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The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland lies at the northwestern edge of Europe, separated from the European mainland by the English Channel, the North Sea, and the narrow Strait of Dover. It consists of the formerly separate kingdoms of England and Scotland and the principality of Wales—which are collectively referred to as Great Britain—and the six counties of Northern Ireland, which elected to remain within the United Kingdom in 1921 when southern Ireland withdrew to form the Irish Free State (after 1949, the Republic of Ireland, or Eire). The loss of Ireland and its withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Nations in 1949 rendered politically obsolete the use of the collective term British Isles. Other integral parts of the United Kingdom are the outlying Hebrides, Orkney Islands, and Shetland Islands, off the coast of Scotland; Anglesey (see Gwynedd), off the coast of Wales; and the Isle of Wight and the Scilly Isles, off the southwest coast of England. Separate from the kingdom but administered by the crown, each with its own laws and systems of taxation, are the Isle of Man, located in the Irish Sea; and the Channel Islands, located off the northwest coast of France.
England is the largest and most populous unit in the kingdom, with an area of 130,439 ‹ (50,363 ś) and a population (1994 est.) of 48,707,500. Wales, located to the west and separated from England by a boundary dating back to the Middle Ages, has an area of 20,768 ‹ (8,018 ś) and 2,913,000 inhabitants; it became part of the English kingdom in 1282 but continues to maintain a separate language and national identity. Scotland—with an area of 78,772 ‹ (30,414 ś) and 5,132,400 inhabitants—lies to the north, separated from England by a boundary that extends from Solway Firth (estuary) on the west, across the sparsely populated Cheviot Hills, to the north of Berwick upon Tweed. Scotland and England were ruled by the same monarchs after 1603 and were united in 1707 to form the kingdom of Great Britain. Ireland was made an integral part of the kingdom in 1801, changing the official name to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The present name was adopted after the partition of Ireland in 1921. Northern Ireland has an area of 14,121 ‹ (5,452 ś) and a population of 1,641,700.
Commonly described as 'in Europe but not of it,' Great Britain and Ireland remained relatively isolated from world events until the 15th century when the Age of Discovery placed them on the world's newly charted sea-lanes and trading routes. Increasingly, the island nation looked away from Europe in later centuries and across the seas to the Americas, India, the Far East, southern and interior Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Overseas colonies were established, forming the enormous British Empire. Many of these colonies chose to retain trade and other ties to Britain when granted independence and are today part of the Commonwealth; because of these ties, however, the United Kingdom's entry into the European Union (EU) in 1973 was preceded by lengthy negotiations and dispute.
The Industrial Revolution began in the United Kingdom, which in the 19th century became the world's preeminent industrial and trading nation. In the 20th century, however, competition from more recently industrialized countries as well as the loss of its colonies (which had provided raw materials for Britain's industries and markets for their finished products) brought an economic decline. In the 1960s and 1970s severe labor disputes, unprecedented inflation, and declining exports contributed to a series of economic crises.
During the Industrial Revolution the country became rapidly urbanized, and today more than 70% of the total population is concentrated in cities occupying 10% of the total land area.
To protect the remaining countryside, national planning legislation has established ten national parks in the most scenic areas, including Dartmoor, the Lake District, the Pennines, the Snowdonia, the Pembrokeshire coast, North York Moors, Yorkshire Dales, Northumbria, Exmoor, and the Brecon Beacons. Other areas are also protected as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
LAND AND RESOURCES
Despite its small size, variety of scene is the main characteristic of the United Kingdom.
The largest area of flat plain occurs in The Fens, located on the east coast around The Wash. Before they were drained to produce a rich agricultural landscape similar to the polders in the Netherlands, The Fens were an area of marshland. Smaller flat areas are found along the River Humber estuary farther north on the east coast; along the Thames below London; and in Romney Marsh, in the southeastern county of Kent. Elsewhere, lowland England in the south and east is rolling country with a variety of landforms reflecting differences in underlying rock types. Especially prominent are the low hills and scarps developed on chalk rocks of Cretaceous age (135 million to 65 million years ago). They occur in the North and South Downs to the south of London, where the scarps face south and north, respectively, into The Weald; in Salisbury Plain, where the downs converge at their western end; and in the low hills that continue westward through the southern counties of Wiltshire and Dorset and swing eastward through the Isle of Wight. Northwestward from Salisbury Plain, the chalk hills form the prominent Chiltern Hills to the northwest of London; fall to lower elevations in the hills of East Anglia (Norfolk and Suffolk counties); and farther north form the Lincoln and York Wolds on either side of the Humber estuary.
To the west, separated from the chalk hills by an intervening lowland developed mainly on clays, rise a northeast-trending series of uplands developed on limestones of Jurassic age (190 million to 135 million years ago). They extend from the southern county of Dorset to the North York moors on England's northeast coast, and include the Cotswolds, which form a scarped edge overlooking the River Severn valley and rise to a high point of 314 m (1,031 ft) in Cleeve Cloud, near Cheltenham.
Also prominent in lowland England are the Mendip Hills, which rise to 326 m (1,068 ft) in Black Down, in the southwest near Bristol; Exmoor, which rises to 520 m (1,707 ft) in Dunkery Beacon farther west; Dartmoor, a granite-formed upland that rises to 621 m (2,039 ft) in High Willhays in the southwestern peninsula; and the Malvern Hills, which exceed 300 m (1,000 ft) between Gloucester and Worcester. Glacial deposits greatly modify topography and landforms north of an irregular line joining the River Thames and the Bristol Channel; often burying the underlying rock to considerable depths, the mantle of glacial deposits creates differing soil conditions as well as different drainage conditions from field to field.
Uplands predominate in northern and western England. The most extensive uplands are the Pennines, which rise to 893 m (2,930 ft) in Cross Fell. Underlain mainly by limestones and grits of Carboniferous age (345 million to 280 million years ago), the Pennines are bordered on both sides by discontinuous coalfields, and the open moorlands of the Pennines contrast starkly with the sprawling industrial cities near the coal deposits. Numerous broad river valleys, known locally as dales, drain eastward across the mountains into the Vale of York, a north-south extension of lowland England that serves as the main route northward into Scotland. West of the Pennines are the Lancashire and Cheshire Plains and farther north England's scenic Lake District, which rises to 978 m (3,210 ft) in Scafell Pike, England's highest peak.
Wales and Scotland
Unlike England, the topography of Wales and Scotland is dominated more by mountains and uplands than by lowlands. The highest mountain in Wales is Snowdon, which rises to 1,085 m (3,560 ft) in the northwest. In South Wales the Brecon Beacons rise to 886 m (2,907 ft) and, as in the Pennines, the barren, windswept uplands contrast with the deep and generally narrow coal-mining valleys farther south. The principal lowlands in Wales are on the island of Anglesey and along the western coasts of Caernarvon and Cardigan bays. Southern Scotland is dominated by low ranges of the Southern Uplands, which rise to elevations exceeding 610 m (2,000 ft) in parts of the Tweedsmuir Hills. To the north of the Southern Uplands are the geologically complex, down-faulted Scottish Central Lowlands that extend northeastward across the country from the Firth of Clyde on the west coast to the firths (estuaries) of Tay and Forth on the east coast. The lowlands are interpenetrated by uplands, including the Pentlands, Campsies, Ochils, and Sidlaws; all rise over 300 m (1,000 ft), with peaks reaching over 610 m (2,000 ft) in the Ochils. North and west of the Central Lowlands are the Highlands, a large upland region divided by the Glen More (Great Glen), a deep depression that extends from Fort William to Inverness and is occupied in part by Loch Ness. Narrow lowlands border the Highlands in the east. The western Highlands are rugged and mountainous and include Ben Nevis, the highest point in the United Kingdom. Numerous other peaks reach over 1,200 m (4,000 ft) in the Cairngorm Mountains, the most extensive area of mountainous terrain in the Highlands. On the western island of Skye, the scenic Cuillin Hills rise to more than 900 m (3,000 ft) in places, with lower, moorland-covered peaks common on the other islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides.
The structural depression forming the Scottish Central Lowlands extends southwestward across the Irish Sea to form the area of lowlands surrounding Lough Neagh, which is situated to the west of Belfast in Northern Ireland. Scenic mountains of low elevation border the lowlands area on all sides. To the northeast rise the Antrim Mountains, which reach a high point of 554 m (1,817 ft); formed on basaltic rocks of Eocene age (54 million to 38 million years ago), the mountains reach the sea on the north coast in the famous steps of the Giant's Causeway. The Sperrin Mountains form the northwestern edge of the depression and reach a high point of 683 m (2,240 ft) in Mount Sawel. Forming parts of the southern edge of the depression in part are the Mourne Mountains, which are located south of Belfast and which rise to 852 m (2,796 ft) in Slieve Donard, the highest point in Northern Ireland.
The United Kingdom has a highly variable temperate marine west-coast type of climate. Relatively few periods of continuously dry weather occur; they are usually caused by anticyclonic systems and are associated with unusually warm days in summer and cold periods in winter. Much more common is the variable weather that occurs as cyclonic depressions sweep in from the Atlantic Ocean, bringing high winds and abundant rainfall to the west in winter and lower amounts of rainfall in summer. Mountainous west coast areas generally receive more than 2,540 mm (100 in) of rain a year, but rainfall amounts diminish rapidly eastward; the Cairngorm Mountains receive only about 1,000–1,270 mm (40–50 in) a year, and most lowlands in the west, between approximately 500 and 750 mm (20 and 30 in). The driest areas surround the Thames estuary in southeastern England, where less than 500 mm (20 in) of rain falls each year. In the wetter western areas, 2 out of 3 days are usually rainy; in the drier east, rain falls on almost one out of every two days. No permanent snows exist, but snow may lie on the ground for 2 months or more in the Cairngorm Mountains and other parts of the Highlands. In winter, temperatures are colder in the east than in the west; snow covers the ground for about 18 days in Aberdeen, an average of 6 days in London, and hardly at all along the entire southern coast or the west coast as far north as Glasgow. In summer, a more normal decrease in temperature from south to north occurs; average July temperatures range from about 17t C (63t F) on the southern coast and in London, to 12t C (54t F) in the north of Scotland.
The United Kingdom has long been rich in energy resources but deficient in food and industrial raw materials. Extensive coal deposits occur around the eastern and western edges of the Pennines, in South Wales, in the western Midlands (Birmingham area), and in the Scottish Central Lowland. Easily accessible coal seams are, however, largely exhausted. Fortunately for the energy-hungry British economy, large deposits of petroleum and natural gas under the North Sea came into commercial production in 1975; by the end of the 1980s the United Kingdom is expected to be self-sufficient in petroleum.
Other mineral deposits are of small importance. They include tin, mined in small amounts in Cornwall; low-grade iron ores in the Jurassic rocks of Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire in the eastern Midlands, used in steel mills at Scunthorpe and Corby; kaolinite (china clay), mined in parts of Cornwall; and sands and gravels, quarried for road-building materials. Of the total land area about 25% is used for crops and more than 65% for grassland and grazing; agricultural productivity has been greatly improved since World War II, and only one-third of all food needs are now imported, compared with two-thirds before the war.
The official language is English. Other languages include the Celtic languages Welsh, the national language of Wales, and Scottish Gaelic, so named to distinguish it from Irish Gaelic, the national language of Ireland. In 1991, Welsh was spoken by 508,098 people, or about 18% of the total Welsh population, down from 715,000 in 1951. Most Welsh speakers are concentrated in the rural northern and western counties of Wales, where they constitute most of the total population; all but a few are also recorded as English speaking. Welsh nationalism has been strongly linked with encouraging the wider use of Welsh, and since the Welsh Language Act of 1967, the language has enjoyed parity with English in governmental and legal matters throughout Wales. Scottish Gaelic was spoken by 65,978 in 1991, down from 95,500 in 1951; it is used primarily in the western Highlands and on the islands. The Scottish nationalist movement is less concerned with promoting Gaelic as a national language for Scotland than with improving economic and social conditions by diverting a greater share of North Sea oil profits to Scotland in the future. Cornish, once used in the southwestern peninsula, and Manx, used on the Isle of Man, are virtually extinct.
the total population is concentrated in the Greater London area and seven other conurbations (continuously built-up urban areas)—Glasgow City district, Tyne and Wear (based on the central cities of Newcastle upon Tyne and Sunderland), Merseyside (Liverpool and environs), Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire (based on Leeds and Bradford), South Yorkshire (based on Sheffield), and the West Midlands (Birmingham and the Black Country). Another substantial portion of the population is urbanized in smaller towns with more than 50,000 inhabitants, including the environs of Belfast and Cardiff. The most sparsely populated areas are the Highlands of Scotland, upland areas of Wales, and the Pennines.
According to the 1991 census, the most rapid recent population growth has occurred in the regions of East Anglia, particularly the county of Cambridgeshire; the South West; and the East Midlands. The county of Buckinghamshire, outside the Greater London area, also has experienced increases. The fastest-growing districts are generally the remoter, mainly rural districts—such as South Hams, North Dorset, and Suffolk Coastal; the districts that include the post-1945 new towns (designed to relieve urban congestion)—such as Milton Keynes, Redditch, and Bracknell Forest; and resort, port, and retirement districts—such as East Dorset and Colwyn. By contrast the most significant decreases were generally in the principal cities in metropolitan districts, such as Liverpool, Manchester, and Glasgow, and in Inner London boroughs. Also in decline were old textile and other industrial towns of the Pennines—such as Bolton, Oldham, Burnley, and Blackburn for cotton and Bradford, Halifax, and Huddersfield for woolens. Stagnation has occurred in the industrialized northeast of England and in much of Scotland.
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary form of government. The ruling sovereign (since 1952) is Queen Elizabeth II; the heir apparent is Prince Charles, who by tradition as the eldest son of the monarch is Prince of Wales. As head of state the sovereign ceremonially opens each new session of Parliament and entrusts executive authority to the prime minister (Tony Blair, from 1997) and the cabinet. Legislative authority rests with a bicameral Parliament, but effective power lies more with the directly elected House of Commons (lower house) than with the House of Lords (upper house), which traditionally consisted of hereditary and life peers. (The right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords was abolished in 1999.) The prime minister is appointed by the sovereign as the leader of the majority party or coalition of parties in the House of Commons. The maximum term of Parliament is five years, but elections may be called earlier if the government loses the support of the Commons or if it chooses.
The principal political parties are the Labour party, which holds the majority of seats in Parliament, and the Conservative party, led by William Hague. Other parties include the Liberal Democrats, formed as the Social and Liberal Democrats in 1988 by a merger of the Liberal party and the Social Democratic party (led by Charles Kennedy); the Communist party; and the locally important Ulster Unionist, Scottish National, and Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalist) parties.
Of the 659 members in the Commons, 529 represent England, 40 represent Wales, 72 represent Scotland, and 18 represent Northern Ireland. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have separate local assemblies and are self-governing entities.
Proposals to establish home rule for Scotland and Wales were approved by referendums in 1997, and legislatures for the two regions were elected in May 1999. The new Scottish Parliament has the power to raise taxes and make laws; the Welsh Assembly does not. Home rule in Northern Ireland, suspended since 1972, was restored in December 1999 but suspended again in February 2000.
Local administration in England is managed through 35 nonmetropolitan counties, 7 metropolitan counties, the City of London, and—following local government alterations in 1995 and 1996—14 new jurisdictions called unitary authorities. The metropolitan counties are Greater London (boroughs), Tyne and Wear, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, and the West Midlands. The nonmetropolitan counties are subdivided into 274 districts. Also created, effective in 1996, were 22 unitary authorities in Wales and 29 unitary authorities in Scotland. Scotland's 3 'island districts'—Shetland, Orkney, and the Western Isles—remain. Northern Ireland is divided into 26 districts.
British dependencies overseas include Gibraltar, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Falkland Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, the British Indian Ocean Territory, Saint Helena, Ascension Island, Tristan da Cunha Islands, and Pitcairn Island.
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