The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the UK) occupies most of the territory of the British Isles. It consists of four main parts which are: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Their capitals are London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the official name of the state which is sometimes referred to as Great Britain or Britain (after its major isle), England (after its major historic part) or the British Isles.
The UK is an island state: it is composed of some 5,500 islands, large and small. The two main islands are Great Britain (in which are England, Wales and Scotland) to the east and Ireland (in which are Northern Ireland and the independent Irish Republic) to the west. They are separated by the Irish Sea.
The UK is one of the world’s smaller countries (it is twice smaller than France or Spain), with an area of some 244,100 square kilometres. The UK is situated off the west
coast of Europe between the Atlantic Ocean on the northwest and the North Sea on the east and is separated from the European continent by the English Channel (or La Manche) and the Strait of Dover (or Pas de Calais). The population of the United Kingdom is over 57 million people. There are fourteen other countries in the world with more people. English is not the only language which people use in the UK. English is the official language. But some people speak Gaelic in western Scotland, Welsh-in parts of northern and central Wales.
The flag of the United Kingdom, known as the Union Jack, is made up of three crosses. Great Britain is the name of the largest island of the British Isles and it is made up of England, Scotland and Wales, it does not include Northern Ireland. In everyday speech Great Britain is used to mean the United Kingdom. Geographically, the island of Great Britain is subdivided into two main regions – Lowland Britain and Highland Britain. Lowland Britain comprises southern and eastern England. Highland Britain consists of Scotland, most of Wales, the Pennines, and the Lake District. The Pennine Chain extends southward from the Cheviot Hills into the Midlands, a plains region with low hills and valleys. England is separated from Scotland by the Cheviot Hills, running from east to west. The chief rivers of Great Britain are: the Severn, flowing along the border between England and Wales, tributaries of which include the Avon, famed by Shakespeare; the Thames, which flows eastward to the port of London and some others. The swiftest flowing river in the British Isles is the Spey. Part of the border between Scotland and England is along the lower reaches of the Tweed, near which is made the woollen fabric that bears its name.
There are many lakes in Great Britain. On the northwest side of the Pennine system lies the Lake District, containing the beautiful lakes which give it its name. This district is widely known for its association with the history of English literature and especially with the name of William Wordsworth (1770-1859), the founder of the Lake School of poets. The largest cities of Great Britain are: London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Bristol, Leeds, Edinburgh. The most important ports are: London, Liverpool, Southampton, Belfast, Glasgow and Cardiff.
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy. This means that it has a monarch (a king or a queen) as its Head of State. The monarch reigns with the support of Parliament. The powers of the monarch are not defined precisely. Everything today is done in the Queen’s name. It is her government, her armed forces, her law courts and so on. She appoints all the Ministers, including the Prime Minister. Everything is done however on the advice of the elected Government, and the monarch takes no part in the decision-making process.
Once the British Empire included a large number of countries all over the world ruled by Britain. The process of decolonisation began in 1947 with the independence of India, Pakistan and Ceylon. Now, apart from a few small islands, there is no longer an empire. But the British ruling classes tried not to lose influence over the former colonies of the British Empire. An association of former members of the British Empire and Britain was founded in 1949. It is called the Commonwealth. It includes many countries such as Burma, the Sudan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and others. The Queen of Great Britain is also the Head of the Commonwealth, and so the Queen of Canada, Australia, New Zealand… The Queen is very rich as are other members of the royal family. In addition, the government pays for her expenses as Head of State, for a royal yacht, train and aircraft as well as for the upkeep of several palaces. The Queen’s image appears on stamps, notes and coins.
Parliament consists of two chambers known as the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Parliament and the monarch have different roles in the government of the country, and they only meet together on symbolic occasions such as the coronation of a new monarch or the opening of Parliament. In reality, the House of Commons is the only one of the three which has true power. It is here that new bills are introduced and debated. If the majority of the members are in favour of a bill it goes to the House of Lords to be debated and finally to the monarch to be signed. Only then it becomes law. Although a bill must be supported by all three bodies, the House of Lords only has limited powers, and the monarch has not refused to sign one since the modern political system began over 200 years ago.