The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (commonly known as the United Kingdom, the UK, or Britain) is a sovereign state located off the northwestern coast of continental Europe. It is an island country spanning an archipelago including Great Britain, the northeastern part of Ireland, and many small islands. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with a land border, sharing it with the Republic of Ireland. Apart from this land border, the UK is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, the English Channel and the Irish Sea. The largest island, Great Britain, is linked to France by the Channel Tunnel.
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy and unitary state consisting of four countries: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It is governed by a parliamentary system with its seat of government in London, the capital, but with three devolved national administrations in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh, the capitals of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland respectively. The Channel Island bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey, and the Isle of Man are Crown Dependencies and not part of the UK. The UK has fourteen overseas territories, all remnants of the British Empire, which at its height in 1922 encompassed almost a quarter of the world’s land surface, the largest empire in history. British influence can continue to be observed in the language, culture and legal systems of many of its former colonies.
Geography and Climate
The total area of the United Kingdom is approximately 245,000 square kilometres (94,600 sq mi) comprising of the island of Great Britain, the northeastern one-sixth of the island of Ireland (Northern Ireland) and smaller islands. It lies between the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, coming within 35 kilometres (22 mi) of the northwest coast of France, from which it is separated by the English Channel. Great Britain lies between latitudes 49° and 59° N (the Shetland Islands reach to nearly 61° N), and longitudes 8° W to 2° E. The Royal Greenwich Observatory, near London, is the defining point of the Prime Meridian. When measured directly north-south, Great Britain is a little over 1,100 kilometres (700 mi) in length and is a fraction under 500 kilometres (300 mi) at its widest, but the greatest distance between two points is 1,350 kilometres (840 mi) between Land’s End in Cornwall (near Penzance) and John o’ Groats in Caithness (near Thurso). Northern Ireland shares a 360-kilometre (224 mi) land boundary with the Republic of Ireland.
The United Kingdom has a temperate climate, with plentiful rainfall all year round. The temperature varies with the seasons but seldom drops below -10 °C (14.0 °F) or rises above 35 °C (95 °F). The prevailing wind is from the southwest, bearing frequent spells of mild and wet weather from the Atlantic Ocean. Eastern parts are most sheltered from this wind and are therefore the driest. Atlantic currents, warmed by the Gulf Stream, bring mild winters, especially in the west, where winters are wet, especially over high ground. Summers are warmest in the south east of England, being closest to the European mainland, and coolest in the north. Snowfall can occur in winter and early spring, though it rarely settles to great depth away from high ground.
Culture and Society
At the most recent census in 2001, the total population of the United Kingdom was 58,789,194, the third largest in the European Union, the fifth largest in the Commonwealth and the twenty-first largest in the world. By mid-2007, this was estimated to have grown to 60,975,000.
The present day population of the UK is descended from varied ethnic stocks, mainly pre-Celtic, Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Norman. Since 1945, substantial immigration from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia has been a legacy of ties forged by the British Empire. Migration from new EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe since 2004 has resulted in growth in these population groups, but, as of 2008, the trend is reversing and many of these migrants are returning home, leaving the size of these groups unknown. As of 2001, 92.1% of the population identified themselves as White, leaving 7.9% of the UK population identifying themselves as mixed race or ethnic minority.
The culture of the United Kingdom—British culture— may be described as informed by its history as a developed island country, major power, and also as a political union of four countries, with each preserving elements of distinctive traditions, customs and symbolism. As a result of the British Empire, British influence can be observed in the language, culture and legal systems of many of its former colonies such as Canada, Australia, India, and the United States.
The UK does not have an official language but the predominant spoken language is English, a West Germanic language descended from Old English which features a large number of borrowings from Old Norse, Norman French and Latin. There are also four Celtic languages in use in the UK: Welsh, Irish Gaelic (generally just referred to as Irish), Scottish Gaelic and Cornish.
Christianity is the major religion, followed by Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and then Judaism in terms of number of adherents
The UK has a parliamentary government based on the Westminster system that has been emulated around the world — a legacy of the British Empire. The Parliament of the United Kingdom that meets in the Palace of Westminster has two houses: an elected House of Commons and an appointed House of Lords, and any Bill passed requires Royal Assent to become law. It is the ultimate legislative authority in the United Kingdom since the devolved parliament in Scotland and devolved assemblies in Northern Ireland, and Wales are not sovereign bodies and could be abolished by the UK parliament despite being established following public approval as expressed in referenda.
The position of Prime Minister, the UK’s head of government, belongs to the Member of Parliament who can obtain the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons, usually the current leader of the largest political party in that chamber. The Prime Minister and Cabinet are formally appointed by the Monarch to form Her Majesty’s Government, though the Prime Minister chooses the Cabinet, and by convention HM The Queen respects the Prime Minister’s choices. The Cabinet is traditionally drawn from members of the Prime Minister’s party in both legislative houses, and mostly from the House of Commons, to which they are responsible. Executive power is exercised by the Prime Minister and Cabinet, all of whom are sworn into Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, and become Ministers of the Crown
Education in the UK is mandatory from ages five to sixteen. The majority of children are educated in state-sector schools, only a small proportion of which select on the grounds of academic ability. Despite a fall in actual numbers, the proportion of children in England attending private schools has risen to over 7%. Just over half of students at the leading universities of Cambridge and Oxford had attended state schools. State schools which are allowed to select pupils according to intelligence and academic ability can achieve comparable results to the most selective private schools: out of the top ten performing schools in terms of GCSE results in 2006 two were state-run grammar schools. England has some of the top universities in the world; University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, Imperial College London and University College London are ranked in the global top 10 in the 2008 THES – QS World University Rankings. Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) rated pupils in England 7th in the world for Maths, and 6th for Science. The results put England’s pupils ahead of other European countries, including Germany and Scandinavian countries.
Healthcare in the United Kingdom is a devolved matter and England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have separate systems with different policies and priorities. Healthcare in England is mainly provided by the National Health Service which today covers just England though originally it covered England and Wales.
Major sports including association football, rugby football, cricket, tennis and golf originated, or were substantially developed, in the United Kingdom and the states that preceded it. A 2006 poll found that football is the most popular sport in the United Kingdom.
In international competitions, separate teams represent England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in most team sports, as well as at the Commonwealth Games. (In sporting contexts, these teams can be referred to collectively as the Home Nations.) However, there are occasions where a single sports team represents the United Kingdom, including at the Olympics where the UK is represented by the Great Britain team.