United Kingdom - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

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United Kingdom
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 The use of the term Great Britain to refer to the entire nation is now outdated; the term Great Britain, properly used, refers only to the island of Great Britain, which does not include Northern Ireland.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 253 persons per sq km (655 per sq mi) in 2009. 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.


Geographical Components and Borders

The United Kingdom is bordered on the south by the English Channel, which separates it from the continent of Europe. It is bordered on the east by the North Sea, and on the west by the Irish Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The United Kingdom’s only land border with another nation is between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

England is the largest, most populous, and wealthiest division of the United Kingdom. It makes up 130,410 sq km (50,352 sq mi) of the United Kingdom’s total 244,110 sq km (94,251 sq mi). The area of Scotland is 78,790 sq km (30,420 sq mi), the area of Wales is 20,760 sq km (8,020 sq mi), and the area of Northern Ireland is 14,160 sq km (5,470 sq mi). This means that England makes up 53.4 percent of the area of the United Kingdom, Scotland 32.3 percent, Wales 8.5 percent, and Northern Ireland 5.8 percent.

The United Kingdom contains a number of small islands. These include the Isle of Wight, which lies off of England’s southern coast; Anglesey, off the northwest coast of Wales; the Isles of Scilly in the English Channel; the Hebrides archipelago to the west of Scotland, consisting of the Inner and the Outer Hebrides; the Orkney Islands to the northeast of Scotland; and the Shetland Islands farther out into the North Sea from Scotland.

Several dependencies and dependent territories are associated with the United Kingdom. The dependencies, located close to Britain, are the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea and the Channel Islands off the northern coast of France. These dependencies, while not technically part of the United Kingdom, maintain a special relationship with it. The Channel Islands were once part of the Duchy of Normandy and retain much of their original French culture. The Isle of Man, controlled by Norway during the Middle Ages, came under English rule in the 14th century. Both dependencies are largely self-governing and have their own legislative assemblies and systems of law. Britain is responsible for their international relations and defense.

Britain’s dependent territories are scattered throughout the world and are the remains of the former British Empire. They are generally small in area and without many resources. Once considered colonies, they have opted to remain under British control for a variety of reasons. Today Britain assists the territories economically, with the understanding that they may become independent when they wish. Most are locally self-governing, although the queen appoints a governor for each territory who is responsible for external affairs and internal security, including the police and public service. The ultimate responsibility for their government rests with the foreign and commonwealth secretary, a minister in the British Cabinet. The United Kingdom has experienced difficulties with some of its territories—Argentina has made claims to the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) and Spain has made claims to Gibraltar. China’s claim to the former dependent territory of Hong Kong was satisfied in July 1997 when Britain’s lease ran out and China assumed control of the area.

Natural Regions and Topography

The island of Great Britain can be divided into two major natural regions—the highland zone and the lowland zone. The highland zone is an area of high hills and mountains in the north and west. The lowland zone in the south and east consists mostly of rolling plains. The zones are divided by an imaginary line running through England from the River Exe on the southwest coast to the mouth of the River Tees on the northeast coast. The lowland zone has a milder climate and better soils for farming. Historically, most people in Britain have lived in the lowland zone rather than in the harsher highland zone.

The Highland Zone

The highland zone contains what is often called rough country, consisting to a large extent of rugged hills, mountains, and eroded areas frequently broken by valleys and plains. The highest elevations in the British Isles are in the highland zone; the highest point is Ben Nevis at 1,343 m (4,406 ft), located in the Highlands of Scotland. The highland zone is cooler than the lowland zone, and receives more rainfall and less sunlight. In many places farming is impossible. Even where it is feasible, the soil is often thin and stony, with a hard rock formation below. Rainwater often cannot escape readily, so many areas tend to be waterlogged.

Wales, Scotland, and parts of England are located in the highland zone. The parts of England in the highland zone include the Pennine Chain of mountains, extending down into northern England and into the southwestern peninsula. The Pennine Chain is sometimes called the backbone of England. It is a massive upland area extending 260 km (160 mi) north to south, starting at the Cheviot Hills on England’s border with Scotland and ending in the Midlands of central England. It is made up of several broad, rolling, windswept moorlands separated by deep river valleys. Many of England’s major industrial areas lie on the flanks of the Pennine Chain, where there are many coalfields. To the west of the northern Pennines are the Cumbrian Mountains, a mountainous dome of ancient rocks deeply eroded by glaciers. This region contains the Lake District, famous for its lakes and scenic beauty.

The part of the highland zone in England’s southwest peninsula is often referred to as the West Country. This peninsula, which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, contains the counties of Devon and Cornwall. It features hilly, rough areas, the moorland plateaus of Dartmoor and Exmoor, and many picturesque valleys. Its sheltered areas are noted for their mild climate.

North of the Cheviot Hills, in Scotland, are the Southern Uplands, an area of rounded hills and broad valleys. The maximum elevation here is 850 m (2,800 ft), and much of the area consists of moorlands used for grazing sheep. North of the Uplands is a broad valley known variously as the Central Lowlands, the Scottish Lowlands, or the Midland Valley. This valley is sandwiched between two areas of uplands and contains most of Scotland’s urban centers, industries, and mines.

Farther north are the Scottish Highlands, a rugged area of mountain ranges, bleak moorlands, and deep, narrow valleys known as glens. The Highlands contain sparsely populated areas of moors. These tracts of wasteland are mostly covered with coarse, low, bushy plants, including varieties of heath and heather, hardy evergreen shrubs most often found in cooler climates. The Grampian Mountains are the chief range in the Highlands, reaching as high as 1,343 m (4,406 ft) above sea level. The western portion of the Highlands contains most of Scotland’s famous lochs, or large lakes.

Northern Ireland consists of hilly highlands similar to those of Scotland. Most of Northern Ireland is situated in a large valley formed from an old lava plateau. In the center of the valley is Lough Neagh, the largest lake in the British Isles, which is 29 km (18 mi) long and 18 km (11 mi) wide. The highest part of Northern Ireland is the Mourne Mountains in the southeast, which reach a maximum elevation of 852 m (2,796 ft) above sea level. The narrowest point between the islands of Britain and Ireland is a distance of only 21 km (13 mi), between Tor on the coast of Northern Ireland to Mull of Kintyre on the Scottish coast.

The peninsula of Wales is almost entirely covered by mountains. The Cambrian Mountains extend roughly from northeast to southeast across the peninsula, forming an area of high, craggy peaks and bleak moorlands. They contain the highest peak in Wales, the huge mountain called Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa Fawr in Welsh), which rises to 1,085 m (3,560 ft) above sea level. In southern Wales lower and less rugged mountains, the Brecon Beacons, extend in a roughly east-west direction. A thin ribbon of lowland rims much of the Welsh coast, broadening out in the northwest to include the offshore island of Anglesey. It also broadens out in the southwest and southeast. Sometimes the lowland region of southeastern Wales is considered an extension of the lowland zone of Britain. This region contains the largest cities and industrial establishments in Wales. Coal mines in the mountains just to the north of this southern lowland were of great importance to the Welsh economy for many years. Hills running along the Welsh border with England continue into parts of a few English counties.

The Lowland Zone

In general the lowland zone is a great plain with a gentle, undulating surface and extensive areas of almost-level ground. It receives less rain and more sunshine than the highland zone and much of the soil in the zone is fertile. Most of the lowland region is less than 150 m (500 ft) above sea level, and the hills rarely reach more than 300 m (1,000 ft) above sea level. It has been extensively inhabited, farmed, and grazed for thousands of years. Most of Britain’s population lives densely packed into the lowland zone, which covers most of England. The metropolis of London and most of Britain’s large cities are located in the lowland zone.

The flattest lands in the lowland zone are in the east, particularly on the large, hump-shaped area called East Anglia. The inlet called the Wash is located off East Anglia’s northern coast. The Wash was once surrounded by the flat, swampy areas of the Fenlands, or the Fens, most of which has now been drained. The broad, rolling Midland Plain is south of the Pennine Chain. Northwest of this plain, on the western side of the Pennines, is the Lancashire-Cheshire plain. Another plain extends from the eastern slope of the Pennines to the sea. It is broken in the north by the Yorkshire Moors, a high wasteland overgrown with coarse plants.

Several chains of low hills break up the lowland plain. They are sometimes called scarplands or escarpments, meaning that they tend to drop steeply on one side and slope gently downward on the other side. One of these upland ridges, the South Downs, runs along the southern coast eastward from the Salisbury Plain. Running parallel to this ridge, south of the Thames valley, are the North Downs. In between the North Downs and the South Downs is a region called The Weald, an area of scenic, gentle hills. Another elevated chain is the Chiltern Hills, which stretch southwest from the central part of the lowland plain. The Cotswold Hills lie to the west near Wales. The Cotswolds and the plain’s northern hills have a limestone base, while the Downs have a chalk base.

Rivers and Lakes

Since Britain has a moist climate with much rainfall, rivers and lakes are numerous. Rivers of central and eastern Britain tend to flow slowly and steadily all year long because they are fed by the frequent rain. Many have been navigable, and from the earliest times they have served peoples interested in either commerce or invasion. The Highlands act as a divide and determine whether rivers flow west to the Irish Sea or east to the North Sea. Rivers and streams moving westward down from the Highlands tend to be swift and turbulent; rivers flowing eastward tend to be long, graceful, and gentle, with slowly moving waters.

The Thames and the Severn are the longest rivers in Britain and are almost equal in length. The Severn flows south out of the mountains of central Wales to the Bristol Channel at Bristol. It is 354 km (220 mi) long. The Thames, 338 km (210 mi) long, flows eastward out of the Cotswold Hills and weaves through the metropolis of London. The Thames provides water to the city of London and is used to carry commercial freight. Other important rivers in England are the Mersey, which enters the Irish Sea at Liverpool; the River Humber on the east coast, into which the Trent River and several other rivers flow; and the Tyne River in northern England, which flows past Newcastle upon Tyne to the North Sea.

In Scotland the important rivers are the Clyde and the Forth, which are joined by a canal. The River Clyde flows northwest, past Glasgow, and empties into the Atlantic at the Firth of Clyde. (Firth is the Scottish name for an arm of the sea that serves as the broad estuary of a river.) The River Forth flows eastward into the Firth of Forth, where Edinburgh rises on its south bank. The most important rivers in Northern Ireland are the Lagan, the Bann, and the Foyle.

Most of the large lakes in the United Kingdom are located in the upland areas of Scotland and northern England, although Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland is the largest lake in the United Kingdom. Loch Lomond, on the southwestern edge of the Highlands of Scotland, is the largest on the island of Great Britain, measuring 37 km (23 mi) long and from 1.6 to 8 km (1 to 5 mi) wide. Lake Windermere is the largest of the 15 major lakes in the famous Lake District of northwestern England. It is about 1.6 km (1 mi) wide and more than 16 km (10 mi) long.


Great Britain’s coastline is highly irregular, with many bays and inlets that provide harbors and shelters for ships and boats. Coastal trade involving ships sailing along the coast has been carried on since ancient times. The coastline is about 8,000 km (about 5,000 mi) long and affords some of the best scenery in Britain. The western coast is characterized by cliffs and rocky headlands, especially where the Highlands meet the sea in northwestern Scotland. On the more gentle southern and eastern coasts there are many sand or pebble beaches as well as tall limestone or chalk cliffs, the most famous of which are the White Cliffs of Dover in the southeast.

A few islands lie just off of Britain’s coast. The Hebrides, an archipelago of about 500 islands, cover a considerable area along the coast of western Scotland; the isle of Anglesey lies just off the coast of northwestern Wales; and the Isle of Wight is off England’s southern coast. Northern Ireland has a beautiful and rugged coastline and is the location of the famous and unique Giant’s Causeway, an expansive and curious formation of rocks shaped like giant cylinders.

Natural Resources


Britain’s soil quality varies greatly. In northern areas the soils are thin, lying right above rock formations, while the south possesses areas of rich loam and heavy clay soils. When handled carefully the soils of eastern and south central England are very productive. While about three-fourths of the land in Britain is suitable for agriculture, only 24 percent of this land is used to grow crops. Almost all of the rest is planted with grass or used as grazing land.

Forests and Woodlands

Trees grow well and quickly in the heavy soils of England, and for a long time prehistoric settlers did not have tools strong enough to cut down the heavy oak forests. Over the centuries the expanding human population cut back the forests, so that today only 11.7 percent of the United Kingdom is forested, roughly 3 million hectares (7 million acres). Only 7 percent of England is covered by forest, 15 percent of Scotland, 12 percent of Wales, and 5 percent of Northern Ireland. Efforts have been made in Britain to grow more trees and expand the managed forest areas. Local authorities have the power to protect trees and woodlands. It is an offense to cut down trees without permission, and when trees protected by the government die they must be replaced.

Mineral Resources

Britain’s mineral resources were historically important, but today most of these resources are either exhausted or produced in small quantities. Britain currently relies upon imports from larger, cheaper foreign supplies. Before and during the Roman occupation, about 2,000 years ago, Britain was noted for its tin mines, which were concentrated in Cornwall. The tin was mixed with copper to produce bronze, an important material in ancient times used for weapons and jewelry. Today nearly every tin mine in Britain has been exhausted and shut down.

Britain’s small deposits of iron ore were critically important to the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly because iron ore deposits were located close to rich deposits of coal. When iron ore and coal are heated together, they produce iron alloys, such as wrought iron. When iron ore is heated at high temperatures with coke, a derivative of coal, it produces pig iron, a cheaper, softer iron that is more easily purified into the iron and steel essential for constructing machines and railroads. During the Industrial Revolution towns and cities sprang up close to these resources, and they remain among Britain’s leading urban areas. Today Britain imports iron, along with most other minerals used for industrial production.

Raw materials for construction, particularly aggregates (minerals mechanically separated from ores), are still important, and many quarries continue to operate profitably. Limestone, sand, gravel, rock, sandstone, clay, chalk, salt, silica sands, gypsum, potash, and fluorspar are all quarried.

Energy Resources

Britain has the richest energy sources in the European Union (EU), and its resources of oil and natural gas are of vital importance to the British economy. Until the 1970s small amounts of oil were produced from onshore wells, but this amount was far less than Britain needed. In 1969 large supplies of oil and natural gas were discovered in the North Sea off the eastern coast of Britain, particularly off the coast of Scotland. Oil and natural gas production soared after supplies were brought ashore in 1975. Britain’s production of crude oil peaked in 1999 and began to decline in the early 2000s. However, Britain continues to export oil and natural gas.

For many years coal was mined extensively, providing the primary source of energy in Britain. It was also exported. Coal production reached its peak in 1913, when more than 300 million tons were mined. Today production is less than a tenth of that figure and coal is far less important to the British economy.

Britain also has a number of nuclear energy facilities. Britain meets 19 percent of its energy needs through nuclear energy. Recently much research has been devoted to developing biofuels—energy from wastes, landfill gas, and crops—as well as to developing solar energy, wind power, and waterpower.

Plant and Animal Life

Plant Life

The mild climate, ample rain, and long growing season in Britain support a great variety of plants, which grow exceptionally well. Sometimes plant growth is compared to the lush areas of the well-watered and mild coasts of the states of Washington and Oregon. Most of Britain was once covered with thick, deciduous forests in which oak trees predominated. (Deciduous trees are those that lose their leaves every year.) The impact of centuries of dense human population has massively altered the flora of Britain, and only tiny remnants of these forests remain today. Although 11.7 percent of Britain is still forested, most of this area consists of commercially planted, fast-growing coniferous forests in Wales and northeastern Scotland. (Coniferous trees are evergreen trees that have cones.)

Before they were affected by centuries of clearing and human use, the great oak forests spread over the best soils in Britain. Forests were unable to establish themselves in the poorer soils of the mountains, wetlands, heath, and moorlands. The plants common to these wilder areas are heather, gorse, peat moss, rowan, and bilberry. These regions have been altered by heavy grazing of livestock and by controlled burning. Controlled burning creates environments suitable for game birds, which feed on the shoots of the new plants that spring up after the older plants are burned away. Some wetland areas have been subjected to massive draining efforts for hundreds of years and are now covered by towns and farmland. The marginal wetlands that remain continue to be threatened by reclamation for farms and homes, and some wetland plant species now grow only in conservation areas.

Animal Life

An estimated 30,000 animal species live in Britain, although many have limited distribution and are on the endangered list. Britain has many smaller mammals, and the larger ones tend to be gentle. The only surviving large mammals are red deer, which live in the Scottish Highlands and in Exmoor in southwestern England, and roe deer, found in the woodlands of Scotland and southern England. Semiwild ponies also inhabit Exmoor (see Exmoor Pony) and the Shetland Islands. At one time wild boars and wolves roamed Britain, but they were hunted to extinction.

Many smaller mammals inhabit Britain, including badgers, foxes, otters, red squirrels, and wildcats. Wildcats are found only in parts of Scotland. Otters are found mainly in southwestern England and in the Shetland and Orkney islands. The red squirrel, driven out of most of its range by the imported gray squirrel, is now limited mainly to the Isle of Wight and Scotland. Other species introduced from elsewhere include rabbits, black rats, muntjac deer, wallabies, and mink. Britain has five species of frogs and toads and three species of snakes, of which only the adder is venomous. Northern Ireland has no snakes.

Birdwatching is a popular national pastime. Britain is home to a large variety of birds, due in large measure to its position as a focal point of a migratory network. About 200 species are regularly seen in Britain. The most common are birds that remain year-round, such as blackbirds, chaffinches, sparrows, and starlings. Other well-known resident birds include crows, kingfishers, robins, wrens, woodpeckers, and various tits. Cuckoos, swallows, and swifts are the best-known summer visitors, and in the winter many species of duck, geese, and other waterbirds reside in British estuaries and wetlands. Human population pressures have adversely affected the habitats of many species. One of the worst dangers for birds is the popularity of ordinary housecats, which prey upon many bird species.

Saltwater fish were once important to Britain’s economy. Cod, haddock, whiting, herring, plaice, sole, and mackerel are still caught off the coasts of Britain, although grave concerns about the depletion of stocks caused by overfishing have led to the imposition of quotas. Lobster, crab, and other shellfish are caught along inshore waters. Freshwater fish in Britain include game fish, salmon, and trout, while so-called coarse fish include perch, pike, and roach. Freshwater fishing is almost entirely recreational, rather than commercial, except for fish farms, which concentrate on Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout. Shellfish farming specializes in mollusks such as clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops.


The Atlantic Ocean has a significant effect on Britain’s climate. Although the British Isles are as far north in latitude as Labrador in Canada, they have a mild climate throughout the year. This is due to the Gulf Stream, a current of warm water that flows up from the Caribbean past Britain. Prevailing southwesterly winds moving across this warmer water bring moisture and moderating temperatures to the British Isles. The surrounding waters moderate temperatures year-round, making the UK warmer in winter and cooler in summer than other areas at the same latitude. Great Britain’s western coast tends to be warmer than the eastern coast, and the southern regions tend to be warmer than the northern regions. The mean annual temperature in the far north of Scotland is 6°C (43°F), and in warmer southwestern England it is 11°C (52°F). In general, temperatures are ordinarily around 15°C (60°F) in the summer and around 5°C (40°F) in the winter. Temperatures rarely ever exceed 32°C (90°F) or drop below -10°C (14°F) anywhere in the British Isles. In many areas, frosts, when the temperature dips below 0°C (32°F), are rare.

Winds blowing off the Atlantic Ocean bring clouds and large amounts of moisture to the British Isles. Average annual precipitation is more than 1,000 mm (40 in), varying from the extremes of 5,000 mm (196 in) in the western Highlands of Scotland to less than 500 mm (20 in) in the driest parts of East Anglia in England. The western part of Britain receives much more moisture than the eastern areas. It rains year-round, and in the winter the rain may change to snow, particularly in the north. It snows infrequently in the south, and when it does it is likely to be wet, slushy, and short-lived.

The climate has affected settlement and development in Britain for thousands of years. The mild, wet climate ensured that thick forests rich in game, as well as rivers and streams abundant with fish, were available to prehistoric hunters and gatherers. Britain was regarded as a cold, remote, and distant part of the ancient Roman Empire in the first few centuries AD, so relatively few Romans were motivated to move there for trade, administrative, or military reasons. Preindustrial settlements clustered in southern England, where the climate was milder, the growing season longer, and the rich soil and steady rainfall produced bountiful harvests. Successive waves of invaders made the plains of southern England their primary objective. After the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century, populations grew enormously in areas with rich resources beneath the ground, particularly coal, even though these resources were sometimes located in the colder, harsher northern regions of England or the western Lowlands of Scotland.

Environmental Issues

Environmental protection is an important issue in the United Kingdom because as a highly populated and technologically advanced nation grows the environment suffers. Compared to many other industrialized nations, the country has a relatively good record of protecting the environment. Much environmental activity involves ordinary citizens at the local level, while the national government provides leadership, goals, and direction, particularly through the secretary of state for the environment. The United Kingdom, along with other prospering nations, has contributed funds and expertise toward global efforts to preserve the environment. In 2007, 12.7 percent of the United Kingdom was protected by national parks, regional parks, and smaller protected areas.

As the world’s first industrialized society, Britain has a long history of dealing with environmental problems. Contamination from sewerage, impure water supplies, and filthy streets from massive horse traffic were all problems handled with success before World War I broke out in 1914. Air pollution from smoke remained a major problem until the Clean Air Act was passed in 1955, a measure that reduced industrial pollution by three-quarters. The increased substitution of gas and electricity for coal as a source of energy further reduced air pollution, both from industry and homes. In recent decades, however, the large increase in the number of motor vehicles has erased many of the gains achieved by the Clean Air Act. River pollution has been more difficult to deal with. This is partly because local sewerage authorities, which were among the worst polluters, were represented on the boards regulating pollution in the rivers. In 1989 a National Rivers Authority was created that has no connection with potential polluters, and Britain’s rivers are slowly improving.

Since the 1940s one of the most serious environmental problems has been disposal of radioactive waste, including the dismantling of nuclear power stations after they become obsolete. The country’s early nuclear industry disposed of radioactive waste by ocean dumping, leaving a legacy of contamination, particularly in the Irish Sea. Another serious environmental issue is the pressure to develop more land. To maintain productive agricultural land and viable agricultural communities, Britain has severely restricted urban and suburban development in some areas. As a result, land prices are extremely high.


Britain has a diverse population that includes people with connections to every continent of the world. The ethnic origins of this population have been complicated by immigration, intermarriage, and the constant relocation of people in this highly developed industrial and technological society. Nevertheless, a few particulars about the historical formation of the population are noteworthy.

Early Ethnic Groups

Britain’s predominant historical stock is called Anglo-Saxon. Germanic peoples from Europe—the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes—arrived in Britain in massive numbers between the 5th and 7th centuries AD (see Ancient Britain).These people tended to be tall, blond, and blue-eyed. Their language became the foundation of the basic, short, everyday words in modern English. These groups invaded and overwhelmed Roman Britain, choosing to settle on the plains of England because of the mild climate and good soils. Native Britons fought the great flood of Germanic peoples, and many Britons who survived fled west to the hill country. These refugees and native Britons were Celts who had absorbed the earliest peoples on the island, the prehistoric people known as Iberians. Celts tended to be shorter than Anglo-Saxons and have rounder heads. Most had darker hair, but a strikingly high percentage of Celts had red hair.

After the Anglo-Saxon conquest, the Celts remained in Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and the West Country (the southwestern peninsula of Britain), where Celtic languages are still used to some extent and Celtic culture is still celebrated. This geographic separation between the Germanic Anglo-Saxons and the Celts has broken down over the centuries as people have migrated and intermarried.

A substantial number of Scandinavians raided and settled in Great Britain and Ireland during the 9th century. By then the Anglo-Saxons had established agricultural and Christian communities, and eventually they succeeded in subduing and integrating the Scandinavians into their kingdoms. In 1066 the Normans, French-speaking invaders of Norse origin, conquered England, adding yet another ethnic component. Although the Normans were the last major group to add their stock to the British population, waves of other foreigners and refugees have immigrated to Britain for religious, political, and economic reasons. Protestant French (see Huguenots) sought refuge in the 17th century, sailors of African ancestry came in the 18th century, and Jews from central and eastern Europe immigrated in the late 19th century and during the 1930s and late 1940s.

Immigration After World War II

Most British people attribute their origins to the early invaders, calling themselves English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, or Ulsterites. The Ulsterites are an ethnically controversial group—some claim they are Scottish and others identify themselves as Protestant Irish. The remaining share of the population consists of minorities who arrived, for the most part, in the decades following the end of World War II in 1945.

These minorities—Chinese, Asian Indians, Pakistanis, Africans, and Caribbean people of African ancestry—came to Britain in substantial numbers after 1945. Immigration from the South Asian subcontinent (India and Pakistan) stabilized in the 1990s, but immigration from African countries continued to rise. By the late 1990s more than half of the people in these categories had been born in the United Kingdom. These newer ethnic groups tend to live in the more urban and industrial areas of England, especially in London, Birmingham, and Leeds. In 2004 the right to work in Britain was opened to people in central Europe and the Baltic countries, and they began to form the latest group of immigrants.

Although population censuses have been taken in the United Kingdom every decade since 1801, the 1991 census was the first to include a question on ethnic origin. In the 2001 census just over 92 percent of the population was described as white. Asian Indians made up 1.8 percent of the British population; Pakistanis, 1.3 percent; Caribbeans, 1 percent; Africans, 0.8 percent; Bangladeshis, 0.5 percent; and Chinese, 0.4 percent.

The United Kingdom is generally a prosperous, well-educated, and tolerant society, and ethnic differences have sparked relatively little violence and hostility. Local and national government programs exist to seek fairness and justice for ethnic minorities. Educational programs and the law bolster equal opportunity. The Race Relations Act of 1976 makes it illegal to discriminate against any person because of race, color, nationality, or origin, and it is a criminal offense to incite racial hatred. However, class tensions and racial unrest—especially conflict between white police forces and nonwhite immigrants—have flared from time to time in crowded and impoverished urban neighborhoods. In addition, high unemployment rates have made it difficult for immigrants to find jobs. Tensions heightened in July 2005 after four young British Muslims were implicated in the suicide bombings of three underground trains and a bus in London. Although the bombings were linked to Britain’s participation in the U.S.-Iraq War, some politicians sought to tighten British immigration policy in the aftermath of the bombings.

In late 2007 the government unveiled substantial reforms to the entry criteria for people wishing to work, train, or study in the United Kingdom. The new criteria utilized a points-based system, which set a threshold for points needed for entry and awarded points according to the skills and earning potential of applicants. The new system replaced work permits and other entry schemes. In addition, all low-skilled workers from countries outside the European Union (EU) were to be denied entry. Workers from within the EU were not required to obtain permission prior to entry.

Demographic Trends

From the 18th century until well into the 19th century, Britain’s population soared as the death rate dropped and the birth rate remained high. During this period the total population increased from approximately 6 million in the 1760s to 26 million in the 1870s. Toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century the birth rate stabilized and the death rate remained low. The population took on the characteristics of a modern, developed, and prosperous state. Family size decreased and the median age of the population rose. Compared to the rest of the world, the UK has a smaller percentage of younger people and a higher percentage of older people, with more than 20 percent over the age of 60; those under the age of 15 years make up only 13 percent of the population. Life expectancy in 2009 was 77 years for men and 81.6 years for women. Britain’s population has been growing slowly, slower than the average for countries in the European Union.

Population Statistics

The United Kingdom has a population of 61,113,205 (2009 estimate), with an average population density of 253 persons per sq km (655 per sq mi). The population density of the United Kingdom is one of the highest in Europe, exceeded by Netherlands and Belgium. England is the most populated part of the United Kingdom, with 50,094,000 people (2004), which means nearly four-fifths of the United Kingdom’s population resides in England. It is also the most densely populated portion of the United Kingdom, with a population density of 384 persons per sq km (995 per sq mi). Scotland possesses 5,078,000 people, and a population density of 64 persons per sq km (167 per sq mi). Wales has 2,952,000 people, with a population density of 142 persons per sq km (368 per sq mi). Northern Ireland’s population is 1,710,000, and it has 121 persons per sq km (313 per sq mi).

Britain’s population is overwhelmingly urban, with 89 percent living in urban areas and 11 percent living in rural areas. The Industrial Revolution built up major urban areas, and most of Britain’s people live in and around them to this day. England’s population is densest in the London area, around Birmingham and Coventry in the Midlands, and in northern England near the old industrial centers of Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, and Newcastle upon Tyne. In the 1980s and 1990s southern England, particularly the southeast, became a center of population growth, due in large part to the growth of the high-tech and service sectors of the economy.

In Wales two-thirds of the people live in the industrial southern valleys. In Scotland three-quarters of the people live in the central lowlands, around Glasgow to the west and Edinburgh to the east. About half of the people living in Northern Ireland reside in the eastern portion, in Belfast and along the coast.

The population of Greater London is about 7.2 million (2001 census), making it by far the most populous city in the United Kingdom. It is the seat of government, center of business, and the heart of arts and culture. Birmingham is the second largest city, with 976,400 people. Other large cities in the United Kingdom include Leeds with 715,500, Glasgow with 578,700, and Sheffield with 513,100. Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, has a population of about 449,000; Cardiff, the capital of Wales, has 305,200 people; and Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, has a population of 277,200.


English is the official language of the United Kingdom and is the first language of the vast majority of its citizens. The use of language was extremely important to Britain’s class structure for much of the 20th century. Some educated English people, regardless of their class origin, strove to free themselves of regional or local accents in order to sound like educated English-speaking people. Others, including people from East London and people in northern England, enjoyed their particular way of speaking, regarding it as warmer and friendlier than standard English. Many regional and local speech patterns and accents remained in use, and in recent decades they have become far more acceptable in all social circles. BBC broadcasters today have Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish regional accents.

The Celtic language, an ancient tongue, continues to be spoken in Scotland by some people, usually those in the more remote fringes of the country, especially in the Hebrides Islands. Approximately 80,000 Scots speak Scottish Gaelic, a type of Celtic language. English is the predominant language in Northern Ireland, although at least some of the Roman Catholic minority speak Irish, another Gaelic dialect, as a second language.

The ancient Celtic language of Wales is strongly tied to the cultural nationalism of the region. At the time of the 2001 census, about 21 percent of the Welsh population could speak Welsh. Welsh is spoken in northern and western Wales much more than in southern Wales, where many English people have relocated. Many schools in Wales offer bilingual education, and there is a Welsh-language television channel. In 1993, after long and considerable agitation by Welsh nationalists, the government made Welsh a joint official language with English in Wales for use in the courts, the civil service, and other aspects of the public sector.


The United Kingdom guarantees its citizens religious freedom without interference from the state or the community, and most of the world’s religions have followers in Britain. As in many European countries today, the majority of the population in Britain does not regularly attend religious services, yet nearly all faiths have devoted congregations of active members. An increasing percentage of the population professes no religious faith and some organizations represent secular outlooks. Estimating membership is difficult because congregations count their members differently, and government figures rely upon the numbers provided by the different groups.

In the past religion was often deeply entwined with politics. The only place this is still true in the United Kingdom is in Northern Ireland, where two communities use religious designations to express different, and hostile, political agendas. Many Protestants, largely descendants of Scottish and English settlers, are interested in maintaining their union with Britain, while some Roman Catholics campaign strongly for union with Ireland. (see Northern Ireland: History.)

The Established Churches

The United Kingdom has two established churches: the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. An established church is the legally recognized official church of the state. The Church of England, also called the Anglican Church, is a Protestant Episcopal church. It is the parent body of churches belonging to the Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church of the United States. The Church in Wales and the Church of Ireland, once members of the Church of England, belong to the Anglican Communion but are not the official churches of their states.

The Church of England claims to be an apostolic church, meaning it traces a direct line of bishops back to the 12 apostles of Jesus. Anglicans also speak of themselves as a catholic, or universal, church, with a lowercase c, meaning that their beliefs are intended for humankind as a whole. Since its inception in the 16th century, the Church of England has debated how close its practices should be to those of the Roman Catholic Church. The history of the Church of England is marked by the division between High Church, with practices that favor Roman Catholicism, and Low Church, with practices that are more Protestant. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the Anglican Church was involved in a serious controversy over the ordination of women, which it finally allowed in 1992, and in 1994 the first women were ordained as priests in the Anglican Church. This action caused some Anglican clerics and lay people to convert to Roman Catholicism. Further controversy erupted in the early 2000s over the ordination of gay clergy.

The British monarch, who must be a member of the Anglican Church, holds the titles of Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith. The monarch appoints archbishops and bishops upon the advice of the prime minister, who consults a commission that includes both lay people and clergy. Two archbishops and 24 senior bishops sit in the House of Lords. The archbishop of Canterbury holds the title of Primate of All England; another archbishop presides at York. Changes in church ritual can only be made with the consent of Parliament.

About 47 percent of the British population is Anglican. A third of the marriages in Britain are performed in the Anglican Church. Many members are merely baptized, married, and buried in the church, but do not otherwise attend services. More than a million people attend the Church of England on an average Sunday.

The established church in Scotland is the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian (see Presbyterianism). The Presbyterian Church is governed by courts composed of ministers and elders. The Church of Scotland is not subject to state control. It is the principal religious group in Scotland and has about 600,000 members. A number of independent Scottish Presbyterian churches exist; these are largely descended from groups that broke away from the Church of Scotland.

Other Religious Groups

The Roman Catholic Church has an extensive formal structure in Britain made up of provinces, dioceses, and local parishes. The Catholic Church has many orders—groups of ordained men and women who follow special religious rules—and maintains an extensive school system out of public funds. About 16 percent of the population identifies itself as Roman Catholic.

A number of Protestant denominations are called Free Churches; in the past they were called Nonconformist or Dissenting churches. The Methodist Church is the largest of these (see Methodism). Others include the Baptist Union of Great Britain, along with Baptist Unions in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland; Free Presbyterian churches in England, Wales, and Scotland; and the United Reformed Church.

Other Christian religious groups include Unitarians, Pentecostals, Quakers, Christian Brethren, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Christian Scientists, and Mormons.

The fast-growing Muslim community numbered 1.6 million, or more than 2 percent of the total population. Britain has the second largest Jewish community in Western Europe, with some 275,000 people. There are also about 580,000 Hindus, 340,000 Sikhs, and thousands of Jains and Buddhists. Newer religious movements and sects have also flourished in Britain, including the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church.


Historical Importance of Education

Education is a vital concern throughout Britain because a highly developed nation depends upon educated professionals and a skilled workforce. The literacy rate in Britain is one of the highest in the world at over 99 percent. Education is compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 and 16.

Britain’s first education act, in 1870, was inspired by the pioneering example of mass compulsory education in Germany and provided for state-financed primary education. Another major education act, passed in 1902, established local education authorities (LEAs) that were responsible for providing schools and education in their areas. The act also authorized LEAs to use public funds for church-affiliated schools. This policy was severely criticized by people whose children attended state schools because their taxes were used to support church schools. The 1902 act also established scholarships for secondary education. An education act passed in 1944 and administered by the newly created Ministry of Education established free and compulsory secondary education up to age 15; this was increased to age 16 in 1973. An education reform act in 1988 allowed individual schools to control their own affairs and budgets, free from LEAs, and to receive grants directly from the government. It also established a controversial national curriculum, which was simplified in 1994 after complaints about its complexity. Legislation pertaining to education is laden with controversies because of education’s importance in Britain.

Contrasts with American Education

Compared to the United States, fewer people go on to higher education in Britain, and there is more emphasis on segregating pupils at the lower levels on the basis of ability. Most British schools are funded by the central government, with local governments providing supplemental funding. England and Wales have a national curriculum of core courses for students 5 to 16 years old, and schools are inspected by the Office for Standards in Education. National tests at the ages of 7, 11, and 14 assess students’ progress. Schools must provide religious education and daily collective worship for all pupils, although parents can withdraw their children from these. Full-time school begins at age 5 in Great Britain and at age 4 in Northern Ireland. In addition, many 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in specialized nursery schools or in nursery classes at primary schools.

In Britain, the term form is used to designate grade; old boys and old girls refer to people who have graduated from a school. Private schools or independent schools are called public schools, a term that means just the opposite in the United States. What are called public schools in the United States are called state schools in Britain. When a person is sent down from school, it means he or she has been thrown out. Grammar schools are university preparatory schools, most of which have been replaced by comprehensive schools catering to students of all academic abilities. Secondary modern schools provide vocational education rather preparation for university entrance.

Types of Schools in Britain

The most famous schools in Britain are private boarding schools, such as Eton College, Harrow School, Rugby School, and Winchester School. These famous private schools, founded during the Middle Ages, are theoretically open to the public, but in reality are attended by those who can afford the fees. Many of Britain’s leaders have attended these private schools, which cater to the wealthy and influential but also offer some scholarships to gifted poorer children. Local authorities and the central authority also provide assistance to some families who are unable to pay the fees. Only a small percentage of the population can attend these ancient and highly prestigious schools. A variety of other schools are also private, including kindergartens, day schools, and newer boarding schools. Private schools that take pupils from the age of 7 to the age of 11, 12, or 13 are called preparatory schools. Private schools that take older pupils from the age of 11, 12, or 13 to 18 or 19 are often referred to as public schools. Only 7 percent of British students attend private school.

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the education systems are similar. The majority of the students attend schools wholly or partly supported with public funds. These include state schools owned and funded by LEAs; voluntary schools established and funded mostly by religious denominations; self-governing or grant-maintained (GM) schools that receive funds directly from the government rather than local authorities; and specialist schools that are connected to a private backer. Most pupils attend LEA schools.

In Scotland, educational authorities are largely independent of those in the rest of the United Kingdom, although reforms, such as raising the age at which students may leave school, are similar. Nearly all Scottish schools are comprehensive, meaning they serve students of all abilities, and school boards involve parents and professionals. Recent reforms introduced local management of schools and allow state schools to become self-governing if voters approve the change in an election. The school then receives funds directly from the central government instead of from the local authority.

In 1997 Scotland elected to form its own legislature, separate from the Parliament in London. Through its parliament, Scotland can address its own educational issues and create its own educational authorities. These authorities have the responsibilities once handled by the secretary of state for Scotland and other non-Scottish educational organizations. Wales also elected its own governing body, the Welsh Assembly, with the power to make similar decisions regarding the Welsh education system.

In Northern Ireland most schools are segregated by religious affiliation. Local educational authorities provide for schools, but many secondary students in Northern Ireland attend schools maintained by either the Catholic or the Protestant church. Many Protestant schools that are not maintained by the church reserve a place on the school board for a church representative. In an attempt to break down religious segregation and provide integrated education, the state established a number of integrated schools.

Education Beyond Age 16

At the age of 16, prior to leaving school, students are tested in various subjects to earn a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). If they wish to go on to higher education at a university, they take Advanced Level examinations, commonly known as “A” Levels. Scotland has comparable qualifications. About a third of British students leave school as soon as possible after turning 16, usually taking lower-level jobs in the workforce. Those who stay in school past the age of 16 may pursue either further education or higher education. Further education is largely vocational, as is adult education. Students may also stay in school until age 18 to prepare for higher education.

The percentage of young people entering universities in Britain is far lower than in the United States, where more than half attend. In Britain the proportion of students entering university rose from one in six in 1989 to almost one in three in 1996. In 2001–2002 there were over 2.2 million students enrolled in full- or part-time higher education in Great Britain, compared with just under 850,000 a decade earlier. By 1995 over 47 percent of 16- to 24-year olds were undertaking some form of higher education in the United Kingdom, and by 2001 more than 18 percent of the population had achieved a degree-level (or equivalent) educational qualification.

Britain has about 90 universities. British universities can be divided into several categories. The foremost universities are the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, both founded in the Middle Ages. The term Oxbridge is used to refer to both schools as a single entity, much as Americans would use the term Ivy League in reference to the group of prestigious East Coast universities. Scotland has equivalent ancient institutions at Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St. Andrews. Another type of university is the so-called redbrick variety—old and solid schools built in the 19th century when bricks were the standard building material. The large number of ultramodern universities that sprouted up in the last half of the 20th century are often called cement block and plateglass universities. London has its own great schools, the enormous University of London and its world-famous college, the London School of Economics.

Students interested in advanced education can also attend polytechnics, which are schools dedicated to the sciences and applied technology. An education act in 1992 changed the status of these colleges to universities. Higher education can also be obtained through the Open University, founded in 1969, which offers extension courses taught through correspondence, television and radio programs, and videocassettes. It also sponsors local study centers and residential summer schools. The purpose of the Open University is to reach people who may not ordinarily be qualified for university study.

Social Structure

Historical Background

Britain’s social structure developed much like the social structure in other European nations. In the past, most people inherited their class because there was limited social mobility until modern times. Those with incomes from rents and property payments were considered in the upper class; those who dealt with paper, either in business or in a profession, were middle class; and those who did manual labor, such as carpentry and factory work, were in the working class.

Upper, landed classes that controlled most of the agricultural land and wealth emerged during the Middle Ages. Families from these upper classes became the nobility, or aristocracy, and played key political roles on the monarch’s councils, in the House of Lords in Parliament, and in local government. Often members of the House of Lords from the nobility had politically conservative views. England’s upper-class social structure differed from that of the rest of Europe in three important ways. In addition to a landowning nobility with the right to sit in the House of Lords, a lower upper class developed that, while still landed, didn’t have the same privileges as the nobility. Secondly, the aristocracy did not lose its status during Britain’s revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries as the Continental aristocracy did during revolutions in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Lastly, inheritance arrangements based on primogeniture, a system in which the first-born son is the prime inheritor, encouraged a degree of social mobility.

The lower upper class has been called knights, squires, gentry, or country gentlemen. Members of this class were elected to the House of Commons and played a major role in asserting control over monarchs through their positions in Parliament during the revolutions of the 17th century. Many present-day members of the House of Commons are still drawn from this class, and they continue to play significant roles in local politics and as leaders in society.

Because Britain was spared the wave of revolutions that began in France in 1789, its noble families did not have their estates or wealth confiscated. These families increased their wealth during the Industrial Revolution, because they owned much of the land from which natural resources were taken. Several families can trace their enormous wealth and significant involvement in politics at the highest levels back hundreds of years. In recent centuries steep inheritance taxes have accomplished what revolutions failed to do earlier. Nevertheless, most of Britain’s nobles have found ways to retain their land and resources and, in most cases, their prestige.

The principle of primogeniture has had significant consequences for social structure in Britain. In noble families the first-born son, as the prime inheritor, gains the title while his siblings have only courtesy titles. These siblings were likely to do something off of the estate, such as governing a colony, serving as a general in the army, or playing a part in politics. The younger sons could not sit in the House of Lords, but they could have political careers in the House of Commons. Many younger sons of aristocrats also followed religious careers, becoming bishops and archbishops. For the gentry, or lower upper classes, primogeniture usually meant the first-born son inherited the estate and the younger sons sought other occupations, perhaps as doctors, lawyers, or writers. Many went into professions in which they studied and worked with members of the middle class. This made for an element of social mobility in the class structure, although for the gentry it could mean downward social mobility.

Marriages were extremely important to the nobility, as they could provide alliances with other families to increase a family’s prestige or influence. Families usually took a strong hand in arranging marriages. Women were expected to marry within their rank, but a woman with a large dowry could often marry someone with a higher social status—an eligible young nobleman or a gentleman—whose income fell far short of his expenditures.

By the 17th century, a “middling order” existed that included farmers, merchants, clergy, and military officers. The middle class evolved rapidly during the 18th century as more and more people became involved in businesses and professions and became wealthier. As towns and cities grew, particularly with the sudden and massive growth experienced during the Industrial Revolution, this class expanded further—people in the middle class ranged from humble clerks to bankers and factory owners. The middle classes placed great emphasis on education, social advancement, economic gain, and accumulating material wealth.

Until the Industrial Revolution, the working class included predominantly agricultural laborers. The general population increased during the 18th and 19th centuries, prompting the need for new ways to survive. As jobs became plentiful in new industries, the working class shifted from agriculture to mining and factory jobs. Thereafter most workers labored in industrial production and mining. In recent decades the number of working-class employees in service industries has risen dramatically. See also Thematic Essay: British Political and Social Thought

Current Trends

Many class distinctions have become blurred in Britain. Today only a small number of people are considered upper class, and their former influence in conservative politics has been largely taken over by wealthy people in the middle class. Liberal and left-wing politics have middle-class leadership as well. Because the British economy has created many semiprofessional and technical jobs, it is no longer easy to tell which jobs are middle class and which are working class. Moreover, growing national affluence has brought greater social mobility between the working class and the middle class. As technological advances have expanded the ranks of affluent professionals, managers, administrators, and technical experts, part of the working population has shifted into these positions and now identifies itself as middle class. Although prosperity may move working-class people into the middle class, no amount of wealth will guarantee upper-class status, which is determined by land and family.

The increasingly widespread distribution of capital has also blurred class lines, as more money in the form of stocks, bonds, property, and bank accounts is in more hands. Many middle-class employees and workers have become owners of capital. Much of the 20th century saw a decreasing inequality in wealth, due in part to the spread of home ownership and the creation of government programs to promote equal access to health services and education. Inequality in income began to increase during the 1980s.

Family structure has changed as well. Married couples have an average of two children, a figure that has not changed since World War II. However, marriage rates fell in the 1980s, and there has been a significant shift from formal marriage to stable cohabitation. By 1993 one-third of births were to parents who were not formally married; by the early 2000s, this number had surpassed two-fifths (42 percent).

Current Social Problems

Perhaps the worst feature of the current class situation in Britain is the existence of a permanent underclass. These people are on the dole, that is, on welfare, permanently. They subsist in poor surroundings with little hope that they or their children, who usually drop out of school, will break out of the cycle of poverty. This segment of the population lives in the run-down neighborhoods of cities such as Glasgow, Liverpool, and Leeds. In the mid-1990s it was estimated that about 23 percent of the population lived in poverty, one of the highest poverty rates in Europe.

Another social problem, somewhat related to this underclass, has been the rise in crime and violence. Vandalism and rowdiness by youths are problems in British society, and the brutality of British football (soccer) fans has gained international notoriety. These outbursts stand out in a society where civility and politeness are prominent characteristics. Yet overall the rate of violent crime, and crime in general, remains far below that of the United States. In 1996 about 92 percent of the offenses recorded by the police in England and Wales were directed against property; only 7 percent involved violence.

The degree to which racism is a problem in Britain is a source of debate. Some say it is a hidden tradition and others believe that decency and fair play prevail. Expressions of racism include not only those based on color but also those based on culture. Poverty, poor housing, and unemployment were some of the causes behind inner-city disturbances of the 1980s. Black people and some groups of Asians in Britain suffer from higher unemployment than whites, and have had comparatively little mobility within the employment market. These groups also have tended to have inferior housing, education, and health care. The situation is improving among the generations born in Britain.

As the percentage of women in Britain’s workforce has risen, women have struggled for equal pay for equal work. The state passed an Equal Pay Act in 1970 that has been aggressively applied to civil service, teaching, and local government jobs. The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 made discrimination between men and women unlawful in employment, education, training, housing, facilities, and services. In 1987 another Sex Discrimination bill sought to bring the 1975 measure within guidelines established by the European Economic Community (now the European Union). In the early 2000s about one-fifth of the members of the House of Commons were women.

Social Services

National Health Care

The British government administers an extensive health and welfare system that the Labour government established between 1945 and 1951. The National Health Service Act of 1946 established the socialized health-care system that went into effect in 1948 (see National Health Insurance). Because citizens were deemed to have a right to free health care, it provided free medical care for all British people regardless of income. The system covered physician and dental services, prescription drugs, hospital care, eyeglasses, and dentures. It provided better health care than most people could previously afford, but the program cost more than anticipated. Therefore, some charges were introduced for prescriptions, dentures, and eyeglasses. Nevertheless, costs for the government remained high due to expensive new technologies, as well as the growing demand for services, especially by the increasing number of elderly people.

General taxation pays for most of the system’s cost, and the national insurance payment—money that employers and employees contribute—takes care of the remainder. Treatment fees for items such as prescriptions and eyewear have risen for patients in recent decades. Certain patients—including children, pregnant women, the unemployed, those disabled in the armed forces, men over 65, and women over 60—are exempt from payments or fees. Hospital care remains free. Most doctors, dentists, nurses, and health-care professionals are members of the National Health Service (NHS), although some see fee-paying private patients outside of the system.

The controversial NHS and Community Care Act of 1990 sought to make health care more efficient and less costly by encouraging competition within the health-care industry. The act allowed hospitals and other health-care professionals to become trusts that directly control the funds they receive from the government. They now could determine their own staffing needs, salaries, and service fees, things previously determined by local health authorities, who controlled their funds. Under the 1990 act, local health authorities, which are responsible for providing health care to the public with government money, would “purchase” health care for patients from these trusts. In addition, general practitioners (GPs), or ordinary family doctors, were encouraged to become fundholders or directly manage the NHS funds allotted for their patients. The new health-care arrangements were designed to bring competitive market forces to bear upon health care, with the trusts competing to become the facility chosen by local health authorities and GPs to provide health care to patients.

In order to improve service and guarantee higher levels of patient care, Patient’s Charters were started in 1992. The charters list the rights and service standards patients can expect. In particular, they pledge to provide treatment within a specific time span, since long delays for treatment and elective surgery were among the chief complaints about the system. Since 1992 separate charters have been created for the various kinds of health services, such as for dental, mental health, and maternity care. In contrast, emergency care has always gained high approval.

The system established in 1990 has been criticized. Patients of doctors who were not fundholders complained they were not receiving hospital treatment as quickly as patients whose doctors managed their funds. The new hospital trusts are criticized for their admissions policies, including sending patients to other hospitals, and for not being sufficiently accountable for spending. While NHS hospitals have long waiting lists, private hospitals have empty beds because fewer people can afford them. The Labour government increased funding for the NHS and instituted reforms of the payment system and administrative structure. Despite the reforms and increased funding, the NHS was running huge deficits in the early 2000s and services had not improved.


Welfare services in Britain are supported by taxpayers and are meant to act as a safety net for the entire society from birth to death. The needs of those in difficulty are met by local authorities, who draw upon funds provided by the central government. Revenue for the system also comes from compulsory weekly contributions by employees and employers. Those in need receive weekly cash benefits. There are also special services for the disabled.

The National Insurance Act of 1946 consolidated earlier welfare legislation, expanded coverage, and increased benefits for a number of programs, including unemployment insurance, industrial injuries, retiree pensions, sickness insurance, maternity and widows’ benefits, and death grants. Today there are family allowances for children up to the age of 16 (18 if the child is still in school full time), as well as allowances for guardians and widows. Pensions for the elderly, or retirement benefits, begin for men at the age of 65 and for women at the age of 60. The pension age for women was set to rise to age 65 between 2010 and 2020.


Britain’s rich cultural heritage and traditions are the main reasons why it has millions of overseas visitors each year. The attractions include the many theaters, museums, art galleries, and historical buildings to be found in all parts of the United Kingdom, as well as the numerous annual arts festivals and the pageantry associated with the British royal family. The expansion of tourism, combined with the collapse of many traditional economic activities, has helped encourage the growth since the 1980s of the so-called heritage industry, seen in the explosion of “living” museums illustrating Britain’s rural and industrial past.

Historical Context of the Arts

The United Kingdom has a long history of excellence in the arts. British contributions to literature are remarkable in their richness, variety, and consistency. For many centuries in Britain and elsewhere, art and music were the domain of the nobility, who patronized the arts and set the tone and style into the Victorian era. Britain’s artistic output was focused on literature in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the country came late to Renaissance influences in art and architecture that had been prevalent on the Continent since the 15th century. As a Protestant nation, Britain did not experience the full flowering of the baroque era that followed the Renaissance in Roman Catholic countries, such as Italy and Spain, during the 17th and 18th centuries (see Baroque Art and Architecture). English style during the late 18th century was more reminiscent of the classical world of the Greeks and Romans. In the 19th century, a movement called romanticism sought to make art more emotional. Exotic places, the beauty of nature, and fascination with the Middle Ages were themes that became the hallmarks of romantic artists and writers.

During the Victorian era Britain became the world’s first urban, industrialized society, and a vast middle class developed. More people had the time, education, and inclination to appreciate the arts, and the middle class developed an interest in literature, art, and music. A close relationship evolved between this large audience and the creators of art and literature because authors wrote about and painters depicted characters, situations, and scenes either familiar or interesting to large numbers of middle-class people. Although some of the works created were trite and ordinary, such as sweet paintings of dogs and children, many others were not.

The time and money spent on the arts continued to increase during the 20th century, particularly after World War II ended in 1945. Popular music and film have had the widest audiences, although classical music and ballet still attract significant numbers of people. In the postwar era, serious musical compositions came from modern composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle. Britain attained prominence in modern sculpture through the work of Sir Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and others.

Cultural Traditions Today

London has the greatest concentration of theaters, orchestras, and galleries, and is also the main home of the print and broadcast media, and of the fashion, recording, motion picture, and publishing industries—as such, it often seems to dominate modern British culture. However, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the regions of England all have vigorous cultural traditions that have contributed to and still enrich all aspects of British life. The traditions and abilities of the various ethnic minorities are also reflected in modern British culture, notably in music and literature, and are celebrated in events like the annual Notting Hill Carnival in west London.

The traditional music, song, and dance of Scotland, much of it derived from the country’s Gaelic heritage, thrives in the ceilidh, the (bag)pipe band, and the Highland games. In the contemporary arts, Scotland has noted museums, galleries, and orchestras, and national ballet and opera companies. It also hosts the world’s premier arts festival, the annual Edinburgh International Festival; Britain’s second-largest arts festival, the Mayfest, is held in Glasgow. The choral and bardic traditions of Wales are seen most notably in the country’s male-voice choirs and in the eisteddfod. These annual festivals celebrating Welsh music, poetry, and customs are held throughout Wales, culminating in the Royal National Eisteddfod, which has developed into an international festival of the arts. Cardiff is home to the Welsh National Opera, one of Britain’s leading symphony orchestras, and several museums. In Northern Ireland, the ancient Celtic traditions of the whole island coexist with those of the descendants of the English and Scottish settlers. Opera Northern Ireland, the Ulster Symphony Orchestra, and the national Ulster Museum are based in Belfast.

In England, ancient folk traditions are maintained in all parts of the country. Many are unique to particular areas; some, like the morris dance, are more widespread. All English cities and many towns have art galleries and museums. Many contain notable collections.

British society is overwhelmingly urban, but it has retained distinct links with its rural past. These links are reflected in the popularity of gardening, and in the working-class tradition of growing vegetables on allotments. Sport is important in Britain, and the British originated or developed the modern forms and rules of a number of sports—notably soccer (known as football in Britain), rugby, cricket, tennis, polo, horse racing, field hockey, and croquet. Angling (fishing) is the most popular British sport or pastime, attracting more active participants than soccer.


By the end of the 20th century, English had become a true world language, and English literature is taught today in secondary schools and universities everywhere. Famous English poets, playwrights, and novelists are quoted, translated, and loved throughout the world. Welsh, Scottish, and Irish writers who write in English rather than in their native Celtic tongues are customarily included as contributors to English literature. For the development of literature in the British Isles, see Cornish Literature, English Literature, Gaelic Literature, Irish Literature, Scottish Literature, and Welsh Literature.

The earliest celebrated example of English literature is the bloody Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, written sometime between the 8th century and the late 10th century. After the Norman conquest in 1066, French was the language of the ruling elite, but native Britons still spoke English. The greatest English writer of the Middle Ages was Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century. This work displayed not only the vigor and vitality of the English language, but also shaped the future of the language for centuries to come.

A great flowering of English writing took place in the late 16th century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The themes of Englishness, love, violence, and the turmoil of human emotions were explored from a nonreligious standpoint. Poetry was considered the most polished form of literary expression. The Faerie Queene (Books I-III, 1590; Books IV-VI, 1596), an epic poem in six books by Edmund Spenser, is one of the masterpieces of the century. The sonnet, a poetry style that uses a formal rhyme scheme, was used by Sir Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare, who excelled at this form.

A shift to spiritual themes began in the early 17th century, as seen in the writings of John Donne, who is famous not only for his religious sermons but also for his love poetry. Donne’s complex and dramatic style made him one of the founders of metaphysical poetry. Amid the religious and civil turmoil of the English Revolution in the mid-17th century, Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Donne, wrote plays and poetry in a formal style that rejected the floweriness of 16th-century writing. This more classical style inspired a group of writers who became known as Cavalier Poets. The prose of John Milton also shared this classical style. His works, mostly pamphlets, supported the Puritan side of the revolution by stressing civil and religious liberty. Milton’s later works, the poems Paradise Lost (1667) and Paradise Regained (1671), were written in blank verse. This unrhymed poetry focused on such religious themes as the fall of Adam and human redemption. John Bunyan wrote the popular work The Pilgrim’s Progress (published in two parts, 1678 and 1684), which depicts Christian salvation as a journey.

This classical writing style continued from the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 to the middle of the 18th century, a century often called the Age of Enlightenment. It was during this time that the modern novel emerged as a popular form of expression. The modern novel encompassed stories about people and their relation to society, whether they lived within society’s confines or not. Journalist Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe (1719) and a number of other popular adventure novels. Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift authored Gulliver’s Travels (1726), a charming and biting social commentary. Bawdy and wild aspects of 18th-century life are reflected in the novel Tom Jones (1749), by writer and lawyer Henry Fielding. It was also during the 18th century that writer and literary critic Samuel Johnson compiled his Dictionary of the English Language (1755).

Toward the end of the 18th century, a reaction against reason, rationalism, and the physical world developed. This movement (romanticism) pervaded many aspects of society. The romantic movement in literature idealized nature and was characterized by a highly imaginative and subjective approach. Emotions and exotic places, both present and past, became central to countless lengthy novels and torrents of poetry. Poet William Wordsworth found his inspiration in nature, while Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Blake were inspired by mysticism. Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats wrote romantic poetry. Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, whose most famous work is Ivanhoe (1819), wrote more than 20 historical novels, many of them set in the Middle Ages.

Women also made their mark as writers during the romantic period. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is noted for the Gothic novel Frankenstein (1818), which took the romantic interest in emotions to the point of terror. Jane Austen wrote clever, elegant novels such as Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813). Her down-to-earth main characters were reactions against the emotionalism of romantic writers.

During the last two-thirds of the 19th century, the Victorian era produced an amazing number of popular novelists and poets. This time period saw the rise of an increasingly urbanized, middle-class, and educated society that included a much larger reading audience. Many authors wrote about characters and situations well-known or easily comprehensible to their audience and became universally popular and in touch with their vast readership to a degree not matched in the 20th century. Perhaps the most famous author of this time was Charles Dickens, who portrayed the hardships of the working class while criticizing middle-class life. Writers prominent during the heart of the Victorian period include George Eliot, who, despite being a critic of Christianity, was known for her intense, moral novels; William Makepeace Thackeray, who wrote humorous portrayals of middle- and upper-class life; the Brontë sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—whose novels tended to be autobiographical; Anthony Trollope, a keen observer of politics and upper Victorian society; and Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote children’s books, adventure stories, and poetry. The most popular of the many Victorian poets was Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Other famous poets include Matthew Arnold, Christina Rossetti, and Robert Browning and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

As the late Victorian era gave way to early modern times at the turn of the 20th century, the focus shifted away from stories of everyday Victorian life. The novels of Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, and Joseph Conrad possess a certain pessimism and uncertainty about life. In the early 20th century the dark, psychological novels of D. H. Lawrence were censored for their explicit language; his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) was banned as pornographic. The poetry of T. S. Eliot, especially The Waste Land (1922), expresses disillusionment with modern civilization, as do the popular novels of Aldous Huxley, who wrote Brave New World (1932). Exotic and foreign places are the settings of works by Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster. Forster’s novels became popular in the 1980s and 1990s as films, including A Room with a View (1908) and A Passage to India (1924). Irish writer James Joyce and English novelist Virginia Woolf were instrumental in forging the new stream-of-consciousness writing style. The rich and memorable poetry of Dylan Thomas made him the greatest Welsh poet of the 20th century.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Evelyn Waugh and P. G. Wodehouse wrote novels satirizing British upper-class life. In the mid-20th century the works of George Orwell, such as Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), focused on his fears about society. William Golding also expressed fears about the breakdown of society in his novel Lord of the Flies (1954). Works of fantasy were written during this period in response to the horrors of World War II. J. R. R. Tolkien is famous for his fantasy novels, particularly The Hobbit (1937) and its sequel, the trilogy Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). British writers whose work won attention in the late 20th century included novelists Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, and Ian McEwan; poets Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney; and dramatists Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and Michael Frayn.

Visual Arts

The earliest visual arts in Britain were most likely ornamentations on ordinary objects. Scandinavian wood carvings date from the 8th century, after Scandinavians came to Britain in considerable numbers. Decorative arts were particularly notable in early Christian Ireland, especially from the 6th to the 9th century. Irish missionaries, who were preaching Catholicism in Europe during this time period, brought Celtic metalworking techniques and stone carvings to Britain. Huge stone crosses, exquisitely decorated, still stand in northern Britain and Ireland. Painting was confined to illuminated manuscripts—bright and exactingly detailed miniature paintings in prayer books that were produced by monks. This art continued through the Middle Ages because books were still illustrated by hand, even after printing was invented in the mid-15th century. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was the chief patron of artists and sculptors, who were hired to decorate the massive cathedrals as well as local churches.

In early modern times portrait painting became important, particularly for monarchs interested in marriage opportunities abroad, and paintings of prospective spouses were often sent before making marital arrangements. Noted artists who produced paintings in early modern England were foreigners, such as German artist Hans Holbein the Younger in the 16th century and Flemish painter Sir Anthony van Dyck in the 17th century. English artists came to excel at miniature painting in the 17th century.

By the 18th century a distinctive British style began to emerge that tended to be brighter and livelier than the darker European canvases. British artists also stayed within the confines of neoclassical rationalism; that is, their art exhibited the values of order, logic, and proportion (see Neoclassical Art and Architecture). The etchings and paintings of William Hogarth show satirical scenes from ordinary life and were enormously popular. Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and George Romney became famous for their polished and elegant portraits. Gainsborough and others painted natural landscapes and seascapes. The artworks of Gavin Hamilton and John Flaxman depict Greek and Roman themes.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries romantic painters appeared who emphasized the beauties and forces of nature (see Romanticism). This is seen in the landscapes of John Constable and J. M. W. Turner, whose paintings directly influenced French impressionism. Noted poet William Blake was also a painter, and he illustrated his poems and stories with imaginative drawings.

Scores of artists in the Victorian era painted specifically for middle-class tastes. Sir Edwin Henry Landseer was noted for paintings that often feature animals, such as dogs or wildlife. Frederick Leighton painted mythological and historical subjects and illustrated popular magazines. William Powell Frith painted large, busy canvases in the popular style known as genre painting, which realistically depicted scenes from everyday life. Sophie Anderson painted sweet children.

In reaction to Victorian art styles and middle-class materialism, with its concern for worldly objects, several painters came together in 1848 and founded a movement called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They sought to return to an earlier, simpler time, and their works exhibited the brightness, color, and purity of medieval and Renaissance painting done before the time of Italian artist Raphael. These painters included William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and Sir John Everett Millais. This return to earlier traditions affected other aspects of the arts as well. Artist and poet William Morris sought to return to medieval traditions in craftsmanship. He is credited with founding the Arts and Crafts movement, which became influential in furniture, decorative items, and textile designs.

Toward the end of the Victorian era, art nouveau (literally, “new art”) developed out of the Arts and Crafts movement. Art nouveau is a decorative style with strong elements of fantasy. It borrowed motifs from sources as varied as Japanese prints, Gothic architecture, and the symbolic paintings of William Blake. This style, which became popular in Europe, influenced many art forms as well as architecture and interior design. The art nouveau illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, in particular, are still popular. Artists and architects from the Glasgow School, notably Charles Rennie Mackintosh, were noted for their work in both the Arts and Crafts and art nouveau styles.

Britain has produced many artists in the 20th century. They include sculptors Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, and Anthony Caro. Painters include Paul Nash, a war artist who painted scenes of landscapes and battles during both world wars; Sir Stanley Spencer, whose works often used biblical themes; and Graham Sutherland, who developed a unique style of landscape painting. Noted painters after World War II include Francis Bacon, whose paintings are steeped in the horrific; David Hockney, who also designed opera sets; and portrait painter Lucian Freud.


Some of the oldest examples of British architecture include a few small, squarish Anglo-Saxon buildings. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, Norman architecture became prevalent in the British Isles. The Normans built monumental castles and churches with enormous arches and huge columns. Their style was called Romanesque on the Continent. The greatest structures built by the Normans are the White Tower, which is part of the Tower of London, and the castle, cathedral, and monastery complex at Durham. From the 12th to the 15th century gracefully soaring spires and arches marked the development of the great Gothic cathedrals; two of these, Westminster Abbey in London and Lincoln Cathedral, still dominate the skylines of their cities. Between 1485 and 1625, the English started to incorporate some classic Roman and ornate elements of the Italian Renaissance into Tudor, Elizabethan, and Jacobean styles. During the Tudor era, brick became a popular building material for English country houses.

The architecture of the late Italian Renaissance was introduced in England by Inigo Jones in the 17th century. Jones was the first of the great British architects to be influenced by the ideas of Italian architects. Jones in turn influenced Sir Christopher Wren, Britain’s greatest architect, who studied the baroque style popular in Europe in the mid-17th century. After the devastating Great Fire of London in 1666, Wren helped in the rebuilding of the city. As the premier architect of the time, he designed 52 new churches in London. Many of his churches still stand. The grandest of them, Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, is an example of Wren’s distinctively graceful and monumental British style.

In the 18th century few English buildings followed the ornate patterns of the baroque and rococo architectures used in Europe. Rather, a more restrained, neoclassical style was introduced in Britain by Scottish architect Robert Adam. This style was based on the ancient ruins of Greece and Rome and incorporated such elements as colonnades and stone domes. English furniture and ceramics also became renowned in the 18th century. Thomas Chippendale and Thomas Sheraton were noted for their elegant furniture styles, and the ceramic designs produced by Josiah Wedgwood are still made.

Victorian architecture borrowed from a variety of styles, including classical, Gothic, and Renaissance, and was characterized by ornate decoration. The most famous Victorian neo-Gothic building is Parliament, built between 1840 and 1870. The only truly original building of the Victorian era was the Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was made of metal and glass, materials architects would come to use in constructing office buildings in the 20th century.

In the early 20th century, Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh rejected elaborate Victorian architecture styles for a more modern, functional design. His work influenced 20th-century architects and interior designers. After World War II many new buildings were needed to replace the ones destroyed during the war. Because London’s subsoil is not suitable as a foundation for tall skyscrapers, many of the new buildings erected were big and boxy with geometric designs. One of the largest examples of this style is the National Theatre in London. These cold and impersonal buildings have been criticized because they clash with the graceful London architecture that survived the war. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries architects Norman Foster and Richard Rogers designed buildings in a high-tech style, with their construction and functional aspects fully exposed. The most notable building in this style is Rogers’s Lloyd’s Building in London.

Performing Arts

History of Performing Arts

Throughout the world the name Shakespeare is associated with the greatest achievements of England in the performing arts. William Shakespeare emerged in the colorful Elizabethan era of the 16th century, and his works are still played and quoted throughout the world. The 16th century was a time of immense creativity, when it was said that the full flower of the Renaissance had finally come to England. It was during this era that commercial theater began. The most famous was the Globe Theatre in London. Destroyed by Puritans in the mid-17th century, the Globe was replaced in the 1990s with an authentic replica. Dozens of other playwrights, including Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, had their works staged at the Globe and at other theaters built during this time. Marlowe was noted for writing tragedies in a period when comedies were more common, and his most famous work is The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (1604?). Jonson was a gifted satirist who wrote for both the royal court and commercial theaters. The words to the famous song “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” are from a play he published in 1616.

The foundations of choral music, which became an important musical tradition in England, were laid during the Elizabethan era. Its development was encouraged at this time by the Protestant Reformation in England, which changed the language used in church services and music from Latin to English. Thomas Tallis and his student William Byrd are noted composers who worked in the royal chapel of Queen Elizabeth I. There were also many secular composers in Britain. The English madrigal, a song for two or more voices, developed during the Elizabethan era as well.

The Puritans banned theater as immoral when they controlled England in the mid-17th century. Theater was revived, along with the monarchy, in the Restoration of 1660. Restoration theater featured witty and often acerbic comedies about social manners, a contrast to the great dramatic themes of Shakespeare’s era. William Wycherley and William Congreve were noted Restoration dramatists. England’s first operas were written in the late 17th century, and Henry Purcell is a noted British composer of the era.

George Frideric Handel, a German who settled in London, wrote many operas and oratorios in the early 18th century. He is most famous for his Messiah oratorio, first sung in 1742. During the 18th century the number of theaters grew and the plays performed became more satirical. Oliver Goldsmith, born in Ireland, wrote comedies as well as novels, poems, and essays. Another noted comic playwright was Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

The 19th century saw the development of a uniquely British form of amusement, the music hall, which is related to early-20th-century vaudeville. Music halls provided variety shows with comic acts and songs, many of them risqué. The pantomime also emerged in the Victorian era as elaborately costumed retellings of fairy tales, staged during the Christmas season. Pantomime performances involved song, dance, slapstick comedy, and audience participation. The comic operas of Sir William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan were also an important part of Victorian music; the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are still produced around the world.

Performing Arts in the 20th Century

In the 20th century, Britain remained one of the world’s greatest centers for drama. Britain’s many theaters attract crowds from all over the world. This is due in large measure to the high caliber of 20th-century British actors, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Michael Redgrave, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Alec Guinness, Sir Rex Harrison, Richard Burton, Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, Dame Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, and Emma Thompson. The quality of the plays is another important factor. In the early 20th century, noted playwrights included John Galsworthy and Noel Coward. Post-World War II Britain saw a renaissance of drama with the avant-garde works of Irish-born Samuel Beckett and the plays and screenplays of Harold Pinter, Alan Bennett, and Tom Stoppard. Playwright and screenwriter John Osborne presented stark social realism in his play Look Back in Anger (1956), which was made into a film in 1959. Caryl Churchill continued the tradition of stark realism, while Alan Ayckbourn provided witty, complex comedies.

Britain has several hundred professional theaters and about as many professional theater companies. Some companies are associated with specific theaters and some are touring companies. The world-famous Royal Shakespeare Company performs in London and in Stratford-upon-Avon. Famous theaters in London also include the Royal National Theatre, the Old Vic Theatre, and the Royal Court Theatre. Countless amateur theatrical groups also perform throughout Britain.

Music was enormously important in Britain in the 20th century, and London is regarded as one of the great music capitals of the world. Appreciation of music is extremely widespread, and the kinds of music regularly performed are diverse, ranging from early music to modern. Britain boasts thousands of amateur opera societies, choirs, and musical groups, including orchestras; dance, brass, and steel bands; and rock and jazz groups.

Important composers in the early 20th century included Sir Edward Elgar, who wrote choral and orchestral music, and Frederick Delius, who composed the opera A Village Romeo and Juliet (1900-1901). Later in the century, Ralph Vaughan Williams established himself as Britain’s foremost composer, and Sir William Walton composed many important classical works, including the opera Troilus and Cressida (1954). In opera, Benjamin Britten and Sir Michael Tippett created several important works. Britten adapted Henry James’s story “The Turn of the Screw” and Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream into operas in 1954 and 1960, respectively. Tippett combined classical music with popular music—his Fourth Symphony (1977) contained elements of jazz. Thomas Adès was a rising star in the early 2000s, with operas such as The Tempest (2004), commissioned by the Royal Opera House. Andrew Lloyd Webber has composed musicals for the theater since the 1970s, producing such smash hits as Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), Phantom of the Opera (1986), and Bombay Dreams (2002).

Britain has many professional orchestras, the most famous of which are the London Philharmonic and the London Symphony. The BBC maintains six orchestras and since 1927 has sponsored the popular annual Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. Britain has several major opera companies, the best known of which are the Royal Opera at Covent Garden and the English National Opera in London, and the Glyndebourne Opera in southeastern England. Glyndebourne presents an annual summer opera season that later tours the country.

Britain’s worldwide impact in music in the second half of the 20th century, especially in the realm of popular music, was enormous. The Beatles appeared in the 1960s and were followed by other successful rock groups and singers, including names such as The Rolling Stones, The Who, Elton John, Sting, and the Spice Girls. A high-spirited kind of rock music known as Britpop became popular in the 1990s. Pop and rock music remain the most popular kinds of music in Britain, although jazz also has a large following.

Britain also has famous dance companies that rank among the world’s leading troupes. These include the Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet, located in London; the Birmingham Royal Ballet, a division of the Royal Ballet; and the Northern Ballet Theatre, a touring company based in Leeds. The leading contemporary groups are the Rambert Dance Company and the Siobhan Davies Dance Company. London hosts two contemporary dance festivals every year. Also popular are traditional dances of the British Isles, including English morris dancing and the Scottish Highland fling, and social gatherings featuring Celtic music and dancing that are known as céilidhs (pronounced kay-lees).

Britain hosts more than 600 professional arts festivals each year, attracting more than 4 million visitors. The two largest arts festivals in Britain are held in Scotland: The Edinburgh International Festival is a mixture of six arts festivals that takes place every August and September, and the Mayfest is held every May in Glasgow. Festivals focusing on music include the Three Choirs Festival, so-called because it takes place in three separate English cities; the Cheltenham Festival; and the Aldeburgh Festival, founded in the 1940s by composer Benjamin Britten and English tenor Sir Peter Pears.


The British film industry has a long history and is noted for many critically acclaimed productions and actors. In recent decades it has become largely international. The great pull of the American box office has always lured British actors, directors, and producers to Hollywood, and conversely, British studios and locations have been used in international productions.

The film industry in Britain developed during the 1930s after the government established a quota requiring that a certain percentage of films shown in British cinemas be made in Britain. Hungarian-born director and producer Alexander Korda came to Britain during this time and was instrumental in the production and international distribution of many British films. The industry received another boost from the influx of German writers, producers, and directors escaping the Nazi government in the 1930s. During World War II, many people working in the British film industry immigrated to the United States. One of these was London-born director Alfred Hitchcock, who moved to the United States in 1939 and continued to produce popular films.

British film output after World War II tended to be literary, drawing upon classics from Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare. A number of witty comedies that appealed to the more educated and culturally conservative segment of society appeared in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These included such films as Genevieve (1953) and The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954). By the mid-1950s the Free Cinema Movement had begun, shooting low-budget films that illuminated the problems of contemporary life. Simultaneously, so-called new cinema films began to present antiestablishment and anti-middle class views with social realism using working-class themes and characters. Notable examples of new cinema films include Look Back in Anger (1959), based on the John Osborne play; Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960); and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). Director David Lean, who had produced many popular films in the 1940s, became noted for big, lavish epics during the 1950s, particularly The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1959), both of which won Academy Awards.

For a brief time London became the film production capital of the world when a number of important films were made there. These included Tom Jones (1963), with an award-winning screenplay by John Osborne, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), directed by Stanley Kubrick. Richard Attenborough gained fame not only for his acting but also for directing such biographical films as Gandhi (1982), which won multiple Academy Awards; Chaplin (1992), about English actor and director Charlie Chaplin; and Shadowlands (1993), about British author C. S. Lewis. Anthony Minghella adapted and directed the 1996 film version of Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient and the 2003 film of Charles Frazer’s novel Cold Mountain. Mike Leigh became known for his collaborations with actors on films such as High Hopes (1988) and Vera Drake (2004).

Museums, Galleries, and Libraries

Britain is world famous for its outstanding libraries and museums, most of which are located in London. The British Museum, one of the most spectacular museums in the world, is renowned for its extensive and diverse collections, from Egyptian mummies to important historical documents. The National Gallery houses a vast collection of British and European paintings dating from the 13th century to modern times. Next door to the National Gallery is the National Portrait Gallery with about 10,000 portraits of famous figures from British history, some dating from the 14th century. The Tate Gallery houses a vast collection of British art, as well as European works from the past two centuries. The Victoria and Albert Museum features one of the world’s largest collections of fine and applied arts, from jewelry, clocks, and pottery to fabrics, furniture, and musical instruments. The National Museum of Science and Industry contains five floors of exhibits on medicine, photography, engineering, transportation, and communications. Plant, animal, and mineral specimens from all over the world are part of the collection at the Natural History Museum, London. The Imperial War Museum features exhibits on the wars of the 20th century, and the modern Museum of London illustrates the history of the capital from its earliest times. Particularly popular with tourists is Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks (see Marie Tussaud), a unique collection of lifelike wax figures of famous people, both living and dead.

Several museums and galleries of note are located outside London. The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at Oxford University contains a diverse collection of rare art and relics, as does the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University. One of the world’s finest collections of Pre-Raphaelite art is at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh houses a collection of fine European paintings dating from the Renaissance, including many Scottish paintings. The Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum has an excellent collection that ranges from ancient weapons and objects to 17th-century Dutch paintings and works by French masters. The National Museum of Wales in Cardiff focuses on Welsh life, history, and culture. In Belfast, Northern Ireland, the Ulster Museum has a diverse collection that mixes the arts, history, and sciences. The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Holywood concentrates on the traditional life of Northern Ireland’s people.

Britain has several specialized museums, including the National Railway Museum in York, with its large collection of locomotives, many from the 19th century. In recent years some museums have taken on the lively aspects of theme parks. Examples are the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, which recreates a Viking village, and the exhibits at Warwick Castle, which include wax figures, collections of weapons and torture devices, and jousting reenactments.

Britain’s premier library, the British Library in London, contains a copy of nearly all significant works published in English. It was housed in the British Museum until 1997, when it moved to a new building. The famous Bodleian Library at Oxford University also contains one of the most extensive collections of English publications in the country.

Science and Technology

Britain has been a world leader in science and technology, and since the Industrial Revolution the nation has been a pioneer in the use of machinery. The profession of modern engineering emerged from the work of the skilled craftsmen of the 18th and 19th centuries. The British have appreciated and encouraged inventors and scientists, and in pure science, the country has produced a steady stream of solid research. More than 70 British citizens have been awarded the Nobel Prize in science, second only to the United States.

Modern science owes much to 16th-century philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon, whose theories of inductive reasoning and experimentation laid the foundation of the scientific method. Sir Isaac Newton, a scientific genius in physics and mathematics, formulated the laws of motion and gravity that were not surpassed until Albert Einstein’s theories in the early 20th century. Michael Faraday, another outstanding figure in British science during the 19th century, made important discoveries in chemistry and electricity, specifically electromagnetic induction. His work led to the creation of the electric generator. Biologist Charles Darwin, who developed the theory of evolution through natural selection, radically influenced modern science and thought.

British scientists have also made striking contributions to the field of medicine. Surgeon Joseph Lister introduced antiseptic surgery in the 1860s, and in 1928 Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the first of the antibiotic medicines. In physics, several British scientists carried on atomic research, most notably Ernest Rutherford, Sir Joseph John Thomson, and Sir John Douglas Cockcroft.

The technology of the Industrial Revolution was not developed by scientists but by practical craftsmen—locksmiths, carpenters, and blacksmiths who pioneered innovations on the earliest machines. A key invention was a practical steam engine, which Scottish inventor James Watt was pivotal in developing in the late 18th century. Steam power was then used to run various other machines, including the spinning jenny, invented by James Hargreaves in the 1760s; the spinning frame, invented by Sir Richard Arkwright; the spinning mule of Samuel Crompton, which combined the best of the jenny and water frame; and the power loom invented by Edmund Cartwright. All of these early inventions of the Industrial Revolution were first used in the textile industry, where the mass production of cotton cloth by machine was revolutionary.

In the 20th century, British science and technology continued on the cutting edge. British technology pioneered in the development of radar and jet engines. British scientists contributed to the 1953 discovery of the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) as well as subsequent breakthroughs in medicine and genetics, including DNA fingerprinting, gene therapy, in vitro fertilization, and cloning. Other contributions include the discovery of cholesterol and vitamin D. In chemistry, British scientists have developed a biodegradable plastic and are working on substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons, which destroy the Earth’s ozone layer. British scientists in Antarctica first discovered a hole in the ozone layer in 1985. British scientists have also made advances in the fields of astrophysics and superconductivity. They also are at the forefront in developing semiconductors and fiber-optic cables.

One contemporary British scientist has gained worldwide attention not only for his accomplishments but because he has surmounted severe disabilities. Stephen Hawking, a theoretical physicist, suffers from an incurable disease of the nervous system. He regained his power of speech only through a computerized voice synthesizer. Hawking has made major contributions to the study of the origin of the universe and black holes, and his work has supported the big bang theory of the creation of the universe. As a professor of mathematics at Cambridge, Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time (1988).



In the 19th century, Britain had the world’s leading economy: Its overseas trade thrived, its standard of living rose steadily, and its citizens pioneered industrial innovations. With the growth of the economies of other nations in the 20th century, the British economy remained relatively strong. It has continued to grow, and Britain remains a major producer of industrial goods and provider of services, as well as a center of world trade and finance. During the 20th century, Britons saw their per capita disposable income triple, an accomplishment all the more remarkable considering Britain’s size and limited natural resources. The skills and ingenuity of Britain’s highly trained workers, managers, and entrepreneurs have enabled the British economy to function well and provide for its large population.

Although Britain’s economy was strong in the 20th century, it faced a number of persistent problems. The balance of trade was one. Britain has had to import more than a tenth of its food and much of its raw materials, as well as many manufactured goods, and it has to export sufficient products and services to balance the cost of its imports. Another problem has been industrial inefficiency, which was particularly evident in older industries such as coal mining, shipbuilding, and textiles, which produced more products than they could sell. Some industries that had been nationalized (taken over by the state) after 1945, such as British Oil Corporation, British Airways, and British Telecommunications, were unprofitable and operated at a considerable cost to taxpayers. In addition, trade unions sometimes required companies to hire more workers than were needed, and time was lost due to strikes as workers pressed for higher wages. These trade union problems increased the cost of goods, which helped cause inflation. Inflation occurs when the demand for products is higher than the supply, which leads to an increase in the value and price of products. At the same time, unemployment remained high—11 percent of the workforce in the early 1980s—and efforts to lower it were not successful. These problems were particularly evident during the 1970s, when high oil prices triggered a worldwide recession.

Since the mid-1970s, Britain has benefited from a worldwide economic upswing as well as internal improvements. The government has taken a number of steps to encourage economic growth. It curtailed the power of unions and sold some nationalized industries, including British Airways and British Telecommunications, to private companies (called privatization). The government sought to encourage business and private investment by lowering taxes and easing restrictions, such as deregulating the stock exchange and lifting restrictions on certain business agreements. Simultaneously, it sought to curb its spending and services. Newer, more profitable high-tech industries absorbed more workers and managers, while many older, less-efficient firms folded. Britain’s economy received a boost with the discovery and exploitation of abundant oil reserves in the North Sea. Because of this oil, Britain no longer depended on imports of foreign petroleum products and also profited from exports of petroleum products. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Britain’s economy grew at an average annual rate of 2.2 percent.

The Government’s Role in the Economy

Like many modern developed countries, the United Kingdom has a mixed economy. This means that some sectors of the economy are operated by the government and some are operated by private businesses. Since World War II (1939-1945), Britain has worked to balance the mix of private and public enterprises in order to maximize the country’s economy and ensure the economic well-being of its citizens. Historically, Britain’s Conservative Party has sought a stronger private component in the mix while the Labour Party has sought to strengthen the public component. Both parties are committed to a healthy mix of both elements, however.

The public component consists of the welfare system, which includes socialized medicine, known as the National Health Service, plus government controls over business, banking, and the money supply. The welfare system provides support from before birth to the grave. The government is a major employer: Public officials, the judiciary, the military, police departments, fire departments, educators, and health professionals are, for the most part, employed by the state. The government is also a major purchaser of goods, particularly military equipment.

After World War II the government nationalized, or took over, a number of large and troubled industries. These included coal, electricity, transport, gas, oil, steel, certain car and truck manufacturing, shipbuilding, and aircraft building. Since the 1950s, the government has privatized a number of these industries, selling them to private firms. The first sales were the steel and road transportation industries. The Conservative governments between 1979 and 1996 denationalized oil companies, telecommunications, car and truck production, gas, airlines and aircraft building, electricity, water, railways, and nuclear power. By privatizing these industries, the government hoped they would become more efficient, due to pressure by stockholders demanding profits. Nevertheless, the government continues to regulate these newly privatized industries by controlling prices and monitoring performance. The government also seeks to encourage competition in the economy and increase productivity by sponsoring and subsidizing training and educational programs.

As in many modern states, the British government seeks to fine-tune the economy in order to keep economic booms from becoming too inflationary and recessions from becoming too deep. In carrying out fine-tuning, the government uses a combination of monetary policies and fiscal policies. Monetary policies involve the attempt to control the supply and demand for money through the Treasury and the central bank, the Bank of England. Fiscal policy is concerned with the level and distribution of government spending and taxation. The government often opts to manage demand, intervening when demand for goods and services is high enough to threaten inflation. In such cases the government tries to reduce demand by raising interest rates and taxes. In economic emergencies the government can control prices and incomes to a considerable extent, but this is only done in extreme circumstances, such as in times of war or runaway inflation. In the early 2000s Britain’s levels of inflation and unemployment remained among the lowest in the European Union.


The total British labor force in 2007 was 31,400,402 million people. The structure of employment has undergone significant changes in the past 50 years. There has been a significant increase in self-employment and a corresponding growth in the number of small businesses. More than three-quarters of employees in the early 2000s worked in the services sector, compared with about one-third in 1955. Manufacturing was once the largest employer. It employed 42 percent of workers in 1955, but accounted for only about 13 percent of employees in the early 2000s.

The trade union movement has a long and important history in Britain, but since 1980 the influence of trade unions has declined dramatically. Trade union membership has fallen because of changes in the structure of employment, including privatization, the shift away from manufacturing, the rise in smaller firms, the increase in part-time employment, and the contracting out of work. Membership decreased to slightly over a quarter of the workforce in the early 2000s. The Conservative government, in power from 1979 to 1997, restricted unions’ ability to launch strikes and made unions legally responsible for the actions of strikers; this considerably reduced union power and substantially decreased the number of strikes, called stoppages. In 1986 there were more than a thousand work stoppages; in 1996 there were less than 250. Still, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), an independent association of trade unions, had an affiliated membership of 67 trade unions in the early 2000s, representing nearly 6.5 million trade union members in Britain.


Britain’s land surface is minimal compared to many other nations, but British agriculture is very intensive and highly productive. During the 20th century output rose steadily, although the increase slowed toward the end of the century, and agricultural labor became more productive. The improvement was due to innovations in farm machinery, biological engineering of seeds and plants, and the increased use of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Consequently, imports of food, feed, and beverages dropped from 36 percent of total imports in 1955 to 11 percent in 1985, and to 10 percent by 1994. Compared to other nations in the European Union, Britain’s agricultural sector is much smaller in terms of employment and contribution to the GDP. In the early 2000s agriculture employed approximately 1.4 percent of the workforce and contributed 1.0 percent of the GDP.

Livestock Farming

Many of Britain’s full-time farms are devoted to livestock farming—raising cattle for dairy products or beef, or raising sheep for wool and meat. The treatment of farm animals became a growing concern in Britain in the late 20th century. Factory farming of chickens produced protests, as did the practice of raising calves in confined spaces. Concerns over animal welfare have led some British citizens to become vegetarians.

Grave concern arose in the 1980s over cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), popularly known as mad cow disease. Human beings who eat infected beef may develop Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). BSE was first discovered in Britain in 1986, and the British government took steps to eradicate the disease and compensate farmers for lost cattle. Consumer confidence in British beef declined, and in 1996 the European Union banned Britain from exporting any beef or beef by-products. After considerable action by the government to halt the spread of the disease, the EU lifted the ban in 1999.

Livestock farmers in Britain faced another crisis in 2001, when several cases of foot-and-mouth disease were detected in a British slaughterhouse. The highly infectious viral disease, which rarely infects humans, can quickly cripple cattle, sheep, pigs, and other animals with cloven hooves. The dangers of foot-and-mouth disease are largely economic, since infected animals often lose weight or stop producing milk. As the outbreak spread across the British countryside, the British government ordered the slaughter of more than 1 million animals to contain the virus. Cases of the disease were also detected in Belgium, France, and Ireland, leading to the destruction of herds in those countries.

Crop Farming

Most crop farming in Britain takes place in eastern and south central England and in eastern Scotland. The leading crops in the early 2000s were wheat, sugar beets, potatoes, barley, and rapeseed. As concern has grown about the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and biologically engineered seeds and their effect on the environment, some farmers have turned to organic farming, with support from the government.

Agricultural Policy

The British government began subsidizing the prices paid for agricultural products after World War II as a way to make farming profitable. In 1973 Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC, now the European Union), and since then agricultural policy has been determined primarily by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This policy seeks to keep the agricultural market stable, ensure that farmers earn a fair living, and provide consumers with affordable food supplies. As a result of EU policies, products coming into Britain from non-EU countries are taxed, surplus products are bought and stored for later sale, and the cost of exports is subsidized if prices are low.

The British have criticized CAP, primarily because the British farming sector is smaller than the farming sectors of most EU nations. British farmers receive less monetary support from the EU than British taxpayers and consumers pay into CAP, and some British taxpayers and consumers feel they are supporting inefficient European farmers.

Criticism has increased as greater agricultural yields around the world have led to more CAP subsidies for European agriculture. CAP implemented various reforms in 1992 to reduce costs, subsidies, and stockpiles of foodstuffs, such as the surpluses of butter and wine in the 1970s and 1980s. Farmers have been encouraged to take land out of production, to adopt environmentally sound farming methods even though this may decrease production, and to place production quotas on certain products in an effort to reduce the amount of subsidy money they receive. Even so, CAP policies designed to protect small farms, particularly in France and Germany, continue to anger British taxpayers.


Britain was once covered with thick forests, but over the centuries the expanding human population steadily deforested nearly the entire country, felling trees for fuel and building materials. Despite the fact that trees grow quickly in the cool, moist climate of the United Kingdom, only remnants of the great oak forests remained at the end of the 20th century.

In 1919 only 5 percent of the United Kingdom was forested; as of 2005 this had increased to 11.7 percent. Most of the forested area consists of commercially planted, fast-growing coniferous trees in Wales and northeastern Scotland. Britain has made efforts to increase the managed forest areas. Imports of wood and wood products are substantial because Britain produces only a small proportion of the wood it needs.


At one time the fishing industry not only provided a cheap source of protein for Britons, but it was also the training ground for the Royal Navy. Today fishing is a far less vital economic activity. Fish and fish products are both imported into and exported from Britain.

In recent decades overfishing and conservation restrictions imposed by the European Union have caused a decline in the deep-sea industry. As with agriculture, fisheries policy in Britain is largely determined by the EU through the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). It aims to protect the remaining fish stocks in European waters so that they can recover from severe overfishing. There are strict quotas on the kinds and amounts of fish that may be caught, and regulations detail the appropriate equipment to use. The CFP has caused some hardship to the British fishing fleet, especially through restrictions on the number of days that ships are permitted to fish.


Mining has been enormously important in British economic history. Salt mining dates from prehistoric times, and in ancient times traders from the Mediterranean shipped tin from the mines of Cornwall. These tin mines are exhausted today, and the last tin mine in Britain closed in 1998. Britain’s abundant coal resources were critical during the Industrial Revolution, especially because the coal was sometimes conveniently located near iron and could be used in iron and steel manufacture. These mined resources were so important to the Industrial Revolution that entire populations moved to work at coal and iron sites in the north and Midlands of England. Today the iron is exhausted, and the high-quality coal is depleted.

Raw materials for construction form the bulk of mineral production, including limestone, dolomite, sand, gravel, sandstone, common clay, and shale. Some coal is still mined, but petroleum and natural gas are far more important. Mining and quarrying, including oil and gas extraction, accounted for 2.6 percent of the GDP in the early 2000s and employed less than 1 percent of the labor force.


The history of manufacturing in Britain is unique because of Britain’s role as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. During the Middle Ages the production of woolen textiles was a key industry in Britain. In the 16th and 17th centuries, new industries developed. These included silk weaving, garment making, and the manufacturing of hats, pottery, and cutlery. All of these operations were generally conducted in small craft shops and were labor-intensive.

In the 18th century a number of changes in British society prepared the way for the Industrial Revolution. Colonial and commercial expansion created markets in North America, Africa, and parts of Asia. Coal and iron mining developed as Britain’s dwindling forests created the need for another energy source, and new smelting techniques made iron implements cheaper to produce. An agricultural revolution in the 18th century introduced new crops and crop rotation techniques, better breeding methods, and mechanical devices for cultivation. This coincided with a rapid increase in population, in part due to better hygiene and diets, providing both consumers and workers for the new manufacturing operations.

During the Industrial Revolution new methods of manufacturing products were developed. Instead of being made by hand, many products were made by machine. Production moved from small craft shops to factories, and population shifted to urban areas where these factories were located. Cotton textile factories using newly developed steam-powered machines produced more goods at a lower cost per item. Textiles, shipbuilding, iron, and steel emerged as important industries, and coal remained the most important industrial fuel. The Industrial Revolution dramatically raised the overall standard of living.

The structure of British industry changed substantially in the last half of the 20th century. The coal mining and cotton textile industries declined sharply. As coal production declined, oil production replaced it as a major industry. Motor vehicle production became a significant part of the industrial base but was subject to severe foreign competition. As incomes increased, consumer demand rose for durable goods such as cars and kitchen appliances. British industrial production also expanded into communications equipment, including fiber optics, computers, computer-controlled machine tools, and robots. Growing industries in recent decades include paper products and publishing; chemicals, such as pharmaceuticals; rubber and plastics; and electronic and optical equipment.

Scotland is also a major producer of computers. The so-called Silicon Glen between Glasgow and Edinburgh employs thousands of people in the electronics industry and is the site of many overseas computer firms. Scotland and Northern Ireland are still noted for their production of whiskey and textiles, especially linen from Northern Ireland and tweed from Scotland.

Britain remains an important manufacturing country, although it imports large quantities of manufactured goods from overseas, particularly vehicles and electronic equipment. The automobile manufacturing industry had declined during the 20th century until Japanese manufacturers opened plants in Britain in the 1990s. About 12 percent of the workforce was engaged in manufacturing in the early 2000s, and manufacturing accounted for about 16 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

The Service Sector

One sign of a highly developed nation is a large and sophisticated service sector. When a nation’s economy matures, its service sector grows rapidly while its manufacturing sector stabilizes or diminishes. This was the case with Britain. In the early 2000s Britain’s service sector accounted for nearly three-fourths of the GDP and employed almost fourth-fifths of the workforce. The service industries include finance, retailing, wholesaling, tourism, business services, transport, insurance, investment, advertising, public relations, market research, education, administration, and government and professional services.

Britain developed sophisticated banking, financial, insurance, and shipping operations as early as the 17th century to support its expanding international ocean trade. Lloyd’s of London, an early insurance house, began when a number of people willing to underwrite, or insure, the success of voyages gathered regularly at Lloyd’s Coffee House in London to share shipping news. Lloyd’s now insures approximately half of the world’s shipping and cargoes as well as much of the aircraft industry.

Banking and financial services have always played an important part in London’s economy, and levels of specialization and expertise have been high. This has attracted ever-larger amounts of business from an increasingly global economy. Today, London has the largest concentration of international banks in the world and is the world’s leading center for currency trading. Leeds, Manchester, Cardiff, Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Glasgow have developed as financial centers in recent decades. London is also the world’s leading center for insurance and handles 20 percent of the world’s insurance business. The financial services sector expanded especially rapidly after the deregulation of the stock exchange in 1986. By the early 2000s financial and other business services, including real estate, accounted for more than one-quarter of Britain’s GDP and employed nearly one-fifth of the workforce.

Several significant developments in the service sector took place toward the end of the 20th century. Telecommunications became a dynamic growth industry, and independent retailing declined sharply.

The leisure industry grew dynamically, commanding an increasing proportion of consumer spending. Organizations catering to international conferences and exhibitions also have been a growth area. These organizations have been particularly successful because Britain is one of the world’s top locations for business meetings and trade shows.

Tourism has become an increasingly important economic sector in Britain, employing at least 7 percent of the workforce. Britain is one of the world’s top tourist destinations, annually attracting about 25 million overseas visitors in the early 2000s—more than a 50 percent increase over the early 1980s. Under the Development of Tourism Act of 1969, a government organization, the British Tourist Authority, was set up to attract overseas visitors and to improve tourist accommodation and travel conditions.


Britain has more energy resources than any other country in the European Union, chiefly in the form of oil and natural gas. Other energy sources include coal and nuclear power. Scotland has some hydroelectric power stations. Alternative energy sources, notably wind farms, are being developed in various parts of Britain.

J.1. Oil and Natural Gas

Oil was discovered in the North Sea in 1969. By the 1980s it was adding significantly to the British economy as oil exports increased during a period of high oil prices. British taxpayers also benefited from the taxes and royalties paid by the oil and gas companies, which are licensed by the crown to search for and produce oil and gas. However, oil production peaked during the 1990s and has since declined.

Gas has been used since the 19th century in London and other places, but it was manufactured from coal. Since the 1960s, when offshore gas fields were discovered, natural gas has been used. In the early 2000s natural gas accounted for more than two-fifths of the fuel consumption in Britain.

J.2. Coal

Coal was Britain’s traditional source of energy for about 300 years. It was the main source of fuel during the Industrial Revolution, when it was mined, used, and exported in large quantities. Peak production occurred in 1913, when more than 300 million tons were mined. Coal has become far less important to the British economy. In the past 20 years cutbacks in coal production have been severe, particularly since the end of a bitter miners’ strike in 1984. Production in 2003 was 28 million tons. Coal supplies an ever-smaller proportion of Britain’s total energy needs.

J.3. Nuclear Power

Britain was a pioneer in the development of nuclear power plants (see Nuclear Energy), opening the world’s first commercial-scale power station in northwestern England in 1956. By 2006 nuclear power provided 19 percent of the electricity produced in Britain. Modern nuclear power stations built after 1975 were privatized in 1996, while the government maintained ownership of six older power plants built between the 1950s and the 1970s because they were nearing the end of their useful life. Decommissioning nuclear power stations when they cease being productive has proven costly, and radioactive waste has been the most serious contributor to pollution since the 1940s.


Britain has historically been an innovator and world leader in many forms of transportation, from shipping to rail systems to aviation.


Because Britain is an island, shipping has been important for centuries. The irregular coastlines of the British Isles provide many natural harbors, and Britain’s gentle, navigable rivers have always been conducive to shipping. Seafaring skills were directly connected to Britain’s growth as a naval power. As early as the 16th century Britain defeated Spain, its greatest rival at sea. In the 17th and 18th centuries France was defeated, then Germany in the early 20th century. Prior to World War II, Britain had the largest merchant fleet in the world, a fleet that sailed throughout the vast British Empire and was protected by the Royal Navy. Britain continued to be the world leader in shipping until World War II, when submarine attacks by Germany sank many British vessels and the tremendous output of the American shipbuilding industry made the United States the world leader.

Today many British shipping firms operate under foreign flags to avoid the more stringent British shipping regulations, including higher wages for crews. Most British passenger shipping involves ferry trips to the continent of Europe or to Ireland. Tankers carrying oil and dry bulk cargo make up the majority of oceanic shipping. British ports were nationalized in the late 1940s, and in recent years most have moved into the private sector or are governed by independent trusts. The most important port in the United Kingdom is London; other important commercial ports are at Forth in Scotland, Grimsby and Immingham in eastern England, Liverpool in western England, and Southampton and Dover in southern England.


Canals were built in Britain to link rivers, and most of Britain’s canals were built as part of the transportation revolution that took place between 1750 and 1840. Canals were built by gangs of laborers known as navigators, a name that came from their task of creating channels of inland navigation. This term was soon shortened to “navvies.” The canals were important during the Industrial Revolution for transporting goods, but by the 1830s they had to compete with the new railways, which quickly surpassed them. Thereafter, canals were used to carry extremely bulky materials.

Today Britain has about 3,200 km (about 2,000 mi) of canals and navigable rivers, of which about 620 km (about 390 mi) are commercial waterways. The most important of these are the Manchester Ship Canal, which is the largest canal in Britain; the Thames; and the Caledonian Canal across northern Scotland, which provides a navigable waterway linking the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The rest of the rivers and canals are used for recreation and form part of Britain’s historical heritage.


The Victorian era was also known as the Railway Age. The railroad can be considered the child of the British coal mines because carts on tracks were used to haul coal. These precursors of the railroad were then combined with steam engines, which led to further technological innovations. An added advantage in the development of railroads in Britain was that the most populated parts of the country, where this mode of transportation was needed, were relatively flat.

The world’s first public railway was the Stockton and Darlington, which opened in 1825. A period of hectic railway building followed for the next quarter century as different companies competed to lay track. It was a massive undertaking that employed vast armies of laborers and altered the British landscape by digging through hills and constructing bridges and tunnels. In a short time the basic grid of Britain’s railways was in place.

Over the ensuing century smaller railway companies were absorbed or merged into a few large companies. In 1948 the government nationalized the four remaining companies, and in the 1960s they became the British Railways Board. In 1955 a modernization program began to replace steam trains with diesel and electric ones. The last steam locomotive was withdrawn in 1968. Around this time intense competition from road transport made it necessary to cut costs, and many unprofitable branch railway lines closed.

Railroads were part of the wave of privatization that took place in the early 1990s. The complicated procedure was based on the Railway Act of 1993. The infrastructure, including tracks and train operations, was put into the hands of Railtrack, a government-owned company that was privatized by selling stock to private investors. Passenger operations were split into 25 operating units, each franchised to a private firm given the right to provide passenger service to a particular region of Britain. In 1995 freight operations in Britain were divided among private companies based in different parts of the country. The government appoints a rail regulator and a franchising director to ensure that rail arrangements are fair to companies and passengers. The moves to fully privatize BR were highly contentious and generated considerable criticism within Britain.

The fractured nature of rail organization was forcefully brought home in the late 1990s and early 2000s with a series of high-profile rail accidents. The accidents were blamed in part on the separation of ownership of rail and rolling stock and on the needs of privatized companies to provide shareholder income at the perceived expense of passenger safety. After a crash in 2000 in Hertfordshire caused by faulty rails, the entire railway network was examined and track replaced, leading to severe delays to rail journeys for months. Railtrack was replaced in 2003 by Network Rail, a not-for-profit company.

A railway tunnel beneath the English Channel was completed in 1993, connecting England and the European continent. The main Channel Tunnel, which is 50.4 km (32 mi) long, runs from Folkestone, England, to Calais, France. Trains carry both passengers and freight through the tunnel. Motorists can drive their cars on and off the train. The trip through the tunnel takes about 35 minutes.

The London Underground

The London Underground operated 408 km (254 mi) of railway in the early 2000s, of which about 42 percent is under the ground. Known as the tube, the system serves 275 stations, with more than 500 trains running during peak periods. Expansion of the system has continued; the Jubilee Line, connecting the southeast and east to central London, was completed in 1999. Much of the system is old, however, and breakdowns are a recurring problem. Despite its problems, the Underground provides reliable public transportation for an impressive number of commuters across a large metropolitan area. There are also urban rail systems in Glasgow, Liverpool, Tyne and Wear, Manchester, and Sheffield.

Air Travel

Along with other industries, Britain’s airlines were nationalized after World War II and then were privatized in the late 1980s. British Airways is one of the world’s leading airlines and has one of the largest fleets in Europe. It was formed in 1974 by combining the two state-run airlines, British Overseas Airways Company (BOAC) and British European Airways (BEA). Together with Air France, British Airways in 1976 introduced the first supersonic passenger service, using the Concorde aircraft. Concorde service was discontinued in 2003. Britain has numerous independent airlines, as well.

London’s main airports, Heathrow and Gatwick, are among the world’s busiest centers for international travel. Heathrow handles more than 67 million passengers a year, and is the world’s busiest airport for international travel. There are nearly 150 other licensed civil airfields in Britain.

In 1970 Britain joined Airbus Industrie, a European consortium of aircraft manufacturers. In 2001 Airbus became a single integrated company, owned 80 percent by the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (formed from the merger of the French, German, and Spanish partners in the Airbus consortium) and 20 percent by BAE Systems PLC, formerly known as British Aerospace.


About 90 percent of all passenger travel in Britain is by road, and primarily by private car rather than public transportation. The unstoppable growth in passenger cars during the 20th century was paralleled by rising public concern about the environmental effects of increased traffic and especially concern about air pollution. In 1994 the government slowed its road-building program. The move was in part a response to research findings that tended to confirm environmentalists’ claims that the main effect of building new roads and motorways had been to encourage extra traffic and not, as intended, to improve the flow of existing traffic. Road building began to pick up again in the early 2000s. The Transport Act of 2000 gave local authorities the power to charge drivers for use of the roads in an effort to reduce congestion. In 2003 London motorists began to pay for the privilege of driving into the center of the city.


The Post Office

The Post Office was founded in 1635 and is noted in history for issuing the famous Penny Black, the world’s first adhesive stamp, in 1840. In 1969 the Post Office was reorganized as a public corporation. Today, its operations are divided into three major brands: the Royal Mail, Parcelforce Worldwide, and the Post Office. The Royal Mail handles the collection and delivery of mail, Parcelforce handles parcel delivery, and the Post Office handles retail services to the public. The Post Office also handles the payment of government pensions and welfare benefits, issues licenses, collects utility company bills, and offers banking services for certain banks. It also issues foreign currency and traveler’s checks, sells travel insurance, and acts as the agent for Western Union’s money transfer service. The Post Office directly operates only about 500 sites; the other post offices in the United Kingdom are franchises.

The Royal Mail monopoly ended in 2006. Other licensed operators are now able to collect mail from businesses and from their own collection boxes, and to transport and deliver mail to business and residential customers. The Royal Mail is still required to provide a universal collection and delivery service, delivering mail at a uniform price to all UK addresses.


Britain has one of the world’s largest and most technologically advanced telecommunications systems. Telecommunications were officially the responsibility of the Post Office until 1981, when British Telecom was founded to take over telecommunications management. British Telecom was privatized in 1984 and in 1991 changed its name to BT. BT agreed to a merger with the U.S. telecommunications company MCI in 1997 to form Concert, one of the biggest companies of its kind in the world. A number of other companies offer telecommunications services such as mobile communications, overseas wireless and cable, and cable television. The National Grid, the privatized electricity transmission company, has used its pylon network to set up a fiber-optic telecommunications system, and cable television companies also offer telephone services.

The Media: Radio, Television, and the BBC

Historically, broadcasting in Britain has been treated as a public service responsible to the people through Parliament. In recent decades broadcasting has been opened up to market competition. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), set up in 1922, is a large public television and radio service that is primarily supported by license fees paid annually by each household. In 1955 Independent Television (ITV) stations were permitted and began to present some competition to the BBC. The government licenses and regulates broadcasting through the Independent Television Commission (ITC) and the Radio Authority. Today Britain has 5 terrestrial television channels and almost 200 radio stations. There are numerous satellite companies based in Britain, and an increasing number of cable companies.

BBC 1 and BBC 2 are complementary national television networks—one provides a range of programs meant to have a wide-ranging appeal, while the other broadcasts more innovative shows geared toward specific groups. The BBC carries no advertising and regularly transmits educational broadcasts. The proceedings of Parliament are freely broadcast on both radio and television. Britain also has three ITV channels that are licensed out to private television companies in 14 designated television regions. These private companies support themselves with advertising and sponsors, but are regulated by the ITC. Wales presents public broadcasts on a Welsh-speaking channel. These broadcasters face competition from digital satellite and cable television stations.

The BBC has five radio networks that broadcast throughout Britain. There are also three independent national radio services (classical music, rock music, and talk radio), and about 250 independent local radio services. These independent radio services are awarded licenses by the Radio Authority. BBC World Service Radio broadcasts around the world in English and 45 other languages, carrying extensive programs and high-quality news broadcasts.

In 1990 the Broadcasting Act was passed in an attempt to guarantee standards of decency, accuracy in news coverage, and balanced presentations of controversial topics, while encouraging more competition in television and radio. The Broadcasting Act passed in 1996 addressed the new digital technologies in broadcasting that would allow for more radio and television services to be made available to the public. To handle this increased broadcasting capability, the government allowed the licensing of at least 18 more national television channels and at least 12 more radio services. The Broadcasting Standards Commission was set up in 1997 to set standards for radio and television broadcasts, to monitor violent and sexual content, and to respond to complaints about broadcasts.

The Press

Britain has one of the largest publishing industries in the world. There are ten morning daily newspapers and nine Sunday papers published nationally. In addition, hundreds of regional and local newspapers and some 7,000 periodicals, mainly weeklies and monthlies, are published in the United Kingdom. Noted weeklies include the Economist, the New Scientist, the New Statesman, the Spectator, and the Times Literary Supplement.

Britain is home to some of the oldest newspapers in the world. The Observer and the Times have both been published since the late 18th century. In the past newspaper publishing was concentrated in Fleet Street in London, but the national papers have moved their editorial and printing facilities away from Fleet Street or out of London. British newspapers range from “quality” papers that focus on the news to “popular” papers that emphasize entertainment. Quality newspapers, such as the Financial Times and the Guardian, include the most respected newspapers. The popular papers—the Sun, the Daily Mirror, and the Daily Star—are referred to as tabloids and are characterized by sensationalist stories, gossip, and lavishly illustrated stories. Other papers, such as the Daily Mail and Express, offer a middle ground between news and entertainment stories.

Foreign Trade

Foreign trade has been vital to Britain for hundreds of years. Britain’s prominent position in world trade during the 18th and 19th centuries resulted largely from its geographical isolation from the wars and political troubles that afflicted the centers of trade on the European Continent. The development of trading companies, such as the East India Company and Hudson’s Bay Company; colonial expansion; and naval control of the seas also contributed to Britain’s preeminence.

Britain remained one of the world’s leading trading nations in the 21st century. It generally ran a large trade deficit, with imports exceeding exports. Visible exports, or trade in merchandise, account for only about half of Britain’s overall trade. Trade in services—including sea transport, civil aviation, travel, government services, investment income, transfers, and financial services—accounts for the other half. Much of Britain’s trade is with the European Union, especially Germany, France, and Netherlands. The United States is another major trading partner.

Banking and Financial Services

Britain is one of the world’s leading financial centers. Banking, finance, insurance, and other business services accounted for about more than a quarter percent of Britain’s output in the early 2000s and more than 5 million people were employed in this sector.

The Bank of England, chartered in 1694, was nationalized in 1946 and is the only bank that issues banknotes in England and Wales. Several banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland issue currencies in limited amounts. After the Labour government was elected in 1997 the Bank of England was given operational independence in monetary policy. This means it can set interest rates independent of the government in power, much as the Federal Reserve does in the United States. There are more than a dozen major commercial banks in Britain, including Lloyds TSB, Barclays, National Westminster, and HSBC. The postal system, savings banks, and cooperative and building societies also provide some banking services.

Historically, the financial services industry has been based in the City of London in an area called the Square Mile. The City is a small part of the Greater London metropolitan area that surrounds it. Financial services are still concentrated in the City, although several provincial cities have developed their own financial centers. The City has the greatest concentration of foreign banks in the world and one of the world’s largest insurance markets. It is also the world’s main center for trading in stock of overseas companies. One of the world’s largest financial derivatives markets is in the City, as well. Financial derivatives are contracts to buy or sell, at a future date, financial documents such as stocks and bonds.

The London Stock Exchange, one of the largest exchanges in the world, has always been a focus of international trade. In 1986 it was substantially deregulated, an event known as the Big Bang in financial circles. This led to the rapid expansion of products, markets, and numbers of employees, a movement that slowed in the early 1990s but has since rebounded.


The pound sterling (£1), consisting of 100 pence, is the basic unit of currency in Britain (£0.50 equal U.S.$1; 1996 average). Before Britain converted its currency to the decimal system between 1968 and 1971, the pound equaled 20 shillings and each shilling was made up of 12 pence. Bookkeeping had to be done using three columns and the decimal system could not be applied.

The European Union established the euro as its unit of currency, and other EU members made the transition to the euro between 1999 and 2002. However, the British government elected not to do so and instead retained the pound as its currency.


Britain is one of the world’s foremost travel destinations, and tourism is an essential part of Britain’s income. It employed about 1.4 million people and contributed about 3.5 percent to the GDP in the early 2000s. The British Tourist Authority, which is supported by the government, promotes tourism in Britain and maintains hundreds of Tourist Information Centres to assist visitors. England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have their own government-supported tourist boards as well.

Visitors to Britain come from all over the world, attracted by Britain’s heritage and arts, historic buildings, monuments, museums, and galleries. In 2007, 30.9 million overseas visitors traveled to Britain. The largest number came from the United States, followed by France, Germany Ireland, and Netherlands.

London, the most popular tourist destination, is crowded with tourists throughout the year. Among the sites regularly visited by millions are the Tower of London, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, and Westminster Abbey. At night visitors enjoy the hundreds of theaters and pubs in London.

Northwest Wales has many excellent castles, among them Conwy, Caernarfon, and Harlech. In Scotland, historic Edinburgh Castle looms over the capital. Great cathedrals from the Middle Ages still dominate the skylines of many English cities, including Salisbury, Durham, and Canterbury. In Wales the remains of Tintern Abbey and the small but beautiful Saint David’s Cathedral are outstanding.

Stately homes are abundant throughout Britain. Among the more famous is Blenheim Palace, the home of the Churchill family. Hampton Court Palace, just outside of London, was one of the homes of Henry VIII. The Palace of the Holyrood House in Scotland was once the home of Mary, Queen of Scots. Among other worthwhile places to visit are Oxford and Cambridge, both university towns with many ancient buildings, and the Tudor home in which William Shakespeare was born in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon.



The United Kingdom is a parliamentary monarchy—that is, the head of state is a monarch with limited powers. Britain’s democratic government is based on a constitution composed of various historical documents, laws, and formal customs adopted over the years. Parliament, the legislature, consists of the House of Lords, the House of Commons, and the monarch, also called the crown. The House of Commons is far more influential than the House of Lords, which in effect makes the British system unicameral, meaning the legislature has one chamber. The chief executive is the prime minister, who is a member of the House of Commons. The executive branch also includes Her Majesty’s Government, commonly referred to simply as “the government.” The government is composed of ministers in the Cabinet, most of whom are members of the House of Commons; government departments, each of which is responsible to a minister; local authorities; and public corporations. Because the House of Commons is involved in both the legislative and executive branches of the British government, there is no separation of powers between executive and legislature as there is in the United States.

The Constitution

The British constitution comprises multiple documents. The written part consists of the Magna Carta, written in 1215; the Petition of Right, passed by Parliament in 1628; and the Bill of Rights of 1689. It also includes the entire body of laws enacted by Parliament, precedents established by decisions made in British courts of law, and various traditions and customs. The democratically elected House of Commons can alter these laws with a majority vote. The constitution continually evolves as new laws are passed and judicial decisions are handed down. All laws passed by Parliament are regarded as constitutional, and changes or amendments to the constitution occur whenever new legislation overrides existing law. Although the crown gives its royal assent to legislation, this is a mere formality.

The Monarchy

The British monarchy stands for the continuity of British history going back to Anglo-Saxon times, and today it serves as a figurehead for the state. In theory, the British monarch has enormous powers, but in reality those powers are limited and the crown follows the dictates and advice of the ministers in Parliament. The British monarchy has been a hereditary position since the 9th century, although Parliament has stepped in at times to alter the succession, for example, in 1701 when the House of Hanover was selected to replace the Stuart dynasty.

Primogeniture, the passing of the throne to the eldest son when a monarch dies, has been the rule of succession, and when there are no sons, the eldest daughter ascends the throne. This was the case when Elizabeth II succeeded to the throne in February 1952 upon the death of her father, George VI. Her husband, Prince Philip, has the title of Prince Consort, but no rank or privileges. The current heir to the throne is Elizabeth II’s eldest son, Charles, Prince of Wales. According to the Act of Settlement of 1701, only Protestants are eligible to succeed to the throne. A regent may be appointed to rule for the sovereign if he or she is underage or incapacitated.

As the official head of state, the monarch formally summons and dismisses Parliament and the ministers of the Cabinet. The monarch also serves as head of the judiciary, commander in chief of the armed forces, and Supreme Governor of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. In reality, the government carries out the duties associated with these functions. Theoretically, the monarch appoints all judges, military officers, diplomats, and archbishops, as well as other church officers. The monarch also bestows honors and awards, such as knighthoods and peerages. In reality, all of these appointments are made upon the advice of the prime minister. The prime minister declares war and peace and concludes treaties with foreign states in the name of the crown. The monarch serves as the ceremonial head of the Commonwealth of Nations and is the ceremonial head of state for 16 Commonwealth countries.

The real work of the monarchy consists largely of signing papers. The monarch has the right, however, to be consulted on all aspects of national life and review all important government documents. The monarch may also meet with the Privy Council, a now largely ceremonial body made up of Cabinet members that serves in an advisory capacity to the monarch. Since Britain is a democracy, the monarchy could potentially be abolished if a majority of the population decides to do so. In the early 21st century the monarchy generally remained popular, despite unpleasant media coverage surrounding the marriages and relationships of the royal family. Only Scotland had a small majority that wanted to make the United Kingdom a republic.

The royal family endorses developments in Britain by performing such ceremonial functions as cutting ribbons, opening businesses, launching ships, and laying cornerstones. Many members of the royal family are involved in charity work and maintain a public presence by visiting shelters, hospitals, and clinics. Because foreigners are attracted to the pageantry of royalty, tourism related to the royal family brings a substantial amount of money into the country.

The Executive

The Prime Minister

The chief executive of the government is the prime minister. He or she is the leader of the party that holds the most seats in the House of Commons. The monarch goes through the ceremony of selecting as prime minister the person from the House of Commons who is head of the majority party. The prime minister presides over the Cabinet and selects the other Cabinet members, who join him or her to form the government that is part of the functioning executive. Acting through the Cabinet and in the name of the monarch, the prime minister exercises all of the theoretical powers of the crown, including making appointments. In the past, prime ministers also came from the House of Lords. Today, in the unlikely circumstance that a peer (a member of the House of Lords) is sought as a prime minister by one of the parties, he or she must first resign from the House of Lords and gain election to the House of Commons.

When legislation comes before the House of Commons, the prime minister can usually count on the support of a majority of the votes because his or her party has a majority of the seats, and party discipline tends to be strong in Britain. In some circumstances prime ministers must depend on a coalition of strong parties. This was the case during both world wars and during the worst of the Great Depression in the 1930s. At times a prime minister comes from a party that does not quite have a majority of seats in the House of Commons. In such a case, that party must rely on an alliance with smaller parties, the smaller parties voting with the party in power on necessary legislation. A government formed from a party without a majority in Parliament is called a minority government. Between 1974 and 1979, for example, a minority Labour Party government was able to stay in power because the Liberal Party generally voted with it.

The Cabinet

The Cabinet developed during the 18th century out of informal meetings of key government ministers during the reigns of the Hanoverian monarchs, who took relatively little interest in politics. During the 19th century this committee of key ministers evolved into an effective body that wielded the monarch’s executive power.

The Cabinet has about 20 members, or ministers, all of whom must be members of Parliament (MPs). Members of the Cabinet are leaders of the majority party in the House of Commons or, more rarely, members of the House of Lords. Cabinet ministers who head a particular government department, such as the Ministry of Defense, are known as secretaries of state. The prime minister serves as the first lord of the treasury and as minister for the civil service. In addition to the various secretaries of state, the Cabinet includes nondepartmental ministers who hold traditional offices—such as the lord president of the council, the paymaster general, and the lord privy seal—and ministers without portfolio, who do not have specific responsibilities but are assigned to specific tasks as needed. The lord chancellor holds a unique position. The lord chancellor’s executive duties as a Cabinet member include being responsible for legal affairs in the United Kingdom, but he or she is also head of the judiciary, which is a separate part of the British government. The prime minister has the power to move members of the Cabinet from post to post, or to drop individuals from the Cabinet entirely. Former Cabinet ministers may retain their positions as members of Parliament.

Two key doctrines of Cabinet government are collective responsibility and ministerial responsibility. Collective responsibility means that the Cabinet acts unanimously, even when Cabinet ministers do not all agree upon a subject. If an important decision is unacceptable to a particular Cabinet member, it is expected that he or she will resign to signify dissent. Ministerial responsibility means that ministers are responsible for the work of their departments and answer to Parliament for the activities of their departments. The policy of departmental ministers must be consistent with that of the government as a whole. The ministers bear the responsibility for any failure of their department in terms of administration or policy.

The Privy Council

The Privy Council is a large, and generally ceremonial, body of more than 450 members that developed out of the royal council that existed in the Middle Ages. By the 18th century the Privy Council had taken over all the powers of the royal council. The Privy Council comprises all current and former Cabinet members, as well as important public figures in Britain and the Commonwealth. The council advises the monarch and arranges for the formal handling of documents. It has a large number of committees, each with a specific task, such as dealing with outlying islands, universities, or legal matters. The most important committee is the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which is the highest court of appeal for certain nations in the Commonwealth, some church-related appeals, and for disciplinary committees of some professions.

The Legislature: Parliament

Parliament comprises three parts: the crown, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. Over the course of centuries, the seat of power has passed from the crown to the Lords to its final resting place in the House of Commons. Parliament originated in the great councils called by the crown during the Middle Ages. Through these meetings, medieval monarchs sought the advice of their subjects, exchanged information about the realm, and gathered petitions. In other words, Parliament originated with the royal wish to gain the approval and sanction of the realm for acts of state. Later, Parliament served to supplement royal revenues by making grants of taxation—that is, by granting the monarch’s request for extra subsidies to pay for wars. The crown invited all great nobles and church leaders to attend these councils. By the end of the 13th century representatives from the counties, called knights of the shire, and representatives of the towns, called burgesses, were also being summoned to attend regularly. The knights and the burgesses eventually came to sit separately from the nobles and church leaders, in what eventually became the House of Commons. The nobles and church leaders sat in what came to be called the House of Lords.

By the end of the Middle Ages Parliament had taken on a form that would be recognized today. It legislated and approved taxes and passed laws. Long, complicated struggles between the monarch and the two houses of Parliament resulted in the government gaining power, while the crown lost power. In the 20th century the House of Commons successfully struggled to curtail the power of the House of Lords. Today the House of Lords can only delay legislation. For the past 280 years the monarch’s royal assent to legislation has been given automatically. (For more information on the history of Parliament, see Parliament, British.)

Parliament is elected roughly every five years and is dissolved by the crown on the advice of the prime minister, who then calls a general election. Parliamentary sessions are held each year and begin in October or November. Parliament meets at the Houses of Parliament in London, officially called the New Palace of Westminster. The Parliament of the United Kingdom legislates for the entire nation and includes representatives from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

The House of Lords

The House of Lords today is more a place of discussion and debate than one of power, and it normally passes legislation already approved by the House of Commons. Its members are not elected. The House of Lords is made up of the lords temporal, the lords spiritual, and the law lords.

The lords temporal are either hereditary peers or life peers. The House of Lords long consisted primarily of hereditary peers, but the House of Lords Act passed by Parliament in 1999 abolished peers who inherit their position, with the exception of 90 interim members who will hold their power until the next stage of reform. These 90 members were chosen by committee in 2001. Today, the majority of members of the House of Lords—about 600—are life peers. Life peers are appointed by the monarch for the duration of the person’s lifetime. These appointments are usually made in recognition of outstanding careers or contributions to society. Famous people who have been made peers are former British prime ministers Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson. The lords spiritual include the archbishops of Canterbury and York; the bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester; and the 21 next most senior bishops. The law lords, or lords of appeal, assist in the judicial functions of the House of Lords.

The House of Lords has the power to introduce bills, although bills dealing with financial matters can only originate in the House of Commons. The Lords can also offer amendments to bills passed by the House of Commons, and Commons is obligated to consider these amendments before passing a bill into law. The Lords have the right to delay legislation, and may delay bills for up to about a year. Financial bills, however, may only be delayed for a month, and they become law in 30 days whether or not the House of Lords approves of them. The terms of the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 forbid the Lords from disapproving nonfinancial bills if the House of Commons has passed them in two successive sessions. The only exception is a bill to lengthen the life of a Parliament past five years, which requires the assent of both chambers.

These powers of the House of Lords are limited because most Britons believe that in a modern democracy a nonelected house should only act as a forum for opinion, one that is comparatively free from party politics and pressures. Although this house has relatively little power, many Britons would like to either abolish it completely or replace it with some form of elected second chamber.

The House of Commons and Legislation

The House of Commons is the source of real political power in the United Kingdom. Its members are democratically elected by universal suffrage of citizens over the age of 18. Certain groups that are denied the right to vote, however, include members of the House of Lords, some detained mental health patients, sentenced prisoners, and those convicted of corrupt or illegal election practices in the previous five years. In addition, certain persons are excluded from standing for election to the House of Commons. They include peers; clergy from the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Church of Ireland, or the Roman Catholic Church; people sentenced to more than a year in prison; and those with unpaid bankruptcy bills.

Members of the House of Commons are elected from geographical constituencies determined by population, and each MP generally represents a constituency of 60,000 to 70,000 people. Four permanent boundary commissions exist, one each for England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Their purpose is to keep the constituencies equal and the boundaries fair. The commissions review the constituencies every 8 to 12 years and recommend changes based on population shifts. Based on a review conducted in 1995, the elections of 1997 and 2001 were held for 659 constituencies in the United Kingdom: 529 in England, 72 in Scotland, 40 in Wales, and 18 in Northern Ireland. A subsequent review by the Boundary Commission for Scotland reduced the number of constituencies there to 59. Accordingly, the number of seats in the House of Commons was reduced to 646 as of the 2005 general elections.

British citizens living abroad may vote in British elections for up to 20 years after they have left Britain. Those temporarily living overseas as members of the military or other state service may vote in their home constituencies. In 1992 a record high of 78 percent of the electorate voted in the general election. In 1997 a reported 71 percent of the electorate voted. Voter turnout dropped to 59 percent in 2001 and then rose slightly in 2005 to 61 percent.

A session of Parliament lasts for five years unless the prime minister dissolves Parliament, which can happen for a number of reasons. Although the monarch officially dissolves Parliament, this happens only after the prime minister calls for it. The prime minister can dissolve Parliament over a major issue that he or she believes should be submitted to the voters. The prime minister also might dissolve Parliament if the tide of public opinion seems to be flowing strongly on the side of the party in office. Holding a general election when public opinion is highly supportive of the party in power enables that party to possibly gain more seats in the House of Commons, and so extend their stay in power with a stronger majority.

Parliament can also be dissolved if the government is defeated on an important piece of legislation. When a Parliamentary majority votes against the legislation it is treated as a vote of no confidence for the prime minister and his government. A specific vote by that name may be taken to indicate that the majority of MPs are against the legislation. This tradition is so deep that actual votes of no confidence are rarely taken. The government of Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan was dissolved in 1979 when a vote of no confidence was taken after union workers went on strike in reaction to the government’s attempt to limit wage increases. There had been no such vote of no confidence in Britain since 1924. When the prime minister dissolves Parliament, a general election is held for all the seats in the House of Commons.

The members of the majority party sit on one side of the house, directly facing the minority party members. Each side has a so-called front bench where its most important political leaders sit. The prime minister and his or her Cabinet colleagues sit in the majority party front bench. The opposition party front bench is occupied by what is called the Shadow Cabinet, which consists of the opposition party leader and those who would receive Cabinet posts if the opposition leader became prime minister. Debates in the House of Commons can be quite lively. C-SPAN television in America often broadcasts the raucous sessions when the prime minister answers questions from the house.

Most legislation is initiated by the Cabinet in the form of public bills, or legislation pertaining to the general law, which govern the population as a whole. Individual members of Parliament may introduce private bills to address specific or local concerns, such as the railways or local authorities. Ministers of departments initiate most of the public bills relating to their department; these kinds of public bills are called government bills. When a bill is passed into law, it then receives the royal assent. Much of the Cabinet’s work on legislation is accomplished in specialized committees, which debate and publish reports that help shape legislation.

Bills may be introduced into either the House of Commons or the House of Lords, except for financial bills, which may be introduced only in the House of Commons. Each bill is given three separate readings in each house. In the first reading, the bill is presented without debate. After the bill is read a second time, the house debates the bill’s general principles. The bill then goes to a committee for thorough study, discussion, and amendment. At the third reading, the bill is presented to the house in its final form and a vote is taken.

If the bill is passed on the third reading, it is sent to the other house, where it goes through the same procedure. If passed by the second house, the bill is sent to the monarch for the ceremonial formality of royal assent before becoming law. If amended by either house, the amendments must be resolved by both houses before the bill is sent to the monarch. The House of Lords can delay legislation for no more than one year (30 days for financial bills). A bill originating in the House of Lords can be tabled and not considered in the Commons, but a bill originating in the Commons will become law, even without the approval of the House of Lords, if it passes Commons again in the following year’s session.

The Judiciary

Britain has a long judicial history. Its legal system has been emulated throughout the world and many of its key principles and rights are part of U.S. law. The principles derived from British law include the right to trial by jury; the right to due process of law; freedom from unlawful imprisonment, called the writ of habeas corpus; the trial system of prosecution and defense; and the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

The judicial system has its roots in the Anglo-Saxon period, when the monarch established local courts to provide justice for all subjects. Monarchs delegated the power to hear cases to royal justices, who presided over courts in the monarch’s name. The British legal system relies on common law, which is based on custom and on decisions in previous legal cases, called precedents. Common law originated in the 12th century, growing out of the rules and traditions that ordinary people had worked out over time. Through the centuries common law evolved as it incorporated legal decisions made in specific cases, and it remains the basis of British law except when superseded by legislation. Unlike the United States, Britain does not have a Supreme Court that reviews legislation to determine its constitutionality; that responsibility falls to Parliament.

Those who practice law in Britain are divided into solicitors and barristers. Solicitors perform the everyday work of the law, particularly legal matters that can be handled solely with paperwork. Barristers plead cases in court. In Scotland barristers are called advocates. Solicitors engage barristers when they believe a client needs to go to court. Eminent barristers and, since 1996, some solicitors, may become Queen’s Counselors, or QCs. When they do it is said that they “take silk,’ because they switch from wearing cotton gowns to silk gowns in court. Barristers with long and distinguished careers may be chosen to become crown judges by the lord chancellor, the head of the judicial system in England and Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own legal systems.

Britain has several layers of courts and two kinds of legal proceedings, criminal and civil. Criminal law is concerned with acts punishable by the state, such as murder. Civil law involves disputes between private parties, either individuals, organizations, or companies. The final court of appeal for both civil and criminal cases is the House of Lords, where appeals are heard by the law lords.

Criminal cases are handled in one of two ways. Petty offenses, such as simple theft or vandalism, are brought before a local magistrate, or justice of the peace (JP). These unpaid magistrates are appointed by the lord chancellor. They are members of the community who are assisted by legal experts. The vast majority of criminal cases in Britain are minor enough to be handled by JPs. More serious criminal offenses, such as murder, rape, and robbery, are sent to a Crown Court, where they are tried before a High Court or a circuit judge and a jury of local citizens. The Crown Court also hears appeals from the magistrate’s court. Convictions and sentences from the Crown Court may be taken to the Court of Appeals for the Criminal Division. The final court of appeals is the House of Lords.

Civil cases are heard in county courts before a single judge. County courts hear cases dealing with families, property, contracts, and torts (violations of a legal duty imposed by the state that cause injury to an individual). Above the county courts is the High Court, which hears more complicated civil cases. High Court cases are sent to one of three divisions: the Family Division, which handles complex divorce cases, adoptions, and matters relating to children; the Chancery Division, which handles business matters and estate cases; or the Queen’s Bench Division, which handles property matters and torts, as well as maritime and commercial cases. Appeals are heard by the Court of Appeals for the Civil Division, and ultimately by the House of Lords.

A more informal and less expensive alternative to civil and criminal courts is a tribunal, which handles minor cases outside of the official court system. Tribunals are made up of lay people and are regulated by the law. They settle disputes between private citizens, grievances between employers and employees, and complaints between citizens and public authorities.

Local Government

There is no constitutional division of powers between the central government and local government in Britain as there is in the United States between the federal government and state and local government bodies. Local governments can be either councils or authorities at the county, borough, or district level. Local councils are controlled by laws and policies established by the central government, particularly concerning budgets and spending. Councils at the local level in Britain are responsible for police and fire services, roads, traffic, housing, building regulations, libraries, environmental issues, and schools paid for by direct grants from central authorities.

Local Government Prior to 1996

Reforms were made to the structure of local government throughout the United Kingdom during the 1970s. In 1973 Northern Ireland was divided into 26 districts, each with its own council. This is a single-tier system, meaning that the districts are the only layer of local government. The systems in England, Wales, and Scotland were made two-tier. In 1974 England and Wales were divided into counties, which were further subdivided into districts. Each county and district had its own council, with separate areas of responsibility. Six counties in England were designated metropolitan counties, and they have only district councils. In 1975 mainland Scotland’s counties were replaced with regions, which were subdivided into districts. Three all-purpose unitary island authorities were created for the Orkneys, Shetlands, and the Western Isles.

Northern Ireland had its own parliament, the Stormont, between 1921 and 1972. During this time it also sent representatives to Parliament in London. Civil violence erupted in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Northern Ireland when Catholics protested against the domination of the Protestant-controlled Stormont and inequality in treatment. The mounting violence eventually forced the British government to send in troops and to take control of the Northern Irish government, disbanding the Stormont.

In addition to local authorities or councils, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland each had a Cabinet minister, a secretary of state who was responsible for budget and policy matters in areas such as education, public and health services, the environment, and industries. The Scottish minister worked through the Scottish Office, the Welsh minister through the Welsh Office, and the Northern Irish minister through the Northern Ireland Office.

Until recently, London did not have its own government or mayor. It was divided into 32 boroughs, which had their own councils. In addition to the boroughs, there was the City of London, a one-square-mile area of the old part of London containing Saint Paul’s Cathedral and many modern businesses. (The term city in Britain is applied only to those places that have a cathedral.) The City’s government, the Corporation of the City of London, was a separate entity from London’s 32 boroughs. It had its own council and mayor, who held the title lord mayor of London.

In 1984 the Conservative government established strict controls over local government in an effort to curtail local government spending. It also attempted to change the method of taxation in 1990, but was unsuccessful. To help with the cost of local government the Conservative government replaced the property tax with an annual community charge tax. This community charge tax was soon dubbed the poll tax because it set a fixed amount to be paid per person rather than taxing people according to their income level. Opposition to the tax was so strong it led to rioting in London. The community charge tax was repealed in 1992 and replaced with a council tax based on property value, with discounts for certain properties and low-income levels.

Recent Changes in Local Government

Local government was greatly reorganized in 1996 in Scotland and Wales. The two-tier structure of local government was replaced with unitary authorities, in the belief that most places would be better served by one layer of government rather than two. Scotland was divided into 29 authorities (in addition to the three island authorities) and Wales into 22 authorities, each with its own council. Gradually some nonmetropolitan counties in England, especially those with large populations, were divided into unitary authorities as well, although most counties retained two-tier authorities. In May 1998 the citizens of London voted to create a Greater London Authority (GLA). Established in 2000, the GLA includes a mayor elected to a four-year term and a 25-member elected assembly. In the past, the City of London had a lord mayor with only ceremonial power who was appointed by the government. The new London mayor has considerable power to govern the entire London metropolitan area, including the old City of London, and holds similar responsibilities to American mayors. Changes in local government have been controversial. Those opposed to reforms assert that changes are costly to implement and reflect the bias of the party in control of the government.

Government in Scotland and Wales changed again in 1997, when both regions voted to create their own legislatures to handle local matters—a parliament in Scotland and an assembly in Wales. The step taken by the British government is called devolution, a process by which the powers of the central government over local affairs devolve, or are passed down, to the Scottish and Welsh people through their own democratically elected local legislatures. The secretaries of state for Scotland and Wales remain as Cabinet posts but only represent each region’s interests within the British government. Their former responsibilities were taken over by the new elected parliament or assembly, which determines the shape of the local governments. Each region continues to elect members to the House of Commons, and the Parliament in London continues to preside over the entire United Kingdom in such matters as national defense and security, overall economic policy, employment legislation, and social security.

In 1998 an accord was signed between Catholic and Protestant factions in Northern Ireland to create a semiautonomous government for the province. The Good Friday Agreement, as it was called, established a 108-seat Northern Ireland Assembly, headed by an executive council, that would have power over a wide range of local issues. After long delays and several false starts, the British government transferred power to the new government in mid-2000.

Political Parties

British political parties date from the 17th century, when the Whig and the Tory parties appeared during the time of the Revolution of 1688 (see Glorious Revolution). Whigs believed in a strong Parliament and came from the landed classes who were allied with the merchants and Nonconformist or non-Anglican Protestants. Tory supporters came from the landed aristocracy and were defenders of the king and the Church of England. In the 1800s the Whigs merged with other parties interested in social reform to form the Liberal Party. The Tories took on the additional name of the Conservative Party in the 1830s in order to appeal to a broader electorate, and both names are used interchangeably. The Conservative Party is still a major party in the United Kingdom, but the Labour Party, founded around the turn of the 20th century, grew to become the primary opposition to the Conservatives, taking the place of the Liberals. The Liberal Party evolved into the Liberal Democrat Party, the third most popular party in Britain.

Since its founding days, the Labour Party has drawn traditional financial and electoral support from the trade unions. The Labour Party has a socialist element, supporting state control of important industries and a more equal distribution of wealth. After World War II (1939-1945), the Labour government nationalized a number of industries and established the welfare state, which provided people with social security, unemployment insurance, and the National Health Service. Subsequent Conservative governments denationalized industries but kept the National Health Service and the main provisions of the welfare state. In recent years, trade union membership has declined, as has union influence in the Labour Party. At the same time, the Labour Party has moved toward the political center; in 1995 it gave up its commitment to socialism and the nationalization of industries. The Labour Party won the May 1997 general elections by a landslide, taking 418 of the 659 seats in Parliament. Labor retained its majority-party status following the 2001 and 2005 general elections.

The Conservative Party favors private enterprise and minimal state regulation, and accepts the mixed economy, which involves private ownership of businesses with some government control. Although a mixed economy entails more public spending than conservatives in the United States would support, the British business community is a strong supporter of the Conservative Party because it has historically supported private enterprise and a free market. In the 1980s the Conservative government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sought to increase private enterprise and reduce public legislation by introducing more competition into the National Health Service and by selling off public housing. Thatcher’s domestic policies were highly controversial and eventually led to the downfall of the Conservative government in the mid-1990s. Subsequently, the Conservative Party became the largest opposition party in Parliament, as the Labour Party won three straight victories (in 1997, 2001, and 2005).

The most important of Britain’s minor parties is the Liberal Democrat Party, formed in 1988 from the remnants of the Liberal Party and a majority of the Social Democratic Party. The Liberal Democrats make up the third largest party in Parliament, after Labor and the Conservatives. Other parties include the Scottish Nationalist Party; Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party that seeks self-government for Wales; and parties in Northern Ireland—Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

The current voting system is called “first past the post.” This means that the party and candidates receiving the most votes win the election and become the party in power even if they do not receive more than 50 percent of the vote. Under this system, smaller parties have proportionally less representation in Parliament than their share of the popular vote, as their candidates often do not garner enough votes in constituencies to send members to Parliament. As a result, some people support a system of proportional representation, which is used in a number of European countries. In such a system, which can take various forms, the number of seats a party receives in the legislature is proportional to the number of votes the party receives in the election. Critics of proportional representation assert that it produces too many political parties and leads to weak governments. A commission was set up in 1997 to review voting reform and consider switching to proportional representation.


A century ago Britain was the most formidable military power in the world, particularly at sea, facing the task of defending its vast empire. Today Britain is no longer a superpower and its defense establishment has been considerably reduced, particularly since the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, Britain is one of a number of nations in the world to officially possess nuclear weapons. Its army, navy, and air force, while smaller in numbers than in prior decades, are highly trained. They are responsible for protecting Britain and its dependent territories, as well as providing additional support for the respective civil authorities.

The prime minister is responsible for defense policy, and he or she works with the full cabinet, secretary of state for defence, and the Cabinet’s Defence and Overseas Policy Committee. The British equivalent of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff is the Defence Council, which is chaired by the secretary of state for defence and has seats for the army, navy, and air force plus other important government leaders. It exercises powers of command and administrative control.

Britain also contributes to United Nations operations and has deployed troops to Bosnia, Cyprus, Kuwait, and Angola. British military instructors are active in many countries, and thousands of military students from around the world attend military training courses in Britain. Britain maintains overseas garrisons in Germany, Brunei, Gibraltar, Cyprus, and the Falkland Islands, as well as a training group in Belize. British troops were deployed to Northern Ireland in 1969 to support the local police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (now the Police Service of Northern Ireland), in maintaining law and order. Britain also engaged in armed conflicts in the Falklands War in 1982, the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and the U.S.-Iraq War that began in 2003.

The Royal Navy

The Royal Navy has played an important part in British history. The first king to order a fleet built was Alfred the Great, who in the 9th century used ships to defend against the Danes. In the 15th century Henry VII built the first naval dockyard in Britain as England began exploring regions overseas. Britain went on to become the world’s strongest naval power, holding this position until the 20th century when the United States surpassed it. Today, Royal Navy ships are present at all times in British waters to assist merchant ships. British ships contribute to NATO’s standing naval forces in the Atlantic, the English Channel, the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean. The navy also has a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. The Royal Navy is governed by the Admiralty Board under the secretary of state for defence and includes an infantry arm, known as the Royal Marines, as well as a Royal Navy Reserve and a Royal Marines Reserve.

The British Army

The first permanent standing British army was established in the 17th century. Today the army consists of infantry, or foot soldiers; cavalry, initially soldiers on horses, now soldiers in tanks and armored vehicles; and the Army Air Corps, which operates helicopters and other aircraft. The army also includes a force of some 4,000 Gurkhas, professional soldiers from the country of Nepal in Asia. The Gurkha regiment dates from the early 19th century. The army’s support arms include the Royal Artillery; the Royal Engineers; the Royal Signals, which handle communications; and the Royal Intelligence Corps. The Territorial Army, also known as the militia or volunteer force, is a general reserve force. The British Army is the key land component in NATO’s rapid reaction forces. The army is controlled by the Defence Council through an Army Board composed of both civilian and military members.

The Royal Air Force

The Royal Air Force (RAF) began as the Royal Flying Corps in 1912 and became the RAF in 1918 when it joined with the Royal Naval Air Service. It gained immense popularity after its victory over the German air force in the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940. This battle halted the German invasion of Britain. The RAF became an important part of the Allied war effort in World War II. Today the RAF has more than 40 squadrons and contributes approximately 100 fixed-wing aircraft and 40 helicopters to NATO’s rapid reaction forces. It is under the Ministry of Defence and administered by an Air Force Board headed by the secretary of state for defence.

United Kingdom Membership in International Organizations

The United Kingdom is one of the founding members of the United Nations (UN) and occupies one of the five permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council, the most powerful body in the UN. It is an important contributor to UN peacekeeping operations. Britain also plays an important part in the European Union (EU), an organization dedicated to economic cooperation among European nations. Britain’s defense policy rests on membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), along with the United States and other member states. As a member of the Western European Union (WEU), the United Kingdom is part of a forum that consults and cooperates on defense issues concerning European NATO members. Britain also belongs to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), whose 55 member nations work to foster and protect human rights. Britain is an original member of the Council of Europe, whose 40 parliamentary democracies work together on human rights and social and cultural issues.

Perhaps the most historically significant international organization the United Kingdom belongs to is the Commonwealth, which evolved out of the former British Empire. It consists of 54 members worldwide that have a historical connection to Britain. The British monarch is recognized as the nominal head of the Commonwealth. It brings together leaders and groups from developed and less-developed areas of the world to support each other economically, politically, and socially, thereby linking widely differing cultures.

Britain belongs to many other international bodies. One of the most important is the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF oversees the international financial system and assists member nations that are experiencing financial difficulties. Britain also joined with other industrialized countries to form the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which promotes collaboration on economic issues, gathers statistical information, and offers advice to less-developed countries.


Beginning in the 16th century, the British Isles underwent a series of political changes that eventually led to the establishment of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. The creation of the United Kingdom brought England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales (the four cultural regions of Britain) under the rule of a central government headed by a common monarch and administered by a single parliament. When Ireland (with the exception of its six northern counties) achieved independence in 1922, the kingdom was renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

England and Wales were the first regions to function under a single government. During the 13th century, England established control over Wales after several centuries of intermittent warfare. The two nations officially merged in 1536 and were known collectively as England.

Scotland and England moved toward union after the Scottish monarchs inherited the throne of England in 1603. Although a common ruler united these two countries, Scotland and England remained separate nations with separate governments. In 1707 the Scottish and English parliaments passed an Act of Union, which merged the formerly independent nations into the Kingdom of Great Britain.

The English established control over Ireland beginning in the 12th century, when English colonists invaded the island. They gradually established English domination over the entire island. Ireland remained a separate country under the rule of the English and British monarchs until the British Parliament passed the Act of Union of 1800. This act created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

However, opposition to the United Kingdom remained strong among Ireland’s predominantly Roman Catholic population. Many Irish citizens resented the long history of domination by Britain’s Protestant majority. In 1922 Ireland achieved its independence, although its six northern counties, where Protestants are in the majority, remained a part of the United Kingdom.

For a history of the nations of Britain prior to 1707, see Scotland; Britain, Ancient; England; and Wales. For a history of Ireland prior to 1800, see Ireland.

England and Scotland in the 17th Century

A union of England and Scotland seemed unlikely at the beginning of the 17th century. The two nations had been periodically at war with each other for almost 700 years as a result of disputes over control of border regions and occasional attempts by the English to expand northward into Scotland. In order to protect its independence, Scotland maintained a traditional alliance with France, England’s primary enemy on the European continent. When Elizabeth I of England died childless in 1603, James VI of Scotland, a member of the royal house of Stuart and a relative of Elizabeth, inherited the English throne. In addition to ruling as James VI of Scotland, he then became James I of England.

Regional Differences

James held royal authority in two kingdoms that were very different. Scotland was sparsely populated, and its land was largely barren and infertile. Rocky soil, a cold and wet climate, and insufficient irrigation prevented agriculture from thriving. A long tradition of self-sufficient farms and estates discouraged trade and limited the growth of industry. Scotland was divided into two distinct regions, the Highlands and Lowlands. By far the largest concentration of population in Scotland was in the southern Lowlands around the two principal cities: Glasgow and the capital city, Edinburgh. The Lowlands were fully integrated into royal government; the king ruled with little opposition. Scotland’s Parliament met rarely and dealt with limited issues. In the Highlands, however, the royal government had little direct influence. Clans—social groups based on extended family ties—still dominated the region.

In contrast, England at the beginning of the 17th century was a dynamic society, growing rapidly in population and wealth. England’s south and east had fertile agricultural land. In the north and west, estates carried out sheep herding on a large scale. A thriving export trade existed in wool, grain, and other products. England’s capital city, London, was one of the largest cities in the world.

The Tudor monarchs, who ruled England from 1485 to 1603, had effectively centralized English government by the early 17th century. The nobility—the once powerful class of landowning aristocrats—no longer formed a powerful independent political force, but instead served the crown and became dependent on royal support. The gentry—landowners with country estates—formed the core of royal government in the countryside, enforcing the law as sheriffs or serving as justices in the local courts.

Although the Tudors centralized administration, they failed to implement a financial system to pay for the escalating costs of government. Rents on royal lands, supplemented by limited taxes on imports and on the church, barely financed government administration. During wars or times of emergency, the monarchy had to request funds from Parliament, which alone had the right to approve additional taxes and to pass new laws.

Religious Differences

Religious issues also separated the two nations. Both the Church of Scotland and the Church of England were Protestant churches. However, in England the monarch reigned as head of a compliant, centralized church. Henry VIII had established the Church of England in 1534 with the monarch as its supreme head. His successors maintained tight royal control over church affairs and held the final say in matters of religion.

James had less control over Scotland’s church. Protestantism had made major gains among the people, and a Presbyterian system, built upon independent local church organizations, formed without royal approval. In 1560 the Scottish Parliament accepted the Presbyterian form of Protestantism as the official religion. James appointed bishops to establish his authority over the church, but the Presbyterian system remained intact on the local level and continued to decide many religious matters independently of the king and the bishops.

Resistance to Union

When James inherited the English throne in 1603, he assumed that he would unite the two countries, but his efforts at union were blocked on both sides of the border. James was unable to overcome the hostility and prejudice that the citizens of both countries felt toward each other after centuries of war. The Scots were fearful of losing their independence. The English, already jealous of James’s Scottish advisers, saw no advantage in merging with a poor, less-developed nation. Unable to form a union, James did everything he could to establish closer connections between the two kingdoms. He elevated Scottish lords to English titles, provided them with English estates, and arranged marriages between English and Scottish noble families.

James’s son Charles I made no attempt to unite his kingdoms, although he did try to create greater uniformity between the Scottish and English churches that he headed. His attempts at church reform in Scotland led to a rebellion against him in 1639. Charles convened Parliament and requested new taxes to pay for an army to suppress the Scottish rebellion. However, Charles had attempted to govern without Parliament in the past, and Parliament refused to raise revenues until Charles addressed a series of grievances raised by its members.

The conflict between Charles and Parliament escalated into a civil war in which Scots and English fought side by side both for and against the king (see English Revolution). Parliamentary forces defeated Charles and executed him in 1649. They established a revolutionary government to rule over the king’s former domains. Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentary army, eventually assumed total political control and brought about a brief political union between England and Scotland. Under this arrangement, the Scots sent representatives to the English Parliament.

Cromwell also established complete British control over Ireland. The English presence in Ireland began in the 12th century, when English invaders landed on the eastern coast and gradually moved westward. English feudal lords gained control of vast areas of the Irish countryside. Over time many of these English lords adopted Irish customs and manners. Although these lords technically owed allegiance to the English monarch, their distance from England and their isolation in country estates made them practically independent.

In the late 16th century a group of Irish lords, predominantly based in the northern province of Ulster, rebelled against England. The English defeated the Irish forces in 1601 and seized lands in Ulster that belonged to the rebels. With these lands, the English established a plantation, or colony, of English and Scottish Protestants. The present majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland stems from this settlement.

In 1641 the Irish Catholics rose up against the Protestants. The local population took vengeance on the settlers who had seized their lands, killing thousands. The rebels were unable to capture the city of Dublin, a royal stronghold and the center of English administration on the island. A stalemate ensued. In 1649 Cromwell brought an army to Ireland to assist the Protestants. Cromwell’s highly trained army easily defeated the Catholics, often with brutal savagery. Within a year all major opposition had been eliminated. Cromwell seized all estates owned by Catholics and gave the land to Protestants.

Following Cromwell’s death in 1658, Charles’s son returned to England from exile in 1660 and took the throne as Charles II. He reestablished separate governments in Scotland and England. In the 1670s there were occasional outbreaks of violence against the king’s rule in Scotland, but they were brutally suppressed. In 1685 a prominent Scottish noblemen, Archibald Campbell, 9th earl of Argyll, led a rebellion against the newly crowned James II of England. It, too, was violently crushed.

James II did not serve long as king. English Protestants became suspicious that the king, who was Catholic, might impose his religion on the nation. This suspicion increased in 1687 when James removed legal restrictions placed on Roman Catholics and on Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England. In 1688 the birth of the king’s son, James Francis Edward Stuart, created the potential of a Catholic heir to the throne.

Revolution of 1688

Shortly thereafter, Protestant political leaders launched a revolt against James II. The Revolution of 1688 deposed James in favor of his nephew, William of Orange. William was a Dutch Protestant noble who had married James’s daughter Mary. An act of Parliament made Mary II and William III joint monarchs in 1689.

The revolution deeply divided the Scots. As the head of Scotland’s royal family, James II continued to attract loyalty, especially in the Highlands. The most powerful Scottish politicians and aristocrats were willing to accept William III only if he gave Scotland greater freedom to govern itself. William granted the Scots a nearly independent Parliament and pledged not to interfere in the Scottish church. William later made several overtures for a political union, offering the Scots the benefits of free trade with England, participation in the emerging English Empire, and guarantees to preserve Scotland’s legal, religious, and political institutions. The Scots rejected these proposals.

The Act of Union

A crisis concerning the succession to the throne brought more immediacy to the unification issue. William and Mary were childless, as was Mary’s sister, Anne, who succeeded to the throne in 1702. To assure a smooth transition of power to a Protestant monarch, in 1701 the English Parliament passed the Act of Settlement, which stated that a German branch of the royal family, the Hanovers, would succeed Anne as the monarchs of England. The Scottish Parliament refused to ratify the act, creating the potential that the two kingdoms would split after more than 100 years under the same monarchs.

The English feared that an independent Scotland might ally itself with France and provide a backdoor for a French invasion of England. The English fear of an invasion was especially strong at the beginning of the 18th century. At this time, England led a coalition of nations that were struggling to prevent Louis XIV of France from gaining mastery over Europe. After 1701 the stakes increased as Louis attempted to establish his grandson on the throne of Spain. The ensuing War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) engulfed most of western Europe as England, Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, and later Portugal formed an alliance against France and Spain.

To avoid facing an enemy on the northern border, Anne’s ministers threatened the Scottish Parliament. They warned Scotland that they would treat all Scots as aliens in England, stop all trade between the nations, and capture or sink Scottish ships that traded with France. These threats led the Scots to accept the union with England.

In 1707 Great Britain was born. Fear had led the politicians of both nations to a union that would prove durable for hundreds of years. The Act of Union of 1707 created a single national administration, removed trade barriers between the countries, standardized taxation throughout the island, and created a single Parliament. However, England and Scotland continued to have separate traditions of law and separate official churches.

Developments in Ireland

Catholics had gained hope of a return to power in Ireland during the reign of James II, who appointed Catholics to positions of authority in the royal administration and the military hierarchy of the island. Following the Revolution of 1688, James II fled to Ireland, where he raised an army of Catholic supporters. William III defeated the Catholics and once again imposed the firm rule of Protestant nobles. Although Ireland had its own Parliament, which was composed of Protestant landowners, the real power lay with royal officials, who administered the island based on orders from London. The Protestant rulers of Ireland instituted a series of highly restrictive laws that excluded Catholics from owning land or firearms, from practicing certain professions, and from holding public office. These discriminatory laws united Ireland’s Catholic population in opposition to Protestant rule.

Rise of Great Britain

Great Britain emerged from the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) as one of the world’s great military powers. Traditionally a naval power, Britain had built a modern, professional army during the reign of William III. This army, under the brilliant military leadership of John Churchill, 1st duke of Marlborough, led the anti-French alliance to decisive victories. On the seas, the British navy captured the island of Minorca in the Mediterranean and the strategic fortress of Gibraltar, which guards the entrance to the Mediterranean, on the southern coast of Spain. These victories gave Britain control over the Mediterranean.

In 1713 and 1714 a series of treaties known as the Peace of Utrecht brought the war to a formal conclusion. As a result of the war, Britain gained Gibraltar and important trade concessions from Spain, including a monopoly on the slave trade to the Spanish colonies. From the French they won the colonies of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Hudson Bay.

18th-Century Britain

18th-Century British Society

British society was stratified in the 18th century, with a tiny aristocracy and landed gentry at the top and a vast mass of poor at the bottom. For the aristocracy, the 18th century was its greatest age. British lords who controlled large estates saw their wealth increase from a boom in agricultural production, an expansion of investment opportunities, and the domination of the government by the aristocracy. They built vast palaces and developed new areas of London, Edinburgh, and Dublin. The monarchy almost exclusively appointed aristocrats to the most important political offices.

In contrast to the aristocracy, the gentry lost much of the political and financial influence it had wielded since the days of the Tudor monarchs. Many holders of small estates found that land was no longer the secure source of wealth it had once been, especially with the high taxes imposed on landowners to finance Britain’s wars. The immense estates of Britain’s aristocratic class provided their owners with a constant flow of funds, while higher taxes often consumed the profits generated by the smaller estates of the gentry. Although the gentry’s status in the local community was secure, merchants who traded luxury commodities overseas soon eclipsed the gentry in wealth and influence on the national level during the 18th century.

Society in the 18th century was becoming more fluid than in the past, in part because of the growth of the middle classes in towns and cities. Middle-class families earned their livings in trade or in professions, such as law and medicine. They valued literacy, thrift, and education, ideas that were spread by thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment. Especially influential were philosophers John Locke and David Hume and economist Adam Smith. Locke and Hume stressed the importance of the senses and the environment in shaping the individual. Locke also described the human mind as a blank slate that was to be filled by education and experience. Smith, in his book The Wealth of Nations (1776), demonstrated how the efficient organization of economic activity created wealth.

Increased literacy and education spread throughout the country. In towns, the middle classes established lending libraries to distribute books, clubs to discuss ideas, and coffeehouses to debate politics. Newspapers became the most popular form of media, and more than 50 towns produced their own newspapers by the end of the century. So much written material was being produced that writer Samuel Johnson thought it necessary to attempt to codify the language by publishing his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Women shared in the upsurge in literacy. Dozens of weekly magazines and installment romance stories, which contained a strong moral message encouraging chastity and sobriety, were directed at women.

The newest form of literature was the novel. Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson was one of the first works of this genre. The writings of novelist Jane Austen were popular toward the end of the century. The rise of the middle class was also seen in the most important religious movement of the era, Methodism. Founded by theologian John Wesley, Methodism encouraged the population at large to believe personal salvation could be achieved without relying on the formal rituals of the Church of England. Wesley directed his energies to laborers and the poor, but his message was derived from the attitudes of the middle class.

Poverty dominated the lower reaches of British society, especially as the population grew and food prices rose in the middle of the century. Towns swarmed with homeless families, the sick, and individuals with disabilities. The government and charitable organizations established orphanages and hospitals, as well as workhouses where the unemployed could find temporary work. While women and children were left to live in poverty, the government forced able-bodied men into military service by the thousands. London experienced the worst of this situation. Poor migrants flooded the city seeking work or charity; most found an early death instead.

Paradoxically, improvements in sanitation, medicine, and food production allowed many poor people to live longer lives, increasing the population of poor and adding to the problems. The epidemics of plague and smallpox, which had routinely killed a third of the people in towns during earlier centuries, were now a thing of the past. The production of cheap alcoholic beverages, such as gin and rum, eased some of the pain of the poor, but increased alcohol consumption also raised the level of violence and crime.

Crime was so common in 18th-century Britain that Parliament made more than 200 offenses punishable by death. Executions were weekly spectacles. To deal with excess prison populations, the British government deported many inmates to British overseas colonies. The government sent tens of thousands of convicts to the Americas as indentured servants and established the colony of Australia as a prison colony at the end of the century.

18th-Century British Politics

Following the union with Scotland, the British government functioned according to an unwritten constitution put in place after the Revolution of 1688. This agreement between the monarchs and Parliament provided for the succession of Anne’s German Protestant cousin, George of Hanover, and his heirs. It excluded from the throne the Catholic descendants of James II who now lived in France and who periodically attempted to regain the throne. Their supporters were known as Jacobites, and they rose in an unsuccessful rebellion in 1715. The Church of England remained the official religious establishment, but most Protestants who belonged to other churches enjoyed toleration.

The revolution also resolved the struggle for power between the monarch and Parliament, which had been an ongoing issue under the Stuarts. Parliament emerged as the leading force in government. The Hanoverians ruled as constitutional monarchs, limited by the laws of the land. During the 18th century, British monarchs ruled indirectly through appointed ministers who gathered and managed supporters in Parliament. Landowners eligible to vote elected a new House of Commons every seven years, although membership into the upper house of Parliament, the House of Lords, remained limited to hereditary and appointed lords and high church clergy. Parliament passed laws, controlled foreign policy, and approved the taxes that allowed the monarch to pay the salaries of officials, the military, and the royal family.

The Hanoverian monarchs associated the Whig Party with the revolution that brought them to power and suspected the Tory Party of Jacobitism. As a result, the Whigs dominated the governments of George I (1714-1727) and his son, George II (1727-1760). Neither king was a forceful monarch. George I spoke no English and was more interested in German politics that he was in British politics. George II was preoccupied with family problems, particularly by an ongoing personal feud with his son. Although they both were concerned with European military affairs (George II was the last British monarch to appear on a battlefield), they left British government in the hands of their ministers, the most important of whom was Sir Robert Walpole.

Walpole led British government for almost 20 years. He spent most of his life in government, first as a member of Parliament, then in increasingly important offices, and finally as prime minister. Walpole had skillful political influence over a wide range of domestic and foreign policy matters. He was chiefly interested in domestic affairs and was able to improve royal finances and the national economy. He reduced the national debt and lowered the land tax, which had slowed investment in agriculture. He secured passage of a Molasses Act in 1733 to force British colonists to buy molasses from British planters and ensure British control of the lucrative sugar trade. Walpole kept Britain out of war during most of his administration. A growing sentiment in Parliament for British involvement in European conflicts forced Walpole to resign in 1742.

Walpole so firmly established the Whigs that the two-party system all but disappeared from British politics for half a century. He created a patronage system, which he used to reward his supporters with positions in an expanding and increasingly wealthy government. Opposition to patronage eventually grew within the Whig Party among those who believed that ministers had acquired too much power and that politics had grown corrupt.

In 1745 a Jacobite rebellion posed a serious threat to Whig rule. Led by Charles Edward Stuart, the grandson of James II, the rebellion broke out in Scotland. The rebels captured Edinburgh and successfully invaded the north of England. The rebellion crumbled after William Augustus, who was the duke of Cumberland and a son of George II, defeated the Jacobites at Culloden Moor in Scotland in 1746.

British Colonial Expansion

The First British Empire

Britain already controlled many overseas areas by the 18th century. For more than 100 years English explorers had ventured east and west in search of raw materials, luxury goods, and trading partners. The eastern coast of Canada gave the British access to rich fishing grounds, New England provided timber for the Royal Navy, the southern American colonies exported tobacco, and the West Indies produced sugar and molasses. From Asia came coffee, tea, spices, and richly colored cotton cloth. Enslaved people from western Africa were sent to work on plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean.

The first British Empire sprang from the enterprises of individuals and government-sponsored trading companies. They risked money, ships, and lives to establish England’s presence around the world. The British government created royal monopolies—private companies to whom the monarch granted exclusive rights to trade in a particular region or field of commerce. For example, the East India Company had a monopoly to trade in the east, the Royal African Company to enter the slave trade, and the Hudson’s Bay Company to exploit the fisheries of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The lands that these companies claimed became possessions of the crown, and investors bought shares in successful companies on the London Stock Exchange.

In the early 18th century optimism ran so high that speculation in one royal monopoly created one of the great financial panics in British history. The government awarded the South Seas Company a monopoly on trade with South America and the Pacific Islands. Investor interest drove the price of the company’s stock higher and higher until it reached ten times its actual value. When some of the company’s directors sold their stock, other investors panicked, and the price of the stock plummeted. Thousands of stockholders met with financial ruin when what came to be known as the South Sea Bubble collapsed in 1720.

The most important of Britain’s imperial possessions, however, were not trading posts but settled colonies in the Americas. In Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, settlers established communities for religious reasons; in Virginia and Barbados, farmers, tradespeople, and merchants were in search of economic opportunity. As a result of successful wars with Netherlands and Spain, England acquired New York and Jamaica, both thriving settlements. Prosperous cities sprang up along the eastern seaboard of North America in imitation of the towns of Britain. England’s colonies grew rapidly. The tens of thousands of settlers in the mainland North American colonies in 1650 grew to 1.2 million inhabitants by 1750.

The Navigation Act of 1651 regulated trade between England and its colonial outposts. The act followed an economic philosophy known as mercantilism. Under this system, governments regulated economic activities by increasing exports and limiting foreign imports in an effort to generate wealth. According to the theory of mercantilism, the value of colonies lay in their natural resources, which could be transported to Britain and converted into exportable products. The Navigation Act benefited British merchants by restricting the types of products produced in the colonies, mandating that only British ships transport products to and from the colonies, and prohibiting direct trade between the colonies and other nations. Mercantile policies made Britain the greatest center of trade in the world.

Imperial Wars

As a consequence of its military exploits under William III and John Churchill, the duke of Marlborough, Britain had become a great power. Britain’s military strength and its growing prosperity created an international rivalry among the three great colonial powers—Britain, Spain, and France.

Spain controlled extensive colonies in Mexico, Central America, and South America. Because the Spanish and British empires both employed the restrictive mercantile system to regulate trade with their colonies, Spanish and British colonies were not allowed to trade directly with one another. The Spanish navy attacked British ships when they attempted to trade in South American ports. However, Spanish traders carried on a lucrative smuggling operation with the British colonies, exchanging sugar, rum, molasses, and other goods for raw materials and agricultural products from the British colonies.

Relations were particularly tense between Britain and France. The French resented the expansion of Britain’s American colonies as well as the ban on direct trade between the colonies and non-British merchants. French territories in the Americas included Saint-Domingue (the largest of the Caribbean sugar islands), mainland North America from the Ohio Valley to the Mississippi River, and all but the easternmost part of Canada. Clashes between French and English forces became frequent in the North American colonies.

It had been Walpole’s policy to keep Britain out of European wars, but the merchants’ interest in expanding British control of overseas trading routes and the desire of the Hanoverian monarchs to protect their German properties ultimately made this impossible. In the mid-1700s Britain became embroiled in two major wars. Both the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) were world wars, fought by great armies on the European continent, by navies in the Atlantic, and by privateers in the West Indies and the spice-rich islands of Asia.

The War of the Austrian Succession erupted following the death of Charles VI, Holy Roman emperor and archduke of Austria. The war was fought over the succession of his daughter, Maria Theresa. It pitted England, the Netherlands, and Austria, who were trying to defend Maria Theresa’s succession, against an alliance of France, Spain, Bavaria, Prussia, Saxony (Sachsen), and Sardinia. After eight years of fighting, the conflict ended when the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle confirmed Maria Theresa as Charles’s heir. The treaty returned almost all the conquered lands to their original owners, except for the Austrian province of Silesia, which was ceded to Prussia.

The Seven Years’ War was one of the greatest of all British triumphs. A coalition of Britain, Prussia, and Hannover fought against France, Spain, Russia, Austria, Sweden, and Saxony. The war began as a European conflict, when Maria Theresa attempted to regain Silesia from Prussia. It soon expanded into a major contest between Britain and France for control of their colonial empires.

British prime minister William Pitt, 1st earl of Chatham, engineered the expansion of the war. Pitt was known as William Pitt the Elder to differentiate him from his son, William Pitt the Younger, who served as Britain’s prime minister in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Pitt’s family made its fortune in colonial trade, and Pitt saw clearly that Britain’s best interest lay in enlarging its colonial empire rather than in dominating Europe.

Pitt backed young military leaders and supported them with the forces they needed. He was rewarded beyond all expectation. In India, Robert Clive, the governor of a small British trading post, achieved two major victories. In 1757 he captured Chandernagore, the principal French settlement in India, and at the Battle of Plassey he defeated the army of the Indian ruler of Bengal. These victories established a permanent British foothold in India. In North America, where the war was known as the French and Indian War, British general James Wolfe took Québec and drove the French from the province. At the conclusion of the war, Britain secured all French territory in Canada and east of the Mississippi and acquired Florida from Spain. The Treaty of Paris, which ended the war in 1763, represented a French surrender around the globe.

George III and the American Revolution

Domestic Politics

Although William Pitt had become a national hero, he did not survive the change of monarchs in 1760. George III came to the throne determined to rule Britain without the help of the Whigs. He chose his former tutor, Lord Bute, as his first chief minister, but quickly replaced him with a series of successors. George III was determined to participate actively in Parliament’s political decisions; this brought him into conflict with his own ministers, who foresaw parliamentary opposition to a politically active monarch. The king also faced opposition from critics such as political reformer John Wilkes, a member of Parliament who was arrested for libel when he criticized one of the king’s speeches.

Wilkes became an advocate of freedom of the press and a champion of parliamentary reform. One of Wilkes’s proposed reforms involved redrawing parliamentary districts. He advocated the elimination of rotten boroughs—parliamentary districts in depopulated rural areas. The boundaries of many of these boroughs had not been adjusted since the 15th century. In some rotten boroughs, a few dozen voters returned members to Parliament, while the entire city of Manchester went unrepresented. Parliament defeated a bill to eliminate the worst of the rotten boroughs in 1785, largely because many members of Parliament depended on the patronage system, which was controlled by politicians who came from these boroughs. “Wilkes and Liberty!” became the cry of a host of discontented groups within English society.

Colonial Unrest

Britain’s role in the imperial wars cost the country a staggering amount, and the national debt rose higher than it had ever been before. In order to lower the national debt, the king’s ministers decided to make colonial government pay for itself. Beginning in 1763 Parliament passed laws to tax colonial commodities such as sugar, glass, cider, and tea. The most controversial of these duties was the Stamp Act of 1765, which taxed legal documents and publications. Americans not only complained about the cost of these taxes, they also questioned the British government’s right to impose them. They decried being taxed by Parliament when they were not allowed representation in British government.

The American Revolution (1775-1783) divided the governing classes in Britain. Prominent intellectuals such as political philosopher Edmund Burke were accused of treachery for supporting the colonists. However, the government of Prime Minister Lord North continued to try to enforce colonial taxation. In 1775, 13 of the American colonies rebelled against British rule.

The American Revolution gave France and Spain an opportunity to strike back at the British Empire. Both supported the American colonists with money and ultimately declared war on Britain. The British army was unprepared for war in North America, and it suffered a series of humiliating defeats, culminating in the surrender of British general Charles Cornwallis to American forces at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781 (see Siege of Yorktown). The Royal Navy fared no better. When hostilities ended, Florida was returned to Spain, and the 13 rebellious colonies achieved independence as the United States of America.

Domestic problems accompanied these military disasters. In London mobs ruled the streets for nearly a week as the worst rioting of the century—the anti-Catholic Gordon riots in 1780—left 700 dead. Indignation at government incompetence in the handling of the American Revolution led to the formation of public associations to reform government. After Lord North’s ministry fell in 1782, Parliament passed several reform laws, including the Economical Reform Act, which reduced the patronage powers of the king and his ministers.

The loss of the American colonies came at great cost to Britain’s self-image. George III was blamed for the disaster, and he decided to withdraw from direct control of government. He would soon have the first of a series of bouts with porphyria that eventually left him incapable of ruling the nation.

Act of Union with Ireland

In Ireland, Protestants formed volunteer military groups during the war, supposedly to defend the island from a French invasion. Backed by these groups, the Irish Protestants pressured the British government into granting greater independence to the Irish Parliament in 1782. This independence did not last long.

In 1798 three antigovernment activities shook the confidence of the Irish Protestants. A revolt broke out in May and June among Catholic peasants, while a group of dissenting Protestants in Ulster also rose in rebellion; in August a small French army landed in western Ireland. All three challenges were handled by British troops. These events caused widespread concern among the Protestant elite about their ability to maintain political power in Ireland. In 1800 the Irish Parliament approved an Act of Union that made Ireland an integral part of the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Irish Parliament was dissolved, and Irish representatives were seated in the British Parliament.

Revolution and War

In 1783 the king turned power over to William Pitt the Younger, who was only 24 when he became prime minister. Pitt, the son of a former prime minister, immediately set about repairing the damage that had been done to the colonial empire by the recent losses. The India Act of 1784 removed the administration of India from the English East India Company and placed it directly under the control of the British government. Pitt’s greatest concern was to reduce the huge debt acquired from nearly a half century of warfare. He encouraged the resumption of trade with the United States. Pitt also created a fund to pay government creditors and to accumulate the money necessary to repay long-term loans. This strategy might have resulted in financial stability had it not been for developments in France.

French Revolution

In 1789 the French Revolution erupted. French citizens rose against their monarch, Louis XVI, eliminated the ancient legal distinctions based on social class, and established a republican government. The French revolutionaries invited all of the peoples of Europe to follow their example. Conservative monarchs throughout Europe were hostile toward the revolution. Within a few years wars broke out between France and a number of European powers.

In Britain, there were early supporters of the cause of revolution. Anglo-American political philosopher Thomas Paine, who had been instrumental in the American Revolution, took up the French cause with vigor. Most British politicians adopted a more conservative philosophy because they were frightened by the introduction of radical social and political changes in France. First, the British government suspended civil rights in 1792 and began actively prosecuting individuals for sedition (inciting revolution). Individuals who advocated even minor government reform were imprisoned. Then, in 1795, Parliament approved a law allowing the government to imprison without trial anyone who criticized its policies. The last years of the century were dark days for the government as food prices rose, the Bank of England suspended the gold payments that guaranteed its debts, and fear of a French invasion mounted.

In 1793 France declared war on Britain, and the final phase of nearly 500 years of warfare between France and Britain began. It was a titanic struggle. Initially, Britain stayed out of the land war in Europe and chose instead to focus on defending its colonial possessions and maintaining control of the seas. In 1798 British admiral Horatio Nelson defeated the French navy in Egypt (see Battle of the Nile), securing India’s safety throughout the war. The Royal Navy captured nearly all of the important French colonies in the West Indies and Africa. In 1805 Nelson achieved one of the greatest of all naval victories at the Battle of Trafalgar when he defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet.

Napoleonic Wars

Britain could not stay out of the European conflict indefinitely. The rise of French emperor Napoleon and his powerful armies threatened the international balance of power. The Napoleonic Wars were fought between France and a variety of European nations from 1799 to 1815.

Napoleon’s policy of blockading trade between Britain and the European continent hurt British trade. In response Britain instituted a blockade of goods going into or out of European ports controlled by Napoleon. The British policy of stopping and searching ships suspected of traveling to French-held areas of Europe led to the War of 1812 (1812-1815) between Britain and the United States. The war began when the United States insisted that Britain had no right to stop, search, or seize ships belonging to neutral countries.

After Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 and suffered a disastrous defeat, Britain mobilized its forces for a land war and joined a coalition with Russia, Austria, and Prussia. The center of fighting shifted to Spain, where a British force under the duke of Wellington successfully fought its way across the country and invaded France in 1813. Two years later Wellington led the coalition of forces that decisively defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo and ended the French revolutionary wars.

The Congress of Vienna, which ended the Napoleonic Wars, was a great diplomatic victory for Britain. France was left intact but its continental neighbors achieved security of their borders. The treaty created a balance of power among the nations of Europe that led to 40 years of peace on the continent. With peace established in Europe, Britain was free to spend its energy and resources on expanding its overseas empire.

The 18th-Century Economy

More than anything else, the economic development of Britain in the 18th century made possible its military successes and the expansion of its empire. The creation of financial institutions—such as the Bank of England and the Bank of Scotland—at the end of the 17th century and beginning of the 18th century helped increase the circulation of money and the speed with which business transactions could take place.

The establishment of a permanent national debt, funded by the sale of bonds that investors redeemed at a later date at an increased value, allowed the British government to amass the vast sums necessary to mount military expeditions of unprecedented size and cost. At the end of the century Britain had more than half a million men in the military, and the task of supplying and paying them was gargantuan. The War of the Spanish Succession, which ended in 1714, had cost less than £100 million; the Napoleonic Wars, which ended a century later, cost £1.5 billion. The national debt rose accordingly. Despite these enormous outlays for war, and the accumulation of debt, Britain was a richer society at the end of the century than at the beginning. Roughly, income per capita more than doubled despite rapid population growth.

Following the union with Scotland in 1707, the British population stood at about 6.5 million; a century later it had reached 15.75 million. More importantly, most of that growth had taken place after 1750 in one of the greatest population explosions in British history. Before the 19th century, most people still lived in the countryside and engaged in agricultural occupations.

Agricultural production changed gradually over the course of the century, but these changes had a profound impact on British society. In the regions where soil was rich, landowners converted small family farms into large commercial enterprises. Acts of Parliament allowed them to enclose land and create vast estates where single crops intended for the marketplace could be grown. New techniques brought increased productivity. Scientists developed new strains of grasses to restore the fertility of the soil, bred more productive livestock, and pioneered the use of new fertilizers. Agriculture became a business rather than a means of subsistence, and the owners of small plots of land gradually became agricultural laborers rather than independent farmers.

Although most people lived in the country, the 18th century was notable for the growth of towns. Ports such as Bristol and Liverpool grew from the prosperity of overseas trading. Seaside resorts catered to the middle and upper classes, and the resort town of Bath became a vacation center. In the Midlands of west central England, towns turned to cities as agricultural workers from the south and east began to migrate north toward the new industrial jobs. Birmingham, Sheffield, and above all Manchester grew rapidly.

But nothing matched the colossus that was London. Already the largest city in the Western world at the beginning of the century, London continued to expand, reaching a population of 1 million by 1800. It was almost completely rebuilt after a great fire destroyed much of the city in 1666. Eighteenth-century improvements included sewers, water mains, streetlights, and even the numbering of houses. One out of every eleven Britons lived in the capital. London was the center of every important institution in the nation except for the universities, which were located in Cambridge and Oxford.

Increased wealth and a rapidly growing population were sustained by the profits of commerce. At the beginning of the century, Britain still competed on an equal footing with the Dutch, the Spanish, and the French. By the century’s end Britain was the dominant commercial power in the world marketplace. Traders bought brightly colored cotton cloth in Asia; they exchanged the cloth in Africa for slaves, who were brought either to the southern colonies in America or to the West Indies. In the West Indies slaves were exchanged for sugar, the most desirable of the products of the Americas.

The importation of goods from British colonies and the exportation of these goods all over the world became the key to British prosperity. Roads were built connecting London to every other center of population, and canals were excavated to connect inland waterways so that goods could move farther faster. Commerce drove the expansion of the shipbuilding industry, provided tens of thousands of jobs for laborers on the London docks, and spawned wholesale and retail trade everywhere. Commerce was so important to the British economy that Scottish economist Adam Smith described Britain as “a nation of shopkeepers.”

Industrialization and Progress

Early Stages of Industrialization

The development of industry in Britain was a long and gradual process. Industrialization took place earlier and more rapidly in Britain than anywhere else because existing conditions were favorable in England. A system of internal waterways and canals and the absence of physical barriers to trade made the transport of goods less difficult than in other nations. Coalfields and thick forests, located conveniently close to large deposits of metal ores, provided fuel to power the furnaces that produced iron. Thriving commercial banks provided financing for investments in industrial plants and machinery.

Advances in agriculture also contributed to the industrialization process. Beginning in the mid-17th century, England underwent a process of agricultural improvement that enabled fewer farmers to feed more people while cultivating the same amount of land. Between 1750 and 1800, grain yields rose 50 percent; this increase sustained the steadily rising population, which in England grew from 5.5 million in 1750 to around 9 million in 1801, to over 16 million by 1851. Agricultural improvement not only produced more food at cheaper prices, it also allowed farms to produce more food with fewer workers. Workers who could no longer find work on farms migrated to the towns in search of employment. As a result, there was a dramatic shift in population during the 19th century from the agricultural southeast to the Midlands and the north, where industry was located.

The first phase of industrialization centered on the production of cotton clothing. At the beginning of the 18th century Britain still imported finished cotton cloth from India. Soon domestic manufacturing reversed this flow, and England became the world’s primary supplier of cotton cloth. Two developments made this possible: the availability of cheap raw cotton from Egypt and America, and the invention of new machines that enabled workers to spin more thread and weave more cloth.

One of these new machines was known as the spinning jenny. It used foot pedals to control the spinning of multiple threads. This device allowed a worker to spin 200 times as much thread in 1815 as could be spun 50 years earlier. Another mechanical device, the flying shuttle, quickly and automatically passed thread through a loom, the device on which cloth is woven. This flying shuttle enabled one person to operate a loom, whereas previously it had taken an entire team of workers.

The operation of machinery became more efficient and profitable with the addition of waterpower and later the perfection of the rotary steam engine by Scottish inventor James Watt. Cotton production soared. By 1815 Britain was exporting 100 times the amount of cotton it had exported half a century earlier. Cotton became its most important product.

With the introduction of machinery, factories became the site of organized production of textiles, replacing small-scale manufacture in the home. At first most factories were comparatively small, employing fewer than 100 workers. They were efficient and initially allowed families to remain together, husbands weaving, wives spinning, and children fetching and carrying. Ultimately, however, factories disrupted family life. Women and children easily operated the power-driven machines, and they worked the same 12-hour days as men. Since factory owners could pay women and children lower wages, men were driven out of the industry. The craft of handloom weaving disappeared amidst great hardship. An occupation that employed about 250,000 men in 1820 sustained fewer than 50,000 by 1850.

In some communities, displaced workers attacked factories and factory owners. In others, rioters known as Luddites attacked the machines themselves. Luddites attempted to defend their communities and their way of life, but they were unable to stop the development of new factories. Factory owners grew rich by producing cheap, durable cottons with the new machines.

Iron and Railroads

Iron was the miracle product of industrialization. Engineers used it to build the machines that powered production and ultimately the rails and engines that powered distribution. Iron had long been refined in England in furnaces that used charcoal as fuel. This process, known as smelting, involved heating iron ore to high temperatures to remove most of the impurities. However, charcoal left some impurities in the iron, which made it difficult to cast the iron into bars. Abraham Darby, an English iron manufacturer, discovered that smelting with coke, a purified form of coal, made possible the production of a better product. Newly developed techniques allowed the iron to be heated and stirred in great vats until impurities had burned off. Factory workers then fed the cooling iron through rolling machines that formed it into bars. By 1850 English manufacturers were producing more than half of the world’s iron.

The most important use of this enormous output of iron was in building railroads. The railroads developed as a result of the technological advances made during the Industrial Revolution. The iron factories produced high-grade material suitable for constructing train engines and tracks. Skilled ironworkers provided machine parts of exact sizes. Inventors put Watt’s steam engine to use, first to pump water from mines, then to drive pistons up and down, and finally to generate the rotary motion that propelled the wheels of trains.

Systems of rails and carriages had long existed to move coal from the mines to the barges on which it was shipped. Humans or horses pulled these carriages. After 1800 inventors began experimenting with Watt’s steam engine as a means of powering carriages. In 1829 engineer and inventor George Stephenson created an engine that could pull three times its weight and outrun a horse. The following year the first important railway opened, carrying coal and bulk goods between Manchester and Liverpool. It soon carried more people than products. Passenger travel by rail was faster, cheaper, and more comfortable than travel by coach. The introduction of the railroad changed forever concepts of speed and distance that were centuries old. Hundreds of independent railway companies sprang up. They invested millions of pounds to employ hundreds of thousands of laborers to lay thousands of miles of iron track. All railroad lines ultimately connected to London, the commercial center of the nation.

The Impact of Industrialization

Industrialization transformed nearly every aspect of British life. Glasgow came to rival Edinburgh as a center of wealth in Scotland. Ireland, which had grown faster than Scotland throughout the 18th century, failed to industrialize and remained largely agricultural, with dire consequences. Famine devastated Ireland in 1845 after a fungus destroyed the potato crop, which had become a staple of the Irish diet.

In 1851, for the first time, manufacturing employed more workers than agriculture. The growth of industrial cities was staggering. While the population as a whole grew by 100 percent between 1801 and 1851, the population of towns such as Liverpool and Manchester grew by 1,000 percent. Town authorities found it impossible to regulate the explosion in the population. Landlords constructed ramshackle housing simply to provide shelter. In Liverpool thousands of people lived in basements without light or heat. Sanitary conditions were appalling; in one Manchester district there were 215 people for every toilet. London, which had about 1 million inhabitants by 1801, grew to more than 2.3 million by 1850, many of them living in poverty. More remarkably, 9 towns had populations of more than 100,000, and more than 50 had populations of more than 20,000. Urbanization, with its costs and benefits, came to Britain all at once.

At one level, industrialization consolidated Britain’s position as the greatest power in the world. By 1830 Britain produced half of Europe’s iron and cotton, three-quarters of its coal, and nearly all of its steam engines. The English supplied the technological expertise for engineering in other countries, and they planned the railway systems for nearly all of Europe. In 1851 the Great Exposition, a public exhibition that highlighted Britain’s industrial achievements, took place in London. Architects and iron manufacturers constructed the Crystal Palace of iron and glass to showcase Britain’s accomplishments.

Britain’s vast overseas empire was now as much a consumer of British manufactured goods as it was a supplier of Britain’s raw materials. Steam-powered ships made the world a smaller place in the same way that railroads had shrunk the British Isles. Bulk cargoes were now easily moved around the globe, and wealth poured into London and the commercial ports in western Britain. By rough estimates, the per capita wealth of England tripled from 1801 to 1851, a remarkable growth considering that the population doubled.

This increase in wealth, however, did not benefit everyone. If the standard of living rose for some, the quality of life declined for others. Agricultural labor was performed to seasonal rhythms by the light of the sun, but the clock governed factory production, 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Factory work was dangerous, dirty, and unhealthful, but those who could get it were considered lucky compared to those who begged or starved in the streets.

In the first phase of industrialization, workers were unprotected by social legislation—even efforts to eliminate child labor met serious opposition. Few safety regulations existed. There was no relief for those who could not afford food until, in 1795, a group of local justices in Berkshire inaugurated what was known as the Speenhamland System, after the British parish in which it was pioneered. This system offered wage supplements pegged to the price of bread and the size of a worker’s family. Local governments in other regions instituted similar programs. This did little to help the unemployed, however, and had the unintended effect of lowering wages. Employers discovered that, with relief available to workers, they could offer less in wages. In years of poor harvests, low investment, or economic slump, there was great misery among the poor.

Workers attempted to organize to force better conditions, but without protection against dismissal, their efforts were sporadic and violent. In 1819 one of Britain’s largest public demonstrations was held in Manchester. Between 50,000 and 60,000 people appealed for political and economic reform. Government cavalry troops attacked the crowd. Eleven people died, and more than 400 sustained injuries in what came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre. This event was critical in the early history of labor organization in Britain; many moderate Britons were outraged at the government’s action and gave their support to the emerging labor movement.

British Politics under the Conservatives

Both the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the development of industrialization placed stress on the British government. High taxes, bad harvests, and tens of thousands of former soldiers returning to the labor market overwhelmed the government of Tory prime minister Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd earl of Liverpool, who became head of government in 1812. A severe economic downturn occurred in 1815. Interest payments on the national debt were so high that the government could do little to alleviate the suffering of the working poor. During the early decades of the 19th century, the poor frequently rioted.

Because the Tories continued to fear the radicalism that had developed in the wake of the French Revolution, protest movements met a forceful response. In 1819 Parliament passed the Six Acts in response to rioting. These acts curtailed civil liberties by limiting the freedom of the press, restricting public meetings, and increasing penalties for those who advocated action that might cause public disturbances. Other laws prohibited political rallies and the formation of labor organizations.

To protect the interests of landlords, Parliament passed the Corn Laws of 1815, which placed taxes on imported grain. The repeal of the income tax in 1817 benefited merchants and manufacturers. At the same time, however, Parliament shifted the major burden of taxes onto commercial and industrial businesses, whose owners were largely unrepresented in Parliament. The poor resented new taxes passed on consumption goods such as tea, beer, tobacco, and sugar, which were the few luxury items in their lives.

There was increasing sentiment for radical reform among leading intellectuals. The ideas of British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who in his philosophy of utilitarianism preached that the aim of government should be the greatest happiness for the greatest number, were particularly influential. Romanticism in poetry—led by William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron—stressed natural freedom over the constrictions of the traditional world. There were only two real areas of progress in these years, however. The first was the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1833. The second was in matters of religion. In 1828, under increasing pressure from dissenters (Protestants who were not members of the Church of England), Parliament repealed the Test Acts. These acts had barred dissenters from working in government jobs and the professions, and from attending universities. In the following year, after a long struggle in Ireland, Parliament removed the legal restrictions that had prevented Catholics from holding public office in the United Kingdom. The issue of Catholic emancipation was so divisive that it split the Tory Party.

With the Tory Party divided, the Whig government of Charles Grey, 2nd earl Grey, took office in 1830. Grey’s government finally instituted parliamentary reforms that restructured the outdated electoral system. Prior to Grey’s reforms, only voters who owned sizable areas of land in a patchwork of districts created during medieval times could elect members to the House of Commons. This system denied the vote to merchants, manufacturers, and skilled laborers who did not own land. Regions that had been prosperous hundreds of years earlier were overrepresented in Parliament while many new urban centers had no representation at all. Some parliamentary seats were virtually owned by individuals. One town represented in Parliament had disappeared under the sea.

Agitation for Political Reform

The Reform Bill of 1832 was the first successful attempt to correct these inequities. Although the bill was a moderate compromise, it was defeated twice in the House of Lords; only when King William IV threatened to create a number of new Whig peers in the House of Lords was it allowed to pass. The act decreased the amount of land one had to own to qualify to vote, especially in towns. It redistributed nearly one-quarter of the seats in the House of Commons, mainly from the agricultural southwest to the industrial northwest, but this was still far too few seats to reflect the redistribution of population. More than 250,000 adult males were added to the electoral rolls, but still only 20 percent now had the vote in England; the figure was 12 percent in Scotland, and 5 percent in Ireland.

The Reform Act of 1832 was a bitter disappointment to many radicals who had hoped for fundamental change. Social discontent in Britain came to mirror the country’s emerging class structure. The wealthy, who had been divided between landowners and capitalists, gradually merged into a single ruling class that dominated the government, the church, and the military. Birth and family connections combined to define its members, who attended elite public schools and universities. The middle classes, which had expanded greatly in the 18th century, now participated in the political process as a result of the Reform Act. Their values of tight-knit families, religious observance, and moral personal conduct were to characterize the coming Victorian era.

The working class became the outsider looking in. By far the biggest class, workers had few rights and little security. The ruling and middle classes looked upon the working class with suspicion and feared their numbers and their potential for violence. However, they also provided the leaders who agitated for reforms in working conditions, political rights, and economic justice that ultimately improved the lives of British workers.

Two important political parties emerged during the 1830s. The Whig faction in Parliament combined with a group of radicals to create the Liberal Party, which devoted its energy to government reform, free trade, and the extension of voting eligibility to a larger percentage of the population. The Conservative Party evolved as the successor to the Tory Party. The Conservatives were staunch supporters of the monarchy and championed the cause of imperialism.

In the mid-19th century two significant reform groups presented their programs to government: the Anti-Corn Law League and the Chartists. The Anti-Corn Law League championed free trade and advocated the removal of high taxes on imported grains. The Chartists hoped to expand political participation to members of the working class.

Agitation for repeal of the Corn Laws came from middle-class radicals who believed in free trade rather than protection. They argued that the Corn Laws only benefited rich landowners whose profits came at the cost of expensive bread for everyone else. The terrible potato famine in Ireland, which began in 1845 and killed nearly 1 million people, finally convinced Prime Minister Robert Peel to repeal the laws in 1846. The repeal split the Conservative Party, but it made Britain the world’s leading advocate of the principle of free trade.

Chartism championed the cause of workers by demanding that they receive full political rights. In imitation of the Magna Carta, which had secured the rights of the nobility from the crown in 1215, the Chartists produced a People’s Charter. The charter advocated the extension of the vote to all adult males, the redistribution of parliamentary seats on the basis of population, and the use of the secret ballot. The Chartists presented their program to Parliament in 1839, 1842, and 1848. Each time Parliament decisively rejected it.

Eventually nearly all of the Chartist demands were met. The male electorate was doubled by the Reform Bill of 1867, which extended the vote to many men working in urban areas, and then tripled by the Reform Bill of 1884, which extended the vote to agricultural workingmen. Both bills furthered the redistribution of parliamentary seats, and the bill of 1884 virtually conceded that further reform must be made on the basis of population. The secret ballot was introduced in 1872. It was not until 1918 that all men and women received the vote.

Victorian Era

Queen Victoria ruled Britain from 1837 to 1901. Her reign was the longest of any monarch in British history and came to be known as the Victorian era. As embodied by the monarchy, this era was represented by such 19th-century ideals as devotion to family life, public and private responsibility, and obedience to the law. Under Victoria, the British Empire expanded, and Britain became an increasingly powerful nation. As the country grew into an industrialized nation, the length and stability of Victoria’s reign gave an impression of continuity to what was actually a period of dynamic change.

Social Reform

As the social consequences of industrialization became more apparent, so did the need for government oversight of working and living conditions in the mushrooming industrial cities. Many social reformers believed that government should restrict the influence of powerful individuals. Others believed in the philosophy of self-help. Self Help was also the title of a mid-century best-seller by social reformer Samuel Smiles. In this 1859 work, Smiles presented short, inspirational biographies of famous men and urged his readers to improve their own lives by following these examples.

The underlying belief of Victorian society was in progress—that things were better than ever before and could be made better still. This belief was the impetus for thousands of voluntary associations that worked to improve the lives of the poor both at home and abroad. It also underlay the charitable foundations created by wealthy benefactors and the public philanthropies of some of the greatest industrialists. Social experiments were conducted by individuals such as factory owner Robert Owen, who founded utopian communities in which wealth was held in common. Novelists such as Charles Dickens were ardent social reformers who brought the intolerable conditions of the workhouses and the factories to the attention of the public in their books. Dickens’s novels Oliver Twist (1837-1839) and Hard Times (1854) are examples of this kind of literature.

Child Labor

The earliest and most persistent movement for social reform concerned child labor. Children formed an important component of the industrial labor force because employers could pay them lower wages. From a very young age they worked the same hours as their parents in the same difficult conditions. Parliament first limited the hours children could work in textile factories in 1833, following a public outcry over a parliamentary inquiry into working conditions for children. The law prevented children under nine years of age from working more than nine hours per day. In 1842 a law extended this protection to children working in mines.

Limitation of the hours that children worked fed naturally into the movement for child education. In the 1860s less than one in seven British children had any formal education, and literacy was declining. Elementary schools were operated by private individuals or religious societies and were financed by charitable donations, personal grants, or fees paid by students. The Education Act of 1870 mandated that local districts establish public schools supported by local taxes. An act of 1881 finally made education compulsory for children aged five to ten.

Another area of reform centered on improvements in public health and in living conditions, particularly in the crowded industrial towns. Social reformer Edwin Chadwick was the primary leader in establishing boards of health, creating standards for drinking water, and overseeing the construction of effective sewage disposal systems. Social legislation aimed at improving safety and sanitary conditions in the workplace also made headway in the general movement for social reform.

Trade Unions

The most significant issues for workers, such as wages, hours, and working conditions, could only be addressed by organizations of workers themselves. Efforts at trade union organization went back to the late 18th century, but they were isolated and sporadic until socialist Robert Owen founded the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1833. Although this experiment quickly failed, it raised the prospect of a national organization of all workers.

In 1868 leaders of individual unions formed a Trades Union Congress to coordinate action among the unions, even though the formation of unions was illegal at the time. Up to that time, only highly skilled workers such as engineers had formed successful unions and bargained collectively. In 1871 the government formally recognized the existence of unions and their right to strike, although picketing remained illegal. In addition, the responsibility of unions for the acts of their members continued to threaten their financial existence. A strike by London dockworkers in 1889 secured an incontestable victory for the labor movement. Despite the use of nonunion workers and threats from the police and the government, dockworkers held firm until they won a minimum wage. Following the strike, the labor unions became a force in British politics. At the beginning of the 20th century, representatives from unions and other labor organizations formed the Labour Party to secure the election of politicians sympathetic to labor issues. During the 20th century Labour emerged as one of the two major political parties in Britain.

Gladstone, Disraeli, and Victorian Politics

Victorian politics were characterized by the contest between two great party leaders, William Gladstone of the Liberal Party and Benjamin Disraeli of the Conservative Party. Gladstone came from a Liverpool merchant family, went to school at Eton and Oxford—two of England’s most prestigious schools—and moved effortlessly into government. Originally a Conservative, he broke with the main body of the party when he supported the repeal of the Corn Laws. In 1859 he joined the Liberal Party, ultimately becoming its leader.

Disraeli’s background was quite different. His father was a Jewish intellectual who broke with his synagogue following an argument and baptized his children into the Church of England. The fact that Disraeli was a member of the Church of England made him eligible to serve in Parliament. Disraeli did not receive an elite education and supported himself first as a novelist. He, too, entered the Conservative Party, but he supported the Corn Laws and remained in the Conservative mainstream, twice serving as chancellor of the Exchequer, the minister in charge of finances. Disraeli introduced the Reform Bill of 1867, which gained the Conservatives the support of the urban middle classes when it extended the vote to them. He briefly became prime minister in 1868 and again from 1874 to 1880. Disraeli identified the Conservatives with the monarchy, the church, the landed interests, and the strengthening of the British Empire. Nevertheless, he supported important elements of social reform legislation.

Gladstone outlasted his rival and served as prime minister on four separate occasions (1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, and 1892-1894). He advocated free trade and was gradually converted to parliamentary and social reform. Gladstone’s government eliminated the remaining laws that discriminated against dissenting Protestants and implemented reforms that awarded civil service jobs on the basis of merit.

Gladstone’s greatest efforts, however, were devoted to solving the problem of governing Ireland. Agitation for an independent Ireland had existed for centuries. It increased following the famine of 1845, which reshaped Irish society. Between 1845 and 1847 the Irish population was reduced by 25 percent through famine and emigration. Most families who remained faced financial ruin.

Although the famine was a natural disaster, the Irish blamed the British for creating the conditions that caused it. They condemned the British government for failing to respond adequately to the crisis. They also condemned absentee English landlords who evicted their impoverished tenants when they could no longer afford to pay rent. Many of these landlords lived in England and had grown rich collecting rents. They rarely saw their Irish properties and remained unaware of the problems affecting their tenants. Many Irish grew to despise absentee landlords, especially after evictions left thousands of starving tenants homeless.

Gladstone was sympathetic to many Irish grievances. He passed acts that removed the Protestant Church of Ireland as the nation’s official church and that protected tenants from being evicted by landlords. In the 1880s Gladstone attempted further reforms, especially to protect impoverished tenants. However, he had little support even within his own party.

Irish leaders considered Gladstone’s actions inadequate and demanded nothing less than the creation of a free Irish state. In 1867 Irish nationalists formed a secret society, the Fenians, to overthrow British rule and establish an independent Ireland. Irish resistance, led by Irish nationalist politician Charles Stuart Parnell, intensified with boycotts of English residents, businesses, and institutions. Violence against British officials also increased.

In 1886 Gladstone realized that no amount of piecemeal reform would succeed. In an about-face that shocked his party, he offered a home rule bill to establish a free Irish state. It was defeated, and the Liberal Party split between those who supported home rule for Ireland and those who wished Ireland to remain under British rule. In his final ministry, at the age of 83, Gladstone again introduced a home rule measure in Parliament and fought it successfully through the House of Commons, only to have it overwhelmingly defeated by the House of Lords. The failure to secure a form of home rule for Ireland left Britain with one of its most bitter legacies. Violent conflict would soon follow between British troops and those seeking independence for Ireland. Although most of Ireland gained its independence in 1921, violence continued to be a problem in the six northern counties of Ireland, where the Protestant majority voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The conflict escalated in the latter half of the 20th century.

The Second British Empire

The first British Empire was the creation of explorers and traders and was based on an economic relationship between colonies and the mother country. The second British Empire was the creation of bureaucrats and generals and was based on a political relationship known as imperialism. Imperialism involved an effort to rule native peoples by importing British institutions and values, intervening in local affairs, and maintaining a strong military presence. The shift in goals and methods was gradual. The most important colonies of the first empire had developed in sparsely populated regions where native populations were brutally cast aside to establish British colonies. The second empire involved the domination of colonial peoples.

British naval power enabled Britain to control a far-flung empire, especially after the development of steam-powered warships. Geographical emphasis shifted from the west to the east; the most important dominions were located in the South Pacific, South Asia, and Africa. India was the centerpiece of the British Empire. British rule in India began with the expulsion of the French from Bengal in 1757 and grew as the British used military conquest to gain direct control over areas of India. Wars in Afghanistan and the Punjab in the 1840s led to British annexation of the northern Muslim provinces. The British created a unified India out of hundreds of separate kingdoms and principalities. The conquest of the eastern territory of Burma (now Myanmar) began in the 1820s and ended following the second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852.

Successive governors-general attempted to bring to the Indian subcontinent what they regarded as Britain’s superior system of law and social relations. They governed through a vast civil service transplanted mainly from Britain. Although the British made significant inroads against the extremes of poverty and disease that existed in India, they generally viewed Indian society as less cultured than their own and treated the indigenous population with contempt. Inevitably a clash of cultures took place. In 1857 there was a mutiny by sepoys (Indian troops in the British military), who sought to protect their social and religious traditions. The sepoys seized garrisons and killed British officers and civilians. British relief forces repeated the process in reverse, and the Sepoy Rebellion left a legacy of mutual hostility.

British expansion into Africa was fueled by the race for colonies in which all of the European powers participated during the decades that followed the 1880s. British traders had long been present on the western coast of Africa, where they dominated the Atlantic slave trade. With the abolition of slavery after 1833, interest in Africa shifted to the east, where the British drove the French from Egypt. In 1882 the British gained control of the Suez Canal, a vital link between Britain’s eastern and western empires.

British explorers such as David Livingstone helped open the interior of Africa to Europeans, while entrepreneurs such as Cecil Rhodes exploited its vast mineral wealth. Rhodes acquired one of the great fortunes of the second empire by gaining control of African diamonds and gold. He dreamed of unifying the eastern side of the continent by establishing a railroad from Cape Town in the south to Cairo in the north, passing only through British controlled territory. Rhodes’s efforts helped trigger the Boer War (1899-1902), in which British troops fought Dutch colonists for possession of some of the richest gold and diamond mining areas of southern Africa. The Scramble for Africa created conflicts between the European powers, and Rhodes’s scheme faltered because of the powerful German presence in eastern Africa.

Seeking to expand the opportunity for trade along the Chinese coast, the British acquired the island of Hong Kong in southern China following the first Opium War (1839-1842) with China. The war broke out when Chinese officials in the port of Guangzhou seized the opium shipments that merchants were illegally importing into China. The British responded by sending a naval force and occupying Hong Kong in 1841.

The Early 20th Century

Edwardian Society

The beginning of the 20th century seemed to release a pent-up spirit of change that had been corseted by the conservative Victorian era. In towns the classes mixed more freely, and women enjoyed greater freedom of movement as they discarded bulky and constrictive clothing and took to traveling by bicycle. When Victoria died in 1901, her son Edward VII ascended the throne. The Edwardian period (1901-1910) was the final age of aristocratic excess. The nobility’s lavish spending, carefree lifestyle, and personal behavior that flaunted the morals of the times were chronicled in weekly magazines such as Punch, Vanity Fair, and the Tattler, which were now copiously illustrated by photographs of garden and shooting parties.

Commuter railroads and motorized buses made possible the growth of the suburbs, where the middle classes could build large houses on spacious grounds. In the suburbs, they could isolate their children from crime and social problems, and yet still pursue their urban businesses and professions.

The problems of the working classes and of the poor had persisted despite half a century of social reform. The economy had run in cycles of boom and bust for decades, and each upturn left working-class families slightly more behind. The value of pay for workers declined throughout the period, and not until 1913 did wages buy as much as they had in 1901. A host of social programs to alleviate poor living conditions had a limited impact. The poor constituted nearly one-third of the population, and many of them were destitute.

Reform movements had begun as charitable organizations, many of them sponsored by churches. During the early 20th century, however, these movements changed their focus to reordering society. Socialist movements flourished not only among industrial workers, but also in the universities and among middle-class intellectuals. One of the most important was the London Fabian Society, led by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The Fabians championed social scientific study of the conditions of workers and the poor in the belief that government would adopt legislative remedies once it was properly informed. Members of the Fabian Society included novelist H. G. Wells and Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who attacked private property in his play Major Barbara (1905) and class distinctions in Pygmalion (1913).

The government introduced free school meals in 1906, and pensions for the elderly came two years later. In 1909 politician David Lloyd George, a Welsh socialist, introduced what became known as “the people’s budget.” The budget raised taxes on the wealthy to fund extensive social programs for the poor. The House of Lords opposed the budget, setting off a constitutional crisis that was resolved only when George V (1910-1936) threatened to create more than 250 new peers who would vote for the budget. The passage of the budget also allowed for the most far-reaching of all welfare proposals: the introduction of a scheme of national insurance that provided both health-care and unemployment insurance to every family living below the poverty line.

Political Movements

Even such far-reaching social legislation fell short of what many believed was necessary to create a more just society. Two of the problems that had bedeviled Gladstone—trade union strikes and Irish home rule—became more severe, while a third, the movement for women’s emancipation (see Women’s Rights), sprang to the fore. In a sense, all three were political movements.

During the early 1900s strikes in the coal mines, on the railways, and on the London docks paralyzed the economy and showed the power of a unified labor movement. Government attempts to break the unions not only failed, they instilled greater resolve in those who were arrested, locked out of their jobs, or denied employment because of their union activities. The Labour Party was created to gain representation in Parliament for workers; the result was the election in 1906 of 29 Labour members, who entered into a coalition with the Liberals. The Liberal government responded by passing the Trade Union Act of 1913, which allowed union dues (fees paid by union members) to be used for political purposes.

At the same time, all of the Irish members of Parliament stood for home rule and threatened to withdraw their support from the Liberal government if home rule was not granted. The situation in Ireland had deteriorated since the failure of home rule in 1893. Irish citizens were divided into two camps: Irish republicans supported independence for Ireland, while British unionists supported continued union with Britain. Tension continued to escalate between the two groups and eventually led to the Irish Revolution (1912-1922). The revolution began in 1912 as Irish on both sides of the issue armed themselves for war after the introduction of the third home rule bill in Parliament.

Following the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918) in Europe, Britain faced the possibility of simultaneously fighting a European war while dealing with a potential civil war in Ireland. To defuse the situation, Parliament finally passed home rule for Ireland in 1914. However, it suspended the enactment of home rule until after hostilities ended in Europe.

The issue of women’s suffrage was perhaps the most difficult for members of Parliament to handle. Led by the formidable Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffrage movement was the first time an organization used civil disobedience as a political weapon. Woman suffrage activists defiantly broke laws to call attention to their struggle. They set mailboxes alight, broke glass windows, obstructed traffic, and went on hunger strikes when jailed. London police, who had waded into mobs of strikers with clubs flying, were unwilling to use similar tactics against middle-class women. The suffrage movement, along with violence in Ireland and clashes between strikers and strikebreakers, threatened the government with the prospect of anarchy in 1914.

World War I

Domestic matters declined in significance with the outbreak of one of the most violent wars in Britain’s history, World War I. The scramble for colonial possessions around the globe inevitably led to conflicts among the European powers and to incidents that diplomacy could not easily solve. Hoping to discourage hostilities, groups of nations formed alliances, which eventually led to the establishment of two opposing camps of nations. Britain signed an accord known as the Triple Entente with France and Russia to meet the growing threat of a German military buildup. Germany established its own system of alliances, the Triple Alliance, with Austria-Hungary and Italy.

The war began unexpectedly. In 1914 a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Serbia, a small nation in southeastern Europe, was struggling to maintain its independence from its powerful neighbor, Austria-Hungary. The assassination led to conflict between Austria-Hungary, which threatened to retaliate against Serbia, and Russia, which had promised to protect the Serbs from aggression. Nations throughout Europe began preparing their armies for military action to honor their diplomatic alliances. France backed the Russians. Germany supported its Austrian ally and declared war on France. Britain wavered until German armies marched through neutral Belgium to attack France. Total war ensued, with Europe’s major powers pulled into the conflict by the series of diplomatic alliances they had formed.

The war changed British society like no event since the Industrial Revolution. The warring Conservative and Liberal parties formed a coalition government that included Labour representation. The unions pledged an end to labor unrest. Even the suffragettes called off their campaign of civil disobedience.

Lloyd George, who was minister of war and then prime minister, was the outstanding figure in the government. A constant innovator, he expanded the use of machine guns and tanks and introduced the mortar, one of the most effective weapons in the trench warfare that ensued. He also backed the convoy system, in which military and merchant ships traveled in large groups to discourage attacks by deadly German U-boats (submarines), which sank British cargo ships at will.

The government fixed wages, took control of the munitions industry, ordered farmers to increase grain cultivation, and ultimately rationed food. It introduced a military draft in 1916 for men aged 18 to 41. More than 6 million British men became members of the armed forces. Women streamed into the industrial labor force, replacing men who were serving in the military. In 1918, before the war was over, women were given the vote in a bill for universal suffrage.

The war lasted longer than anyone had predicted. The fighting was more gruesome and the weapons more destructive. Fighting along the border between France and Germany soon became mired in a bloody stalemate as armies dug defensive trenches and fortified their positions against attack. Trench warfare was both terrifying and demoralizing. Infantry soldiers lived in unsanitary conditions in muddy trenches that stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss border.

Troops made massive suicidal charges across open terrain against fixed enemy defensive positions that were lined with barbed wire and defended with machine guns. In the first Battle of the Somme, in 1916, there were nearly 60,000 British casualties on the first day alone. In 1917, at Passendale in Belgium, the number of British killed or wounded reached the staggering total of some 250,000 (see Battle of Ypres). Overall, the war cost Britain roughly 3 million casualties and resulted in large numbers of veterans with disabilities who returned to live in every corner of the British Isles.

Irish Independence

Despite the promise of home rule, the situation in Ireland exploded during the war. In 1916 the Easter Rebellion caused a profound change in Britain’s relations with the Irish. While thousands of Irish participated in the British war effort, pro-independence activists saw the war as an opportunity to win total freedom. On Easter Sunday in 1916 an armed uprising took place in Dublin. Although the British brutally suppressed the Easter Rebellion, it accelerated the pace of the Irish Revolution.

In 1918 Irish representatives to Parliament refused to take their seats and instead declared an independent Irish Free State. They formed their own Parliament, the Dáil Éireann (Gaelic for “Assembly of Ireland”), with Irish independence activist Eamon de Valera as its leader. The British government refused to recognize the rebel government, but the Irish republicans had the support of the people, especially during the following years of guerrilla warfare. Armed independence groups merged to create the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which launched attacks against members of British security forces and Protestant Irish police. By 1921 southwestern Ireland was under British martial law.

The British government realized that the revolution could not be put down without considerable casualties. In 1922 both sides accepted a bill establishing the independent Irish Free State. The Irish Free State became an independent nation, but it remained part of the British Empire and its members were required to swear allegiance to the British monarchy. Under this arrangement the six northern Irish counties, which were predominantly Protestant, continued to be part of Britain. Some members of the Irish Republican Army never recognized this provision and conflict continued into the early 21st century. For a history of Ireland after its independence from Britain, see Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Peace and Economic Adjustment

The Treaty of Versailles (1919), the peace settlement for World War I, severely punished Germany for its aggression by setting limitations on the size of the German military and leveling high reparation payments. Britain absorbed some of the German colonies in Africa and received a small part of the reparation payments, but otherwise attempted to soften more severe French proposals for revenge.

Lloyd George, whose coalition government was reelected in 1918, came home a hero from Versailles but immediately discovered that it would be as difficult to win the peace as it had been to win the war. The effect of large numbers of soldiers returning from the war pushed up prices and drove down wages. The United States, whose economy came out of the war far stronger than Britain’s, challenged Britain for commercial supremacy in overseas markets. Labor unions attempted to protect their members through collective action. Between 1919 and 1920 there were close to 2,000 strikes; the most ominous was in the coal industry, which was still nominally under government control. By 1921 close to one-quarter of the British workforce was unemployed, and the high number of people without work threatened to overwhelm the national program that provided unemployment insurance.

Lloyd George’s coalition government consisted largely of Conservatives, and as the economy worsened it broke apart. The Conservatives won the election of 1922, and for the first time, Labour elected more members to Parliament than did the Liberals. In 1924 the first Labour government ruled briefly, but paradoxically it was brought down by a series of strikes by the unions that had raised it to power.

In 1926 the Trades Union Congress supported a general strike after a series of failed strikes over wages and hours in the coal industry. The general strike officially lasted nine days; it fanned fears of revolution and further divided the social classes. Both mine owners and mine workers proved entirely inflexible, and the government was placed in the hopeless position of mediator. Workers gained little from the strike, but the Conservatives were defeated at the next election. Labour was elected in 1929 in a coalition with the Liberals. The coalition advanced a program of social welfare and full employment. They had hardly taken their seats when the world was plunged into economic crisis.

The worldwide economic depression of 1929 struck Britain hard. Unemployment rose to 2.5 million within a year and to 3 million by the beginning of 1933. Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour prime minister, resigned in 1931 but agreed to sit in a national coalition government to handle the worsening crisis. The government put emergency measures into effect to raise income taxes on the wealthy, to reduce salaries of government workers, and to reduce unemployment benefits that were crippling the government.

For the first time in a century, Britain abandoned free trade. The government placed duties on imports and encouraged the population to “buy British.” Government programs to build houses and automobiles and expand electric utilities ultimately had their effect on the domestic economy. During the 1930s the government began to nationalize utilities, including coal, and to set wages and prices in large industries such as steel. By 1933 unemployment began to decline, especially in the newer industries, and by 1935 most sectors of the economy were recovering. Britain’s share of world exports continued to shrink, however, and industries that had failed to modernize no longer remained competitive. Not only had the United States become an international competitor, but Germany, too, had survived the worst of the depression; its economy recovered as the result of a massive program of rearmament.

World War II and Its Aftermath

J.1. World War II

Despite the effects of the Great Depression, Britain was still one of the great world powers. It was one of the nations that enforced compliance with the Treaty of Versailles, and it was a leader in the League of Nations, an alliance that had been created in the aftermath of World War I to help resolve international conflicts peacefully. But a feeling of uncertainty and indecision had settled over Britain, especially in regard to its international responsibilities. The war had taken a great toll, destroying much of the generation that would now have come to power. There was little will to fight again, especially to hold on to colonies that no longer wished to be ruled by Britain.

Britain’s vast empire was proving costly and difficult to maintain. In 1931 the colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa became independent countries, although they remained part of the British Commonwealth of Nations, a loose confederation of nations and political entities with historic ties to Britain.

The British had occupied Egypt since 1882, but a nationalist movement forced Britain to grant Egypt independence in 1922. However, Britain retained control of the Suez Canal. The nationalist movement in India, under the inspired leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, made British control of India increasingly difficult.

Following the experience of World War I, the British public seemed uninterested in affairs on the European continent. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Italian aggression in North Africa, and the blatant military buildup by Germany under the rule of the Nazi Party (see National Socialism) were all met with public disinterest and government evasion. In 1937 Neville Chamberlain became prime minister. He adopted a policy of appeasement toward German expansion, attempting to influence Germany’s new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, through personal diplomacy and veiled threats of intervention. Chamberlain tried to maintain peace in Europe largely by making concessions to Germany when conflicts arose.

This policy was one factor that encouraged Germany to increase its military strength and expand its borders. In 1936 Germany sent troops into the Rhineland, a region of western Germany that had been demilitarized under the Treaty of Versailles. Germany annexed Austria in 1938, seized the western half of Czechoslovakia later that year, and in 1939 occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia as well as the Baltic city of Gdańsk, which had been declared a free city by the Treaty of Versailles and was controlled by the League of Nations. At each point Chamberlain drew a line in the sand, and the waves of German expansionism washed it away.

Britain finally took a stand when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. When Britain and France declared war on Germany, World War II began. Germany quickly occupied France. During the following two years, the British faced the Germans alone in Europe. Other nations eventually entered the war. By 1941 a coalition led by Germany, Italy, and Japan (known as the Axis powers) faced an alliance of Britain, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the United States (known as the Allied powers).

As the military situation weakened, the will of the British people strengthened. Britain fought back, inspired by Britain’s new prime minister, Winston Churchill, one of the greatest orators in the history of the nation. American loans allowed Britain to import much-needed food and war materials. Britain’s first important victory was at Al ‘Alamayn when forces led by General Bernard Montgomery drove the Germans out of the Egyptian desert in 1942. This was followed by a defeat of Axis forces from North Africa and a joint invasion of Italy by Britain and the United States. In 1943 the Royal Air Force (RAF) began its own bombardment of German cities, as well as German munitions and airplane factories. In the following year British forces participated in the D-Day invasion, which landed Allied troops in France. Following the landing, the British and Americans steadily pushed back German troops from the west, while the USSR advanced into Germany from the east. Fighting in Europe ended in May 1945 with the final defeat of Germany.

The war took a toll on British civilians unlike any conflict since the civil wars of the 17th century. For five years, inhabitants of every British city lived under blackout conditions in which lights were extinguished to prevent German bombers from spotting targets. The continual bombings of London and the industrial cities induced a feeling of resignation and helplessness among the population as shells exploded with random destructiveness. Toward the end of the war, rocket bombs created even greater terror—the rockets traveled with such speed that air-raid sirens were unable to warn the population.

The war was an all-consuming experience for every Briton. More than 4.5 million men and women were in uniform overseas, and another 3 million were part of the Home Guard, which responded to air raids and prepared for the constantly anticipated German invasion. Industry shifted entirely to a war footing, and emergency measures gave the government control over nearly every element of the economy. Rationing of food and clothing created hardships. Even in victory, Britain was sapped of its financial and industrial reserves. It was estimated that the war wiped out more than a quarter of the wealth of the entire nation.

J.2. Postwar Britain

The immediate postwar period was one of severe privation. More than 4 million houses had been destroyed or badly damaged; the result was an acute shortage of housing, especially after soldiers returned from the war. Commodity shortages meant the continuation of wartime rationing. Rationing also had to be extended to include items that had not been rationed during the war.

For the first time since the 18th century, Britain became a debtor nation. The loans it had taken out from foreign nations to finance the war exceeded the money it could raise in taxes and other revenues. Without U.S. and Canadian aid, Britain would have defaulted on its considerable debts. Even so, the flood of wealth out of the country was considerable. The winter of 1947 was probably the lowest economic point of the century. Fuel shortages, gas rationing, inadequate food and shelter, and one of the coldest seasons on record all added to the nation’s problems. Unemployment reached 2.3 million, and the monetary crisis worsened.

On the political scene, to the surprise of the world, Churchill was swept out of office when his Conservative Party lost to the Labour Party in the elections of 1945. The Labour government relaxed restrictions on trade unions and embarked upon a program of nationalization. This program resulted in government ownership of the Bank of England and of the coal, electricity, and gas industries. The government consolidated the railroads into British Rail and the airlines into British Overseas Airways Company (BOAC). The most controversial takeovers were the iron and steel industries, which were profitable private enterprises. The government immediately encountered the difficulties of effectively running complicated industries, many of which were badly in need of modernization. Efforts to make these businesses profitable and competitive in the international market were hampered by outdated equipment and inadequate facilities.

In 1948 the most far-reaching of Britain’s social welfare programs was established. The National Insurance Act of 1946 consolidated benefits involving maternity, unemployment, disability, old age, and death. The National Health Service, set up in 1948, provided free medical service for Britons. British socialists now boasted that citizens were cared for “from cradle to grave.” However, the price tag for both programs was far greater than anyone had anticipated, and the government immediately cut back on some services.

Gradually Britain’s economy recovered. After 1948 the United Kingdom took advantage of the Marshall Plan, a four-year economic recovery program designed by the United States to revitalize the economies of European countries by making low-cost loans available for reconstruction. For all of the damage it had suffered, Britain had not experienced the devastation of other European nations such as France, and Britain soon reestablished its export industries.

After the war, Britain still played an important role in international affairs. In 1945 it became a permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations. (The United Nations, or UN, is an international organization of countries that was founded in 1945 to promote world peace and cooperation.) As a member of the UN, Britain served as one of the countries that continued to occupy and rebuild Germany. The new Labour government attempted to maintain Britain’s role as a world power by supporting a large overseas military presence in both the British colonies and Europe and by continuing a high level of military spending.

Tensions grew between Communist nations under the leadership of the USSR and capitalist countries led by the United States. Britain developed its own nuclear weapons and cooperated closely with the United States in a policy that relied on using the threat of nuclear attack to discourage aggression by potential enemies. For many Britons, the USSR replaced Germany as the national enemy.

J.3. The Loss of Empire

Even before World War II, Britain had begun to adjust its relationship with many of its colonies. In 1931 Britain created the Commonwealth of Nations. The Commonwealth conferred what was called dominion status on several colonies that had been heavily settled by British immigrants. This effectively ended British rule over Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Dominion status gave preferential treatment to goods from British dominions after Britain abandoned free trade and began imposing import duties on foreign goods, beginning in the 1930s. This arrangement benefited Britain as well since all three dominions were heavy exporters of agricultural products—grain, meat, butter, and cheese—which were in short supply in Europe after the war.

J.3.a. India

In India a movement for independence had been gathering momentum for decades. Although the British concluded that they could no longer rule in India, they did not feel that they could simply abandon their centuries-old ties. India was religiously divided, and the two largest groups—Hindus and Muslims—were increasingly antagonistic toward each other. The attempt to create one dominion of India was undermined by the demand of the Muslims for their own separate state.

After the war, the Labour government abandoned efforts to mediate the conflict and resolved to end the British presence in India as quickly as possible. The government opposed colonialism and felt little political attachment to India. The costs of continued peacekeeping were also keenly felt at a time when there was rationing at home. A heroic effort by the last governor-general of India, Louis Mountbatten, created what appeared to be a workable division between largely Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan (the latter has since split into the nations of Pakistan and Bangladesh). The British withdrawal from India in 1948 resulted in increased religious tensions and a terrible civil war. The civil war resulted in the deaths of between 250,000 and 500,000 people, among them Gandhi, who was assassinated by a Hindu extremist opposed to the division of India. The abandonment of India was a blow to British prestige and the beginning of the total disintegration of the empire.

J.3.b. Egypt

The next crisis for the empire occurred in Egypt, where British domination of the Suez Canal sustained Britain’s role as a world trader. Even before the war, British troops had withdrawn to a zone around the canal, and Britain had ceased its once active role in Egyptian government. Relations were complicated by the creation in 1948 of a Jewish state, Israel, in British-controlled Palestine. Both Arabs and Israelis accused the British of taking the other’s side, and both wanted Britain out of the Middle East.

In 1956 Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser seized the canal. Britain, with military assistance from France and Israel, attempted to retake the canal and almost succeeded in doing so. However, the United States and the USSR, who were caught unaware by the Suez crisis, insisted that British, French, and Israeli forces withdraw from the canal area. The Suez crisis saw Britain lose all of its influence in the region and raised at home the idea that Britain was no longer a great power.

During the 1960s colonies throughout the world rapidly acquired their independence. In 1961 South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth after controversy developed within the Commonwealth concerning apartheid, South Africa’s policy of racial segregation. Other African territories became self-governing states and joined the Commonwealth of Nations. Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya—all large African states under British control—developed into republics and adopted British forms of parliamentary government, law, and finances.

The Commonwealth provided an international sphere of influence for Britain during world crises and remained an important economic union. Although Britain was no longer a superpower, the country’s traditional role in Africa and the Middle East made it an obvious mediator of conflict. London remained the financial center of choice for petroleum-rich states as well as the educational center for the sons of the ruling elite in the former colonies. The Commonwealth tied together the member nations by automatically granting British citizenship to citizens of Commonwealth countries, a policy that ended in 1983. British emigration to the former colonies of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand remained a significant dimension of its population history as did the even higher immigration into Britain from its former Asian and African possessions. This immigration created racial tensions in Britain’s largest cities. While the Race Relations Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination, racial violence increased, especially among youths.

The Search for Economic Well-Being

Conservative Rule

In 1951 the Labour Party lost its majority in Parliament, and the Conservative Party regained control. The Conservatives led the nation toward renewed prosperity. They returned the iron and steel industries to private ownership, but left intact the major components of the welfare state. Tight government control on imports and on government spending, high rates of income tax for the wealthy, and investment in new industries such as automobiles and chemicals finally created a surplus in British trading accounts.

Private enterprise led the growth of what was being called “the affluent society.” The value of the goods that workers could buy with their wages rose by 40 percent during the 1950s. Two symbols of affluence—cars and televisions—soon became so common that the government undertook a program of motorway expansion. In addition, private investors created the first independent television network to compete with the government-owned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

The accession of young Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 provided a ray of light toward a brighter future, as did the extraordinary accomplishments of British sportsmen around the world. In 1953 a British expedition scaled the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest; another British expedition crossed Antarctica; and in 1954 British athlete Roger Bannister became the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes. In the early 1960s, British popular culture swept the world. For a time the United Kingdom replaced the United States as the leader in fashion, style, and especially music, with popular music groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones emerging as the dominant rock groups of the day.

Industrial Decline

Almost imperceptibly, Britons came to realize that their nation was in decline during the 1960s and 1970s. Early recovery from the war led to an optimism that could not be sustained as other European countries staged their own revivals. Despite being severed in two, Germany emerged once again as an industrial and trading power. Under the energetic leadership of Charles de Gaulle, France charted a course of independence from the United States by refusing to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a defensive organization formed by the United States and a number of European countries to counter the military strength of the USSR.

For a time, de Gaulle managed to keep Britain out of the European Economic Community (now the European Union), an organization designed to promote economic integration among European nations. De Gaulle vetoed Britain’s membership applications in 1961 and 1967, largely because of Britain’s close ties with the United States. Britons themselves remained split over closer ties with the continental powers. It was not until 1973 that Britain finally became a member of the European Community.

By the mid-1960s Britain was mired in an economic slowdown. Massive dock strikes in both 1966 and 1967 severely affected British exports. In an effort to prevent the flow of money out of the country, the government devalued the currency. Devaluation lowered the value of British currency in relation to foreign currency, making it less expensive for Britain to pay its foreign debts. It gave a boost to British exports by making British goods less expensive on the foreign market. However, it also made imported products more expensive for British citizens and lowered international confidence in Britain’s currency.

Industries in which Britain had been dominant for centuries were decaying rapidly. Shipbuilding, textiles, coal, and steel, all of which had been bywords of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, were no longer competitive. Each was beset with low productivity, high labor costs, and outdated plants and machinery. Industrial relations between workers and employers were at an all-time low, as workers staged hundreds of strikes, work stoppages, and deliberate slowdowns.

Crisis came in 1973 when oil-exporting nations in the Middle East dramatically cut shipments to pro-Israeli nations following the Arab-Israeli War. Oil prices quadrupled, forcing British industries to use more coal. This was the opportunity for which miners had waited. Miners were dissatisfied because they opposed the government’s wage controls as well as the policy of closing down unprofitable mines at the cost of miners’ jobs. Now the miners introduced a ban on working overtime and finally began an all-out strike to pressure the government to abandon its policy of legislating limits on wage increases. In response, Prime Minister Edward Heath introduced emergency legislation that limited the working week to three days and instituted national electrical power cuts to minimize the amount of coal used in power plants.

The election of 1974 was fought on whether government would restrain the unions. The Labour Party won a narrow majority by promising not to interfere with the unions. With legal limits removed, the unions won wage increases. Workers now had more money to spend, while the amount of available goods on the market remained the same. As a result, prices for products began to rise, and double-digit inflation ensued. Food prices rose 20 percent in 1973 alone.

Wages and prices spiraled out of control. Only a supply of oil drilled from the North Sea off the coast of Scotland saved Britain from a crisis over the payment of its foreign debts. Even with the new supply of oil, the government raised taxes on income and on consumer goods to finance raises in wages that had been negotiated with union members in nationalized industries. The taxes left less and less for reinvestment. In 1979 an arrangement between the Labour Party and the unions to keep wage demands moderate broke down, and another round of strikes took place.

The Thatcher Revolution

The Conservatives capitalized on the situation to win the election in 1979 under their newly chosen leader, Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister. Thatcher was a strident Conservative, and she was determined not to give in to the unions or change from the course she had charted to revive the British economy. Thatcher based her policy on the theory of monetarism. This theory involved strictly controlling the money supply to reduce inflation, lowering tax rates to encourage investment, and minimizing government intervention in industry to remove restrictions on the expansion of businesses.

The Thatcher government began privatizing industry, relaxing government regulation, and removing government subsidies. This was strong medicine and initially led to an even more rapid decline. By 1981 both interest rates and unemployment reached postwar highs, and a growing number of British firms faced bankruptcy. Pressure mounted to reverse government policy, and even members of Thatcher’s own party threatened to revolt. Thatcher refused to abandon her policies.

A political crisis was averted only after war broke out when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a British dependency in the South Atlantic that is also claimed by Argentina. The Falkland War released a mood of defiance in Britain in the wake of decades of international setbacks. Following Britain’s victory in the war, the Conservatives won a resounding electoral victory in 1983. However, their 150-seat majority came almost entirely from the southeast, where the benefits of monetarism were felt most.

The election victory allowed for the continuation of Conservative economic policies, as well as an attack on the social programs that had been the backbone of Labour policy for half a century. When the government announced that it would close inefficient coal pits in 1983, the miners again went on strike, but this time there was no compromise offered. Despite its heavy cost to the economy, Thatcher allowed the strike to last an entire year. Violent confrontations and hardships for thousands of mining families resulted. In the end, the strike collapsed.

By the mid-1980s monetarist policy had brought down interest rates and mortgages for an increasing number of homeowners. It had dramatically curbed inflation, and the remaining British industries slowly became internationally competitive. At the same time, social programs came under attack with deep cuts in the National Health Service and in the budgets of local government. Conservative support was now evenly balanced between traditional upper-class Conservative voters and the lower middle classes, including skilled workers who saw their standard of living rise and their values of work, family, and personal responsibility vindicated.

The successes of Thatcherism were tempered by the new social divisions it created. Scotland, Wales, and northern England all became economic backwaters; their industrial bases were in ruins, and an entire generation of workers was unemployed. Moreover, the new wealth that monetarism created—in the financial industry, real estate, and technology—led to many displays of luxury among the newly rich. The new wealth contrasted sharply with the loss of income experienced by many inner-city residents and unemployed middle-aged males. Conservative support slipped in the polls, and members of the party revolted against Thatcher, who resigned in 1990.

Attempts at Peace in Ireland

In Ireland, the uneasy settlement that had kept Northern Ireland part of Britain exploded in the late 1960s. In 1968 Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority launched a series of protests against discrimination in employment and housing. The protests led to increasing violence between Catholic and Protestant groups. British troops were sent to keep the peace in cities such as Belfast, which had large concentrations of Catholics among the majority Protestant population. These troops became the target of violence, and guerrilla warfare followed. Beginning in 1973 the Irish Republican Army (IRA) targeted prominent sites in England, bombing subway stations, department stores, and tourist locations.

For the next 25 years Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups waged a deadly battle. Catholics fought to create a single Ireland; Protestants fought to maintain union with Britain. Almost every effort toward peace was sabotaged by acts of violence by one side or the other. By the early 1980s, hunger strikes conducted by IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland heightened political tensions and fueled fears that the province’s moderate Catholics would become radicalized. These concerns led the British government to pursue a policy of close cooperation with the Irish government to achieve peace in Northern Ireland. In 1985 Thatcher and Irish prime minister Garret FitzGerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave Ireland a consultative role in the administration of Northern Ireland.

Anglo-Irish cooperation provided fresh momentum to the peace process, and in 1993 the British and Irish governments issued a joint peace proposal called the Downing Street Declaration—a document intended to form the basis for peace negotiations. In an important breakthrough, the IRA announced in 1994 that it would suspend its paramilitary operations in favor of peace talks. However, British demands that all-party peace talks could not proceed until the IRA began disarming were rejected by the IRA, and in 1996 the IRA broke its cease-fire with a renewed campaign of violence.

Conservative Decline and the Rise of New Labour

Thatcher’s Conservative successor as prime minister, John Major, inherited a badly divided party, a country that had grown tired of Conservative rule, and a major dispute over the European Community, which was moving toward greater integration. In 1991 the major European powers agreed on the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union (EU) and took the next steps toward the establishment of a single economic union. The treaty tied the exchange rates of European currencies together and proposed to create a single, unified currency, the euro, in 1999. It was proposed that monetary policy follow the lines that had already been adopted by Britain. However, other aspects of the EU’s social and economic policy were bitterly opposed by Thatcherite Conservatives as being too favorable toward labor and too expensive for the government.

Major worked hard to keep his own party together and to maintain the loyalty of key ministers. There was widespread expectation that Labour would return to power in 1992, but Major surprised the pollsters and many in his own party when the Conservatives won reelection. However, voters soon lost confidence in the Conservatives. In the following year the government’s approval rating sank to just 18 percent despite strong economic growth and a new peace initiative in Northern Ireland. Major secured parliamentary acceptance of the Maastricht Treaty by threatening his own party defectors with new elections. In 1995 Major took the calculated risk of resigning as chairman of the party. He ran again for the position, hoping to solidify his control of the Conservatives by showing that he was the only candidate with enough support to lead the party. Major was reelected, but a third of the party voted against him. The Conservatives were now fragmented beyond repair.

The loss of the 1992 elections had a profound impact on the Labour Party. For nearly a decade, Labour had been attempting to moderate its policies and distance itself from ties to the unions. It developed a new platform that would build upon Britain’s economic recovery, but that would also allow a more equitable distribution of the new wealth that was being created.

In 1994 the Labour Party elected Tony Blair, a young lawyer, as its leader. Under the title New Labour, Blair insisted that his party abandon its nearly century-old commitment to creating a socialist state. Blair benefited immediately from a series of scandals involving Conservative ministers and Members of Parliament. The public spectacle surrounding Prince Charles and Princess Diana, whose marital infidelities were openly discussed on national television and who were finally divorced in 1996, also hurt the Conservatives, who were strong supporters of the monarchy. Despite the continued economic boom—by 1996 inflation had nearly disappeared, unemployment was the lowest in Europe, and growth the highest—Labour led the Conservatives in polls by a significant margin.

Labour’s Return to Power

The general elections of 1997 gave the Labour Party the greatest landslide victory of the century and its largest-ever majority of 179 seats in the Parliament. The Conservative Party suffered its worst electoral defeat of the century, and John Major resigned as party leader. As the United Kingdom’s youngest prime minister since the 19th century, Blair seemed to speak for a new generation and a new Britain.

Blair attempted to maintain his centrist approach to government against the demands of the traditional Labour constituencies for social justice and the redistribution of wealth. In a bold beginning, he made the Bank of England independent of government. This move was designed to prevent monetary policy from being affected by political issues. In addition, he supported Parliament’s decision to reconstitute the ancient parliaments of Scotland and Wales, giving them more regional control and political independence.

Blair also worked closely with Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern to revive the stalled peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. In April 1998 a new peace accord was signed that had strong backing from the British and Irish governments. Known as the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement, the accord authorized the creation of a semiautonomous assembly for Northern Ireland to replace direct rule of the province by the United Kingdom. The accord won overwhelming endorsement from voters in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and in December 1999 the United Kingdom formally transferred power to the new provincial assembly. However, an impasse between Catholic and Protestant groups over the pace of the Irish Republican Army’s disarmament forced the United Kingdom to suspend the assembly in February 2000. Provincial rule was restored in May, but the disarmament issue remained unresolved and a source of persistent political tension.

Under Blair, the United Kingdom continued to play an active role in the European Union (EU). However, Britain’s strong economy and monetary policy provided little incentive to accept the unified European currency, the euro. Blair’s government backed away from its commitment to a complete economic union with the other EU countries because of the cost. In addition, the economic union had always been unpopular with many Britons. In early 1998 Blair announced a wait-and-see attitude toward monetary integration, an attitude that he maintained even as 11 EU countries officially adopted the euro in 1999.

In another move to modernize and streamline the government, in November 1999 Blair made good on a campaign promise to strip many of the hereditary peers in the House of Lords of their right to sit and vote in Parliament. The House of Lords Act eliminated all but 92 of the more than 750 seats held by hereditary members of Parliament’s upper house.

Labour’s Second Term

The Labour Party won its second consecutive landslide victory in the June 2001 general elections, gaining the largest majority ever held by a British party in its second term. The elections were an enormous victory for the Labour Party and the centrist policies of Blair, who won a second term as prime minister.

Soon after the elections the impasse over the pace of IRA disarmament again threatened to derail the peace process in Northern Ireland. The British government briefly suspended the provincial assembly on two more occasions in mid-2001 to prevent the government’s collapse. Blair welcomed an announcement by the IRA in October that it had begun to disarm, as did key Protestant leaders, and the assembly resumed operations the following month. However, continued conflict among Northern Ireland’s political parties led the British government to reimpose direct rule of the province in 2002. Following the suspension, Blair and Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern renewed negotiations in an effort to restore operations of the provincial assembly.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, Blair proclaimed that the United Kingdom would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the United States in the effort to root out global terrorism. More than 100 British citizens were among the thousands of people who died in the attacks. Blair began an intensive round of diplomatic negotiations that took him to many European capitals and to a host of Muslim countries—including Egypt, Oman, and Pakistan—to build international support for action against the terrorists. In October the United Kingdom sent British forces to participate in the U.S.-led assault on Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, which was accused of harboring terrorists. Additional British troops were deployed to Afghanistan in December 2001 and March 2002.

As the conflict in Afghanistan subsided, the Labour government maintained its strong support for U.S foreign policy, including the U.S.-led war against the government of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Blair—following the lead of U.S. president George W. Bush—accused Hussein of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and of posing a serious threat to regional and global security, and he offered to contribute British military forces to a preemptive U.S.-led attack on Iraq. Blair’s position put him at odds with the leaders of many European countries, including France and Germany, who preferred to work through the United Nations (UN) to ensure Iraq’s disarmament. Blair also faced intense opposition from many Britons, including members of the Labour Party, who opposed military action against Iraq. In March 2003 British forces joined the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, despite a failure to secure a UN resolution explicitly sanctioning the action. The subsequent failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq opened Blair to criticism that he had led the United Kingdom to war on the basis of unreliable intelligence. See U.S.-Iraq War.

Labour’s Third Term

Blair called a general election in May 2005. The Labour Party won its first-ever third consecutive victory, giving Blair a third term as prime minister. Labour won 356 seats, giving it a solid but much reduced majority in the 646-seat House of Commons. Analysts said Labour’s slimmer majority reflected voter discontent with Blair’s decision to support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The Liberal Democrats, who opposed Britain’s involvement in the war, increased their representation in the House of Commons, winning 62 seats. The Conservatives, who waged an aggressive campaign, picked up 33 seats, bringing their total to 197.

On July 7, 2005, four bomb explosions struck London during the morning rush hour. The bombings targeted trains in the subway system known as the tube and a double-decker bus. The bombings appeared to be a coordinated attack, with three of them detonating almost simultaneously and the fourth nearly an hour later. Prime Minister Blair said it was clear the bombings were a terrorist attack timed to coincide with the opening of the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in Scotland. The bombings killed 56 people and wounded about 700 others.

London’s Metropolitan Police Force, commonly known as Scotland Yard, conducted an investigation that soon identified four British Muslim men as the suspected bombers. They were among those killed in the attacks. Three of the suspects were British nationals of Pakistani descent from West Yorkshire. Pakistani officials confirmed the men had visited Pakistan in 2004, but any connection between the visits and the bombers’ motivations remained unclear. The fourth suspect was a Jamaican-born resident from Buckinghamshire. Exactly two weeks after the July 7 bombings, London’s transportation system became the target of a second coordinated attempt to set off explosive devices. However, the bombs failed to explode, and there were no casualties.

Blair stepped down as prime minister in June 2007, and the Labour Party chose Gordon Brown as Blair’s successor. Blair’s resignation came at a time when Labour popularity was at a low ebb, in part because of the ongoing war in Iraq, in part because of unmet promises to reform and improve healthcare and education, and in part because of party scandals, including accusations that peerages were awarded in return for large contributions to the party. As chancellor of the exchequer in Blair’s government, Brown was noted for his prudent economic management under which Britain had enjoyed a decade of economic growth.

Blair enjoyed a final success before leaving office. In May 2007 longtime foes took office in a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland as self-rule was restored to the troubled region. Ian Paisley, leader of the predominantly Protestant Democratic Unionist Party, was sworn in as Northern Ireland’s first minister. Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander and chief negotiator for the largely Roman Catholic Sinn Fein, became deputy first minister. In 1998 Blair, along with Ireland’s prime minister Bertie Ahern, had brokered the peace accord that led to the power-sharing government. See also Northern Ireland Conflict.

Fifty years of Labour Party dominance ended in Scotland when the separatist Scottish Nationalist Party narrowly defeated Labour in 2007 parliamentary elections. One of the party’s main goals was to hold a referendum on Scottish independence, but its narrow margin of victory made such a decisive step unlikely in the near future.

The History section of this article was contributed by Mark Kishlansky. The remainder of the article was contributed by Henry G. Weisser.

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