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Great Britain, the dominant industrial and maritime power of the 19th century, played a leading role in developing parliamentary democracy and in advancing literature and science. At its zenith, the British Empire stretched over one-fourth of the earth's surface. The first half of the 20th century saw the UK's strength seriously depleted in two World Wars. The second half witnessed the dismantling of the Empire and the UK rebuilding itself into a modern and prosperous European nation.

The UK currently is weighing the degree of its integration with continental Europe. A member of the EU, it chose to remain outside of the EMU for the time being. Constitutional reform is also a significant issue in the UK. Regional assemblies with varying degrees of power opened in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in 1999.

Geography

The United Kingdom, consisting of Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland) and Northern Ireland, is twice the size of New York State. England, in the southeast part of the British Isles, is separated from Scotland on the north by the granite Cheviot Hills; from them the Pennine chain of uplands extends south through the center of England, reaching its highest point in the Lake District in the northwest. To the west along the border of Wales—a land of steep hills and valleys—are the Cambrian Mountains, while the Cotswolds, a range of hills in Gloucestershire, extend into the surrounding shires.

Important rivers flowing into the North Sea are the Thames, Humber, Tees, and Tyne. In the west are the Severn and Wye, which empty into the Bristol Channel and are navigable, as are the Mersey and Ribble.

Government

The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, with a queen and a Parliament that has two houses: the House of Lords, with 574 life peers, 92 hereditary peers, and 26 bishops; and the House of Commons, which has 651 popularly elected members. Supreme legislative power is vested in Parliament, which sits for five years unless dissolved sooner. The House of Lords was stripped of most of its power in 1911, and now its main function is to revise legislation. In Nov. 1999 hundreds of hereditary peers were expelled in an effort to make the body more democratic. The executive power of the Crown is exercised by the cabinet, headed by the prime minister.

History

Stonehenge and other examples of prehistoric culture are all that remain of the earliest inhabitants of Britain. Celtic peoples followed. Roman invasions of the 1st century B.C. brought Britain into contact with continental Europe. When the Roman legions withdrew in the 5th century A.D., Britain fell easy prey to the invading hordes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from Scandinavia and the Low Countries. The invasions had little effect on the Celtic peoples of Wales and Scotland. Seven large Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were established, and the original Britons were forced into Wales and Scotland. It was not until the 10th century that the country finally became united under the kings of Wessex. Following the death of Edward the Confessor (1066), a dispute about the succession arose, and William, Duke of Normandy, invaded England, defeating the Saxon king, Harold II, at the Battle of Hastings (1066). The Norman conquest introduced Norman French law and feudalism.

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).

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 became the rulers.

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.

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 (1853–1856) 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 after 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.

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.

(For details of World War II, see Headline History, World War II.)

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.

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. The episode cost farmers and the tourist industry billions of dollars.

In June 2001, Blair won a second landslide victory, with the Labour Party capturing 413 seats in Parliament.

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, when he became 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 to its enemies. He continued to support 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 exonerated the Blair administration of any misconduct concerning the weapons inspections and concluded that it 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, which was widely unpopular. A number of political analysts believe Blair will not serve out his new five-year term. Many expect him to resign in the next several years and turn over the reins of the Labour Party to Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, whose policies many credit in creating Britain's strong and stable economy.

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 has proposed legislation that would toughen the country's antiterrorism measures.