Languages: English, Welsh, Scots Gaelic
Ethnicity/race: English 83.6%, Scottish 8.6%, Welsh 4.9%; Northern Irish 2.9%, black 2%, Indian 1.8%, Pakistani 1.3%, mixed 1.2%, other 1.6% (2001)
Religions: Christian (Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist) 71.6%, Muslim 2.7%, Hindu 1%, other 1.6%, unspecified or none 23.1% (2001)
Literacy rate: 99% (2003 est.)
Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2009 est.): $2.149 trillion; per capita $35,200. Real growth rate: –4.8%. Inflation: 2.1%. Unemployment: 8.0%. Arable land: 23%. Agriculture: cereals, oilseed, potatoes, vegetables; cattle, sheep, poultry; fish. Labor force: 30.07 million; agriculture 1.5%, industry 19.1%, services 79.5% (2004). Industries: machine tools, electric power equipment, automation equipment, railroad equipment, shipbuilding, aircraft, motor vehicles and parts, electronics and communications equipment, metals, chemicals, coal, petroleum, paper and paper products, food processing, textiles, clothing, other consumer goods. Natural resources: coal, petroleum, natural gas, tin, limestone, iron ore, salt, clay, chalk, gypsum, lead, silica, arable land. Exports: $351.3 billion (2009 est.): manufactured goods, fuels, chemicals; food, beverages, tobacco. Imports: $473.6 billion (2009 est.): manufactured goods, machinery, fuels; foodstuffs. Major trading partners: U.S., Germany, France, Ireland, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy, China (2004).
Communications: Telephones: main lines in use: 32.943 million (2005); mobile cellular: 61.1 million (2004). Radio broadcast stations: AM 219, FM 431, shortwave 3 (1998). Radios: 84.5 million (1997). Television broadcast stations: 228 (plus 3,523 repeaters) (1995). Televisions: 30.5 million (1997). Internet Hosts: 6.1 million (2006). Internet users: 37.6 million (2002).
Transportation: Railways: total: 17,156 km (2005). Highways: total: 388,008 km; paved: 371,913 km (including 3,520 km of expressways); unpaved: 0 km (2005). Waterways: 3,200 km. Ports and harbors: Aberdeen, Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Dover, Falmouth, Felixstowe, Glasgow, Grangemouth, Hull, Leith, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Peterhead, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Scapa Flow, Southampton, Sullom Voe, Teesport, Tyne. Airports: 471 (2006).
International disputes: Gibraltar residents vote overwhelmingly in referendum against “total shared sovereignty” arrangement worked out between Spain and UK to change 300-year rule over colony; Mauritius and Seychelles claim the Chagos Archipelago (British Indian Ocean Territory) and its former inhabitants, who reside chiefly in Mauritius, but in 2001 were granted UK citizenship and the right to repatriation since eviction in 1965; Argentina claims the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; Rockall continental shelf dispute involving Denmark and Iceland; territorial claim in Antarctica (British Antarctic Territory) overlaps Argentine claim and partially overlaps Chilean claim; disputes with Iceland, Denmark, and Ireland over the Faroe Islands continental shelf boundary outside 200 NM.
The Magna Carta Is Signed and a House of Commons Is Born
The reign of Henry II (1154–1189), first of the Plantagenets, saw an increasing centralization of royal power at the expense of the nobles, but in 1215 King John (1199–1216) was forced to sign the Magna Carta, which awarded the people, especially the nobles, certain basic rights. Edward I (1272–1307) continued the conquest of Ireland, reduced Wales to subjection, and made some gains in Scotland. In 1314, however, English forces led by Edward II were ousted from Scotland after the Battle of Bannockburn. The late 13th and early 14th centuries saw the development of a separate House of Commons with tax-raising powers. Edward III’s claim to the throne of France led to the Hundred Years’ War (1338–1453) and the loss of almost all the large English territory in France.
In England, the great poverty and discontent caused by the war were intensified by the Black Death, a plague that reduced the population by about one-third. The Wars of the Roses (1455–1485), a struggle for the throne between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, ended in the victory of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) at Bosworth Field (1485).
The Church of England Is Established and Parliament Reigns Supreme
During the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547), the church in England asserted its independence from the Roman Catholic Church. Under Edward VI and Mary, the two extremes of religious fanaticism were reached, and it remained for Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I (1558–1603), to set up the Church of England on a moderate basis. In 1588, the Spanish Armada, a fleet sent out by Catholic King Philip II of Spain, was defeated by the English and destroyed during a storm. During Elizabeth’s reign, England became a world power. Elizabeth’s heir was a Stuart—James VI of Scotland—who joined the two crowns as James I (1603–1625). The Stuart kings incurred large debts and were forced either to depend on parliament for taxes or to raise money by illegal means. In 1642, war broke out between Charles I and a large segment of the parliament; Charles was defeated and executed in 1649, and the monarchy was then abolished. After the death in 1658 of Oliver Cromwell, the lord protector, the Puritan Commonwealth fell to pieces and Charles II was placed on the throne in 1660. The struggle between the king and parliament continued, but Charles II knew when to compromise.
His brother, James II (1685–1688), possessed none of Charles II’s ability and was ousted by the Revolution of 1688, which confirmed the primacy of parliament. James’s daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, then ruled.
England’s Empire Grows While the American Colonies Revolt Queen
Anne’s reign (1702–1714) was marked by the Duke of Marlborough’s victories over France at Blenheim, Oudenarde, and Malplaquet in the War of the Spanish Succession. England and Scotland meanwhile were joined by the Act of Union (1707). Upon the death of Anne, the distant claims of the elector of Hanover were recognized, and he became king of Great Britain and Ireland as George I. The unwillingness of the Hanoverian kings to rule resulted in the formation by the royal ministers of a cabinet, headed by a prime minister, which directed all public business. Abroad, the constant wars with France expanded the British Empire all over the globe, particularly in North America and India. This imperial growth was checked by the revolt of the American colonies (1775–1781). Struggles with France broke out again in 1793 and during the Napoleonic Wars, which ended at Waterloo in 1815.
Democratic Government Emerges
The Victorian era, named after Queen Victoria (1837–1901), saw the growth of a democratic system of government that had begun with the Reform Bill of 1832. The two important wars in Victoria’s reign were the Crimean War against Russia (1854–1856) and the Boer War (1899–1902), the latter enormously extending Britain’s influence in Africa. Increasing uneasiness at home and abroad marked the reign of Edward VII (1901–1910) Within four years of the accession of George V in 1910, Britain entered World War I when Germany invaded Belgium. The nation was led by coalition cabinets, headed first by Herbert Asquith and then, starting in 1916, by the Welsh statesman David Lloyd George. Postwar labor unrest culminated in the general strike of 1926.
King Edward VIII succeeded to the throne on Jan. 20, 1936, at his father’s death, but he abdicated on Dec. 11, 1936 (in order to marry an American divorcée, Wallis Warfield Simpson), in favor of his brother, who became George VI.
Britain Enters WWII
The efforts of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to stem the rising threat of Nazism in Germany failed with the German invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, which was followed by Britain’s entry into World War II on Sept. 3. Allied reverses in the spring of 1940 led to Chamberlain’s resignation and the formation of another coalition war cabinet by the Conservative leader, Winston Churchill, who led Britain through most of World War II. Churchill resigned shortly after V-E Day, May 8, 1945, but then formed a “caretaker” government that remained in office until after the parliamentary elections in July, which the Labour Party won overwhelmingly. The new government, formed by Clement R. Attlee, began a moderate socialist program.
Britain Enters European Community and Margaret Thatcher Becomes First Female Prime Minister
In 1951, Churchill again became prime minister at the head of a Conservative government. George VI died on Feb. 6, 1952, and was succeeded by his daughter, Elizabeth II. Churchill stepped down in 1955 in favor of Sir Anthony Eden, who resigned on grounds of ill health in 1957 and was succeeded by Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home. In 1964, Harold Wilson led the Labour Party to victory. A lagging economy brought the Conservatives back to power in 1970. Prime Minister Edward Heath won Britain’s admission to the European Community. Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first woman prime minister as the Conservatives won 339 seats on May 3, 1979. An Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands on April 2, 1982, involved Britain in a war 8,000 mi from the home islands. Argentina had long claimed the Falklands, known as the Malvinas in Spanish, which had been occupied by the British since 1832. Britain won a decisive victory within six weeks when more than 11,000 Argentine troops on the Falklands surrendered on June 14, 1982.
Although there were continuing economic problems and foreign policy disputes, an upswing in the economy in 1986–1987 led Thatcher to call elections in June, and she won a near-unprecedented third consecutive term. The unpopularity of Thatcher’s poll tax together with an uncompromising position toward further European integration eroded support within her own party. When John Major won the Conservative Party leadership in November, Thatcher resigned, paving the way for Major to form a government.
Tony Blair and the Labor Party End Conservative Rule
Eighteen years of Conservative rule ended in May 1997 when Tony Blair and the Labour Party triumphed in the British elections. Blair has been compared to former U.S. president Bill Clinton for his youthful, telegenic personality and centrist views. He produced constitutional reform that partially decentralized the UK, leading to the formation of separate parliaments in Wales and Scotland by 1999.
Britain turned over its colony Hong Kong to China in July 1997. Blair’s controversial meeting in Oct. 1997 with Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams, was the first meeting in 76 years between a British prime minister and a Sinn Fein leader. It infuriated numerous factions but was a symbolic gesture in support of the nascent peace talks in Northern Ireland.
In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement, strongly supported by Tony Blair, led to the first promise of peace between Catholics and Protestants since the beginning of the so-called Troubles. Along with the U.S., Britain launched air strikes against Iraq in Dec. 1998 after Saddam Hussein expelled UN arms inspectors. In the spring of 1999, Britain spearheaded the NATO operation in Kosovo, which resulted in Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic’s withdrawal from the territory.
In Feb. 2001, foot-and-mouth disease broke out among British livestock, prompting other nations to ban British meat imports and forcing the slaughter of thousands of cattle, pigs, and sheep in an effort to stem the highly contagious disease. In June 2001, Blair won a second landslide victory, with the Labour Party capturing 413 seats in parliament.
Britain Supports Post-Sept. 11 America, Enters the Iraq War
Britain became the staunchest ally of the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks. British troops joined the U.S. in the bombing campaign against Afghanistan in Oct. 2001, after the Taliban-led government refused to turn over the prime suspect in the terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden.
Blair again proved himself to be the strongest international supporter of the U.S. in Sept. 2002, becoming President Bush’s major ally in calling for a war against Iraq. Blair maintained that military action was justified because Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction that were a direct threat. He supported the Bush administration’s hawkish policies despite significant opposition in his own party and the British public. In March 2003, a London Times newspaper poll indicated that only 19% of respondents approved of military action without a UN mandate. As the inevitability of the U.S. strike on Iraq grew nearer, Blair announced that he would join the U.S. in fighting Iraq with or without a second UN resolution. Three of his ministers resigned as a result.
Britain entered the war on March 20, supplying 45,000 troops. In the aftermath of the war, Blair came under fire from government officials for allegedly exaggerating Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. In July 2003, Blair announced that “history would forgive” the UK and U.S. “if we are wrong” and that the end to the “inhuman carnage and suffering” caused by Saddam Hussein was justification enough for the war. The arguments about the war grew so vociferous between the Blair government and the BBC that a prominent weapons scientist, David Kelly, who was caught in the middle, committed suicide.
In Jan. 2004, the Hutton Report asserted that the Blair administration had not “sexed-up” the intelligence dossier, an accusation put forth by BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan. The report strongly criticized the BBC for its “defective” editorial policies, and as a consequence, the BBC’s top management resigned.
In July 2004, the Butler Report on pre–Iraq war British intelligence was released. It echoed the findings of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee of the week before that the intelligence had vastly exaggerated Saddam Hussein’s threat. The famous claim that Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons “are deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them” was especially singled out as highly misleading. But like the U.S. report, it cleared the government of any role in manipulating the intelligence.
On May 5, 2005, Blair won a historic third term as the country’s prime minister. Despite this victory, Blair’s party was severely hurt in the elections. The Labour Party won just 36% of the national vote, the lowest percentage by a ruling party in British history. The Conservative Party won 33%, and the Liberal Democrats 22%. Blair acknowledged that the reason for the poor showing was Britain’s involvement in the war in Iraq.
Terror Strikes at Home
On July 7, 2005, London suffered a terrorist bombing, Britain’s worst attack since World War II. Four bombs exploded in three subway stations and on one double-decker bus during the morning rush hour, killing 52 and wounding more than 700. Four Muslim men, three of them British-born, were identified as the suicide bombers.
On July 21, terrorists attempted another attack on the transit system, but the bombs failed to explode. A leaked document by a top British government official warned Prime Minister Blair more than a year before the bombings that Britain’s engagement in Iraq was fueling Islamic extremism, but Blair has repeatedly denied such a link, contending that the bombings were the result of an “evil ideology” that had taken root before the Iraq war. Blair proposed legislation that would toughen the country’s antiterrorism measures, and he suffered his first major political defeat as prime minister in November, when his proposal that terrorist suspects could be held without charge for up to 90 days was rejected.
In April 2006, the Blair government weathered a major scandal when it was revealed that since 1999 it had released 1,023 foreign convicts—among them murderers and rapists—into British society instead of deporting them to their countries of origin.
In Aug. 2006, London police foiled a major terrorist plot to destroy several airplanes traveling from Britain to the U.S. Intelligence sources asserted that the plan was close to execution, and had it succeeded, it would have been the deadliest terrorist attack since Sept. 11. A number of young men, most of whom are Britons of Pakistani descent, were arrested in connection with the plot. Blair announced in Feb. 2007 that as many as 1,600 of the 7,100 troops stationed in southern Iraq would leave in the next few months. “What all this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be, but it does mean that the next chapter in Basra’s history can be written by Iraqis,” Blair said.
Gordon Brown Succeeds Blair
In May 2007, Blair announced that he would leave office on June 27. Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, succeeded Blair. Brown is a study in contrasts to Blair. Brown, typically dour, lacks Blair’s charisma and quick wit. The new prime minister faces the task of shoring up the Labour Party, which has not fared well in recent elections, and of regaining the public’s trust. Both have suffered from Britain’s support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Just two days into Brown’s term, police defused two bombs found in cars parked in the West End section of London.
The attackers, who officials say are linked to al-Qaeda, tried and failed to detonate the bombs using cell phones. Police detained several foreign-born suspects, several of whom were doctors. The next day, on June 30, an SUV carrying bombs burst into flames after it slammed into an entrance to Glasgow Airport. In July 2007, four Islamist men, all originally from the Horn of Africa, were sentenced to life in prison by a British judge for attempting to bomb the London transit system on July 21, 2005. On June 11, 2008, despite much opposition, a new counterterrorism bill passed by a nine-vote margin in the House of Commons.
The bill allows the detention of terrorism suspects for up to 42 days without charges, extending the current 28-day detention limit. The vote was seen as a much-needed victory for beleaguered prime minister Brown.
On Oct. 13, 2008, in a setback for Brown, the House of Lords rejected the bill in a 309 to 118 vote. Gordon Brown and Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki made a joint announcement in December 2008, stating that all British troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of July 2009.
A Historic Changing of the Guard
In January 2009, amidst global economic and financial turmoil, the Bank of England cut interest rates by more than a percentage point, from 3% to 1.5%—the lowest level in its 315-year existence.
In May 2009, the Daily Telegraph reported that several MPs had submitted dozens of inappropriate or inflated expense claims, including those for mortgage interest; home repairs and renovations; personal items, including television sets, beds, and manure. As part of the fallout, the speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, was forced to resign in June 2009 amid criticism of his handling of the controversy. He was succeeded by Conservative John Bercow. Brown called early elections in April 2010, just three years into his term.
He never found wide favor among his constituency, and his aloof and often gruff demeanor hurt his popularity ratings. In addition, the global financial crisis left Britain mired in a recession for six straight quarters, beginning in April 2008. In the May elections, Brown faced off against David Cameron of the Conservative Party and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats. The candidates participated in the country’s first ever televised debates. Clegg’s charismatic and informed performance boosted his profile and he emerged as a serious contender in the race, making the election one of the most exciting and followed in Britain’s history.
Cameron was considered the frontrunner throughout the campaign, but his showing in the May 6 election did not meet expectations. Indeed, the election produced a hung Parliament, with none of the competing parties winning enough seats (326) to form a majority government. Conservatives took 306 seats, Labour 258, and Liberal Democrats 57.
Brown resigned as head of the Labour Party on May 11, ending 13 years of rule by Labour. The Conservatives wooed the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government, offering to put electoral reform—a main point in the party’s platform—to a referendum, establish a five-year, fixed term for Parliament, and give the Liberal Democrats five cabinet posts, including Clegg as deputy prime minister. The arrangement marks the first such partnership between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and the country’s first coalition government since World War II.
The unlikely partnership raised more than a few eyebrows in Britain and beyond, leaving many to wonder how long the two parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum could work together amicably, especially given the agenda that lies ahead. The government faces the daunting task of imposing austere cost-cutting measures to shore up the flagging economy. Nevertheless, Cameron and Clegg, the young dynamic duo—both are age 43, promised unity and a new direction for the country.