The United Kingdom (U.K.), located in Eastern Europe, is comprised of three countries: England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The three are run by a single government called “Parliament” located in London, England. Despite having been run by a single monarchy since the 1600s, the U.K. was not formally established until 1707, when England and Scotland agreed to a political union. It was not until 1800 that Ireland joined the union. Although united, the three countries maintain separate laws, churches and educational systems.
History of the United Kingdom
Over the centuries the U.K. expanded its territories to North America, Africa and India, at one point controlling a fourth of the world. The U.K.’s biggest rival was the French, and for centuries the two battled each other over possession of French lands and for the title of being the leading world power. The largest and most-decisive battle between the rivals was the Seven Years War, which was fought on six different continents. The War ended in 1763, with France losing all presence in North America.
Because of its size, the U.K. began to have difficulty ruling its distant territories. In 1783 the U.K. officially recognized thirteen former British colonies, now the United States, as independent states. At this point the U.K. focused on controlling its colonies on other continents, mainly India. This led to the establishment of the East India Company, which quickly became a major trade company of the world. France and the U.K. again fought in the 19th Century, when the French ruler Napoleon occupied many British colonies. The two would remain at war for twenty years.
Throughout its history the U.K. has been a constitutional monarchy. Over time, however, this monarchy evolved into a democracy. One of the major incidents in the destruction of the constitutional monarchy was the beheading of King Charles I. The U.K. was subsequently turned into a Commonwealth governed by Oliver Cromwell. In 1660 the monarchy was reestablished when the son of Charles I was declared King Charles II.
During the Victorian Era (1837-1901), many British socio-economic changes attempted to bridge the gap between wealth and poverty. This period was characterized by an austere lifestyle. This lifestyle, however, changed when, in 1901, Edward VII assumed the throne. However, this era would be quite short, lasting only until 1910, when Edward died and George V was crowned. The Industrial Revolution, occurring both in Edward and George’s reigns, further changed the economic and political structure of the country.
During World War I the U.K. sided with France and Russia. Ireland seceded from the U.K. in 1922, but the following day a portion of the country rejoined the union. Because of this, the union’s name was changed to include only Northern Ireland. In World War II the U.K. joined the allied powers. Today, the U.K. remains one of the most influential powers in the world.
Government and Politics
Today, the U.K. has both a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy system of government, both of which are located in London. While the British Royal Crown is the head of state, it has no real power and is only ceremonial. The Prime Minister is responsible for leading Parliament and is not limited in the number of terms he or she can serve. The Prime Minister is the leader of whichever of the three political parties in the country holding the most parliamentary seats.
There are three main political parties in the U.K.: Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat. Either the Labour or Conservative Parties have held the most seats in Parliament since the 1920s. The Liberal Democrat party tends to be the most left-wing of all the three and, unlike the other two parties, it espouses libertarianism. The Labour Party and Conservative Parties both support a more authoritarian view of government, but the Labour Party is less traditional than the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party is sometimes referred to as the “Tory Party”, the name the group dropped after merging with another political group in 1912.
Geography and Economy
The U.K. is comprised of three islands: England, which includes Wales, the northern part of Ireland and Scotland. Of the four islands, England is the largest. In total, the Kingdom consists of more than 94,000 square miles. While there are many lakes and rivers in the U.K., the most well-known is the River Thames, upon which shores sits London. The easternmost boundary of the U.K. lies upon the English Channel, across which is France. In Scotland, the terrain is slightly mountainous, but overall is rather flat.
The U.K.’s economy is the sixth largest in the world. The official currency is the pound sterling, but Scotland and Northern Ireland possess the right to issue different currency. London is widely recognized as one of the leading economies in the world, and is a major financial center. The majority of the U.K.’s economy is based on service, particularly financial services. Last year the unemployment rate was reported at approximately 8%.
British culture abounds with famous writers and actors. William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Rudyard Kipling are a few authors whose works are world-renowned. Playwrights George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde changed theatre forever with their revolutionary stories. Music groups, such as the Beatles, transformed traditional music forms.
While similar in many ways, the cultures of England, Northern Ireland and Scotland have each leant different aspects of their traditions to British culture. Today, the majority of the country is Protestant. Education is provided free to all individuals, so attending college or university is common. Favorite sports include rugby, soccer and cricket. Each year England hosts the major tennis tournament “Wimbledon” in the town of the same name.
The Union Jack
The “Union Jack” is not a person, but rather the nickname of the official flag of the United Kingdom. The “union” aspect of the flag derives from the reign of King James I of Scotland, who simultaneously ruled England, Scotland and Ireland. To represent this merger, the flag consists of three crosses, one from each country. The English cross is that of St. George; it is red, is placed in the center of the flag and lies horizontally and vertically like a traditional cross. The Scottish cross is that of St. Andrew; it is white and lies diagonally. The Irish cross is that of St. Patrick; this cross, too, lies diagonally on the flag, but it is red. All three flags fuse at the center of the flag. The design used today dates from 1801.
Because the U.K. is so diverse, it offers a wide variety of travel options. Because of its museums, theatres and historical sites, London is a major tourist destination in England. Other London cities of Bath and Windsor are also favorite visiting spots. In Scotland, Edinburgh and Glasgow are major tourist destinations for their historical chapels and churches.
Visitors, however, are not merely limited to visiting historical British landmarks. The London Eye takes riders on a slow trip to the London skies, where the entire city is visible. Museums provide glimpses of famous paintings and sculptures. Harrods, largely considered to be the world’s largest store, makes an afternoon of browsing ridiculously fun. Whatever a tourist wants, chances are good that the U.K. has just that.
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