities. London is the biggest city in the UK and is the nation's capital city. There are also other big cities in England including Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol and Newcastle upon Tyne. Scotland has the big cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Cardiff and Swansea are in Wales and Belfast is in Northern Ireland.
Between the 17th and mid 20th-centuries, Britain was a world power. It became a colonial empire that controlled large areas of Africa, Asia, North America and Oceania. At its height in 1922, more than 458 million people lived in the British Empire, one-fifth of the Earth's population. Its area was 13,012,000 square miles: almost a quarter of the Earth's land area. The empire was sometimes called 'the empire on which the sun never sets', meaning the sun is always shining on at least one of its territories. Almost all countries left and became independent from the empire in the 20th century, although Britain keeps links with most countries of its former empire.
Archaeological remains show that the first group of modern people to live in the British Isles were hunter-gatherers after the last ice age ended. The date is not known: perhaps as early as 8000BC but certainly by 5000BC. They built mesolithic wood and stone monuments. Stonehenge was built between 3000 and 1600BC. Celtic tribes arrived from mainland Europe. Britain was a changing collection of tribal areas, with no overall leader. Julius Caesar tried to invade (take over) the island in 55BC but was not able to do so. The Romans successfully invaded in 43AD.
Written history began in Britain when writing was brought to Britain by the Romans. Rome ruled in Britain from 44AD to 410AD. They ruled the southern two-thirds of Great Britain. The Romans never took over Ireland and never fully controlled Caledonia, the land north of the valleys of the River Forth and River Clyde. Their northern border varied from time to time, and was marked sometimes at Hadrian's Wall (in modern England), sometimes at the Antonine Wall (in modern Scotland).
After the Romans, waves of immigrants came to Britain. Some were German tribes: the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Others were Celts, like the Scoti, who came to Great Britain from Ireland. English and Scots are Germanic languages. They developed from Old English, the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons of Anglo-Saxon England, an area stretching from the River Forth to the River Tamar.
A later wave of immigration was that of the the Vikings, during the Early Middle Ages' Viking Age. During the Viking invasion of Britain, they set up their own kingdom in north-western England, which the Anglo-Saxons named the "Danelaw", after the Danes who lived there and controlled the land. Vikings from Scandinavia also controlled most of the islands which are now part of Scotland, including the Outer Hebrides, the Inner Hebrides, and the Northern Isles (the Shetland Islands and the Orkney Islands).
After a long period when Anglo-Saxon England was split into various kingdoms, it was made into one kingdom by Æthelstan (Athelstan) in 945AD. In the 13th century, the lands of Wales were unified by force with England by the wars of Edward I of England ("Edward Longshanks").
There were hundreds of years of fighting between both kingdoms of Great Britain. In 1603, when Queen Elizabeth I of England died, her closest relative was King James VI of Scotland. He became king of England and Ireland as well as king of Scotland. The kingdoms of England, Ireland, and Scotland had the same monarch ever since. James VI and I was the first to be named "King of Great Britain", and he ordered the design of the Union Jack. The Union Jack has been the British national flag ever since.
In 1707, the Parliaments of England and Scotland agreed the Treaty of Union, which joined the two countries into one country called The Kingdom of Great Britain under Queen Anne with the Acts of Union 1707. This union between England and Scotland in 1707 formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain, which merged Scotland and England into one kingdom. England and Scotland kept their own laws, with English law in England and Wales and Scots law in Scotland.
Scotland and England had already independently had much influence over Ireland since 1200. In 1800 laws were passed in the parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland to merge the two kingdoms and their two parliaments. The country was then called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Union Jack was changed so that the flag of Saint Patrick (a red saltire) shows Ireland to be a part of the country.
In 1922 much of Ireland became independent from the United Kingdom as the Irish Free State (now called Ireland). However, six northern counties (called Northern Ireland) are part of the United Kingdom. The country was renamed The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1927.
The new Parliament of Northern Ireland set up in the 1920s stopped working in the 1970s, because of The Troubles. However, devolution started again with the Northern Ireland Assembly after the Belfast Agreement (the "Good Friday Agreement") in 1998. Devolution in Scotland and Wales started the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Parliament the same year.
The UK is north-west off the coast of mainland Europe. Around the UK are the North Sea, the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. The UK also rules, usually indirectly, a number of smaller places (mostly islands) around the world, which are known as British Overseas Territories. They were once part of the British Empire. Examples are Gibraltar (on the Iberian Peninsula next to the Strait of Gibraltar) and the Falkland Islands (in the south Atlantic Ocean).
In the British Isles, the UK is made up of four different countries: Wales, England and Scotland and Northern Ireland. The capital city of Wales is Cardiff. The capital city of England is London. The capital city of Scotland is Edinburgh and the capital city of Northern Ireland is Belfast. Other large cities in the UK are Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle upon Tyne, Leeds, Sheffield, Glasgow, Southampton, Leicester, Coventry, Bradford and Nottingham.
The physical geography of the UK varies greatly. England consists of mostly lowland terrain, with upland or mountainous terrain only found north-west of the River Tees-River Exe line. The upland areas include the Lake District, the Pennines, the North York Moors, Exmoor, and Dartmoor. The lowland areas are typically traversed by ranges of low hills, frequently composed of chalk, and flat plains. Scotland is the most mountainous country in the UK and its physical geography is distinguished by the Highland Boundary Fault which goes across the Scottish mainland from Helensburgh to Stonehaven. The Royal Observatory, Greenwich is the is the defining point of the Prime Meridian.
The weather of the United Kingdom is changeable and unpredictable. Summers are moderately warm, winters are cool to cold. Rain falls throughout the year, and more on the west than the east because of its northerly latitude and the warm water from the Atlantic Ocean's Gulf Stream. The usually moderate prevailing winds from the Atlantic may be interrupted by Arctic air from the north-east or hot air from the Sahara.
The United Kingdom is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It has met some Kyoto Protocol targets. It has signed the Paris Agreement. The British government want the UK to be carbon neutral by the year 2050.
The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy based on a constitutional monarchy. The people of the United Kingdom vote for a members of Parliament to speak for them and to make laws for them. Queen Elizabeth II is the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and is the head of state. The government, led by the Prime Minister, governs the country and appoints cabinet ministers. Today, the Prime Minister is Boris Johnson, who is the leader of the centre-right Conservative Party.
Parliament is where laws are made. It has three parts: the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the Queen. The House of Commons is the most powerful part. It is where Members of Parliament sit. The Prime Minister sits here as well, because they are a Member of Parliament.
Scotland has its own devolved Parliament with power to make laws on things like education, health and Scottish law. Northern Ireland and Wales have their own devolved legislatures which have some powers but less than the Scottish parliament. The Parliament of the United Kingdom is sovereign and it could end the devolved administrations at any time. The UK is a unitary state and not a federation of states.
The Parliament of the United Kingdom is the legislature, the political assembly that makes laws and decides tax. The British people are represented by members of parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. MPs are chosen in elections. The MPs in the House of Commons decide who will be the the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The prime minister decides who will be in the British Government (Her Majesty's Government). The government is not controlled by the king or queen, but by Parliament. In Britain, Parliament is made up of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
Unlike the House of Commons, the people in the House of Lords are not elected. The people who sit in the House of Lords are called peers. Most peers are appointed by the government. There are some who are hereditary peers (who inherit their peerages from ancestors or other family members). Certain bishops in the established Church of England also attend the House of Lords. (The Church of England is the national church in England. The Church of Scotland does not have bishops, and neither Wales nor Northern Ireland have an established national church.) Together, the two houses make a bicameral legislature, in which the House of Commons has more power. In the past, the House of Lords had more power. Before the 20th century, the prime minister was often a member of the House of Lords. As the House of Lords lost its powers, as political reforms tried to improve democracy, the House of Commons became more powerful and the prime minister started always to be a member of the House of Commons.
After the English Civil War during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector, and the monarchy ended for a time. The British Isles were a republic, which Cromwell named the "Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland". Although the monarchy was restored after his death, the Crown slowly became the secondary power, and Parliament the first. Until the early twentieth century, only men who owned property could vote to choose MPs. In the nineteenth century, more people were given suffrage. In 1928, all men and women got the vote: this is called universal suffrage.
Almost all members of Parliament belong to political parties. The biggest parties are the Conservative Party, Labour Party, the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats. Members of the same party agree to work together. A party with more than half the seats (a majority) forms the government. The leader of the party becomes the prime minister, who then chooses the other ministers. Because the government has a majority in Parliament, it can normally control what laws are passed.
The British parliament is in Westminster, in London, but it has power over the whole of the United Kingdom. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each have their own parliaments as well, and these have more limited powers. (England does not have a separate parliament.) Scotland has the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh. Wales has the Welsh Parliament in Cardiff. Northern Ireland has the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont in Belfast. There are also parliaments in the Isle of Man and in Jersey and Guernsey (the Channel Islands), which are all island states for which the UK has some responsibility in international law. Man, Jersey, and Guernsey are "crown dependencies". Some British Overseas Territories have their own legislatures.
The United Kingdom has one of the most advanced militaries in the world, alongside such countries such as the USA and France, and operates a large navy (Royal Navy), a sizable army, (British Army) and an air force (Royal Air Force).
From the 18th century to the early 20th century, the United Kingdom was one of the most powerful nations in the world, with a large and powerful navy (due to the fact it was surrounded by sea, so a large navy was the most practical option). This status has faded in recent times, but it remains a member of various military groups such as the UN Security Council and NATO. It is also still seen as a great military power.
The United Kingdom is a developed country with the sixth largest economy in the world. It was a superpower during the 18th, 19th and early 20th century and was considered since the early 1800s to be the most powerful and influential nation in the world, in politics, economics (For it was the wealthiest country at the time.) and in military strength.
Britain continued to be the biggest manufacturing economy in the world until 1908 and the largest economy until the 1920s. The economic cost of two world wars and the decline of the British Empire in the 1950s and 1960s reduced its leading role in global affairs. The United Kingdom has strong economic, cultural, military and political influence and is a nuclear power. The United Kingdom holds a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and is a member of the G8, NATO, World Trade Organization and the Commonwealth of Nations. The City of London, in the capital, is famous as being the largest centre of finance in the world.
William Shakespeare was an English playwright. He wrote plays in the late 16th century. Some of his plays were Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. In the 19th century, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were novelists. Twentieth century writers include the science fiction novelist H. G. Wells and J. R. R. Tolkien. The children's fantasy Harry Potter series was written by J. K. Rowling. Aldous Huxley was also from the United Kingdom.
English language literature is written by authors from many countries. Eight people from the United Kingdom have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Seamus Heaney is a writer who was born in Northern Ireland.
The nature of education is a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They, and England, have separate, but similar, systems of education. They all have laws that a broad education is required from ages five to eighteen, except for in Scotland where school departure is allowed from the age of sixteen. Pupils attend state funded schools (academy schools, faith schools, grammar schools, city technology colleges, studio schools) and other children attend independent schools (known as public schools).
There have been universities in Britain since the Middle Ages. The "ancient universities" started in this time and in the Renaissance. They are: the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, the University of St Andrews, the University of Glasgow, the University of Aberdeen, and the University of Edinburgh. These are the oldest universities in the English-speaking world.
The University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, and London universities (University College London, the London School of Economics, King's College London and Imperial College London) collectively form the Golden Triangle of universities in the south east of England. A broader group of twenty universities form the Russell Group of research universities.
The BBC is an organisation in the United Kingdom. It broadcasts in the United Kingdom and other countries on television, radio and the Internet. The BBC also sells its programmes to other broadcasting companies around world. The organisation is run by a group of twelve governors who have been given the job by the Queen, on the advice of government ministers.
Road traffic in the United Kingdom drives on the left hand side of the road (unlike the Americas and most of Europe), and the driver steers from the right hand side of the vehicle. The road network on the island of Great Britain is extensive, with most local and rural roads having evolved from Roman and Medieval times. Major routes developed in the mid 20th Century were made to the needs of the motor car. The high speed motorway (freeway) network was mostly constructed in the 1960s and 1970s and links together major towns and cities.
The system of rail transport was invented in England and Wales, so the United Kingdom has the oldest railway network in the world. It was built mostly during the Victorian era. At the heart of the network are five long distance main lines which radiate from London to the major cities and secondary population centres with dense commuter networks within the regions. The newest part of the network connects London to the Channel Tunnel from St Pancras station. The British Rail network is part privatised, with privately owned train operating companies providing service along particular lines or regions, whilst the tracks, signals and stations are owned by a Government controlled company called Network Rail. In Northern Ireland the NI Railways is the national railway. The system of underground railways in London, known as the Tube, has been copied by many other cities.
Most domestic air travel in the United Kingdom is between London and the major cities in Scotland and the North of England and Belfast. London-Heathrow is the nation’s largest airport and is one of the most important international hubs in the world. Other major airports with principal international service include London-Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. An extensive system of ferry networks operates.
Major languages spoken in the United Kingdom other than English include Polish (500,000 approximate number of speakers in the United Kingdom), Eastern Panjabi or Punjabi (471,000), Bengali (400,000), Urdu (400,000), Cantonese (300,000), Greek (200,000), Southwestern Caribbean Creole English (170,000).
Native languages include:
Brittonic or Bythonic languages
Goidelic or Gaelic languages
- An alternative variant of the Royal coat of arms is used in Scotland: [click to view image].
- There is no authorised version of the national anthem as the words are a matter of tradition; only the first verse is usually sung. No law was passed making "God Save the Queen" the official anthem. In the English tradition, such laws are not necessary; proclamation and usage are sufficient to make it the national anthem. "God Save the Queen" also serves as the Royal anthem for certain Commonwealth realms. The words Queen, she, her, used at present (in the reign of Elizabeth II), are replaced by King, he, him when the monarch is male.
- Under the Council of Europe's European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, Scots, Ulster Scots, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish Gaelic and Irish are officially recognised as regional or minority languages by the British Government for the purposes of the Charter. In addition, the Government provides some services and publishes documents in Welsh. See also Languages of the United Kingdom.
- "This category could include Polish responses from the country specific question for Scotland which would have been outputted to ‘Other White’ and then included under ‘White’ for UK ... ‘White Africans’ may also have been recorded under ‘Other White’ and then included under ‘White’ for UK."
- European Union since 1993.
- Some of the devolved countries, Crown dependencies and British Overseas Territories issue their own sterling banknotes or currencies, or use another nation's currency. See List of British currencies for more information
- This excludes some of the UK's dependencies. See Time in the United Kingdom#British territories
- Except two overseas territories, Gibraltar and the British Indian Ocean Territory.
- Excludes most overseas territories
- The .eu domain is also used, as it is shared with other European Union member states. Other TLDs are used regionally
- "National Anthem". Official web site of the British Royal Family. 15 January 2016. Retrieved 4 June 2016.
- "List of declarations made with respect to treaty No. 148". Council of Europe. Retrieved 12 December 2013.
- "Welsh language on GOV.UK – Content design: planning, writing and managing content – Guidance". www.gov.uk. Retrieved 3 August 2018.
- "Welsh language scheme". GOV.UK. Retrieved 3 August 2018.
- "Welsh language scheme". GOV.UK. Retrieved 3 August 2018.
- "UNdata | record view | Population by religion, sex and urban/rural residence". data.un.org. Retrieved 13 October 2018.
- Philby, Charlotte (12 December 2012). "Less religious and more ethnically diverse: Census reveals a picture of Britain today". The Independent. London.
- "Demographic Yearbook – Table 3: Population by sex, rate of population increase, surface area and density" (PDF). United Nations Statistics Division. 2012. Retrieved 9 August 2015. Cite journal requires
- "2011 UK censuses". Office for National Statistics. Retrieved 17 December 2012.
- "2018 Human Development Report". United Nations Development Programme. 2018. Retrieved 14 September 2018.
- See Date and time notation in the United Kingdom.
- Population estimates – Office for National Statistics U.K. www.ons.gov.uk. 
- "Languages across Europe: United Kingdom". BBC. Retrieved 4 February 2013.
- "BBC - History: British History in-depth". www.bbc.co.uk.
- By 'modern people' is meant our own species. Earlier species of man had lived in this area.
- English Heritage. "Stonehenge and Avebury: A World Heritage Site". Retrieved 21 June 2011.
- Branigan, Keith, 1980, Roman Britain: Life in an Imperial Province, Readers Digest, pp12-16
- Oxford English Dictionary: "British Isles: a geographical term for the islands comprising Great Britain and Ireland with all their offshore islands including the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands".
- "Countries within a country". Prime Minister's Office. 10 January 2003. Archived from the original on 9 September 2008. Retrieved 8 March 2015.
- "Climate change: UK government to commit to 2050 target". BBC News. 12 June 2019. Retrieved 20 March 2021.
- Gordon, Raymond G. Jr. (ed) 2005. "Languages of the UK". Ethnologue: languages of the world, 15th ed,. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)