Skip to main content

United Kingdom

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is located in Western Europe, and consists of the island of Great Britain (which includes England, Scotland, and Wales) and the six northern counties of the island of Ireland, which are officially known as Northern Ireland and are commonly called Ulster. The United Kingdom also consists of several smaller islands, from the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland to the Channel Islands such as Sark, Guernsey, and Jersey, which are located in the English Channel very close to France. The Shetland, Orkney, and Hebrides island chains are located in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland.

The United Kingdom is geographically diverse. It consists of approximately 244,820 square kilometers (95,000 square miles), and is about the size of the state of Oregon in the United States. Major mountain chains are located in Scotland and Wales. Britain's climate is moderate, with very few extreme temperatures. It has a wealth of natural resources in coal, petroleum, natural gas, tin, and other minerals. Britain holds significant oil and gas reserves in the North Sea, and has been actively drilling and exploiting those resources since the early 1970s. Approximately 25 percent of Britain is considered arable land , and agriculture focuses on a wide variety of crops and animals.

The estimated population of the United Kingdom in 2003 was 60,094,648. About 50 million people lived in England, 5.1 million in Scotland, 3 million in Wales, and 1.7 million in Northern Ireland. England is one of the most densely populated regions in the United Kingdom and Europe, with much of its population living in urban and suburban areas such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Newcastle. Scotland and Wales have urban areas also. Glasgow and Edinburgh are the two largest Scottish cities, and Cardiff is the largest Welsh city. Belfast is the largest city in Northern Ireland. However, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland still have largely rural areas as well; thus, the populations in those regions are not as dense and urbanized as in England.

In terms of ethnic identities, Britain is a homogenous nation. The English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish are generally Caucasian. Approximately 80 percent of Britons claim English ancestry. Scots account for almost 10 percent of the population, Irish 2.5 percent, Welsh 2 percent, Northern Irish (Ulster) about 2 percent, and the remaining 3.5 percent claim West Indian (such as Jamaican), Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Asian background. In terms of nationalities, the United Kingdom is often referred to as a multination state since it consists of four distinct nations: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom is a sovereign state in the international community, and its citizens have a common British citizenship. However, the four nations still retain distinct social traits. For example, the Welsh language is still spoken in parts of Wales, and variations of Gaelic are still spoken in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

political history and structure

The political history of the United Kingdom is very long and drawn out. The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 started the centralization of various groups, villages, and towns in England, and by the twelfth century the Norman rulers had created a monarchical government that ruled over England. That government was premised on the Norman monarchy, with the king as the source of all power. AParliament was also created in which nobles were represented. The Normans consolidated their rule over England between 1066 and approximately 1200, and by the late 1200s they began to expand their power to Wales and Scotland.

By 1282 English monarchs were beginning to militarily and politically dominate some of the Welsh princes, and in 1536 Wales was unified with England through the Act of Union passed by the English Parliament. Wales was represented in Parliament, and the English administrative legal systems were imposed on it as well. Unlike Wales, Scotland maintained its political independence from England until 1707. Although England applied military and political pressure against Scotland between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, Scotland retained its own monarchy until the English and Scottish crowns were united in 1603, when King James VI (1566–1625) of Scotland became King James I of England due to his inheritance of the English throne as the great-grandson of Henry VII (1457–1509). In 1707 the Scottish and English Parliaments approved the Treaty of Union that united the two kingdoms into Great Britain. The Act of Union created the British Parliament in which the English, Welsh, and Scottish were all to be represented, and all three regions were to hold allegiance to one common monarch.

Starting in the twelfth century the English extended their rule to Ireland. By the 1500s Ireland was incorporated into the English political system. However, by the nineteenth century the "Irish question," which concerned rising Irish demands for independence from Great Britain, figured prominently in British political debate. The 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin was a violent rebellion against British rule, and in 1920 the British government negotiated a settlement in which the counties of southern Ireland would be independent, and the six northern counties of Ireland—also called Ulster—were to remain part of Great Britain. Ulster was predominantly comprised of Protestant settlers from England, Wales, and Scotland, and was thus distinct from the southern Irish counties, which were mainly Catholic. The southern Irish counties are now the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland remains a distinct political entity and region within the United Kingdom.

The unitary nature of the British political system has changed slightly. Beginning in the 1970s, Scottish and Welsh nationalists agitated for devolution , or the return of some political power back to those regions. In 1997, after two national referendums , the British Parliament passed two laws creating Welsh and Scottish Parliaments with limited powers over social and economic policy. Although national political issues are still addressed by the national government and Parliament in London, the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments have been granted some power to address public policy issues that are perhaps unique to those two regions.

Northern Ireland has had a distinct political history, too. Northern Ireland was given its own Parliament at the partition of Ireland in 1920; it thus gained limited power to make laws for that region. Major public policy issues were still decided by the national British government in London, however. Protestants have always comprised a majority of citizens in Northern Ireland and have historically dominated the politics of the region. Indeed, Protestant politicians often used their political power to actively discriminate against Catholics. In 1968 Catholics in the region started a civil rights movement against Protestant control of Northern Irish politics, and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) also started its violent campaign of terrorism to forcefully reunite Ulster with the Irish Republic. The IRA's terrorism prompted terrorist acts by Unionist groups that wanted to maintain the union between Northern Ireland and Britain, and the cycle of IRA and Unionist violence is often termed "the troubles." The Northern Irish police force was incapable of controlling the violence, so the British government committed military troops to Northern Ireland to restore and maintain the peace, and in 1972 the Northern Ireland Parliament (commonly called Stormont) was abolished and the province was directly governed from London.

In 1985 Britain and the Republic of Ireland signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement that recognized a joint role to be played by both countries to bring peace to Northern Ireland. In 1998, under the Good Friday Accords approved by voters in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a power-sharing government was created in which political power would be shared between the Unionists and Republicans in Northern Ireland—between those who sought to maintain the union with Britain, and those who sought to join the Republic of Ireland. The Accords also mandated that Republican and Unionist terrorist groups give up their weapons and work toward a peaceful solution to Northern Ireland's problems. The power-sharing government has not worked as planned, unfortunately. Unionist and Republican terrorist groups have not decommissioned their weapons, and in 2000 the British government suspended the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland and continued to govern the province directly from London.

One other issue concerning the structure of the United Kingdom is Britain's membership in the European Union. The European Economic Community (EEC) was created in 1957 by France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands, with the primary goal of unifying European states into one economic entity. Britain joined the EEC in 1973; the EEC is now officially known as the European Union (EU). By joining the EU, Britain agreed to abide by economic rules and regulations established by the EU government located in Brussels, Belgium. Thus, the British government has gradually lost significant political power and sovereignty over its own economic and social issues, and must now accept EU laws and rules on such diverse issues as immigration, minimum wages, retirement benefits, and government subsidies to industries. The EU now has its own legal system and policy-making institutions that affect all EU member states, including the United Kingdom.

nature of government

The United Kingdom is a unitary state, meaning that most laws and policies are made by the national government located in London. Although there are four distinct nations in the United Kingdom, it is not a federal system in which power is divided and shared between the national government and regional governments such as states or provinces. Scotland and Wales now have some political power to make laws affecting their specific regions, but the bulk of power still resides with the national government in London. The British government consists of three branches: the legislature, executive, and judiciary. Britain is a democracy, and all people over the age of eighteen who are British citizens are eligible to vote in national elections. The United Kingdom is also a constitutional

monarchy in which the monarch, in 2005 Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926), serves as a head of state for the political system. The monarch is hereditary, passed down through the Windsor family. The monarch is expected to be politically impartial, so that she "reigns but does not rule," and in practice and reality the monarch is simply a figurehead who retains no political or lawmaking power. The powers to make laws and administer the government are located in the democratically elected Parliament and the executive branch.

The United Kingdom has no written constitution. The British Constitution consists of statutes (laws) passed by Parliament, the common law, and rules of political behavior and practice called constitutional conventions. The British Constitution can slowly change over time, as laws and political practices change. Indeed, the change in British politics from a monarchy, in which the monarch holds all political and legal power, to a representative democracy, in which the people and Parliament hold political power, is a prime example of the slow, evolutionary change of the British Constitution. Britain's democratization occurred during the course of several centuries without a revolution, unlike in the United States or France.

The legislative branch is Parliament, commonly referred to as Westminster, and it has two houses: the lower House of Commons and the upper House of Lords. Parliament can trace its heritage to De Montfort's Parliament under the Normans in 1265, although the functions and democratic nature of the modern Parliament are certainly unlike those of the ancient Norman assembly. The Commons consists of 646 individual members of Parliament (MPs), each of whom represents a specific electoral district in the United Kingdom and is elected for a five-year term by popular vote. MPs are elected from throughout England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland; thus, the House of Commons is a national body that represents all districts and regions within the United Kingdom. Elections for the House of Commons must be held at least every five years, although unlike in the United States national elections are not regularly scheduled. The government can call for new elections at any time within a five-year period from the most recent national elections. MPs are generally affiliated with a political party, and there are two main political parties in Britain: the Conservative (Tory) Party and the Labour Party. In the 2005 election, the Labour Party MPs won 356 seats, the Conservative Party 197. The only other party with more than 10 MPs was the Liberal Democrats with 62.

The House of Lords historically consisted of members (called peers) who were either hereditary members, and thus inherited their legislative seat, or peers who were appointed to the Lords by the monarch on the advice of the government. Historically, there have been over 1,000 hereditary peers and a few hundred appointed peers, although rarely do all members of the Lords attend legislative sessions in Parliament. The House of Lords traditionally could veto any law passed by the Commons, but in 1911 its power was strictly limited so that the Lords could only delay, by one year, any law passed by the House of Commons. In 1999 the House of Lords was limited by law to appointed peers (about 600 as of 2004) and 92 hereditary peers, elected by their peers to represent specific office holders or political groupings.

The House of Commons holds almost all lawmaking power. That is, it has the power to make and change laws. Indeed, the British Constitution is based in part on the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, which holds that Parliament can make any law that it wants and change the law at any time. Importantly, parliamentary sovereignty has been limited by Britain's member-ship in the EU. Since Britain must now follow EU laws and regulations, the British Parliament is essentially limited in its lawmaking power.

The executive branch of government consists of the prime minister, top government ministers, and the national bureaucracy or civil service. As in other parliamentary systems, the prime minister is usually the leader of the largest political party in Parliament, and prime ministers serve a dual role as MPs elected from a specific electoral district and as head of the executive branch. It is a constitutional convention that the monarch appoints the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons as prime minister. In 2003 Tony Blair (b. 1953) from the Labour Party was named prime minister. Some of the more prominent Conservative prime ministers since World War II (1939–1945) have included Winston Churchill (1874–1965) during World War II, Edward Heath (1916–2005) in the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher (b. 1925) in the 1980s, and John Major (b. 1943) in the 1990s. Prominent Labour prime ministers have included Clement Attlee (1884–1967) in the late 1940s, Harold Wilson (1916–1995) in the 1970s, and Tony Blair from the late 1990s.

Political parties are very important to the British political system. The party with the majority in the House of Commons is invited to form the so-called Government of the Day. The next largest political party in the Commons is considered "Her Majesty's loyal opposition," and opposes the government by acting as a potential alternative government. That is, the opposition debates the Government of the Day in Parliament and proposes different public policy alternatives to the British public. In general, political parties are very disciplined, and party members will almost always cast their vote in Parliament according to their party's policies. Thus, party discipline ensures that when the Government of the Day has an absolute majority of seats in Parliament, the government's policies are almost always supported and enacted. Indeed, disciplined and cohesive parties in Parliament increase the power of the prime minister and executive branch, since the government can always rely on its majority of support in Parliament to enact new laws and policies.

The prime minister makes policy decisions with his or her cabinet, which consists of the MPs appointed as heads of the most important political departments, such as the treasury, foreign office, home affairs, and the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish offices. In general, the prime minister names members of the cabinet, and almost all cabinet ministers will, like the prime minister, also be MPs in the House of Commons. Rarely will a cabinet member come from the House of Lords. The constitutional convention of ministerial responsibility holds that government ministers must be accountable to Parliament, and may be forced to resign by Parliament if they make an egregious political mistake.

The British bureaucracy or civil service is professional, and most bureaucrats are career workers, not political appointees. Civil servants must pass competitive exams in order to join the bureaucracy, and the professionalism of the British civil service is often envied and emulated by other political systems. The civil service is overseen by the Government of the Day and professional administrators, and its primary role is to administer policies under laws passed by Parliament.

fast facts

Video surveillance is a feature of everyday urban life in the United Kingdom.

The third branch of government, the judiciary, is essentially independent of Parliament and the executive branch, although some overlap exists. For example, the lord chancellor is appointed by the prime minister and is a sitting judge, member of the House of Lords, and can also serve in the prime minister's cabinet. However, the Lord Chancellor's Office is the exception, and the judiciary is considered separate from the other two branches. Judges are appointed by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister and the government. In reality, the prime minister has almost unlimited discretion to appoint judges to the bench in Great Britain, although judicial appointments mainly go to experienced lawyers, some of whom may be active in Conservative or Labour Party politics. Judges serve until the age of seventy-five and are not lifetime appointees as in the United States. Although British judges cannot declare a law unconstitutional, they can ensure that the government does follow the law. Thus, government agencies must follow the common law, statutes passed by Parliament, and also EU laws and regulations made in Brussels. In 1998, however, Parliament passed the Human Rights Act that made the European Convention on Human Rights legally enforceable in Britain. The Human Rights Act does allow British judges to protect the human rights of individuals through adjudication .

The rights and liberties of British citizens are well protected by courts and Parliament. Britons enjoy the freedoms of religion, speech, and press, and the British criminal justice system operates under strict rules of due process that ensure a fair trial for criminal defendants. Citizens, judges, and politicians jealously guard civil rights and liberties in Britain.

See also: Constitutional Monarchy; European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms; European Union; Magna Carta; Northern Ireland; Parliamentary Systems.


Cannon, John, ed. The Oxford Companion to British History. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Jones, Bill, and Dennis Kavanagh. British Politics Today, 6th ed. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1998.

Kavanagh, Dennis. British Politics: Continuities and Change, 4th ed. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Ramsden, John, ed. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century British Politics. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.

John C. Blakeman

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"United Kingdom." Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities. . 20 Jan. 2019 <>.

"United Kingdom." Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities. . (January 20, 2019).

"United Kingdom." Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities. . Retrieved January 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.