An introduction to the United Kingdom, including a brief UK history, the British royal family, the UK government and key historical events in the UK.
The United Kingdom (official name United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) consists of four countries united under one monarch and government. The countries are England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each have a distinct culture and feel of there own with some in Northern Ireland wishing to split from the United Kingdom and join the Republic of Ireland, with which the UK shares its only land border.
England has traditionally been the dominant nation within the UK has over 80 percent of the share of the total population. People in Scotland and Wales have proud national traditions and languages. Scottish Gaelic is mainly spoken in the north west of the country, by a small proportion of the population. Welsh has a much bigger number of people speaking the language and all public signs in Wales are displayed in both Welsh and English.
The United Kingdom has formed over many centuries through old alliances, conquests, and through royal marriages.
Government, citizens and rights
The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch. A king or queen is the head of state, and a prime minister is the head of government. The people vote in elections for Members of Parliament (MPs) to represent them.
The United Kingdom doesn’t have a single, written constitution (a set of rules of government). But this doesn’t mean that the UK has an ‘unwritten constitution’.
A handout photo issued by Clarence House of Britain’s Prince William posing with his wife Kate, Duchess of Cambridge and their pageboys and bridesmaids (clockwise from bottom right) Margarita Armstrong-Jones, Eliza Lopes, Grace van Cutsem, Louise Windsor, Tom Pettifer, William Lowther-Pinkerton in the throne room at Buckingham Palace on 29 April 2011 in London
In fact, it is mostly written – but instead of being one formal document, the British constitution is formed from various sources including statute law, case law made by judges, and international treaties.
There are also some unwritten sources, including parliamentary conventions and royal prerogatives.
Politics in the United Kingdom takes place within the framework of a constitutional monarchy, in which the monarch (Queen Elizabeth II) is head of state and the prime minister is the head of the UK government.
Prime Minister and Cabinet
The Cabinet is a formal body made up of the most senior government ministers chosen by the prime minister. Most members are heads of government departments with the title ‘Secretary of State’.
Formal members of the Cabinet are drawn exclusively from the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
The UK is a parliamentary democracy. This means that:
- Members of the government are also members of one of the two Houses of Parliament (the House of Commons and the House of Lords) – although there are rare exceptions to this rule.
- Government is directly accountable to Parliament – not only on a day-to-day basis (through parliamentary questions and debates on policy) but also because it owes its existence to Parliament: the governing party is only in power because it holds a majority in the House of Commons, and at any time the government can be dismissed by the Commons through a vote of ‘no confidence’.
The UK Parliament is a ‘sovereign parliament’ – this means that the legislative body has ‘absolute sovereignty’, in other words it is supreme to all other government institutions, including any executive or judicial bodies.
The Houses of Parliament, seen across Westminster Bridge
This stems from there being no single written constitution, and contrasts with notions of judicial review, where, if the legislature passes a law that infringes on any of the basic rights that people enjoy under their (written) constitution, it is possible for the courts to overturn it.
In the UK, it is still Parliament (and not the judges) that decides what the law is. Judges interpret the law, but they do not make the law.
Traditionally, the Royal Prerogative is a body of customary authority, privilege and immunity, recognised in common law jurisdictions possessing a monarchy as belonging to the Crown alone.
Today, most prerogative powers are instead directly exercised by ministers, rather than the Crown. They relate to areas including the regulation of the Civil Service, certain areas of foreign and defence policy, and the granting of appointments and honours.
These powers are beyond the control of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. This means that if, for example, the British government wanted to put British troops into action, this would not formally require the consent of Parliament – even if, in practice, a debate might actually take place in Parliament before such an action was taken.
Unitary government and devolution
The UK has a unitary system of government, meaning a system where power is held in the centre, although some powers have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Permanent and impartial civil service
The UK has a civil service that acts impartially and doesn’t change when the government changes.
Impartiality is not the same as neutrality. Civil servants work for ministers in the government of the day. Impartiality means that, while working for current ministers, civil servants retain the confidence of the opposition parties to work for them if they come to power.
‘UK’ or ‘Britain’?
The full title of this country is ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’:
* Great Britain is made up of England, Scotland and Wales.
* The United Kingdom (UK) is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
‘Britain’ is used informally, usually meaning the United Kingdom.
The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are not part of the UK. The geographical term ‘British Isles’ covers the UK, all of Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.
In July 2011, the UK was home to 62,698,362 people. The average age was 40 years old, an increase on 1971 when it was 34.1 years. The main change over the last four decades is that the proportion of the UK population aged under 16 in mid-2008 was 19 per cent (11.5 million children) having fallen from 25 per cent (14.3 million children) in 1971.
At the most recent census in 2001, the total population of the United Kingdom was 58,789,194, the third largest in the European Union and the twenty-first largest in the world. The UK has accounted for around 1 percent of the world’s population since the mid-1970s.
Every ten years, a population census takes place. Statistics for the last census (2001) are available online. The 2011 census website is available here. Full details, including individual census returns, are available for the censuses held in 1901 and earlier.
History and Culture
There are many online sources of information relating to historic documents and the cultural heritage of the United Kingdom.
Key historical documents
The National Archives, the British Library and the Parliamentary Archives hold the key documents relating to UK history.
Magna Carta is often thought of as the corner-stone of liberty and the chief defence against arbitrary and unjust rule in England. In fact it contains few sweeping statements of principle, but is a series of concessions wrung from the unwilling King John by his rebellious barons in 1215. However, Magna Carta established for the first time a very significant constitutional principle, namely that the power of the king could be limited by a written grant.
Four copies of this original grant survive. Two are held at the British Library while the others can be seen in the cathedral archives at Lincoln and Salisbury.
Bills of Rights 1689
After the short-lived constitutional experiments that followed the Civil War, the supremacy of Parliament was finally enshrined in the Bill of Rights passed in December 1689.
Union with Scotland 1707
In the 16th century, legislation had united England and Wales. The 1707 Acts of Union were passed by the Parliaments of England and Scotland, forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain. These Acts abolished the Scottish Parliament and transferred the Scottish representatives to Westminster.
The Act of Union 1800 created the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. ‘Home Rule’ for Ireland became a major issue in the late nineteenth century. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 partitioned Ireland and created Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom
Rights to vote
In early 19th-century Britain, very few people had the right to vote. The Reform Act of 1832 gave the vote in towns only to men who occupied property with an annual value of GBP 10. Universal suffrage, with voting rights for women (though not for those under 30), did not arrive in Britain until February 1918.