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United Kingdom


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Though a leading member of the EU, the UK also tries to align itself closely with the USA

Scotland, England, and Wales, together with Northern Ireland make up the state that is the United Kingdom (UK). The first three are also referred to as Great Britain. Of the four, Scotland in the north is the most mountainous, though to the west Wales too has an often rugged landscape, and there are lower mountain ranges in England, mostly in the north. The lowlands and plains that make up around half the UK's territory have rich soil and a temperate climate that allow productive agriculture.

Over 80% of the population are English. The Scottish, Welsh, and Irish, however, tend to have stronger national identities, including their own languages—though these are spoken by only a small minority. The UK has also received immigrants from former colonies—in the 1950s and 1960s from the Caribbean, and later from Africa and South Asia. Ethnic minorities make up around 8% of the population; they are exposed to racism and are poorer than average.

The British still benefit from the egalitarian welfare state created after the Second World War, though health and education services have now come under financial pressure. Meanwhile inequality is rising: the richest 1% of population owns 21% of the wealth. There are also regional contrasts: wages in the South East are 20% higher than elsewhere.

The UK was the cradle of the industrial revolution, but nowadays manufacturing industry accounts for only 14% of GDP and some industries, such as coal, have virtually disappeared. British industry was boosted in the 1960s and 1970s by the discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea though by 2005, as oil production fell, the country once again had become a net oil importer. The UK has also been an attractive base for multinational companies and has been one of the world's largest recipients of foreign investment.

Agriculture accounts for less than 1% of GDP and 1.4% of the workforce, but it is highly productive and grows around two-thirds of national needs. Outbreaks of ‘mad-cow’ and foot and mouth diseases and the use of genetically modified crops have, however, undermined confidence in intensive farming. The fishing industry supplies two-thirds of UK needs.

The UK has a very diverse service sector. This includes a leading global financial centre in the City of London which was hard hit by the global financial crisis. The UK is also the world's fifth most popular tourist destination. The tourist industry employs two million people, bringing in 33 million foreign visitors and $37 billion annually.

The UK is a constitutional monarchy ruled since 1952 by Queen Elizabeth II. For the past 60 years, British politics has been the preserve of two main parties: the pro-business Conservative Party and the trade union-backed Labour Party, with the party now called the Liberal Democrats some way behind.

Thatcher's legacy

The most radical government was the 1979–90 Conservative administration of Margaret Thatcher, which privatized many state-owned enterprises and broke the power of the trade unions. Thatcher's popularity peaked with victory over Argentina in the Falklands War in 1982 but she eventually alienated too many people and in 1990 was replaced by John Major, who surprisingly won the 1994 general election. In 1997, however, Major suffered a crushing electoral defeat.

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Subjects: History.


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