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 and fulfils an important role in the EU, UN and Nato.
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 a major 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.
Despite being a major member of the EU, the country is not part of the euro zone, and the question of whether it will join any time soon appears to have receded for the moment. The government has said a series of economic criteria must be met before the issue can be put to a referendum.
In recent years the UK has taken steps to devolve powers to Scotland and Wales. The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and the National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff opened in 1999, and the possibility of devolution for the English regions has also been discussed.
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 assembly was suspended in 2002 amid a row over alleged IRA activities. Its suspension was to last for three and a half years.
Palace of Westminster, home of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy
In a bid to restart the political process and after consultations with Dublin, the UK passed legislation paving the way for the recall of the Northern Ireland Assembly in May 2006.
But assembly leaders missed a November deadline to form a power-sharing executive. Assembly elections in the following March led to the eventual swearing-in of the leaders of the power-sharing government on 8 May 2007, ending five years of direct rule from London.
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.
This is against a background of concerns about terrorism and political and religious radicalism, heightened after the suicide bomb attacks on London’s transport network in 2005.
Some politicians and commentators say a stronger sense of shared British values is needed to foster integration within a mixed society. And while 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.
The UK has been at the forefront of 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.
Traditional music has deep roots across the UK, which has also produced classical composers from Henry Purcell in the Baroque period to Benjamin Britten in the 20th century.
Full name: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Population: 61.6 million (UN, 2009)
Area: 242,514 sq km (93,638 sq miles)
Major language: English
Major religion: Christianity
Life expectancy: 77 years (men), 82 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 pound sterling = 100 pence
Main exports: Manufactured goods, chemicals, foodstuffs
GNI per capita: US $45,390 (World Bank, 2008)
Internet domain: .uk
International dialling code: +44
Head of state: Queen Elizabeth II
Elizabeth II became queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1952 upon the death of her father, George VI.
Queen Elizabeth II
She is the second longest serving head of state, after the Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was crowned in 1946.
She is also head of state of 16 independent countries including Canada and Australia.
As a constitutional monarch, her role in the legislative process is largely ceremonial.
Prime minister: Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown became prime minister on 27 June 2007 after serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) in three consecutive Labour governments under Tony Blair. He was the only candidate for the premiership when Mr Blair stood down two years into his third term in office.
The son of a Presbyterian minister, Mr Brown was born near the Scottish city of Glasgow in 1951. He was marked out as being academically gifted from an early age, and went to Edinburgh University when he was only 16, gaining a first-class degree in history.
He joined the Labour Party while still at university, and after graduating became a politics lecturer. He rose rapidly through the ranks of the party, inspiring fierce loyalty in those close to him.
In 1992 he was appointed shadow chancellor. On the Labour Party’s landslide election victory in 1997 – after 18 years in opposition – he assumed the chancellorship, holding the post for a record 10 years during which Britain enjoyed an unprecedented era of sustained economic growth. His avowed commitment to fiscal prudence earned him the nickname “the Iron Chancellor”.
However, Mr Brown’s reputation for financial responsibility has been questioned in the wake of the global financial crisis which struck in 2008, a crisis which saw the British economy hit hard.
Opposition politicians took delight in reminding him of his oft-repeated assertion that under a Labour government there would be no return to “boom and bust” economics. In his defence, Mr Brown argued that the steps taken by Britain to address the crisis have been copied by governments around the world.
Tony Blair, the first Labour leader to serve three terms
In the foreign policy arena, Mr Brown is regarded as more of an Atlanticist than a Europhile. He has also been long committed to increasing aid to Africa.
In 2010, Mr Brown faces the challenge of restoring the British people’s confidence in a Labour government before the next general election, which is due by the middle of the year.
Chancellor of the Exchequer: Alistair Darling
Home Secretary: Alan Johnson
Foreign Secretary: David Miliband
Overview Facts Leaders Media
The UK has a strong tradition of public-service broadcasting and an international reputation for creative programme-making.
The fledgling BBC began daily radio broadcasts in 1922 and quickly came to play a pivotal role in national life. The Empire Service – the forerunner of the BBC World Service – established a reputation worldwide. The BBC is funded by a licence fee, which all households with a TV set must pay.
Commercial TV began in 1955 with the launch of ITV. Commercial radio was introduced in the 1970s, although ship-based pirate radio stations flourished in the 1960s before being outlawed. Hundreds of privately-owned radio and TV stations now compete with the BBC for listeners and viewers.
Home-grown soap operas have long topped the TV ratings, and British viewers keenly follow the ups and downs of life in east London’s Albert Square, the setting for the BBC’s EastEnders, and Coronation Street – ITV’s soap about northern-English working-class life. Programmes which catapult ordinary people into the public eye – known as reality TV – are enjoying a wave of popularity.
In a rapidly-changing digital world, British media providers are looking at new ways of reaching audiences via computers and personal multimedia devices.
The once-dominant terrestrial TV networks face strong competition from digital satellite and cable, which offer hundreds of channels, and digital terrestrial TV, which carries a smaller number of mainly free-to-view channels. By August 2008, digital TV was in 87% of British homes. Digital radio (DAB) has had a slower start, but the BBC and commercial operators provide digital-only radio services.
Britain’s media regulator, Ofcom, has set a timetable for a switchover from analogue to digital TV broadcasting; it hopes to turn off the analogue TV signal by 2012.
The British media are free and able to report on all aspects of British life. The variety of publications reflects the full spectrum of political opinion, as well as the British public’s voracious appetite for newspapers.
The Daily Telegraph – broadsheet
Financial Times – daily, business broadsheet
The Guardian – daily, former broadsheet
The Independent – daily, former broadsheet
The Times – daily, former broadsheet
The Sun – daily tabloid
The Mirror – daily tabloid
The Daily Mail – tabloid
The Daily Express – daily tabloid
The Scotsman – Scottish daily
Western Mail – Welsh daily
BBC TV – operates BBC1, BBC2 and digital services including BBC News channel
BBC World News – commercially-funded international news channel
ITV – major commercial network, organised around regional franchises
Channel 4 – commercially funded but publicly owned national station
five – national commercial channel
Independent Television News (ITN) – supplier of news to ITV, Channel 4
British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) – operator of digital satellite platform, Sky, and provider of film, entertainment channels and news channel Sky News
BBC Radio – national services include new-music station Radio 1, adult music station Radio 2, cultural network Radio 3, flagship speech station Radio 4 and news and sport station Five Live
BBC Radio Scotland
BBC Radio nan Gaidheal – Gaelic-language station for Scotland
BBC Radio Ulster – for Northern Ireland
BBC Radio Wales
BBC Radio Cymru – Welsh-language
BBC Asian Network – for Asian communities in the UK
BBC World Service – major international broadcaster, heard worldwide via shortwave and increasingly on FM relays, programmes in more than 30 languages
Absolute Radio – national commercial pop and rock station
Talk Sport – national commercial sports station
Classic FM – national commercial classical music station
The Press Association