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The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (commonly known as the United Kingdom, the UK, or Britain) is a state located off the northwestern coast of mainland Europe. It comprises the island of Great Britain, the north-east part of the island 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 which became independent in 1922. Apart from this land border, the UK is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, the English Channel and the Irish Sea.

The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy comprising four constituent countries-England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland-with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. She is also head of state of sixteen Commonwealth realms that are members of the Commonwealth of Nations of which she is also the head. The Crown Dependencies of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, are possessions of the Crown and have a federal relationship with the UK. The UK has fourteen overseas territories which are remnants of the British Empire, which at its height encompassed almost a quarter of the world's land surface. It is a developed country, with the fifth-largest economy in the world by nominal GDP.

Britain was the world's foremost power during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but the economic cost of two world wars and the decline of its empire in the latter half of the 20th century diminished its leading role in global affairs. The UK nevertheless retains major economic, cultural, military and political influence today and is a nuclear power, holds a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and is a member of the G8, NATO, the European Union and the Commonwealth of Nations.

The majority of British citizens identify themselves as Christian, however church attendance has become increasingly low. The UK also has a tradition of religious toleration which has developed over the past four hundred years. It is very common to find Anglican, Catholic, and non-conformist churches on the same street. Jews have been allowed to live and practice their religion freely in Britain for 350 years. Large communities of Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus have also been established as a result of immigration.

The United Kingdom is an interesting model for people concerned with promoting peace and cooperation. The basis of the union is not uniformity but loyalty to the reigning monarch. When England and Scotland united in 1705, Scotland as the junior partner continued to maintain its own separate judicial and legal system based on Scots Law which quite different to English Common Law; it kept its own church - the Presbyterian Church of Scotland; its school and university system have remained different and under Scottish control; and it kept its own currency issued by its own banks; and it has its own administration so that very few statistics are collected for the UK as a whole. Scotland is free to leave the United Kingdom if the people vote for independence in a referendum. The United Kingdom also has affiliated to it several islands - such as the Channel Islands and Isle of Man which have their own parliaments, laws, currencies, stamps, passports, and rules of residence. The relationships that Britain had with its colonies were also characterized by their diversity each tailored to suit the particular colony, its history and demography. The liberality with which Britain ruled its empire has meant that most of its former colonies still value their association with the mother country and have formed a Commonwealth, the largest association of democracies in the world.

The History of the formation of the United Kingdom is quite complicated. The relationships among its constituent parts has changed many times. The principality of Wales was joined to England in 1536 forming the Kingdom of England and Wales. In 1707 Scotland and England were united to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. In 1801 the Irish and British Parliaments were combined to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922 twenty six counties left the UK to form the Irish Free State, leaving the present formulation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Geography

Map of the United Kingdom.

Located primarily on the island of Great Britain and in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, the English Channel, the Celtic Sea and the Irish Sea. The mainland is linked to France by the Channel Tunnel and Northern Ireland shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland. It is estimated that the UK is made up of over 1000 small islands.

With a land area of 94,526 square miles (244,820 square kilometers), the United Kingdom is slightly smaller than Oregon in the United States. The greatest distance between two points on the UK mainland of Great Britain is 840 miles (1,350 km) between Land's End in Cornwall (near Penzance) and John O'Groats in Caithness (near Thurso), a two day journey by car. When measured directly north-south it is a little over 700 miles (1,100 km) in length and is a fraction under 300 miles (500 km) at its widest.

Most of England consists of rolling lowland terrain, with some mountainous terrain in the northwest (Cambrian Mountains of the Lake District) and north (the upland moors of the Pennines) and limestone hills of the Peak District.

Scotland's geography is varied, with lowlands in the south and east and highlands in the north and west, including Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles at 4,409 ft (1,344 meters). There are many long and deep-sea arms, firths, and lochs. Scotland has nearly 800 islands, mainly west and north of the mainland, notably the Hebrides, Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands.

Wales (Cymru in Welsh) is mostly mountainous, the highest peak being Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) at 3560 feet (1085 meters) above sea level. North of the mainland is the island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn). Northern Ireland, making up the north-eastern part of Ireland, is mostly hilly.

Newbury and surroundings on a fine summer's day.At 4409 feet, Ben Nevis is the highest peak in the UK.

The climate is generally temperate, though significantly warmer than some other locations at similar latitude, such as central Poland, due to the warming influence of the Gulf Stream. The south is warmer and drier than the north.

The prevailing winds are south-westerly, from the North Atlantic Current. More than 50 percent of the days are overcast. There can be strong winds and floods, especially in winter.

Average annual rainfall varies from over 120 inches (3000 millimeters) in the Scottish Highlands down to 21.8 inches (553mm) in Cambridge. The county of Essex is one of the driest in the UK, with an average annual rainfall of around 24 inches (600mm) although it typically rains on over 100 days per year.

The highest temperature recorded in the UK was 101.3°F (38.5°C) at Brogdale, near Faversham, in the county of Kent, on August 10, 2003. The lowest was -17.0°F (27.2°C) recorded at Braemar in the Grampian Mountains, Scotland, on February 11, 1895.

The longest river is the River Severn, at 220 miles (354km), which flows through both Wales and England. The largest lakes are: Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland (147.39 square miles), Loch Lomond in Scotland (27.46 square miles), Lake Windermere in England (5.69 square miles) and 14.74 km²), and Lake Vyrnwy in Wales 3.18 square miles.

The United Kingdom has an extensive system of canals, mostly built in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, before railways were built. There are numerous dams and water reservoirs to store water for drinking and industry. The generation of hydroelectric power is rather limited, supplying less than two percent of British electricity, mainly from the Scottish Highlands.

Originally, oak forests covered the lowlands, while pine forests and patches of moorland covered the higher or sandy ground. Most of the forests have been cleared for cultivation, fuel, construction and ship building so that by 2007, only about 9 percent of the total surface is wooded-in east and north of Scotland and in southeast England. Oak, ash and beech are the most common trees in England, while pine and birch are predominate in Scotland. Heather, grasses, gorse, and bracken are found on the moorlands.

Wolves, bears, boars, and reindeer are extinct, but red and roe deer are protected for sport. Foxes, hares, hedgehogs, rabbits, weasels, stoats, badgers, shrews, rats and mice are common, otters are found in many rivers, and seals appear along the coast. The chaffinch, blackbird, sparrow, and starling are the most numerous of the 230 species of birds there, and another 200 are migratory. Game birds-pheasants, partridges, and red grouse-are protected. The rivers and lakes contain salmon, trout, perch, pike, roach, dace, and grayling.

Agriculture is intensive, highly mechanized, and efficient by European standards, producing about 60 percent of food needs with only one percent of the labor force. It contributes around two percent of GDP. Around two thirds of production is devoted to livestock, and one third to arable crops. The UK has large reserves of coal, natural gas, and oil, as well as limestone, chalk, gypsum, silica, rock salt, china clay, iron ore, tin, silver, gold and lead. There is a lot of good quality arable land.

The United Kingdom is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It has met Kyoto Protocol target of a 12.5 percent reduction from 1990 levels and intends to meet the legally binding target of a 20 percent cut in emissions by 2010. Between 1998-1999 and 1999-2000, household recycling increased from 8.8 percent to 10.3 percent.

London is the capital city of England and the United Kingdom. It is made up of two cities: the ancient City of London which is the financial capital still enclosed by its tiny mediaeval boundaries; and the City of Westminster, which is much larger and is the political capital. London, with a population of 7.7 million, is one of the world's leading business, financial and cultural centers, and its influence in politics, education, entertainment, media, fashion and the arts all contribute to its status as one of the major global cities

Edinburgh, with a population of 448,624 in 2001, is the capital of Scotland, Cardiff, with a population of 380,000 in 2007, is the capital of Wales, and Belfast, with a population of 579,554 in 2001, is the capital of Northern Ireland.

History of the United Kingdom

The history of the formation of the United Kingdom is long and complex. England and Scotland have existed as separate sovereign and independent states with their own monarchs and political structures since the ninth century. The once independent Principality of Wales fell under the control of English monarchs from the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284. The Treaty of Union in 1706, ratified by the Acts of Union 1707, united the kingdoms of England (including Wales) and Scotland, which had been in personal union since the Union of the Crowns in 1603, agreed to a political union in the form of a united Kingdom of Great Britain. This United Kingdom of Great Britain was to be represented by one and the same parliament, the Parliament of Great Britain.

The Act of Union 1800 united the Kingdom of Great Britain with the Kingdom of Ireland, which had been gradually brought under English control between 1541 and 1691, to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. Independence for the Irish Free State in 1922 followed the partition of the island of Ireland two years previously, with six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster remaining within the UK, which then changed to the current name in 1927 of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Following the establishment of the union Great Britain entered a long period of internal peace and stability which was accompanied by the breakdown of internal borders and the expansion of trade. England, while ceasing to exist as an independent political entity, has remained dominant in what is now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Due to her geographic size and large population, the dominant political and economic influence in the UK stems from England. London has remained the capital city of the UK and has built upon its status as the economic and political centre of the UK. It is also one of the world's great cities.

Relations with Europe

Britain's general policy with regard to Europe had two main features. The first was to maintain the balance of power and prevent any single country from dominating the continent. To achieve this Britain formed alliances with weaker countries and at different times engaged in wars with Spain, France and Germany. As France was the most powerful and aggressive nation on the continent, it was the country that these alliances were directed against. France was also Britain's main rival abroad. This rivalry between Britain and France has been described as The Second Hundred Years' War (1689-1815). The second feature was to support liberal movements in Europe and oppose autocracy. This was epitomized by George Canning's foreign policy "to leave each country free to settle its own internal affairs." Britain's oldest ally in Europe is Portugal.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713) was a result of the determination of Britain to prevent France and Spain falling under a single monarch after the death of King Charles II of Spain. The Partition Treaties of (1697) and (1700) had been agreed by Britain, France and Holland. However Louis XIV disregarded them and accepted Spain for his grandson. This led to the formation of the Grand Alliance of Britain, Holland and Austria to enforce the agreement and place Archduke Charles on the throne of Spain. Britain's most brilliant general, the Duke of Marlborough, defeated the French at the battles of Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) which ended the war stated that the crowns of Spain and France should never be united and ceded Newfoundland, Hudson's Bay, Nova Scotia and Gibraltar to Britain.

The Triple Alliance (1717) was formed with France and Holland to uphold the Treaty of Utrecht. In 1718 Austria joined and it was expanded to the Quadruple Alliance against Spain and to maintain the peace of Europe. When Spain attacked Sicily Admiral Byng destroyed the Spanish fleet off Cape Passaro.

The Death of General Wolfe at the Battle of Abraham Heights in 1759 by Benjamin West

The War of Austria Succession (1743-1748) was fought against France, Prussia and Bavaria to uphold the claim of Maria Teresa to the hereditary dominions of her father Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. On his death Prussia under Frederick the Great invaded and kept Silesia.

The Seven Years' War (1756-1763) was the first war waged on a global scale, fought in Europe, India, North America, the Caribbean, the Philippines and coastal Africa. It was fought by Britain and Prussia against France, Russia and Saxony who had banded together to help Maria Theresa recover Silesia. Britain won a series of victories against France on the continent but more significantly in India under Robert Clive which led to the end of French power in India and the eventual incorporation of India into the British Empire. In North America the French were defeated in the south at Fort Duquesne and in Canada by James Wolfe who defeated Montcalm and captured Quebec at the Battle of the Heights of Abraham in 1759. These battles ended French power in North America and left New France as Quebec was called under British rule. The Seven Years War was ended by the Treaty of Paris (1763) which recognized Britain's made gains from France and Spain. This marked the beginning of British dominance outside Europe.

Nelson's famous signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty," flying from Victory on the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar

Following the French Revolution in 1789, the French Convention offered to help all nations overthrow their kings and threatened to invade Holland which was protected by a treaty with Britain. This led to war with the French Republic (1793-1801) during which Britain defeated the French fleet off Brest. Britain then declared war on Holland for supporting France and took from it the Cape of Good Hope and Ceylon. The ensuing struggle with France under Napoleon, unlike previous wars, represented a contest of ideologies between the two nations.10 It was not only Britain's position on the world stage that was threatened: Napoleon threatened to invade Britain itself and subject it to the same fate as the countries of continental Europe that his armies had already overrun. So Britain invested large amounts of capital and resources into the Napoleonic Wars even to the point of causing financial crises and social problems at home. Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar thwarted Napoleon's plans to invade Britain. The Peninsular War marked the beginning of the defeat of Napoleon. Although it was Russia that rolled back Napoleon's army, France was finally defeated by the Duke of Wellington who commanded a coalition of European armies at the Battle of Waterloo 1815. Peace was made at the Treaty of Paris (1815) which returned France to its 1790 borders.

Britain refused to join the Holy Alliance formed by other European countries in 1815 to crush any liberal movements that were inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution. Instead it tended to give succor to liberal and democratic movements on the continent giving refugee to exiles and revolutionaries. Following the end of the Twenty-two Years War (1793-1815) Britain enjoyed 40 years of peace in Europe until the outbreak of the Crimean War (1853-1856) in which Britain and France sided with the Ottoman Empire against Russia which had now replaced France as Britain's rival in Central Asia.

The unification of Germany under Bismarck changed the balance of power on the continent and with the defeat of France by Prussia in 1870 Britain began to realign itself culminating in the Entente Cordiale signed in 1904 with France. This signified the end of a thousand years of conflict between the two nations. Britain and Russia also signed a convention in 1907 to resolve long-standing disputes over their respective imperial peripheries. These paved the way for the diplomatic and military cooperation that preceded World War I.

The First British Empire (1583-1783)

The American colonies

Britain was one of several European nations that tried to establish colonies in the Americas. In time the colonies established by other countries in North America were other captured, bought or taken over by Britain. The first colonies in North America were initiated by speculators such as the London Company and Plymouth Company which were joint stock companies that had been given patents by the Crown. The first attempt was made in 1583 by Sir Humphrey Gilbert. It was not a success and the following year Sir Walter Raleigh made an unsuccessful attempt to found Virginia. The first enduring settlement was Jamestown founded in 1608. The main impetus for British expansion was trade and commerce sponsored by the City of London and not the desire for empire for its own sake.

The other sources of colonists were religious dissenters such as the Puritans, who came to be known as the Pilgrim Fathers. They set sail from Plymouth, England to found a new colony in America where they could worship in the way they wanted. Other Puritans founded Massachusetts Bay Colony, Connecticut, Boston Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. The American colonies, which provided tobacco, cotton, and rice in the south and naval materiel and furs in the north had large areas of good agricultural land and attracted large numbers of English emigrants who liked the temperate climate. The Seven Years War resulted in France losing its colonies in North America.

The Caribbean initially provided England's most important and lucrative colonies which soon adopted the system of sugar plantations successfully used by the Portuguese in Brazil, which depended on slave labor, and - at first - Dutch ships, to sell the slaves and buy the sugar. To ensure the increasingly healthy profits of this trade remained in English hands, Parliament decreed in 1651 that only English ships would be able to ply their trade in English colonies. This led to hostilities with the United Dutch Provinces- a series of Anglo-Dutch Wars - which would eventually strengthen England's position in the Americas at the expense of the Dutch.

Slavery was a vital economic component of the British Empire in the Americas. Until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Britain was responsible for the transportation of 3.5 million African slaves to the Americas, a third of all slaves transported across the Atlantic.11

For the slave traders, the trade was extremely profitable, and became a major economic mainstay for such cities as Bristol and Liverpool, which formed the third corner of the so-called triangular trade with Africa and the Americas. However, for the transportees, harsh and unhygienic conditions on the slaving ships and poor diets meant that the average mortality rate during the middle passage was one in seven.

India

In 1600 the Honourable East India Company was founded to trade with India. The company evolved from a commercial trading venture to one which virtually ruled India as it acquired auxiliary governmental and military functions, along with a very large private army consisting of local Indian sepoys (soldiers), who were loyal to their British commanders. The British East India Company is regarded by some as the world's first multinational corporation. Company interests turned from trade to territory during the 18th century as the Mughal Empire declined in power and the British East India Company struggled with its French counterpart, the La Compagnie française des Indes orientales, during the Carnatic Wars of the 1740s and 1750s. The Battle of Plassey, which saw the British, led by Robert Clive, defeat the French and their Indian allies, left the Company in control of Bengal and a major military and political power in India. Its territorial holdings were subsumed by the British Crown in 1858, in the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny.

The Loss of the Thirteen Colonies

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown (John Trumbull, 1797). The loss of the American colonies marked the end of the "first British Empire".

During the 1760s and 1770s, relations between the Thirteen Colonies and Britain became increasingly strained, primarily because of resentment of the British Parliament's ability to tax American colonists without their consent.11 Disagreement turned to violence and in 1775 the American Revolutionary War began. The following year, the colonists declared independence and with assistance from France, went on to win the war in 1783.

The loss of the United States, at the time Britain's most populous colony, is seen by historians as the event defining the transition between the "first" and "second" empires,12 in which Britain shifted its attention away from the Americas to Asia, the Pacific and later Africa. Canada remained a British territory and its population grew with a large influx of loyalists who fled north during the Revolutionary War. The future of British North America was briefly threatened during the War of 1812, in which the United States unsuccessfully attempted to extend its border northwards. This was the last time that Britain and America went to war.

The Second British Empire (1783-1815)

In 1768 James Cook set out from England with secret instructions from King George III to lay claim to what is now known as Australia which he did in 1770 after charting the continent's east coast. In 1778 a penal settlement was established at Botany Bay when the first shipment of convicts arrived. In 1826, Australia was formally claimed for the United Kingdom with the establishment of a military base, soon followed by a colony in 1829 which became a profitable exporter of wool and gold.

Cook also mapped the coastline of New Zealand which came under British rule in 1840 after a Treaty of Waitangi was signed with the Maori.

Britain acquired Cape Colony in South Africa, and its large Afrikaner (or Boer) population of Dutch descent in 1806. British immigration began to rise after 1820, and pushed thousands of Boers, resentful of British rule, northwards to found the Transvaal and the Orange Free State during the Great Trek of the late 1830s and early 1840s. Later Britain won the Boer Wars and annexed these states.

The imperial century (1815-1914)

Between 1815 and 1914, a period referred to as Britain's "imperial century" by some historians1314, around ten million square miles of territory and roughly 400 million people were added to the British Empire.15 Victory over Napoleon left Britain without any serious international rival, other than Russia in central Asia.16 Unchallenged at sea, Britain adopted the role of global policeman, a state of affairs later known as the Pax Britannica. Alongside the formal control it exerted over its own colonies, Britain's dominant position in world trade meant that it effectively controlled the economies of many nominally independent countries, such as in Latin America, China and Siam, which has been characterized by some historians as "informal empire."16

An 1876 political cartoon of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) making Queen Victoria Empress of India. The caption was "New crowns for old ones!"

From its base in India, the East India Company had a monopoly on trade with China, importing silks, tea and porcelain to sell in Britain. China would not import any foreign goods in exchange and only accepted payment in silver. This caused a serious trade imbalance and huge outflows of silver from Britain to China. The Company discovered a Chinese demand for opium and started exporting it to China. This trade, technically illegal since it was outlawed by the Qing dynasty in 1729, helped reverse the trade imbalances and the flow of silver was reversed.17 In 1839, the seizure by the Chinese authorities at Canton of 20,000 chests of opium belonging to British traders sparked the First Opium War, and the seizure by Britain of the island of Hong Kong as a base.

The end of the Company was precipitated in India by a mutiny of sepoys against their British commanders over the rumored introduction of rifle cartridges lubricated with animal fat. Use of the cartridges, which required biting open before use, would have been in violation of the religious beliefs of Hindus and Muslims (had the fat been that of cows or pigs, respectively). However, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 had causes that went beyond the introduction of bullets: at stake was Indian culture and religion, in the face of the steady encroachment of that by the British. As a result of the war, the British government assumed direct control over India, ushering in the period known as the British Raj. The East India Company was dissolved the following year, in 1858.

Britain acquired Cape Colony in South Africa, and its large Afrikaner (or Boer) population of Dutch descent, in 1806. British immigration began to rise after 1820, and pushed thousands of Boers, resentful of British rule, northwards to found the Transvaal and the Orange Free State during the Great Trek of the late 1830s and early 1840s. Later Britain won the Boer Wars and annexed these states.

In 1875 the two most important European holdings in Africa were French controlled Algeria and the United Kingdom's Cape Colony. By 1914 only Ethiopia and the republic of Liberia remained outside formal European control. The transition from an "informal empire" of control through economic dominance to direct control took the form of a "scramble" for territory by the nations of Europe. The United Kingdom tried not to play a part in this early scramble, being more of a trading empire rather than a colonial empire; however, it soon became clear it had to gain its own African empire to maintain the balance of power.

In 1875, the British government of Benjamin Disraeli bought the indebted Egyptian ruler's shareholding in the Suez Canal for £4 million to secure control of this strategic waterway, a channel for shipping between the United Kingdom and India. To secure the canal Britain occupied Egypt in 1882. A preoccupation over securing control of the Nile valley, lead to the conquest of the neighboring Sudan in 1896.

British gains in southern and East Africa prompted Cecil Rhodes, pioneer of British expansion from South Africa northward, to urge a "Cape-to-Cairo" British controlled empire linking by rail the strategically important Suez Canal to the mineral-rich South. In 1888 Rhodes with his privately owned British South Africa Company occupied and annexed territories which were called after him: Rhodesia now known as Zimbabwe. Together with British High Commissioner in South Africa between 1897-1905, Alfred Milner, Rhodes pressured the British government for further expansion into Africa. After World War I German East Africa came under British control.

The aftermath of World War I saw the last major extension of British rule, with the United Kingdom gaining control through League of Nations Mandates in Palestine and Iraq after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, as well as in the former German colonies of Tanganyika, South-West Africa (now Namibia) and New Guinea (the last two actually under South African and Australian rule respectively).

Social and political changes

Agricultural revolution

The open field system that had existed from the Middle Ages involved each farmer subsistence-cropping strips of land in one of three or four large fields held in common and splitting up the products likewise. This gradually changed in response to need for enclosures so as to allow for the use of more modern methods and agricultural mechanization. A series of government acts, culminating finally in the General Enclosure Act of 1801. While farmers received compensation for their strips, it was minimal, and the loss of rights for the rural population led to an increased dependency on the Poor law. Poor farmers sometimes had to sell their share of the land to pay for its being split up. Only a few found work in the (increasingly mechanized) enclosed farms. Most were forced to relocate to the cities to try to find work in the emerging factories of the Industrial Revolution.

An agricultural engine, towing a living van and a water cart:
Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies Ltd 6nhp Jubilee of 1908

It was in England that many of the new developments in agricultural technology took place. Jethro Tull invented the seed drill in 1701. Joseph Foljambe in 1730 produce

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