A group of islands close to continental Europe, the British Isles have
been subject to many invasions and migrations, especially from Scandinavia
and the continent, including Roman occupation for several centuries. Contemporary
Britons are descended mainly from the varied ethnic stocks that settled
there before the 11th century. The pre-Celtic, Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon,
and Norse influences were blended in Britain under the Normans, Scandinavian
Vikings who had lived in Northern France. Although Celtic languages persist
in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, the predominant language is English,
which is primarily a blend of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French.
The Roman invasion of Britain in 55 BC and most of Britain's subsequent
incorporation into the Roman Empire stimulated development and brought
more active contacts with the rest of Europe. As Rome's strength declined,
the country again was exposed to invasion--including the pivotal incursions
of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in the fifth and sixth centuries AD--up
to the Norman conquest in 1066. Norman rule effectively ensured Britain's
safety from further intrusions; certain institutions, which remain characteristic
of Britain, could develop. Among these are a political, administrative,
cultural, and economic center in London; a separate but established church;
a system of common law; distinctive and distinguished university education;
and representative government.
Both Wales and Scotland were independent kingdoms that resisted English
rule. The English conquest of Wales succeeded in 1282 under Edward I, and
the Statute of Rhuddlan established English rule 2 years later. To appease
the Welsh, Edward's son (later Edward II), who had been born in Wales,
was made Prince of Wales in 1301. The tradition of bestowing this title
on the eldest son of the British Monarch continues today. An act of 1536
completed the political and administrative union of England and Wales.
While maintaining separate parliaments, England and Scotland were ruled
under one crown beginning in 1603, when James VI of Scotland succeeded
his cousin Elizabeth I as James I of England. In the ensuing 100 years,
strong religious and political differences divided the kingdoms. Finally,
in 1707, England and Scotland were unified as Great Britain, sharing a
single Parliament at Westminster.
Ireland's invasion by the Anglo-Normans in 1170 led to centuries of
strife. Successive English kings sought to conquer Ireland. In the early
17th century, large-scale settlement of the north from Scotland and England
began. After its defeat, Ireland was subjected, with varying degrees of
success, to control and regulation by Britain.
The legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland was completed on
January 1, 1801, under the name of the United Kingdom. However, armed struggle
for independence continued sporadically into the 20th century. The Anglo-Irish
Treaty of 1921 established the Irish Free State, which subsequently left
the Commonwealth and became a republic after World War II. Six northern,
predominantly Protestant, Irish counties have remained part of the United
British Expansion and Empire
Begun initially to support William the Conqueror's (c. 1029-1087) holdings
in France, Britain's policy of active involvement in continental European
affairs endured for several hundred years. By the end of the 14th century,
foreign trade, originally based on wool exports to Europe, had emerged
as a cornerstone of national policy.
The foundations of sea power were gradually laid to protect English
trade and open up new routes. Defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 firmly
established England as a major sea power. Thereafter, its interests outside
Europe grew steadily. Attracted by the spice trade, English mercantile
interests spread first to the Far East. In search of an alternate route
to the Spice Islands, John Cabot reached the North American continent in
1498. Sir Walter Raleigh organized the first, short-lived colony in Virginia
in 1584, and permanent English settlement began in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia.
During the next two centuries, Britain extended its influence abroad and
consolidated its political development at home.
Great Britain's industrial revolution greatly strengthened its ability
to oppose Napoleonic France. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815,
the United Kingdom was the foremost European power, and its navy ruled
the seas. Peace in Europe allowed the British to focus their interests
on more remote parts of the world, and, during this period, the British
Empire reached its zenith. British colonial expansion reached its height
largely during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Queen Victoria's
reign witnessed the spread of British technology, commerce, language, and
government throughout the British Empire which, at its greatest extent,
encompassed roughly one-fifth to one-quarter of the world's area and population.
British colonies contributed to the United Kingdom's extraordinary economic
growth and strengthened its voice in world affairs. Even as the United
Kingdom extended its imperial reach overseas, it continued to develop and
broaden its democratic institutions at home.
By the time of Queen Victoria's death in 1901, other nations, including
the United States and Germany, had developed their own industries; the
United Kingdom's comparative economic advantage had lessened, and the ambitions
of its rivals had grown. The losses and destruction of World War I, the
depression of the 1930s, and decades of relatively slow growth eroded the
United Kingdom's preeminent international position of the previous century.
Britain's control over its empire loosened during the interwar period.
Ireland, with the exception of six northern counties, gained independence
from the United Kingdom in 1921. Nationalism became stronger in other parts
of the empire, particularly in India and Egypt.
In 1926, the United Kingdom, completing a process begun a century earlier,
granted Australia, Canada, and New Zealand complete autonomy within the
empire. They became charter members of the British Commonwealth of Nations
(now known as the Commonwealth), an informal but closely-knit association
that succeeded the empire. Beginning with the independence of India and
Pakistan in 1947, the remainder of the British Empire was almost completely
dismantled. Today, most of Britain's former colonies belong to the Commonwealth,
almost all of them as independent members. There are, however, 13 former
British colonies--including Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and
others--which have elected to continue their political links with London
and are known as United Kingdom Overseas Territories.
The United Kingdom also fought during World War II on the side of the
Allies. It was a key player in the defeat of the Axis Powers.
Although often marked by economic and political nationalism, the Commonwealth
offers the United Kingdom a voice in matters concerning many developing
countries. In addition, the Commonwealth helps preserve many institutions
deriving from British experience and models, such as parliamentary democracy,
in those countries.
The separate identities of each of the United Kingdom's constituent
parts also is reflected in their respective governmental structures. Up
until the recent devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, a cabinet minister
(the Secretary of State for Wales) handled Welsh affairs at the national
level with the advice of a broadly representative council for Wales. Scotland
maintains, as it did before union with England, different systems of law
(Roman-French), education, local government, judiciary, and national church
(the Church of Scotland instead of the Church of England). In addition,
separate departments grouped under a Secretary of State for Scotland, who
also is a cabinet member, handled most domestic matters. In late 1997,
however, following approval of referenda by Scottish and Welsh voters (though
only narrowly in Wales), the British Government introduced legislation
to establish a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. The first elections
for the two bodies were held May 6, 1999. The Welsh Assembly opened on
May 26, and the Scottish Parliament opened on July 1, 1999. The devolved
legislatures have largely taken over most of the functions previously performed
by the Scottish and Welsh offices.
Northern Ireland had its own Parliament and prime minister from 1921
to 1973, when the British Government imposed direct rule in order to deal
with the deteriorating political and security situation. From 1973, the
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, based in London, was responsible
for the region, including efforts to resolve the issues that lay behind
the "the troubles."
By the mid-1990s, gestures toward peace encouraged by successive British
governments and by President Clinton began to open the door for restored
local government in Northern Ireland. An Irish Republican Army (IRA) cease-fire
and nearly 2 years of multiparty negotiations, led by former U.S. Senator
George Mitchell, resulted in the Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998,
which was subsequently approved by majorities in both Northern Ireland
and the Republic of Ireland. Key elements of the agreement include devolved
government, a commitment of the parties to work toward "total disarmament
of all paramilitary organizations," police reform, and enhanced mechanisms
to guarantee human rights and equal opportunity. The Good Friday Agreement
also called for formal cooperation between the Northern Ireland institutions
and the Government of the Republic of Ireland, and it established the British-Irish
Council, which includes representatives of the British and Irish Governments
as well as the devolved Governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and
Wales. Devolved government was reestablished in Northern Ireland in December
The Good Friday Agreement provides for a 108-member elected Assembly,
overseen by a 12-minister Executive Committee (cabinet) in which unionists
and nationalists share leadership responsibility. Northern Ireland elects
18 representatives to the Westminster Parliament in London. However, the
two Sinn Fein Members of Parliament (MPs), who won seats in the last election,
have refused to claim their seats.
Progress has been made on each of the key elements of the Good Friday
Agreement. Most notably, a new police force has been instituted; the IRA
has undertaken two acts of decommissioning of its weapons, and some measures
to normalize the security situation in Northern Ireland have been taken.
Disagreements over the implementation of elements of the agreement and
allegations about the IRA's continued engagement in paramilitary activity,
however, continue to trouble the peace process. In October 2002, Northern
Ireland's devolved institutions were suspended amid allegations of IRA
intelligence gathering at Stormont, the seat of Northern Ireland's government.
Assembly elections scheduled for May 2003 were postponed. The British Government
is working closely with the Irish Government and Northern Ireland political
parties to create the conditions that would allow elections and the restoration
of devolved government to take place.
Tony Blair became the first Labour Prime Minister ever to win a full
consecutive second term when he was re-elected on June 7, 2001. To date,
Labour has a 166-seat majority in the House of Commons. At the 2003 Labour
Party conference, Prime Minister Blair announced that he intends to seek
a third term. The Conservative (Tory) Party and Liberal-Democrats (LibDems)
form the major opposition parties. The main British parties support a strong
transatlantic link but have become increasingly absorbed by European issues
as Britain's economic and political ties to the continent grow in the post-Cold
War world. Prime Minister Blair has promised that the United Kingdom will
play a leading role in Europe even as it maintains its strong bilateral
relationship with the United States. Britain's relationship with Europe,
in particular its potential participation in the single European currency,
the euro, is a subject of considerable political discussion in the United
Kingdom. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown has stipulated that a
public referendum on adopting the euro will occur only after five economic
tests are met. Most expect that a referendum will not take place prior
to the next general election.