Search this website:

This web page location:

home page  >   Europe  >   United Kingdom (UK)


United Kingdom (UK)

Westminster model, proper terms, rolling plains, representative government, constitutional monarchy

Deeper web pages:

>  England

>  Scotland

>  Wales

>  Northern Ireland

>  Land and Resources of Great Britain

>  People and Society of Great Britain

>  Culture and the Arts of Great Britain

>  Economy of Great Britain

>  Government of Great Britain

>  History of Great Britain

United Kingdom, constitutional monarchy in northwestern Europe, officially the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is the largest island in the cluster of islands, or archipelago, known as the British Isles. England is the largest and most populous division of the island of Great Britain, making up the south and east. Wales is on the west and Scotland is to the north. Northern Ireland is located in the northeast corner of Ireland, the second largest island in the British Isles. The capital of the United Kingdom is the city of London, situated near the southeastern tip of England.

People often confuse the names for this country, and frequently make mistakes in using them. United Kingdom, UK, and Britain are all proper terms for the entire nation, although the term Britain is also often used when talking about the island of Great Britain. The use of the term Great Britain to refer to the entire nation is now outdated; the term Great Britain, properly used, refers only to the island of Great Britain, which does not include Northern Ireland. The term England should never be used to describe Britain, because England is only one part of the island. It is always correct to call people from England, Scotland, or Wales British, although people from England may also properly be called English, people from Scotland Scottish, and people from Wales Welsh.

The United Kingdom is a small nation in physical size. At 244,110 sq km (94,251 sq mi), the United Kingdom is roughly the size of Oregon or Colorado, or twice the size of New York State. It is located as far north in latitude as Labrador in North America, but, like the rest of northern Europe, it is warmed by the Gulf Stream flowing out of the North Atlantic Ocean. The climate, in general, is mild, chilly, and often wet. Rain or overcast skies can be expected for up to 300 days per year. These conditions make Britain lush and green, with rolling plains in the south and east and rough hills and mountains to the west and north.

Despite its relatively small size, Britain is highly populated, with an estimated population density of 252 persons per sq km (653 per sq mi) in 2008. It is highly developed economically, preeminent in the arts and sciences, sophisticated in technology, and highly prosperous and peaceful. In general, British subjects belong to one of the more affluent states of Europe and enjoy a high standard of living compared to the rest of the world.

Many nations around the world have been influenced by British history and culture. With each passing year, English comes closer to being a world language for all educated people, as Latin once was. The prominence of English can be traced to the spread of the British Empire during the last three centuries. In the early 20th century, a quarter of the world’s people and a quarter of the world’s land surface were controlled in some way by Britain. Some parts of the world received substantial numbers of British emigrants and developed into what were called daughter nations. These colonies eventually became self-governing areas called dominions. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand fit this pattern. For a long time India was the most important colony in the British Empire, but after a long anticolonial struggle with Britain, independent India today is the world’s most populous democracy. The British Empire once included substantial portions of southern, western, and eastern Africa; important areas in Asia, such as Hong Kong; a few holdings in the Americas; and a large number of islands in the Pacific. Today most of these are independent nations, but many retain some British law, institutions, and customs.

Even parts of the world never included in the British Empire have adopted the British system of parliamentary government, often referred to as the Westminster model. Originally a vehicle for royal authority, this system gradually evolved into a representative government and finally became a means through which democracy could be exercised. Today legislative power comes from the lower house of Parliament, known as the House of Commons. The freely elected members of the House of Commons select the nation’s chief executive, the prime minister. He or she in turn appoints members of the House of Commons to the Cabinet, a body of advisers. Because the executive is not separated from the legislature, the government is efficient as well as responsive to the electorate.

Britain was a pioneer in economic matters. The first industrial revolution occurred in Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries and led to the development of the world’s first society dominated by a middle class. Britain was the first nation to have more than half of its population living in urban areas. Rapid economic development and worldwide trade made Britain the richest nation in the world during the reign of Queen Victoria in the 19th century. For a long time before and after the Industrial Revolution, London was the center of world capitalism, and today is still one of the world’s most important business and financial centers.

Britain has been important in the arts throughout modern times. Plays, novels, stories and, most recently, screenplays from Britain have been admired throughout the world. The output of English-language literature from Britain has far surpassed its output in art and music, fields dominated by other European nations. Nevertheless, Britain can claim several 20th-century artists and composers of note, including painter David Hockney and composer Sir Edward Elgar.


For younger readers

Clare, John D., ed. Industrial Revolution. Harcourt Brace, 1994. For readers in grades 4 to 8.

Flint, David. Great Britain. Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1996. For readers in grades 5 to 8.

Fuller, Barbara. Britain. Marshall Cavendish, 1994. For readers in grades 4 to 6.

Green, Robert. Queen Elizabeth II. Franklin Watts, 1997. For readers in grades 4 to 6.

Smith, Nigel. The Houses of Parliament. Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1997. For readers in grades 4 to 6.

Magna Carta

Holt, James C. Magna Carta. Rev. ed. Cambridge University Press, 1992. Originally published in 1965, this comprehensive study puts English politics in context.

Pallister, Anne. Magna Charta: The Heritage of Liberty. Oxford University Press, 1971. An interpretive study that traces the popular myths, realities, and political uses of the famous document.

Swindler, William F. Magna Carta: Legend and Legacy. Bobbs, 1965. History, significance, and text, with commentary on each clause.

Industrial Revolution

Adams, Robert McCormick. Paths of Fire: An Anthropologist's Inquiry into Western Technology. Princeton University Press, 1996. Discussion of the development of technology, from earliest times to the present day.

Ashton, T. S. The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830. Reprint, Oxford University Press, 1999. A classic account, first published in 1948.

Olson, James Stuart. Encyclopedia of the Industrial Revolution in America. Greenwood, 2001. Essential reference to inventions and developments that changed American society.

Pursell, Carroll W. The Machine in America: A Social History of Technology. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. The impact of technology in America.

Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History. 2nd ed. Westview, 1998. Covers the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the world's major societies.


Black, Jeremy. A History of the British Isles. St. Martin's, 1996. Examines the history of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

Davies, Charlotte. Welsh Nationalism in the Twentieth Century. Greenwood, 1989. Study of the Welsh separatist movement as well as other aspects of nationalism and recent history.

Davies, John. The Making of Wales. Sutton, 1999. An illustrated survey of the evolution of the Welsh landscape.

Davies, R. R. The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr. Oxford University Press, 1995, 1997. History of the revolt in Wales that started in 1400.

Dodd, A. H. A. A Short History of Wales: Welsh Life and Customs from Prehistoric Times to the Present. Trafalgar Square, 1988, 1998.

Evans, Lindsay. The Castles of Wales. Barnes and Noble, 1998. A guide to the castles of Wales.

Fallow, Jeff. Wales for Beginners. Writers & Readers, 1999. A guide to Wales and Welsh history.

Northern Ireland

Cornish, Joe. The Countryside of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Abrams, 1998. Includes stunning photographs of the countryside.

Dillon, Martin. God and the Gun: The Church and Irish Terrorism. Routledge, 1998. An examination of the role of religion in the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Elliott, Sydney, and William D. Flackes, eds. Conflict in Northern Ireland: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO , 1999. A thorough guide to 30 years of conflict, covering 1968 to 1999.

Gaffikin, Frank. Northern Ireland: The Thatcher Years. 2nd ed.. Zed, 1990. Analysis of British policy toward Ulster in the 1980s.

Hennesey, Thomas. A History of Northern Ireland. St. Martin's, 2000. An evenhanded history of the Protestant-dominated countryside and its Catholic minority.

Holland, Jack. Hope Against History: The Course of Conflict in Northern Ireland. Holt, 1999. A concise historical overview.

Mitchell, George J. Making Peace. Knopf, 1999. Discusses the diplomatic efforts aimed at bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

O'Malley, Padraig. Biting at the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair. Beacon, 1990. Political prisoners in Northern Ireland.

Pringle, Peter, and Philip Jacobson. Those Are Real Bullets: Bloody Sunday, Derry, 1972. Grove Atlantic, 2000. A vivid account of Bloody Sunday, which was a turning point in the conflict in Northern Ireland.

United Kingdom: History

Black, Jeremy. A History of the British Isles. St. Martin's, 1996. Examines the history of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

Cannon, John, ed. The Oxford Companion to British History. Oxford University Press, 1998. Dictionary of British history.

Churchill, Winston S. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. 4 vols. Dodd, 1956-1958, 1983. Massive history of England, America, and the British Commonwealth from Roman times to death of Queen Victoria.

Davies, Norman. The Isles: A History. Oxford University Press, 1999. A history of Great Britain, with particular focus on its various peoples.

Gardiner, Juliet, and Neil Wenborn, eds. The Columbia Companion to British History. Columbia University Press, 1997. Entries on topics relating to political, constitutional, social, economic, religious, military, naval, legal, and cultural history in Britain.

Leventhal, F. M., ed. Twentieth-Century Britain: An Encyclopedia. Garland, 1995. A century of important events in Britain covered in 600 entries.

Morgan, Kenneth O. The Oxford History of Britain. Rev. ed. Oxford University Press, 1999. Traces the history of the British Isles from earliest times to the present.

Morrill, John, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor & Stuart Britain. Oxford University Press, 1996. Collection of essays examining 16th- and 17th-century Britain.

Moynahan, Brian. The British Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years. Random House, 1997. Examines events in 20th-century Britain.

Palmer, Alan Warwick. Dictionary of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Trafalgar Square, 1996. Reprint Diane Publishing, 2001. Entries include Commonwealth members, government departments, wars, and conflicts.

Panton, Kenneth J., and Keith A. Cowlard. Historical Dictionary of the United Kingdom. 2 vols. Scarecrow, 1997-1998. Provides an overview of the regions of the United Kingdom.

Salway, Peter. The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain. Oxford University Press, 1994. How more than 500 years of Roman rule influenced Britain.

Schama, Simon. A History of Britain. Hyperion, 2000. Based on the popular History Channel miniseries, this work surveys 1,500 years of Britain's history.

Treasure, Geoffrey, ed. Who's Who in British History: Beginnings to 1901. Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998. Biographical dictionary of about 1,700 people.

Trevelyan, G. M. British History in the Nineteenth Century and After, 1782-1919. Harper, 1966. Classic work by a leading historian.

United Kingdom: Politics, Society, and Culture

Butler, David, and Gareth Butler, eds. British Political Facts, 1900-1994. 7th ed. St. Martin's, 1994. Comprehensive handbook with tabular data.

Connolly, S. J. Kingdoms United? Great Britain and Ireland Since 1500. Four Courts, 1999. Contrasts the development of Ireland with that of England, Scotland, and Wales.

Ewart, James. NTC's Dictionary of the United Kingdom: The Most Practical Guide to British Language and Culture. NTC, 1999. A guide to the language and culture of the United Kingdom.

Gascoigne, Bamber. Encyclopedia of Britain. Macmillan, 1993. Entries on British history, literature, business, and popular culture.

Jackson-Stops, Gervase. Fashioning and Functioning of the British Country House. Yale University Press, 1998. Social history.

Moynahan, Brian. The British Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years. Random House, 1997. Examines events in 20th-century Britain.

Strong, Roy C. The Spirit of Britain: A Narrative History of the Arts. Fromm, 2000. Portrays the energy and eccentricity of the British arts.

Trevelyan, George Macaulay. Illustrated English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries from Chaucer to Queen Victoria. Longman, 1978. Abridgment of the classic four-volume History of England (1926).


Weisser, Henry G., B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Professor of History, Colorado State University. Author of Understanding the U.K.: A Guide to British Culture, Politics, Geography, Economics and History and Hippocrene Companion Guide to Britain: England, Scotland and Wales.

Kishlansky, Mark, A.B., A.M., Ph.D. Baird Professor of History, Harvard University. Author ofA Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714, part of the New Penguin History of Britain series, and Parliamentary Selection: Social and Political Choice in Early Modem England. Coauthor of Civilization in the West.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation.

Article key phrases:

Westminster model, proper terms, rolling plains, representative government, constitutional monarchy, northwestern Europe, Gulf Stream, independent India, industrial revolution, British law, dominions, British Empire, House of Commons, British history, European nations, city of London, Wales Welsh, North Atlantic Ocean, archipelago, largest island, screenplays, electorate, modern times, British Isles, reign of Queen Victoria, eastern Africa, educated people, physical size, lower house of Parliament, urban areas, world language, middle class, Labrador, latitude, colonies, small size, United Kingdom of Great Britain, democracy, legislature, prime minister, Northern Ireland, centuries, Hong Kong, music, Wales, capital, People, London, Scotland, Australia, general, Colorado, Canada, Cabinet, North America, novels, green, New Zealand, customs, Rain, Asia, United Kingdom, culture, spread, society, mountains, century, names, technology, world, rest, today, west, English, Britain, pattern, nation, Americas, Pacific, climate, country, east, quarter, executive, stories, vehicle, fields, arts, holdings, means, mistakes, days, persons, sciences, parts, way, institutions, use, conditions, long time, year, UK

Search this website: