The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (abbreviated as the UK or the United Kingdom) is a constitutional monarchy that spans the majority of the British Isles. It is a political union comprised of four nations: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, each of which offers something distinct and interesting to the traveler while being unmistakably British.
The United Kingdom is a mix of indigenous and immigrant cultures, with an intriguing past and vibrant contemporary attractions. This is a nation renowned for its quirky and rebellious popular culture, for inventing five main sports (golf, rugby football, cricket, lawn tennis, and, of course, association football), and for possessing perhaps the world’s finest music scene. Thousands of years of history are on display. Stone rings, castles, thatched cottages, and palaces; these islands encapsulate the essence of the past.
London is the capital and biggest city, a genuinely global metropolis unlike any other, and many of the country’s smaller cities are also worth seeing. To appreciate their enormous variety, contrast elegant Oxford with gloomy Edinburgh, gentrifying Manchester, sports-mad Cardiff, Birmingham’s cultural melting pot, or freshly flourishing Belfast, while keeping in mind that this is just the tip of the iceberg. While Britannia no longer controls the seas, it retains a tremendous amount of influence in the broader globe, with over 30 million tourists each year.
Whether you want to walk in the footsteps of giants in Antrim, immerse yourself in Celtic culture at Eisteddfod, pound the streets of an English urban jungle, climb, ski, or snowboard in the Cairngorms-style, or simply fantasize about having tea with the Queen, the United Kingdom has something for everyone.
The United Kingdom occupies the whole of the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland and most of the other British Isles. It is important to recall that the Republic of Ireland is a country completely separate from the United Kingdom, which seceded from the Union and gained independence in 1922. The Isle of Man and the various Channel Islands are dependencies of the Crown, which govern themselves through their own legislatures with the consent of the Crown. These dependencies are not part of the UK or the EU, but neither are they fully sovereign nations in their own right. The United Kingdom’s closest neighbours are Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The Union is made up of four constituent nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each nation has its own capital: in Scotland it is Edinburgh, in Wales it is Cardiff, and in Northern Ireland it is Belfast, while London is the capital of England as well as the entire UK.
The “Great” within Great Britain comes from the fact that it is the largest of the British Isles, and also to distinguish it from another, smaller “Great Britain”, which is Brittany in the north-west of France. This terminology has been used since the time of Ptolemy.
Geographically, “Great Britain” (“GB”) refers only to the largest island, i.e. Scotland, England and Wales combined. Great Britain became a political entity in 1707, after the union of the Scottish and English crowns. Ireland had become a papal possession in the 12th century, over which the English monarch held lordship. The English monarch paid tribute to the Roman Catholic Church, which was taken from the Irish people. The Irish seigneury became a kingdom in 1542 and entered into a political union with Britain in 1801 to form the United Kingdom. Its full title was then changed into ” United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland “. This term was changed to “…and Northern Ireland” when all but the six counties of Northern Ireland seceded from the Union in 1927, some five years after a treaty granted autonomy to the Irish. “Britain” has often been used as an alternative name for the United Kingdom. The Union Flag of the United Kingdom is commonly called “Union Jack”, even on land. It consists of the flags of St. George of England, St. Andrew of Scotland and the cross of St. Patrick of Ireland, superimposed. In England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the flags of each nation are used together. The flag with the St. Patrick’s Cross is often seen on St. Patrick’s Day in Northern Ireland. However, since the secession of the Republic of Ireland from the United Kingdom, the St. Patrick’s saltire is no longer used for Northern Ireland as it represents the island of Ireland as a whole, but the flag still represents Northern Ireland within the Union Jack. In the 1920s a flag was designed for Northern Ireland, known as the “Ulster Banner” or simply “the flag of Northern Ireland”. It was based on the flag of Ulster and was similar in appearance to the flag of the St George’s Cross of England, but included an Ulster Red Hand and a crown. Although the use of the flag was controversial during the so-called Troubles (from the late 1960s), it can still be seen in Northern Ireland, particularly by Unionists and at sporting events. Since Wales had been politically integrated into the English kingdom for centuries before the creation of the United Kingdom, the Welsh flag was not incorporated into the Union Jack. The flag of Wales signifies a red dragon on a green and white field.
Both the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have their own democratic governments, laws and courts and are not part of the EU. Nor are they fully sovereign, being under the control of the British Crown, which chooses to entrust the British government with the management of defence and foreign affairs. Individuals are British citizens but, unless they are directly related to the UK by a parent or have lived in the UK for at least five years, they do not have the same rights to work or live elsewhere in the EU.
Overseas Territories and Commonwealth countries
They are also not constitutionally part of the United Kingdom, but are for the most part former colonies of the British Empire. All Commonwealth countries are independent, although some (e.g. Australia, Canada, New Zealand), known as ‘Commonwealth Realms’, still have the same monarch as the UK as head of state. The Overseas Territories tend to enjoy a degree of self-government, although some are still under the control of the UK Government (mainly for foreign affairs and defence), and their citizens still have British citizenship, although with the exception of Gibraltar, they are not part of the European Union and their citizens do not have the same right to work or reside in the rest of the EU, unless there are special circumstances. The British monarch continues to be the “Head of the Commonwealth”, although this position is purely symbolic and carries no real power. Citizens of Commonwealth countries that are not overseas territories or EU countries are subject to roughly the same entry and immigration rules as other non-EU citizens.
Referring to nationality
Be careful when referring to British citizens as “English” as this may not be accurate and may even be considered an insult in some situations. Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish are not originally from England. If you need to refer to a person’s nationality, using the term ‘British’ will make you feel safe and not likely to offend you, and you may be asked to use the more precise terms ‘English’, ‘Northern Irish’, ‘Welsh’ or ‘Scottish’. To be even safer, you can simply ask someone from which part of the UK they are from.
This is particularly important in Northern Ireland. Irish nationalists may avoid referring to Northern Ireland and refer instead to the ‘Six Counties’ or ‘North’, or they may refer to ‘Ireland’ as a whole. The term ‘Northern Ireland’ is less offensive, while referring to a person from Northern Ireland as ‘British’ or ‘Irish’ may be offensive, depending on political ideology.
Although it is only one county in England, the issue of identity in Cornwall is sensitive for some people and it is best to refer to everyone you meet in Cornwall as ‘Cornish’.
As a foreign visitor, you are unlikely to commit a serious offence. At worst, you will get a bit of a show off and a statement of nationality, such as “I am not English”. I am Scottish”.
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy whose reigning monarch (Queen Elizabeth II) is the nominal head of state – the usual phrase is “Her Majesty reigns but does not rule”. It has the original bicameral parliament: the House of Commons, as it is called, traditionally represents the people. It is elected by the people and is responsible for proposing new laws. The House of Lords, known as the House of Commons, traditionally represents the nobility and mainly reviews and amends laws proposed by the House of Commons. The House of Lords is unelected and consists of hereditary peers, whose membership is guaranteed by the birthright, life peers, who are appointed by the Queen, and Spiritual Lords, who are bishops of the Church of England. Usually the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons, is the Prime Minister, which is the head of government. Each constituency elects a local Member of Parliament (MP) who then goes to the House of Commons to debate and vote. In practice, the Queen’s role is essentially ceremonial, and the Prime Minister has the greatest authority in government, although all bills passed by both Houses of Parliament require Royal Assent by the Queen (which she can theoretically refuse) before becoming law. In recent British politics, there have generally been two dominant parties: the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, the latter being the only party in government since May 2015 after a five-year coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Majority voting ensures that smaller parties are only represented in Westminster if they have a strong local support base, such as the Scottish or Welsh Nationalists and parties of all stripes on the Northern Ireland issue, while non-majority parties with national support such as the Liberal Democrats, the Greens or UKIP fight for seats in proportion to their share of the vote, if at all.
In addition, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have their own elected parliaments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Each of these devolved governments has a First Minister and varying degrees of power over the internal affairs of their country, including the passing of laws. The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, for example, exercises power and passes laws on almost every subject in Scotland. In those areas where it is in power, the British government has no role to play. As a result, institutions and systems can differ radically between the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom. England does not have a similar body, as all government comes from Westminster.
There are also local government authorities responsible for services at local level, which vary considerably in size and remit across the UK. Some of these local authorities cover only individual towns (e.g. Cardiff) or even parts of towns (e.g. London Borough of Islington), while others cover whole counties (e.g. Northumberland) or large regions (e.g. the Scottish Highlands).
Using maps and postcodes
Most of the mapping is carried out by the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain (OSGB) and the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland, and most maps use this data. Ordnance Survey grid references are often used in guides and other sources of information. They are usually in the form of two capital letters followed by a 6-digit number (e.g. SU921206), and allow you to quickly find any location on a map. If you use a GPS, set it to the British National Grid (BNG) and the OSGB reference system.
The Ordnance Survey maps at 1:50,000 or 1:25,000 scale are surprisingly detailed and show contours, public rights of way and access areas. They are practically indispensable for activities such as walking and, in rural areas, they show individual farm buildings and (on a larger scale) field boundaries.
Another company, Harvey Maps, produces specialised maps for outdoor activities such as walking, climbing and mountain biking. These are studied independently of the OSGB, although they use the same grid reference system. They cover only a selection of popular locations. They have certain advantages over OSGB maps: they are printed on an impermeable material, they are scaled according to the requirements of the activity and the location (up to 1:12500 for complex mountainous areas) and they contain less intrusive detail that is not relevant to the specific activities for which they are designed.
Each postal address has a postcode, either unique or shared with its immediate neighbours. UK postcodes are in the form (AAnn nAA), where AA stands for 2 or 1 letters representing the town or geographical area, immediately followed by a 1 or 2 digit number nn representing the district, a space, then a number and 2 letters nAA. Most Internet mapping services allow you to locate places by postcode. Because of London’s huge size and population, there is a distinct variation of the postcode system where the city code AA is replaced by an area code indicating the geographical part of the city – for example N=North, WC=West Central, EC=East Central, SW=South West; and so on.
The United Kingdom’s total area is approximately 243,610 km² (94,060 sq. mi.). The country occupies most of the British Isles and includes the Isle of Great Britain, the sixth northeast of the Isle of Ireland and some smaller surrounding islands. It is situated between the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, with its south-east coast less than 22 miles (35 km) from the coast of northern France, from which it is separated by the English Channel. In 1993, 10% of the UK was forested, 46% was used for pasture and 25% was cultivated for agriculture. The Royal Greenwich Observatory in London is the reference point for the prime meridian.
The United Kingdom is located between latitudes 49° and 61° N and longitudes 9° W and 2° E. Northern Ireland borders the Republic of Ireland with 360 km of land border. UK’s coastline is 17,820 km long. It is linked to continental Europe by the Channel Tunnel, which is the longest underwater tunnel in the world at 50 km (31 miles) deep.
England represents over half of the total area of the United Kingdom with a total surface area of 130,395 km2 (50,350 sq. mi.). The majority of the country is flat, with a mountainous area to the north-west of the Tees-Exe line. The main rivers and estuaries are the Thames, Severn and Humber. The highest mountain in England is the Scafell Pike (978 metres) in the Lake District. The main rivers are the Severn, Thames, Humber, Tees, Tyne, Tweed, Avon, Exe and Mersey.
Scotland represents a little less than one third of the entire United Kingdom with an area of 78,772 km2 , which includes approximately 800 islands, most of which are to the west and north of the continent, including the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. Scotland is the most mountainous country in the UK, and its topography is shaped by the Highland Boundary Fault – a geological rock fault – which runs through Scotland stretching from Arran on the west side to Stonehaven on the east side. The fault separates two distinctly different regions, the Highlands to the north and west and the Lowlands to the south and east. Most of Scotland’s mountainous terrain is located in the rugged Highlands region, which includes Ben Nevis, the highest point in the British Isles at 1,343 metres. The plains – particularly the narrow strip of land between the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth known as the Central Belt – are flatter and home to most of the population, including Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, and Edinburgh, the country’s capital and political centre, although the highlands and mountains are in the Southern Uplands.
Wales represents less than one tenth of the total area of the United Kingdom, with a surface area of 20,779 square kilometres. Wales is predominantly mountainous, with South Wales being less mountainous than North and Central Wales. The main industrial and population areas are in South Wales, consisting of the coastal towns of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, and the valleys of South Wales to the north. The highest mountains in Wales are in Snowdonia and include Snowdon (in Welsh: Yr Wyddfa), which at 1,085 metres is the highest peak in Wales. The 14 or perhaps 15 Welsh mountains over 910 metres high are known as the Welsh of the 2000s. Wales has 2,704 kilometres of coastline.
Northern Ireland, which is separated from Great Britain through the Irish Sea as well as the Northern Channel, covers a surface area of 14,160 km2 and is predominantly hilly. Northern Ireland includes Lough Neagh, which is the largest lake in the British Isles by area (388 square kilometres). The highest mountain in Northern Ireland is the Slieve Donard in the Mourne Mountains at 852 metres.
Every ten years a census is carried out simultaneously in all parts of the UK. The Office for National Statistics is responsible for data collection for England and Wales, the General Register Office for Scotland and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency are each responsible for censuses in their own countries. At the time of the 2011 Census, the total population of the United Kingdom was 63,181,775. The United Kingdom is the 3rd biggest country in the EU, 5th in the Commonwealth and 22nd in the world. In mid-2014 and mid-2015, long-term net international migration contributed further to population growth. In mid-2012 and mid-2013, natural changes contributed most to population growth. Between 2001 and 2011, the population grew at an average annual rate of about 0.7%. The 2011 Census also confirmed that the proportion of the population aged 0 to 14 years almost halved (31% in 1911 versus 18% in 2011) and that the proportion of people aged 65 and older more than tripled (from 5% to 16%). It is estimated that the number of people over the age of 100 will increase sharply, reaching more than 626,000 by 2080.
England’s population has been estimated at 53 million in 2011. It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with 420 people per square kilometre in mid-2015. particularly highly concentrated in London as well as in the south-east. At the time of the 2011 census, Scotland had 5.3 million inhabitants, Wales 3.06 million and Northern Ireland 1.81 million. In percentage terms, England had the fastest population growth of any country in the UK between 2001 and 2011, with an increase of 7.9 per cent.
In 2012, the average total fertility rate (TFR) in the UK was 1.92 children per woman. Although the rising birth rate is contributing to current population growth, it is still well below the peak of the 1964 ‘baby boom’ (2.95 children per woman), below the replacement rate of 2.1, but higher than the record rate of 1.63 in 2001. The lowest TFR in 2012 was recorded in Scotland (1.67), which was followed by Wales (1.88), in England (1.94) and in Northern Ireland (2.03). 47.3% of births in the UK during 2011 involved unmarried women. According to a government estimate, the UK has an estimated 3.6 million homosexuals, representing 6% of the population.
Historically, it is believed that the first inhabitants of Great Britain are descended from the different ethnic groups that settled here before the 11th century: Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Norwegians and Normans. The Welsh are perhaps the oldest ethnic group in Britain. A 2006 genetic study shows that more than 50% of the gene pool of the English contains Germanic Y chromosomes. Another 2005 genetic analysis shows that “around 75% of the traceable ancestors of the modern British population arrived in the British Isles around 6,200 years ago, in the early British Neolithic or Stone Age.
The UK has a history of minor non-white immigration, with Liverpool having the oldest black population in the country, dating back at least to the 1730s, at the time of the African slave trade, and the oldest Chinese community in Europe, dating back to the arrival of Chinese sailors in the 19th century. In 1950, there were probably less than 20,000 non-white residents in Britain, almost all of whom were foreign-born.
Considerable immigration since 1948 from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia is a legacy of the ties established by the British Empire. Immigration from the new EU Member States in Central and Eastern Europe since 2004 has led to an increase in these populations, although some of this immigration is temporary. Since the 1990s, the immigrant population has become considerably more diverse, with immigrants to the UK coming from a much wider range of countries than in previous waves, which tended to see more immigrants from a relatively small number of countries.
Academics have argued that the ethnicity categories used in UK statistics, first introduced in the 1991 Census, imply confusion between the concepts of ethnicity and race. In 2011, 87.2 per cent of the British population identified themselves as white, meaning that 12.8 per cent of the British population identified themselves as belonging to one of the many ethnic minority groups. At the time of the 2001 Census, this figure was 7.9 per cent of the British population.
Due to differences in the wording of census forms in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, data on the ‘Other White’ group is not available for the UK as a whole, but in England and Wales this group grew fastest between the 2001 and 2011 Censuses, increasing by 1.1 million (1.8 percentage points). Among the groups for which comparable data are available for all regions of the United Kingdom, the category “Other Asians” grew significantly, from 0.4 per cent to 1.4 per cent of the population between 2001 and 2011. In 2001, people in this category represented 1.2 per cent of the UK population; by 2011, this proportion was 2 per cent.
Ethnic diversity varies considerably across the UK. In 2005, it was estimated that 30.4 % of London’s population and 37.4 % of Leicester’s population were non-white, while according to the 2001 Census, less than 5 % of the population in North-East England, Wales and the South-West had ethnic minority backgrounds. In 2011, 26.5 % of primary school pupils and 22.2 % of secondary school pupils in public schools in England were members of an ethnic minority.
|White: Gypsy/Traveller/Irish Traveller||63,193||0.1|
|Asian/Asian British: Indian||1,451,862||2.3|
|Asian/Asian British: Pakistani||1,174,983||1.9|
|Asian/Asian British: Bangladeshi||451,529||0.7|
|Asian/Asian British: Chinese||433,150||0.7|
|Asian/Asian British: Other Asian||861,815||1.4|
|Mixed/multiple ethnic groups||1,250,229||2.0|
|Other ethnic group||580,374||0.9|
Forms of Christianity have now dominated religious life in the UK for over 1400 years. Although in many surveys a majority of citizens still identify with Christianity, regular church attendance has declined dramatically since the mid-20th century, while immigration and demographic change have contributed to the growth of other religions, notably Islam.
In the 2001 Census, 71.6 % of respondents said they were Christian, with the most prevalent other religions being Islam (2.8 %), Hinduism (1.0 %), Sikhism (0.6 %), Judaism (0.5 %). 15% of the respondents said they had no religion, and 7% said they had no religious preferences. A 2007 Tearfund survey showed that only one in ten Britons actually attend church each week. Between the 2001 and 2011 censuses, the number of people reporting that they are Christian fell by 12%, while the proportion of people reporting no religious affiliation doubled. On the other hand, the number of other traditional religious groups increased, with the number of Muslims increasing the most, by around 5% overall. The Muslim population increased from 1.6 million in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2011, making it the second largest religious group in the UK.
In a survey on religious affiliation carried out in 2015 by the BSA (British Social Attitudes), 49% of respondents said they belonged to “no religion”, while 42% declared themselves to be Christian, followed by 8% who indicated belonging to other religions (e.g. Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, etc.). Among Christians, the followers of the Church of England accounted for 17%, the Roman Catholic Church – 8%, other Christians (including Presbyterians, Methodists, other Protestants, as well as Eastern Orthodox) – 17%. Among the other religions, Islam accounted for 5%.
The Church of England is represented in the British Parliament and the British monarch is its supreme governor. The Church of Scotland is recognised as the national church in Scotland. It is not subject to state control and the British monarch is a full member. Upon accession to the throne, he must take an oath “to preserve and maintain the Protestant religion and the government of the Presbyterian Church”. The Church of Wales was dissolved in 1920, and as the Church of Ireland was dissolved in 1870 before the partition of Ireland, there is no established Church in Northern Ireland. Although there are no UK-wide data on membership of different Christian denominations in the 2001 Census, it is estimated that 62% of Christians are Anglican, 13.5% Catholic, 6% Presbyterian, 3.4% Methodist and a small number of other Protestant denominations such as the Open Brethren and Orthodox churches.