The United Kingdom (full name: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is a political entity which includes the countries of Great Britain and six of the nine counties of the Irish province of Ulster, known as Northern Ireland, or "Ulster" colloquially.
The briefest possible history of the UK
The United Kingdom has lots of history, possibly even too much of it if bitching over the school curriculum on the subject is anything to go by. The "united" part of the United Kingdom was properly established over the course of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when England beat the piss out of its drunk neighbors, or cobbled together a tenuous union of disparate kingdoms (in the case of the Welsh, shepherds) depending on who you ask. England (which at the time included Wales, annexed to England in 1536) and Scotland were united under a common monarch with the Union of The Crowns in 1603, and then under a common government following the Act of Union of 1707, officially creating the Kingdom of Great Britain. Ireland would join a century later with the Act of Union of 1800, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on January 1st 1801, almost immediately beginning calls for Ireland's secession from the Union, successfully resulting in a series of steadily-devolving Irish governments and finally the independent Republic of Ireland 148 years later.
The British Empire
Beginning in the seventeenth century, Great Britain created an empire that spanned most of the globe and was the largest by land area ever, surpassing the Russian and Mongol Empires. British colonial rule killed more people than the Nazis killed in the Holocaust, though over a much longer time period. The British Empire suffered great economic damage during the Second World War, which sort of brought the mother country down a notch. As the war ended, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the world's two superpowers with killing abilities strengthened by modern technology, and the UK began a process of decolonization which was mostly over by the mid-1960s.
The UK is governed by a bicameral parliament at Westminster, and headed (little more than nominally) by the reigning monarch, currently Elizabeth II. In addition to Northern Ireland, this multinational state also includes the principality of Wales and the countries of Scotland and England. Together these are known as the Home Nations. The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are not part of the United Kingdom but they are nice to visit.
It's probably fair to say that the mainstream political spectrum is fairly limited. On one hand is the Labour party, which is quite socially democratic and vaguely Thatcherite, more so in recent years. On the other are the Conservatives or "Tories", who are somewhat socially democratic but less so than the other two parties and quite a bit more Thatcherite. The third party, the Liberal Democrats, has recently had a surge in popularity; they are very socially democratic and can't seem to make up their mind about how Thatcherite they are. It is probably best described as three parties clarmouring around the centre, while trying not to annoy their more idealistic fringe members at the same time. Because this sort of thing is fundamentally boring, media reporting of the last few years has focused on more extreme but far less powerful nationalist parties such as the BNP and it's "lite" cousin, UKIP.
The current Tory-led coalition government (the Liberal Democrats making up the numbers) is pretty much Thatcherite - although without any government owned companies to sell off. Having initially campaigned as centre-right moderates, once in power the coalition moved strongly to the economic right by cutting spending (notably on benefits) and avoiding tax hikes for the insanely wealthy. The Lib Dem presence in the government was supposed to temper this slightly, but seemed to have failed; for example, student tuition fees were tripled without any meaningful opposition, despite pre-election pledges from Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats to fight and resist fees of any form (although, to be fair, 21 of their 57 MPs voted against the bill). While they tackled Labour-generated civil liberties issues by scrapping the ID card scheme and identity databases almost overnight, they have happily kept the highly authoritarian, questionably legal and massively controversial Control Orders in force, half-heartedly re-naming them 'Terrorist, Prevention and Investigation Measures'.
There is a minor debate about whether people from the UK should be called "Brits", or just "UKs". Off the Internet they are called British people or Britishers.
The UK does not suffer from right-wing evangelical loonies to the same degree as the abandoned colonies. Britain, sadly, still has a few of them, but they are less powerful, and they are not really a problem except to their families and their co-religionists. In the UK, it is just not cricket to go on and on about God, Jesus etc., especially when mixed with politics - probably because the British know perfectly well where that combination got them in earlier times. If the people weren't so British, they'd likely get a good kicking if they did. But they would more likely receive dirty looks and raised eyebrows, or be carted off to the local lunatic asylum for the rest of their life.
For example, former Prime Minister Tony Blair waited until he was out of office before "coming out" as a Roman Catholic, since he was advised by Alistair Campbell (his
PR adviser Minister of Propaganda) that "We don't do God."  On the other hand, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, the UK's third largest party, and current Deputy Prime Minister of the UK, revealed he was an atheist during an interview with the BBC.
The notable exeption to all of this is the issue of Islamic fundamentalism. Of the four suicide bombers responsible for the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London - Mohammad Sidique Khan, Shehzad Tanweer, Hasib Hussain, Germaine Lindsay - all but one were born in England. More recently London imam Usama Hasan was forced to retract controversial statements (namely, that people evolved from apes and that Muslim women don't have to cover their hair) after receiving death threats from whackadoodles. The Islamic community in Britain appears to have a stronger fundamentalist component than Muslim communities elsewhere in Europe. In 2009 Muslims from Britain, France and Germany were interviewed for a Gallup poll, one of the questions being whether homosexuality is morally acceptable. 35% of the French Muslims agreed; 19% of the Germany Muslims agreed; but none of the 500 British Muslims interviewed for the poll agreed.
Religious belief in the UK is declining long term, according to some polls more than half the UK population do not believe in God and more than half the teenagers consider themselves atheists  The situation may be stabilising at least for now.
Of the four constituent countries of the UK, only England has an established state church, the Church of England (obviously). The C of E was disestablished in Wales in 1920, whereupon the former Welsh dioceses became the Church in Wales (sic); the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1871; and Scotland has never had an established church, though such a status has often been erroneously attributed to the Church of Scotland (which is Presbyterian, not Anglican - the Anglican church in Scotland is the Scottish Episcopal Church).
Americans often think that the terms "United Kingdom", "Britain" and "England" can be used interchangeably, which just shows what they know. For the record: England, Scotland and Wales make up the island called Great Britain. Add Northern Ireland (and lots of other smaller islands) and you have the United Kingdom. The "British Isles" is the physical landmass which includes all the small islands. "Britain" (minus the "Great") doesn't actually have any meaning but tends to be used interchangeably with "Great Britain". See, easy.
In 2010, the Commons Foreign Affairs committee tried to distance the United Kingdom from the USA, saying that we shouldn't speak of the "Special Relationship." They also seemed to imply that the UK needs to just accept it isn't a superpower, and get on with being a group of small islands. Some feel this only continues a descent from "Great" Britain to "Good" Britain to "I-Suppose-It's-OK-If-You-Like-That-Sort-Of-Thing" Britain.
The Union Flag is commonly called the Union Jack. For pedants the term "Jack" should only be applied to the Union Flag when it is flown as a jack from an actual jackstaff, that is, at the bow of a ship. Its first and most common use after 1606 would have most likely been as a jack, flying as part of the Royal Navy that at the time would have been extremely powerful. The Flag Institute of the United Kingdom states that either is fine, as the distinction between "flag" and "jack" is a relatively recent idea and that "Union Jack" is officially acknowledged in any context.
As is the case with many other national flags the Union Flag, when flown upside down, signifies that the flier of the flag is in distress. Unfortunately for the British the Union Flag when flown upside down isn't notably different to the Union Flag when it is flown the right way up, so the British generally rely on radio-communications equipment and the Daily Mail to express any distress that they may be feeling.
While the United Kingdom has a national anthem used to represent the state collectively ("God Save the Queen"), Wales is the only member nation to have an officially recognised national anthem ("Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau"), neither England, Scotland nor Northern Ireland having national anthems recognised by the national or devolved governments. Scotland most notably uses "Flower of Scotland" at international sporting events such as football and rugby union, while England use the national anthem of the UK at said sporting events. Northern Ireland has used "Londonderry Air" set to the lyrics of "Danny Boy" as an anthem at the Commonwealth Games while doing the English thing and using God Save the Queen for football. Movements have arisen in England and Scotland calling for individual anthems to be adopted, sparking some debate, though not enough to cause a major political stir over it. The most popular proposed national anthems for Scotland are "Flower of Scotland," "Scotland the Brave" and "Highland Cathedral", while the most popular proposed national anthems for England are "God Save the Queen," "Jerusalem" and "Land of Hope and Glory", the latter of which was supported by 55% of respondents to a 2006 poll by the BBC.
How to refer to its people
There are a number of possible ways to refer to people who are citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
One way is to use the adjective "British", as in "a British person" or a British product. Although this is a relatively neutral term to which the majority would not object it has a couple of problems. One is that although the majority would not object, some would. For instance, scrubbing out "British" on forms and replacing it with "English" as if that changes things. It is also a bit long winded. Alternatively you can say, "He's British", "She's British", "They're British".
Although newspapers sometimes use this word as in, "Three Britons Hurt in Exploding Moose Shock", the word "Briton" is rarely used in informal conversation. Indeed, when used in conversation most people would think of the "Ancient Britons" - the pre-Roman inhabitants of the present-day British islands.
This shortened form of the word is used and accepted by many - but not all - of the inhabitants of the islands. For various reasons some people do not seem to like the title. For example, as can be seen from the full name of the kingdom, it also includes the inhabitants of Northern Ireland. As a proportion of the citizens of this part, and indeed most parts, of the world are anti-British and the region has a special status, many (perhaps most) inhabitants would prefer to be called something else.
This term was coined by American sailors to refer to British sailors when they discovered that they used to drink lime juice in order to combat scurvy. It is generally not appreciated by citizens of the United Kingdom, especially in the common construction "Limey bastard".
Also shortened to "Pom", this is a term used primarily in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa to denote anyone of British nationality. It is (apparently) considered offensive, particularly in the common construction "Pommy bastard". It may have something to do with pomegranates. More likely it's a phonetic spelling of POHM (Prisoner of His/Her Majesty) due to most people from the UK arriving in Australia as convicts.
This term has been proposed as a possible solution but it suffers from a number of shortcomings. It is almost unpronounceable, unknown internationally and neither used nor accepted by any significant population in the UK.
Other random terms
Another obvious solution would be to call inhabitants according to their country/principality. It is, however, regrettable that most of the "local" names would run into some national or international problem.
There is increasing fragmentation of the UK. Wales has its own Assembly, while Scotland and Northern Ireland have Parliaments. The resulting nationalism has led to the rejection of the word Brit by much of the population. This "devolution" of Wales and Scotland did spark a trend of fairly serious suggestions for other parts of England to devolve power away from the London based parliament of the UK. This would lead to places like Cornwall and Northumberland essentially having their own parliament... whatever next.
- The name Welsh would mean little to much of the world's people and the nationals of the principality are often lumped in with the English - to their great and justified annoyance.
- The name Northern Irish results in their being joined with Eire (Ireland). For some this would be desired but others would detest the idea. Although one occasionally hears the word Ulsterman being used to refer to a Northern Irishman, this is not actually appropriate as of the nine counties of the Province of Ulster three, Cavan (An Cabhán), Donegal (Dún na nGall) and Monaghan (Muineachán) form part of the Republic of Ireland.
- The name Scottish is the exception: most Scots prefer this reference but occasionally they too are referred to as English. Wars have been waged over lesser insults.
- The name English is frequently used by both foreigners and some English people to refer to the nationality of the whole country. Prior to the mid Victorian era all the UK was commonly referred to as "England" with appropriate adjectival use.Do You Believe That? Many English people might find this still a convenient solution but some parts of the country are starting to exhibit a regionalism verging on nationalism: Yorkshire, Cornwall, Northumberland and many others will tell you with pride that they are first and foremost Yorkshiremen (Cornishmen, Northumbrian), secondly English and so on. Others consider themselves foremost Cornish (etc) and then British. This is partly due to the fact that Cornwall was a later addition to England than the rest, being populated primarily by Celtic Britons who spoke their own language (Cornish).
- ↑ Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts "The death tolls were staggering: around 12m Chinese and over 6m Indians in 1876-1878 alone. The chief culprit, according to Davis, was not the weather, but European empires, with Japan and the US"
- ↑ See for yourself here and here
- ↑ See, for example, their support of the NHS
- ↑ Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, notably, is a bit shaky on this - see this contrasted with this.
- ↑ In the antipodean nations of the former Empire they are called "poms," which is slang for the more formal term, "whinging pommie bastards."
- ↑ Most likely due to them having been kicked out, via Amsterdam, to North America roughly 400 years ago
- ↑ A Question of Faith Daily Telegraph 5th May 2003
- ↑ Nick Clegg says: 'I don't believe in God' Times Online 19th December 2007
- ↑ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4762209.stm
- ↑ http://julyseventh.co.uk/7-7-profile-hasib-mir-hussain.html
- ↑ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4762313.stm
- ↑ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4762591.stm
- ↑ http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23929834-imam-fears-nutters-could-kill-him-for-preaching-evolution.do
- ↑ http://www.guardian-series.co.uk/news/8906226.LEYTON__Support_for_Imam_over_evolution_comments/
- ↑ http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/may/07/muslims-britain-france-germany-homosexuality
- ↑  Page 33
- ↑ Religion in the United Kingdom Diversity, Trends and Decline
- ↑ UK Religion: Final statistics based on the 2011 census
- ↑ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/11297461
- ↑ Stereotype alert! Stereotype alert!
- ↑ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8590767.stm
- ↑ Flag Institute - Union Flag or Union Jack?
- ↑ Sport, Nationalism and Globalization: European and North American Perspectives by Alan Bairner (ISBN 978-0791449127), page 38
- ↑ It says so on Wikipedia.
- ↑ www.anthem4england.co.uk
- ↑ www.limerickleader.ie