Kingdom, island country located off the northwestern coast of mainland
Europe. The United Kingdom comprises the whole of the island of Great
Britain—which contains England, Wales, and Scotland—as well as the northern
portion of the island of Ireland. The name Britain is sometimes used to
refer to the United Kingdom as a whole. The capital is London, which is
among the world’s leading commercial, financial, and cultural centres.
Other major cities include Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester in
England, Belfast and Londonderry in Northern Ireland, Edinburgh and Glasgow
in Scotland, and Swansea and Cardiff in Wales.
The origins of the United Kingdom can be traced to the time of the
Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan, who in the early 10th century CE secured the
allegiance of neighbouring Celtic kingdoms and became “the first to rule
what previously many kings shared between them,” in the words of a
contemporary chronicle. Through subsequent conquest over the following
centuries, kingdoms lying farther afield came under English dominion.
Wales, a congeries of Celtic kingdoms lying in Great Britain’s southwest,
was formally united with England by the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1542.
Scotland, ruled from London since 1603, formally was joined with England
and Wales in 1707 to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain. (The
adjective “British” came into use at this time to refer to all the
kingdom’s peoples.) Ireland came under English control during the 1600s and
was formally united with Great Britain through the Act of Union of 1800.
The republic of Ireland gained its independence in 1922, but six of
Ulster’s nine counties remained part of the United Kingdom as Northern
Ireland. Relations between these constituent states and England have been
marked by controversy and, at times, open rebellion and even warfare. These
tensions relaxed somewhat during the late 20th century, when devolved
assemblies were introduced in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
Nonetheless, even with the establishment of a power-sharing assembly after
referenda in both Northern Ireland and the Irish republic, relations
between Northern Ireland’s unionists (who favour continued British
sovereignty over Northern Ireland) and nationalists (who favour unification
with the republic of Ireland) remained tense into the 21st century.
The United Kingdom has made significant contributions to the world economy,
especially in technology and industry. Since World War II, however, the
United Kingdom’s most prominent exports have been cultural, including
literature, theatre, film, television, and popular music that draw on all
parts of the country. Perhaps Britain’s greatest export has been the
English language, now spoken in every corner of the world as one of the
leading international mediums of cultural and economic exchange.
The United Kingdom retains links with parts of its former empire through
the Commonwealth. It also benefits from historical and cultural links with
the United States and is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO). Moreover, the United Kingdom became a member of the European Union
in 1973. Many Britons, however, were sometimes reluctant EU members,
holding to the sentiments of the great wartime prime minister Winston
Churchill, who sonorously remarked, “We see nothing but good and hope in a
richer, freer, more contented European commonalty. But we have our own
dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked,
but not comprised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed.”
Indeed, in June 2016, in a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should
remain in the EU, 52 percent of British voters chose to leave. That set the
stage for the U.K. to become the first country to do so, pending the
negotiations between the U.K. and the EU on the details of the separation.