United Kingdom profile - Overview

  • 18 July 2016
  • From the section Europe
Map of Britain

The United Kingdom is made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It has a long history as a major player in international affairs.

The twentieth century saw Britain having to redefine its place in the world. At the beginning of the century, it commanded a world-wide empire as the foremost global power.

Two world wars and the end of empire diminished its role, but the UK remains an economic and military power, with considerable political and cultural influence around the world.

Britain was the world's first industrialised country. Its economy remains one of the largest, but it has for many years been based on service industries rather than on manufacturing.

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Image caption The Palace of Westminster is home to one of the world's oldest parliaments

The process of deindustrialisation has left behind lasting social problems and pockets of economic weakness in parts of the country.

More recently, the UK has suffered a deep economic slump and high public debt as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, which revealed its over-reliance on easy credit, domestic consumption and rising house prices.

Efforts to rein in the public debt - one of the developed world's highest - has led to deep cuts to welfare, government services and the military, prompting concern about social equality and a possible loss of international influence.

Prime Minister David Cameron, under pressure from the right of his Conservative Party, scheduled a referendum on whether to remain in the European Union for June 2016, which saw a vote to leave. Britain is expected to cease to be a member of the EU by 2019.

In response to growing dissatisfaction with the UK's traditionally highly centralised nature, the London government devolved powers to separate parliaments in Scotland and Wales in 1999.

But this did not stop the centrifugal trend. A nationalist government has been in power in Scotland since 2007. A referendum on independence was held in September 2014, with 55% of voters opting to remain as part of the United Kingdom and 45% favouring independence.

In Northern Ireland, after decades of violent conflict, the Good Friday agreement of 1998 led to a new assembly with devolved powers, bringing hopes of lasting peace.


The UK is ethnically diverse, partly as a legacy of empire. Lately, the country has been struggling with issues revolving around multiculturalism, immigration and national identity.

Concerns about terrorism and Islamist radicalism heightened after the suicide bomb attacks on London's transport network in 2005.

There has also been a debate about immigration. Some advocate tough policies on limiting immigration, others attempt to put the case for it as a positive force.

One of the more recent trends in migration has been the arrival of workers from the new EU member states in Eastern Europe in large numbers, and this played a major role in driving the campaign to leave the European Union in 2016.


The UK has been a major force in global youth culture since the heyday of the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the 1960s.

It has a rich literary heritage encompassing the works of English writers such as William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, Scot Robert Burns, Welshman Dylan Thomas, and Northern Irishman Seamus Heaney.

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Image caption The capital, London, is a major centre for trade and culture