The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is an island country in the north west of Europe. It is comprised of four smaller nations – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It also governs a number of overseas territories.
The UK’s population in 2016 is 65,110,000, making it the 22nd most populous country in the world. It’s nominal GDP of $2.85 trillion makes it the fifth largest economy in the world and the second largest in the EU.
The UK is a political, economic and military power, although it is significantly less powerful than it was a century ago, when the British Empire was at its height.
Today, the United Kingdom is a member of the European Union (although is has just voted in a referendum to leave the EU), NATO and the United Nations.
Table of Contents
Countries of the United Kingdom
The terms United Kingdom, Great Britain, Britain and England are often used interchangeably, something which can cause confusion.
The United Kingdom (or, to give it its full title, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is both a country and a sovereign state. It is made up of four smaller countries – in order of size they are England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Great Britain refers to the island that contains England, Scotland and Wales. Britain is often used to refer to the two countries of England and Wales the same time. Although Scotland is a part of the United Kingdom and Great Britain, it is not a part of Britain.
Neither Great Britain nor Britain have any official status. They are not political entities or sovereign states. However, Britain or British are often used as shorthand when referring to the United Kingdom or its peoples.
Here is video by CGP Grey which explains the difference between the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England.
The United Kingdom also governs a number of territories around the world. Some of these territories are known as Crown Dependencies (in the case of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man) and the rest are known as British Overseas Territories. Each has substantial autonomy to govern its own domestic affairs and, together, they have a population of nearly 500,000 people.
Click here to read a detailed article about the current UK population or continue reading for a quick summary.
The 2016 UK population is 65,110,000, according to official ONS estimates.
The majority of the UK’s population lives in England (54,786,300). The remainder live in Scotland (5,373,000), Wales (3,099,100) and Northern Ireland (1,851,600).
The United Kingdom is the 22nd largest country in the world by population. It is the fourth largest country in Europe after Russia, Germany and France and it is the third largest in the European Union.
The number of people living in the UK grew by 513,000 in 2015. One third of this increase came from natural population growth (more births than deaths), the and the remaining two thirds came from immigration – a contentious political topic within the United Kingdom.
UK population density is 256 people per square kilometer. This makes the UK one of the most densely populated countries in Europe.
English is the most widely spoken language in the United Kingdom, and is the country’s de facto official language.
Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Cornish each have official status as regional or minority languages, and the number of people using each language is increasing.
Other languages – for example Polish (546,000 speakers), Punjabi (273,000 speakers) and Urdu (269,000 speakers) – are also widely spoken by immigrants to the UK.
Christianity is the most commonly followed religion in the United Kingdom. In the 2011 census, 59.5% of respondents reported that they were Christian.
Other major religions include Islam (4.4%), Hinduism (1.3%) and Sikhism (0.7%).
The number of people reporting that they have no religion has been gradually increasing, and in 2011, the figure stood at 25.7%.
Although the United Kingdom as a whole does not have an official state religion, England and Scotland do. The Church of England is the recognised state religion in England – it was founded in 1534 by King Henry VIII when he broke with the Roman Catholic church. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland is the recognised religion in Scotland.
The UK has the fifth largest economy in the world, and the second largest in Europe.
The latest (2015) IMF estimate of UK nominal GDP was $2.849 trillion (approximately £2.1 trillion).
The IMF estimated that nominal per capita GDP for the same period was $43,771, which is the 13th largest in the world.
Main sectors of the UK’s economy
The UK has a market economy, with some regulation.
In the 19th century Britain became the world’s first major industrial economy. Today, although the UK still has a manufacturing sector, the service sector dominates, making up three quarters of the UK economy.
In 2014 the services sector accounted for 78.4% of the UK economy, followed by production (14.6%), construction (6.4%) and agriculture (0.6%).
The UK’s currency is the British pound sterling (GBP), which is issued by the Bank of England.
Along with a few other EU member states, the UK has resisted pressure to adopt the Euro, which is the most commonly used currency in the rest of the EU.
At the beginning of 2016, one GBP was worth 1.36 Euros and 1.47 US dollars. The value of the pound fell against each major currency following the UK’s shock decision to leave the EU in June 2016.
The United Kingdom is a democracy and a constitutional monarchy. The UK is unusual in that its constitution is not written down in a single document. Instead, it is made up of many different smaller pieces of law and unwritten conventions.
Queen Elizabeth II is the United Kingdom’s Monarch and head of state. She is also Queen and head of state of 15 other Commonwealth countries, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The United Kingdom Parliament
The UK has a Parliamentary system of government, with an elected House of Commons and an unelected House of Lords.
The government is led by the Prime Minister, who is usually also the leader of the largest political party in the House of Commons. The current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is Theresa May, leader of the Conservative Party. She replaced David Cameron in July 2016.
Devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
Following referendums in the late 1990s, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have taken on devolved powers.
Each country has its own government and is able to administer many of its own domestic affairs – for example, on healthcare or education.
England does not have its own devolved government but, in addition to laws that affect the whole UK, the UK Parliament is able to make laws that apply only in England.
In 2015, London had a population of 8,673,713. As well as being the capital city, London is the largest city in England, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.
Glasgow (606,340) is the largest city in Scotland, and the fourth largest in the UK. Cardiff (pop: 357160) is the largest city in Wales, and Belfast (pop: 336,830) is the largest in Northern Ireland.
The Union Jack – the UK flag
The Union Jack (sometimes also known as the Union Flag) is the UK’s national flag.
Three national flags were combined to make the Union Jack – the St George’s Cross (England), the St Andrew’s Cross (Scotland) and St Patrick Red Saltire (Ireland).
The flag of Wales (a green and white flag with a red dragon at its centre) was not incorporated into the Union Jack. This was because Wales was considered a part of England when the Union Flag was created.
The Union Jack is incorporated into the national flags of a number of Commonwealth states, including Australia and New Zealand.
God Save the Queen – the national anthem
God Save the Queen is the United Kingdom’s national anthem. It has no official legal status within the UK – instead its use is governed by convention.
The lyrics and music evolved over time, but many believe that Dr Henry Carvey was the first person to perform it, in 1740.
God Save the Queen is commonly used by England as its anthem during sporting events. It is also often used by Northern Ireland, although its use is controversial.
Scotland and Wales have no official anthem either, but usually use Flower of Scotland and Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of my Fathers).
The British military has three branches – the British Army, the Royal Navy, and the Royal Air Force. The Royal Marines amphibious troops are a part of the Royal Navy. In total, active British military manpower is 153,470, supplemented by a further 88,440 reserves.
The United Kingdom is one of the world’s five declared nuclear powers. It has 225 nuclear warheads which can be launched by missile from submarines. The British nuclear weapons program is known as Trident.
The British government spent £46 billion on its armed forces in 2016. This is the equivalent of 2.0% of GDP. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.K.’s military spending is the fifth highest in the world.
Queen Elizabeth II is the commander-in-chief of the British armed forces, but civilian oversight and management is provided by the Ministry of Defence.
History of the United Kingdom
Note: this is a very brief summary of the long history of the United Kingdom which by its nature has to exclude many important events. For more detailed history of the United Kingdom, visit this page.
The first modern humans came to the islands that are now United Kingdom around 30,000 years ago and developed a vibrant society. However, recorded British history only really began after the Roman conquest of Britain in A.D. 43.
As a part of the Roman Empire, Britain experienced 400 years of relative prosperity and peace. However, once Roman rule ended in 410 A.D. Britain’s economy declined and its territory fragmented. In the centuries that followed it became vulnerable to raids from Scandinavia.
In 1066, shortly after England had united into one country in 937 AD, the Normans invaded. William the Conqueror established his rule over England, and the country’s affairs became much more closely tied to those of France and continental Europe. From then on, England’s relationship with France and its continental European neighbours was fractious and full of conflict and war.
During the reign of Elizabeth I in the second half of the 16th century England established its first colonies in North America. This marked the very beginning of the British Empire that was to dominate the world during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.
The English Civil War (1642-51) was a conflict fought between Royalists, loyal to King Charles I and Roundheads, loyal to the English Parliament. The Roundheads, led by Oliver Cromwell, won the war. King Charles I was executed and a Republican Government was formed. The government was not popular and descended into a form of dictatorship led by Cromwell as Lord Protector. After Cromwell’s death, the crown was quickly restored. Despite this, the English Civil War was a major step on the way to Britain becoming one of the world’s first stable democracies.
Fifty years after the Civil war in England, Scotland and England joined together to become one country (Wales had already, for several hundred years, been considered a part of England). Under the Act of Union (1707) the Scottish and English Parliaments were merged and became the Parliament of Great Britain.
Ireland was formally incorporated into the union in 1800, forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Today, Northern Ireland remains a part of the UK, but southern Ireland (now known as the Republic of Ireland) has been an independent country since 1922.
After losing control of its American colonies after the American war of independence (1775 to 1783) Britain instead focused on building its empire in Africa, Asia, and Australia/New Zealand. At the height of the British Empire in 1922, more than 458 million people lived under British rule – one in every five people alive at the time. The British Empire was so large and covered so much of the world’s territory that it was said to be “the Empire on which the sun never sets”.
During the 20th century Great Britain fought two major wars and, despite victory in the first and second world wars, effectively lost control over its empire. By the 1970s Britain had withdrawn from all of its major colonies.
Since the end of the second world war, the United Kingdom has struggled to find a new role for itself in the world. Britain joined the European Union in 1973, and seemed intent on building much closer ties with its European neighbours.
However, in 2016 British citizens voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. This decision has caused great uncertainty within United Kingdom and Europe and has led to renewed calls for an independence referendum in Scotland which, if passed, could see the breakup of the United Kingdom.