The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as it is officially known, is a sovereign state including the island of Great Britain, the island of Ireland and a number of smaller islands. Included countries are England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not the Republic of Ireland; the Channel Islands of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man are crown dependencies and not part of the U.K. The U.K. is a constitutional monarchy with a royal family, a prime minister and a parliament. The capital is London; Scotland maintains a capital in Edinburgh, Wales in Cardiff and Northern Ireland in Belfast as well. The land mass totals about 94,000 square miles and the population is about 63 million—53 million in England (9 million of those in London), 5.3 million in Scotland, 3 million in Wales and 1.8 million in Northern Ireland.
The United Kingdom is very much a developed country, in the top ten of world economies by both GDP and purchasing power. Not too long ago by global standards it was the world’s foremost power—in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” Officially the unified kingdom of Great Britain was born in 1707 when the parliaments of England and Scotland voted to unite. When the British colonies in North America broke away and formed the United States of America, Britain turned its attention to other colonial interests in India and elsewhere. In 1801 the parliaments of Britain and Ireland voted to unite. After the French Revolution and France’s defeat in the Napoleonic Wars, the U.K. emerged as the world’s foremost power; London was the world’s largest city beginning in about 1830. In hindsight, British naval dominance is seen as having created a Pax Britannica. The U.K. dominated industrial production until the late 19th century when Germany and the U.S. began to challenge it. Under the guidance of prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, British conservatives expanded its colonial holdings to include Egypt and South Africa; Canada, New Zealand and Australia became self-governing but remained part of Britain.
During the 20th century the U.K. was heavily involved in both World Wars, sustaining major physical and economic damage and millions of casualties. After World War I, the League of Nations awarded the U.K. dominion over some former German and Ottoman colonies; at this point the British Empire reached its greatest geographical footprint, covering 20% of the world’s land surface and 25% of its population. In the 1920s the Irish Free State seceded from the U.K. while Northern Ireland remained part of the U.K. Along with the rest of the world, the U.K. suffered the effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s. In 1939 the U.K. declared war on Germany and was once again heavily involved in the war effort, suffering more damage and casualties. After Germany’s defeat, the U.K. was one of the three world powers who met at Yalta to plan the face of postwar Europe, and it was an original signer of the United Nations Declaration.
During the postwar years, the rise of nationalism led to Britain losing all its colonies, beginning with India and Pakistan in 1947. But the spread of English as an international lingua franca ensured that English culture would live on everywhere. On the other hand, the U.K. began to receive an influx of immigrants from dozens of other countries, gradually becoming a multi-ethnic society. While the U.K. became a founding member of the European Union in 1992, it did not adopt the euro; it retains its own currency, the British pound sterling (BPS).
Today, Britain remains one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations—and the number one destination is London. Its attractions are almost too numerous to mention—Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and “Big Ben,” and the London Eye; the West End theater district; art museums like the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert, the National Gallery and the Tate Modern; numerous art galleries; specialty museums like the Natural History Museum and the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street; performance spaces like the London Symphony, Royal Opera House and Royal Albert Hall; sports venues like Wimbledon and Wembley Stadium; great universities in and around the city; shopping, restaurants and pubs, just to name a few. It is easy to get around the city using the “Tube” or the ubiquitous black London taxis.