Background Notes: U.K.

Contributed By RealAdventures

In 1999, the United Kingdom's population was estimated at over 59 million--the third- largest in Europe and the 18th-largest in the world. Its overall population density is one of the highest in the world. Almost one-third of the population lives in England's prosperous and fertile southeast and is predominantly urban and suburban, with approximately 7.1 million in the capital of London. The U.K.'s high literacy rate (99%) is attributable to universal public education introduced for the primary level in 1870 and secondary level in 1900. Education is mandatory from ages 5 through 16. About one-fifth of British students goes on to post-secondary education. The Church of England and the Church of Scotland are the official churches in their respective parts of the country, but most religions found in the world are represented in the U.K..

A group of islands close to continental Europe, the British Isles have been subject to many invasions and migrations, especially from Scandinavia and the continent, including Roman occupation for several centuries. Contemporary Britons are descended mainly from the varied ethnic stocks that settled there before the 11th century. The pre-Celtic, Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse influences were blended in Britain under the Normans, Scandinavian Vikings who had lived in Northern France. Although Celtic languages persist in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the predominant language is English, which is primarily a blend of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French.

The Roman invasion of Britain in 55 BC and most of Britain's subsequent incorporation into the Roman Empire stimulated development and brought more active contacts with the rest of Europe. As Rome's strength declined, the country again was exposed to invasion, including the pivotal incursions of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in the fifth and sixth centuries AD up to the Norman conquest in 1066. Norman rule effectively ensured Britain's safety from further intrusions; certain institutions, which remain characteristic of Britain, could develop. Among these are a political, administrative, cultural, and economic center in London; a separate but established church; a system of common law; distinctive and distinguished university education; and representative government.


Both Wales and Scotland were independent kingdoms that resisted English rule. The English conquest of Wales succeeded in 1282 under Edward I, and the Statute of Rhuddlan established English rule 2 years later. To appease the Welsh, Edward's son (later Edward II), who had been born in Wales, was made Prince of Wales in 1301. The tradition of bestowing this title on the eldest son of the British Monarch continues today. An act of 1536 completed the political and administrative union of England and Wales.

While maintaining separate parliaments, England and Scotland were ruled under one crown beginning in 1603, when James VI of Scotland succeeded his cousin Elizabeth I as James I of England. In the ensuing 100 years, strong religious and political differences divided the kingdoms. Finally, in 1707, England and Scotland were unified as Great Britain, sharing a single parliament at Westminster.

Ireland's invasion by the Anglo-Normans in 1170 led to centuries of strife. Successive English kings sought to conquer Ireland. In the early 17th century, largescale settlement of the north from Scotland and England began. After its defeat, Ireland was subjected, with varying degrees of success, to control and regulation by Britain.

The legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland was completed on January 1, 1801, under the name of the United Kingdom. However, armed struggle for independence continued sporadically into the 20th century. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 established the Irish Free State, which subsequently left the Commonwealth and became a republic after World War II. Six northern, predominantly Protestant, Irish counties have remained part of the United Kingdom.

British Expansion and Empire

Begun initially to support William the Conqueror's (c. 1029-1087) holdings in France, Britain's policy of active involvement in continental European affairs endured for several hundred years. By the end of the 14th century, foreign trade, originally based on wool exports to Europe, had emerged as a cornerstone of national policy.

The foundations of sea power were gradually laid to protect English trade and open up new routes. Defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 firmly established England as a major sea power. Thereafter, its interests outside Europe grew steadily. Attracted by the spice trade, English mercantile interests spread first to the Far East. In search of an alternate route to the Spice Islands, John Cabot reached the North American continent in 1498. Sir Walter Raleigh organized the first, short-lived colony in Virginia in 1584, and permanent English settlement began in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia. During the next two centuries, Britain extended its influence abroad and consolidated its political development at home.

Great Britain's industrial revolution greatly strengthened its ability to oppose Napoleonic France. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the United Kingdom was the foremost European power, and its navy ruled the seas. Peace in Europe allowed the British to focus their interests on more remote parts of the world, and, during this period, the British Empire reached its zenith. British colonial expansion reached its height largely during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Queen Victoria's reign witnessed the spread of British technology, commerce, language, and government throughout the British Empire, which at its greatest extent encompassed roughly one-fifth to one-quarter of the world's area and population. British colonies contributed to the United Kingdom's extraordinary economic growth and strengthened its voice in world affairs. Even as the United Kingdom extended its imperial reach overseas, it continued to develop and broaden its democratic institutions at home.

20th Century

By the time of Queen Victoria's death in 1901, other nations, including the United States and Germany, had developed their own industries; the United Kingdom's comparative economic advantage had lessened, and the ambitions of its rivals had grown. The losses and destruction of World War I, the depression of the 1930s, and decades of relatively slow growth eroded the United Kingdom's preeminent international position of the previous century.

Britain's control over its empire loosened during the interwar period. Ireland, with the exception of six northern counties, gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1921. Nationalism became stronger in other parts of the Empire, particularly in India and Egypt.

In 1926, the U.K., completing a process begun a century earlier, granted Australia, Canada, and New Zealand complete autonomy within the Empire. They became charter members of the British Commonwealth of Nations (now known as the Commonwealth), an informal but closely knit association that succeeded the Empire. Beginning with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, the remainder of the British Empire was almost completely dismantled. Today, most of Britain's former colonies belong to the Commonwealth, almost all of them as independent members. There are, however, 13 former British colonies--including Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and others--which have elected to continue their political links with London and are known as United Kingdom Overseas Territories.

Although often marked by economic and political nationalism, the Commonwealth offers the United Kingdom a voice in matters concerning many developing countries. In addition, the Commonwealth helps preserve many institutions deriving from British experience and models, such as parliamentary democracy, in those countries.

The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution. The equivalent body of law is based on statute, common law, and "traditional rights." Changes may come about formally through new acts of parliament, informally through the acceptance of new practices and usage, or by judicial precedents. Although parliament has the theoretical power to make or repeal any law, in actual practice the weight of 700 years of tradition restrains arbitrary actions.

Executive government rests nominally with the Monarch but actually is exercised by a Committee of Ministers (cabinet) traditionally selected from among the members of the House of Commons and, to a lesser extent, the House of Lords. The prime minister is normally the leader of the largest party in the Commons, and the government is dependent on its support.

Parliament represents the entire country and can legislate for the whole or for any constituent part or combination of parts. The maximum parliamentary term is 5 years, but the prime minister may ask the Monarch to dissolve parliament and call a general election at any time. The focus of legislative power is the 650-member House of Commons, which has sole jurisdiction over finance. The House of Lords, although shorn of most of its powers, can still review, amend, or delay temporarily any bills except those relating to the budget. The House of Lords has more time than the House of Commons to pursue one of its more important functions--debating public issues. In 1999, the government removed the automatic right of hereditary peers to hold seats in the House of Lords. The current house consists of appointed life peers who hold their seats for life and 92 hereditary peers who will hold their seats only until final reforms have been agreed upon and implemented. The judiciary is independent of the legislative and executive branches but cannot review the constitutionality of legislation.

The separate identities of each of the U.K.'s constituent parts also is reflected in their respective governmental structures. Up until the recent devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, a cabinet minister (the Secretary of State for Wales) handled Welsh affairs at the national level with the advice of a broadly representative council for Wales. Scotland maintains, as it did before union with England, different systems of law (Roman-French), education, local government, judiciary, and national church (the Church of Scotland instead of the Church of England). In addition, separate departments grouped under a Secretary of State for Scotland, who also is a cabinet member, handled most domestic matters. In late 1997, however, following approval of referenda by Scottish and Welsh voters (though only narrowly in Wales), the British Government introduced legislation to establish a Scottish parliament and a Welsh Assembly. Elections for the two bodies were held May 6, 1999. The Welsh Assembly opened on May 26, and the Scottish parliament opened on July 1, 1999. The devolved legislatures have largely taken over most of the functions previously performed by the Scottish and Welsh offices.

Devolved government was reestablished in Northern Ireland in December 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which established the basis for ending the political divisions and violence that had plagued Northern Ireland for decades. The Good Friday Agreement provides for a 108-member elected Assembly, overseen by a 12-minister Executive Committee (cabinet) in which unionists and nationalists share leadership responsibility. While Northern Ireland elects 18 representatives to the Westminster parliament in London, the two Sinn Fein MPs who won seats in the last election have refused to claim their seats.

Northern Ireland had its own parliament and prime minister from 1921 to 1973, when the British Government imposed direct rule in order to deal with the deteriorating political and security situation. From 1973, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, based in London, was responsible for the region, including efforts to resolve the issues that lay behind the "the Troubles."

By the mid-1990s, gestures toward peace encouraged by successive British Governments and by President Clinton began to open the door for restored local government in Northern Ireland. An IRA cease-fire and nearly 2 years of multiparty negotiations, led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, resulted in the Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998, which was subsequently approved by majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Key elements of the Agreement include devolved government, a commitment of the parties to work toward "total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations," police reform, and enhanced mechanisms to guarantee human rights and equal opportunity. The Good Friday Agreement also called for formal cooperation between the Northern Ireland institutions and the Government of the Republic of Ireland, and it established the British-Irish Council, which includes representatives of the British and Irish Governments as well as the devolved Governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The parties disagree over the implementation of key elements of the Good Friday Agreement, and sporadic violence by paramilitary organizations continues to threaten the normalization process. The key parties, nevertheless, remain committed to the peace process and continue to work for full implementation of the agreement. While Unionists insist that actual decommissioning of paramilitary weapons should precede normalization of political and security arrangements, they have acknowledged the significance of intermediate steps, including the inspection of IRA arms dumps in June 2000 by independent international inspectors. Movement on decommissioning has been mirrored by progress on political and security normalization.

The United States remains firmly committed to the peace process in Northern Ireland and continues to support normalization of institutions as the best means to ensure that all parties' commitment to relying solely on peaceful and democratic means to resolve issues. U.S. Government policy on Northern Ireland condemns all acts of terrorism and violence, perpetrated by any party on either side. It also cautions all Americans to question closely any appeal for financial or other aid from groups involved in the Northern Ireland conflict to ensure that contributions do not end up in the hands of those who support violence, either directly or indirectly.

The U.S. also is committed to Northern Ireland's economic development and to date has given or pledged contributions of more than $300 million to the International Fund for Ireland. The fund provides grants and loans to businesses to improve the economy, redress inequalities of employment opportunity, and improve crossborder business and community ties.

Head of State--Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II Prime Minister (Head of Government)--The Rt. Hon. Tony Blair, MP Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs-- The Rt. Hon. Robin Cook, MP Ambassador to the U.S.--Sir Christopher Meyer, KCMG Ambassador to the UN--Sir Jeremy Greenstock, KCMG

The United Kingdom maintains an embassy in the United States at 3100 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-588-6500; fax 202-588-7870).

Current Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was elected on May 1, 1997, with a massive 176-seat majority in the House of Commons. Labour's victory ended an 18-year run of Conservative (Tory) Party rule in the U.K.. Blair worked hard to reorganize and reenergize the Labour Party, moving it steadily to the center of the political spectrum. Both main British parties support a strong transatlantic link but have become increasingly absorbed by European issues as Britain's economic and political ties to the continent grow in the post-Cold War world. Prime Minister Blair has promised that the U.K. will play a leading role in Europe. Britain's relationship with Europe, in particular its potential participation in the single European currency, the euro, is a subject of considerable political discussion in the U.K. Whether Britain will adopt the euro is likely to be a defining issue in the next U.K. national elections, which could take place as early as spring 2001.

The United Kingdom has the fourth-largest economy in the world, has one of the largest economies in the European Union, and is a major international trading power. London ranks with New York as a leading international financial center.

The U.K. is the fourth-largest U.S. market after Canada, Japan, and Mexico; U.S. exports to the U.K. in 1999 were $38.3 billion. For the first time in 5 years, the U.S. ran a deficit with the U.K., importing $39.2 billion in 1999. The U.K. is a large source of foreign tourists in the U.S.

The U.S. and the U.K. share the world's largest investment partnership. U.S. investment in the U.K. reached $213.1 billion in 1999, while U.K. investment is valued at $183.0 billion. This investment sustains over one million American jobs.

Since 1979, the British Government has privatized most state-owned companies, including British Steel, British Airways, British Telecom, British Coal, British Aerospace, and British Gas, although in some cases the government retains a "golden share" in these companies. The Labour government has continued the privatization policy of its predecessor, including by encouraging "public-private partnerships" (partial privatization) in such areas as the National Air Traffic Control System.

The United Kingdom is an energy-rich nation with significant reserves of oil and gas in the North Sea and the Irish Sea and large coal resources. A total of 150 million tons of oil were produced in the U.K. in 1999. U.K. offshore areas should be an important source of continued production and new discoveries for some years. U.S. oil and oil-service companies participate actively in the North Sea oil industry and consider the United Kingdom an attractive environment for future investment.

The United Kingdom is one of the United States' closest allies, and British foreign policy emphasizes close coordination with the United States. Bilateral cooperation reflects the common language, ideals, and democratic practices of the two nations. Relations were strengthened by the U.K.'s alliance with the United States during both World Wars and its role as a founding member of NATO, in the Korean conflict, and the Persian Gulf War. The United Kingdom and the United States continually consult on foreign policy issues and global problems and share major foreign and security policy objectives. In the United Nations, the U.K. is a permanent member of the Security Council.

The U.K. is a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and has been a member of the European Community (now European Union) since 1973. The U.K. is one of NATO's major European maritime powers and ranked third in 1996 among NATO countries in total defense expenditure.

The British armed forces are charged with protecting the United Kingdom and its overseas territories, promoting Britain's wider security interests, and supporting international peacekeeping efforts. The 44,000-member Royal Navy is in charge of the U.K.'s independent strategic nuclear arm, which consists of four Trident missile submarines. The Royal Marines provide commando units for amphibious assault and for specialist reinforcement forces in and beyond the NATO area. The British Army, with a reported strength of 110,000 in 1999, including 7,600 women, and the Royal Air Force with a strength of 55,000, along with the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, are active and regular participants in NATO and other coalition operations.

Ambassador--Philip Lader
Deputy Chief of Mission--Glyn Davies
Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs--Morton Dworken
Minister-Counselor for Commercial Affairs--David Katz
Minister-Counselor for Economic Affairs--Peter Chase
Minister-Counselor for Public Diplomacy--Pamela Smith
U.S. Consul General in Belfast--Jane Fort
U.S. Consul General in Edinburgh--Liane Dorsey

The U.S. Embassy in the United Kingdom is located at: 24 Grosvenor Sq., W1A 1AE, London (tel. [44] (207) 499-9000; fax [44] (207) 409-1637). Internet website:

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