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Europe, United Kingdom

Westminster model, rolling plains, northwestern Europe, proper terms, century artists

United Kingdom, constitutional monarchy in northwestern Europe, officially the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is the largest island in the cluster of islands, or archipelago, known as the British Isles. England is the largest and most populous division of the island of Great Britain, making up the south and east. Wales is on the west and Scotland is to the north. Northern Ireland is located in the northeast corner of Ireland, the second largest island in the British Isles. The capital of the United Kingdom is the city of London, situated near the southeastern tip of England.

People often confuse the names for this country, and frequently make mistakes in using them. United Kingdom, UK, and Britain are all proper terms for the entire nation, although the term Britain is also often used when talking about the island of Great Britain. The use of the term Great Britain to refer to the entire nation is now outdated; the term Great Britain, properly used, refers only to the island of Great Britain, which does not include Northern Ireland. The term England should never be used to describe Britain, because England is only one part of the island. It is always correct to call people from England, Scotland, or Wales British, although people from England may also properly be called English, people from Scotland Scottish, and people from Wales Welsh.

The United Kingdom is a small nation in physical size. At 244,110 sq km (94,251 sq mi), the United Kingdom is roughly the size of Oregon or Colorado, or twice the size of New York State. It is located as far north in latitude as Labrador in North America, but, like the rest of northern Europe, it is warmed by the Gulf Stream flowing out of the North Atlantic Ocean. The climate, in general, is mild, chilly, and often wet. Rain or overcast skies can be expected for up to 300 days per year. These conditions make Britain lush and green, with rolling plains in the south and east and rough hills and mountains to the west and north.

Despite its relatively small size, Britain is highly populated, with an estimated population density of 245 persons per sq km (634 per sq mi) in 2002. It is highly developed economically, preeminent in the arts and sciences, sophisticated in technology, and highly prosperous and peaceful. In general, British subjects belong to one of the more affluent states of Europe and enjoy a high standard of living compared to the rest of the world.

Many nations around the world have been influenced by British history and culture. With each passing year, English comes closer to being a world language for all educated people, as Latin once was. The prominence of English can be traced to the spread of the British Empire during the last three centuries. In the early 20th century, a quarter of the world’s people and a quarter of the world’s land surface were controlled in some way by Britain. Some parts of the world received substantial numbers of British emigrants and developed into what were called daughter nations. These colonies eventually became self-governing areas called dominions. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand fit this pattern. For a long time India was the most important colony in the British Empire, but after a long anticolonial struggle with Britain, independent India today is the world’s most populous democracy. The British Empire once included substantial portions of southern, western, and eastern Africa; important areas in Asia, such as Hong Kong; a few holdings in the Americas; and a large number of islands in the Pacific. Today most of these are independent nations, but many retain some British law, institutions, and customs.

Even parts of the world never included in the British Empire have adopted the British system of parliamentary government, often referred to as the Westminster model. Originally a vehicle for royal authority, this system gradually evolved into a representative government and finally became a means through which democracy could be exercised. Today legislative power comes from the lower house of Parliament, known as the House of Commons. The freely elected members of the House of Commons select the nation’s chief executive, the prime minister. He or she in turn appoints members of the House of Commons to the Cabinet, a body of advisers. Because the executive is not separated from the legislature, the government is efficient as well as responsive to the electorate.

Britain was a pioneer in economic matters. The first industrial revolution occurred in Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries and led to the development of the world’s first society dominated by a middle class. Britain was the first nation to have more than half of its population living in urban areas. Rapid economic development and worldwide trade made Britain the richest nation in the world during the reign of Queen Victoria in the 19th century. For a long time before and after the Industrial Revolution, London was the center of world capitalism, and today is still one of the world’s most important business and financial centers.

Britain has been important in the arts throughout modern times. Plays, novels, stories and, most recently, screenplays from Britain have been admired throughout the world. The output of English-language literature from Britain has far surpassed its output in art and music, fields dominated by other European nations. Nevertheless, Britain can claim several 20th-century artists and composers of note, including painter David Hockney and composer Sir Edward Elgar.

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