The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is made up of Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It lies off the northwest coast of France, and has many hills and mountains, lakes (and lochs), rivers and islands, and a rugged coastline. London is the capital of the UK and England, while Edinburgh, Belfast, and Cardiff are capitals of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales respectively. Other major cities include Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford, Bristol, and Newcastle upon Tyne.
The history of Britain before 1603 is that of its four constituent parts. England and Scotland were frequently at war, and England completed its conquest of Wales in 1284. The Tudor kings also conquered Ireland.
In 1603 with the death of Queen Elizabeth I, James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England as James I. The Act of Union of 1707 combined the Scottish and English parliaments, forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain, and the Act of Ireland (1801) united Britain and Ireland.
Britain was part of an alliance which defeated the French emperor Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. 1832 saw reform to parliament and voting rights with the Great Reform Act. The British Empire saw expansion under Disraeli - at one time or another most English-speaking countries have been coloured pink on the world map, denoting their part in the empire.
The 20th century saw independence for Ireland in 1921, and Britain was a major player in both world wars, and the Cold War.
Government and politics
British government is centered around Westminster in London. The governing party is elected by the first past the post system, and each MP represents an individual constituency. The Queen's role is as part of a constitutional monarchy, and her main function in government is to give the Royal Assent to acts of parliament. The main debating and legislative chamber is the House of Commons, while the House of Lords acts as a revising chamber and ultimate court of appeal.
Following referenda in 1997 and elections in 1999, a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly opened in May 1999. Strong movements for independence still exist in Scotland and Wales following devolution.
The United Kingdom is a member of both the European Union and NATO. The UK first exploded an atomic bomb in 1952. It also has several nuclear power stations; the UK Atomic Energy Authority was established in 1954.
Some of Brtian's favourite sports include football (soccer), rugby, athletics, tennis, cricket, and equestrian events such as horse-racing. Motorsports are also popular in the UK.
Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland field separate teams for football and rugby, but compete together in the Great Britain team in athletics and the Olymic Games.
Practically every large town in Britain has its own football club - some of the largest are Manchester United, and Glasgow's Rangers and Celtic.
All four home nations have their own national identities, with separate flags, patron saints, and sporting teams. National media such as the BBC and national newspapers help reinforce a collective sense of "Britishness".
Britain's long history has resulted in many old traditional occasions, on national and local stages. Royal occasions such as Trooping the Colour or the wedding and death of Princess Diana are shown on TV and watched by many.
Art and literature
The UK also has a long history of writers and artists. Some of Britain's best-known classical authors might include Daniel Defoe, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens. Poets would include Keats, Longfellow, and Byron, and British artists would include such as Constable, Turner, Henry Moore and Damien Hurst. The UK has also produced playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Alan Ayckbourn. Benjamin Britten and Edward Elgar are among Britain's classical composers, and The Beatles and Sex Pistols are examples of modern British music.
The Hutchinson Encyclopedia, 1997 ed.
20th Century Day by Day, Dorling Kindersley