The United Kingdom (full name: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is a political entity; containing the countries of Great Britain, and
Seven of Nine six of nine Ulster Irish counties—known collectively 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 for their own school curriculum. Following the Ice Age, the British Isles were inhabited by various Picts, Celts and 'Britons' who didn't know how to write, but left us numerous enigmatic megalithic monuments such as Stonehenge.
In 43 CE the Romans invaded England and most of Wales, then buggered off again about 450 years later, when the barbarian invasions began. The Picts started to pour over Hadrians Wall, so the locals hired Saxon mercenaries to kill them. Unfortunately for the Romanised Britons, the Saxons also started to kill them as well, and migrated to the isles en masse after killing swathes of the natives. Britain was one of the most loyal Roman provinces. The UK would've been a very different place if the Roman/Latin culture prevailed; interesting to theorise.
During the next six centuries or so, increasing numbers of Angles and Saxons arrived and settled in England, and were getting on quite nicely (the odd Viking incursion notwithstanding) until an invasion by the Normans (1066), who slaughtered the Saxon nobility and more or less remain today as the Tory party. You can perhaps see a pattern forming here: successive waves of invaders nearly always arrived via south east England, leaving the Celtic-speaking yokels increasingly marginalised in the far-flung fringes of Cornwall, Wales, the Scottish Highlands and Ireland. The festering legacy of these events still rears its head from time to time to this day.
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, which had been under de facto control since 1607, 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 becoming an independent state in 1922 and then a republic in 1949.
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. 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. It is notable that some historians say that the handover of Hong Kong on July 1st, 1997 is considered the end of the British Empire.
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.[note 1]
It's probably fair to say that the mainstream political spectrum is fairly limited. On one hand is the Labour Party, which is social democratic and, since the 1990s, vaguely Thatcherite. On the other there is the Conservative or "Tory" Party, which is quite a bit more Thatcherite (duh...), though generally not as far to the right as the GOP in the US.[note 2] The third party, the Liberal Democrats, had a surge in popularity followed by a crashing downpour of hatred upon them upon forming government with the Conservatives; they are very socially democratic and can't seem to make up their mind about how Thatcherite they are.[note 3] It is probably best described as three parties clamouring 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 its "lite" cousin, UKIP.
The Tory-led coalition government (the Liberal Democrats making up the numbers) that governed until May 2015 was pretty much neoliberal - 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 draconian spending cuts (notably on benefits for the poor, sick and disabled) and cutting taxes for wealthy people from 50% to 45% (to be fair Labour only raised the top rate of tax from 40% to 50% in their last few weeks of office when it became clear that they would lose the election so that they could say the Tories were cutting taxes for the rich when they lowered it). 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 order in force, half-heartedly re-naming them "Terrorist, Prevention and Investigation Measures."
In the May 2015 General Election, the Tories secured a majority and formed their own government, allowing them to bring in even harsher restrictions to the welfare system. Shortly after the election, Labour leader Ed Miliband, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, and UKIP's Nigel Farage resigned; the Labour leadership campaign has seen vast popular support for democratic socialist candidate Jeremy Corbyn, as the election was opened to the general public by allowing anyone to register as a party supporter, however, many people who have come out in support of Corbyn - including full members of the party and long-time members of affiliated trade unions - have had their right to vote revoked under the belief that they do not support the values of the Labour Party.
Brexit became the defining issue by 2016; Prime Minister Cameron, fearing his right flank, promised to hold a referendum on Britain's membership in the EU, but it all blew up in his face, forcing him to resign after losing the vote. Leave prevailed over Remain, and Theresa May became the new Prime Minister after everyone else knifed each other in the back and allowed her to sweep in as the compromise candidate. The Labour Party moved for a vote of no confidence against Corbyn, and as mentioned above, tried to strip several members of their right to vote. It didn't matter in the end; Corbyn won reelection in another landslide. Riding high on a double digit lead, Prime Minister May called for a snap election, and was ahead by as many as 24 points, until poor campaigning and great policies from Corbyn closed the gap. On the day of the election, Corbyn destroyed May's majority government and forced a hung parliament, revitalizing the left wing in ways not seen since Clement Attlee in 1945.
A remarkable phenomenon of recent times is the disintegration of the "British nation." More and more people identify primarily by their national identity - Irish, Scottish, Welsh or English, with most of Ireland already a separate country. Scotland had an independence referendum in 2014 (the 700 year anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn), although they did (narrowly) choose to stay. On the other side, there is little appetite for Welsh or English independence from Westminster.
Northern Ireland remains an outlier, with a significant minority favoring unification with the Republic of Ireland and the rest preferring to remain with the UK, and a minority remaining indifferent. The rise of UKIP in recent years is at least partly attributable to gains for English nationalism, an ideology that was dormant for nigh on two hundred years.
Further still is the issue of Cornwall's continued insistence on its existence. Ed Miliband's Shadow Chancellor came out in support of Cornwall devolution in January 2015 should Labour win the May 2015 general election. That presents a bit of a problem - Cornwall, which looks like a baby leg on a map, shares much of its economy with its neighboring region in Devon, and both have merged their police forces with their immediate neighbor in Dorset. Its neighbor to the north, Somerset, is interested in devolved powers as well. The question becomes: If we devolve powers to a Cornish Assembly, or Queen forbid, Cornish Parliament, are we to merge Devon into Cornwall, Devon and Dorset plus Cornwall, or Devon and Dorset with Somerset into Cornwall?
Jeremy Corbyn, in the run-up to the 2017 election, promised to introduce federalization in the UK. The idea is to decentralize power from Westminster and grant greater autonomy to the countries of the United Kingdom, comparable to the United States.
The UK does not suffer from right-wing evangelical loonies to the same degree as the colonies they lost.[note 4] 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 psychiatric hospital 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, former Deputy Prime Minister of the UK, revealed he was an atheist during an interview with the BBC.
The notable exception to all of this is the issue of Islamic fundamentalism. Of the four suicide bombers responsible for the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London, 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 whack-a-doodles. Unusually, 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.
Polls agree religious belief in the UK is declining in the long-term, according to some polls more than half the UK population do not believe in God or are not religious  and more than half the teenagers consider themselves atheists How UK people answer about their religious belief depends partly on how questions are phrased.  The majority feel the Church of England is out of touch and provides bad moral leadership. 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). Religions which are native to the United Kingdom include Wicca and neo-Druidism.
In 2012, the Prime Minister David Cameron promoted a Muslim, Sayeeda Warsi to be Minister of Faith, then in April 2014 Cameron made claims that Britain was still a Christian country.  The claim that Britain is still Christian received a mixed reception including a letter to the Daily Telegraph signed by secular figures such as Terry Pratchett, Tim Minchin and Philip Pullman.. Most religious leaders did not have any problem with the remarks but the public reception gave the impression of a growing trend of secularism. An opinion poll showed the number in England and Wales without religion climbed from 25% in 2011 to 48.5% in 2014 and outnumbers all Christians at only 43.8%. 4 out of 10 raised as Anglicans now identify as having no religion and almost as many raised Roman Catholic are now 'nones'. In Scotland those not religious are even higher at 52% of the population. In 2017 a survey showed the majority are now not religious and the proportion of non-religious responders is highest among young people.
The UK has its own currency unit, called the Pound Sterling (sign: £, code: GBP) because it used to be worth a Troy pound of sterling silver way back when. Although part of the European Union, the UK is not part of the Eurozone -- partly because the Pound is such a strong currency worldwide.
Just to confuse people, two banks in Northern Ireland issue money, and three in Scotland, including one which does not have the word "Scotland" in its name - the Clydesdale.
For historical reasons, banknotes issued in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have different designs, going so far as to being different sizes and incorporating different imagery. Despite that, all notes are legal tender across all of the UK, and have the same value. Still, in more practical terms, shopkeepers in England and Wales may refuse banknotes from Scotland and Northern Ireland (despite this not actually being legal). There are various reasons for this, but chief among them is that they are less familiar with these banknotes, and are concerned about forgeries being more difficult to spot in unfamiliar cash. Bank tellers, however, are more experienced, and will happily exchange one type of note for another if you ask.
Americans often think that the terms "United Kingdom", "Britain", and "England" can be used interchangeably,[note 5] 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, despite the fact that "Great Britain" simply means "Bigger than Brittany," which isn't all that impressive to start with.
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 -- in fact, an upside-down Union Flag looks identical to a right-side-up Union Flag seen from the back -- 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 used 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.[note 6] 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. At the 2014 Commonwealth Games "Jerusalem" was played when England won gold medals avoiding any confusion over which of the nations might have been represented by "God Save the Queen". Note that the full original lyrics of "God Save the King", which dates from the campaign against the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, include a verse about crushing the "rebellious Scots".
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 issue many have is that many refer to people from Great Britain, of which Northern Ireland is not a part of.
An archaic term that the Romans used to refer to the people of Britain during the occupation. Largely fallen out with the populace, understandably so.
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 few 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 present-day Wales and England.
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, some 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 "whinging Pommy bastard." It may have something to do with pomegranates (i.e. fresh-off-the-boat/plane UK citizens being cooked to that color under the Queensland sun). Or it could be a phonetic rendering of POHM (Prisoner of His/Her Majesty) due to most people from the UK arriving in Australia as convicts. Or it could be both of these, or neither, or something else.
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.
The nationalism resulting from the increasing fragmentation of the UK 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 too 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. Besides, "Welsh" is a name given them by the English in the first place, and faced by the native term, Cymru, most people would misspell it (if they heard it) or mispronounce it (if they read it).
- 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. 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).
- See for yourself here and here
- For instance, the Tories have supported the NHS (the equivalent of which existing throughout Europe almost)... although they've now started privatizing it.
- Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, notably, is a bit shaky on this - see this contrasted with this.
- Most likely due to them having been kicked out, via Amsterdam, to North America roughly 400 years ago
- Stereotype alert! Stereotype alert!
- It says so on Wikipedia.
- See the Wikipedia article on Act of Union of 1707.
- Nick Clegg says: 'I don't believe in God', Times Online 19th December 2007
- The Gallop Coexist Index 2009: A Global Study of Interfaith Relations Page 33
- More than half in UK are 'non-religious', says survey
- Religion in the United Kingdom Diversity, Trends and Decline
- UK Religion: Final statistics based on the 2011 census
- Eight arguments about whether the UK is a Christian country
- New research shows dwindling support for religion in Britain
- The Triumph of the Moon - A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Ronald Hutton
- Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America - Part 3 - Page 35, Sabina Magliocco - 2004
- "Stand up for our Christianity, David Cameron tells UK", BBC News, 16 April 2014
- "David Cameron fosters division by calling Britain a 'Christian country'", letter to the Daily Telegraph, 20 April 2014
- People of no religion outnumber Christians in England and Wales – study
- More than half UK population has no religion, finds survey
- Flag Institute - Union Flag or Union Jack?
- Sport, Nationalism and Globalization: European and North American Perspectives by Alan Bairner (ISBN 978-0791449127), page 38
- which survives to this day