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WESTERN CULTURE AND SOCIETY: THE UNITED KINGDOM (UK) -
Introduction to The United Kingdom of Great
Britain and Northern Ireland
The United Kingdom:
Geography of the UK:
The United Kingdom, which is made up of consists of England, Wales,
Scotland, and Northern. England is separated from Scotland by the granite
Cheviot Hills; from them the Pennine chain of uplands extends south through
the centre of England, reaching its highest point in the Lake District in
the northwest. To the west along the border of Wales, a land of steep hills
and valleys, are the Cambrian Mountains, while the Cotswolds, a range of
hills in Gloucestershire, extend into the surrounding shires. Important
rivers are the Thames, Humber, Tees, and Tyne which flow into the North Sea.
In the west are the Severn and Wye, which empty into the Bristol Channel,
there is also the Mersey which flows through Liverpool.
Great Britain is the fourth most populated country in Europe. Great
Britain's population has changed rapidly since the 1970’s, when people
from the West Indies, India, Pakistan, Africa, and China began moving into
the UK, in the late 1990s these groups accounted for close to 3% of the
population. Although English is the universal language of Great Britain.
Wales has its own language. About a quarter of Welsh people speak Welsh.
Scotland also has its own language with about 60,000 speakers of the
Scottish language known as Gaelic.
The Church of England,
also called the Anglican Church is the officially established church in
England but there is complete religious freedom throughout Great Britain.
There are about 90 universities in Great Britain, the most famous being
those at Oxford and Cambridge.
History - Early Period
to the Norman Conquest: Little is known about
the earliest inhabitants of Britain, however there are still monuments which
remain such as the stone circles at Stonehenge which show the life of
In A.D. 43 the emperor
Claudius began the Roman conquest of Britain, establishing bases at
present-day London and Colchester. By A.D. 85, Rome controlled Britain south
of the Clyde River. In the 2d cent. A.D., Hadrian's Wall was constructed as
a northern defense line. Under the Roman occupation, towns developed, and
roads were built to ensure the success of the military occupation. These
roads were the most lasting Roman achievement in Britain.
Trade contributed to
town prosperity; wine, olive oil, and furnishings were imported, and lead,
tin, iron, wheat, and wool were exported. This trade declined in the late
Roman Empire and the withdrawal of Roman troops to meet threats elsewhere.
As Rome withdrew its legions from Britain, the Anglo-Saxons began raids that
turned into great waves of invasion and settlement in the later 5th century
Late in the 8th century
raiding Vikings (known in English history as Danes) harassed coastal England
and finally, in 865, launched a full-scale invasion. The Anglo-Saxons had
been Christianized by missionaries from Rome and from Ireland, and the
influence of Christianity became strong in all phases of culture.
A new period in English history began with the Norman Conquest. William the
first introduced Norman-style political and military influences into the
country. He used the system to collect taxes, used the church to strengthen
the central government, and made the administration of royal justice more
After the death of
William's second son, Henry I, the country was subjected to a period of
civil war. Henry II's reign was marked by the sharp conflict between king
and church. Henry carried out great judicial reforms that increased the
power and scope of the royal courts. During his reign, in 1171, began the
English conquest of Ireland.
Conflict between kings
and nobles, which had begun under Richard I, came to a head when financial
demands and foreign and church policies were unsuccessful. A temporary
victory of the nobles ended in an English constitutional documents, the
Magna Carta (1215).
The Black Death first
arrived in 1348 and had a tremendous effect on economic life, resulting in
the breakdown of the feudal system. At the same time the towns and trades
were growing fast. In the 14th cent. the English began exporting their wool,
rather than depending on foreign traders of English wool. Later in the
century, trade in woolen cloth began to gain on the raw wool trade.
The reign of the Tudors (1485–1603) is one of the most fascinating periods
in English history. Henry 7th restored political order and the financial
solvency of the crown. In 1536, Henry 8th brought about the political union
of England and Wales. Henry and his minister Thomas Cromwell greatly
expanded the central administration. During Henry's reign commerce
flourished. Henry 8th is famous for the pope's refusal to grant a divorce
from Katharine of Aragon so that he could remarry and have a son, this led
the king to break with Roman Catholicism and establish the Church of
The Elizabethan age was
one of great artistic and intellectual achievement, its most notable figure
being William Shakespeare.
The Stuarts, united the thrones of England and Scotland. This was achieved
by the Act of Union (1707), by which the two kingdoms became one. Scotland
obtained representation in (what then became) the British Parliament at
Westminster, and the Scottish Parliament was abolished.
The Growth of Empire and
Eighteenth-Century Political Developments: The
beginnings of Britain's national debt (1692) and the founding of the Bank of
England (1694) were closely tied with the nation's more active role in world
affairs. Britain's overseas possessions (see British Empire) were augmented
by the victorious outcome of the War of the Spanish Succession.
British moved into India
and North America. Settlements were made in Australia toward the end of the
18th century. However, a serious loss was sustained when 13 North American
colonies broke away in the American Revolution. Additional colonies were won
in the wars against Napoleon I, notable for the victories of Horatio Nelson.
In Ireland, the Irish
Parliament was granted independence in 1782, but in 1798 there was an Irish
rebellion. An attempt to solve the centuries-old Irish problem was the
abrogation of the Irish Parliament and the union (1801) of Great Britain and
Ireland, with Ireland represented in the British Parliament.
Economic, Social, and
Political Change: The period of the late 18th
and early 19th cent. was a time of dynamic economic change. The factory
system, the discovery and use of steam power, improved inland transportation
(canals and turnpikes), the ready supply of coal and iron, a remarkable
series of inventions, and men with capital who were eager to invest—all
these elements came together to produce the epochal change known as the
The impact of these
developments on social conditions was enormous, but the most significant
socioeconomic fact of all from 1750 to 1850 was the growth of population.
The population of Great Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) grew from an
estimated 7,500,000 in 1750 to about 10,800,000 in 1801 (the year of the
first national census) and to about 23,130,000 in 1861. The growing
population provided needed labor for industrial expansion and was
accompanied by rapid urbanization. Urban problems multiplied. At the same
time a new period of inclosures (1750–1810; this time to increase the
arable farmland) deprived small farmers of their common land.
In the 1820s the reform
impulse that had been largely stifled during the French Revolution revived.
Catholic Emancipation (1829) restored to Catholics political and civil
rights. In 1833 slavery in the British Empire was abolished. (The slave
trade had been ended in 1807.) Parliamentary reform was made imperative by
the new patterns of population distribution and by the great growth during
the industrial expansion in the size and wealth of the middle class, which
lacked commensurate political power.
Victorian Foreign Policy:
The reign of Victoria (1837–1901) covered the period of Britain's
commercial and industrial leadership of the world and of its greatest
political influence. Initial steps toward granting self-government for
Canada were taken at the start of Victoria's reign, while in India conquest
and expansion continued. Great Britain's commercial interests, advanced by
the British navy, brought on in 1839 the first Opium War with China, which
opened five Chinese ports to British trade and made Hong Kong a British
colony. The aggressive diplomacy of Lord Palmerston in the 1850s and 60s,
including involvement in the Crimean War, was popular at home.
World War I and Its
Aftermath: In 1914, Germany's violation of
Belgium's, which since 1839 Britain had been pledged to uphold, caused
Britain to go to war against Germany (see World War I). Although the British
emerged as victors, the war took a terrible toll on the nation. About
750,000 men had died and seven million tons of shipping had been lost. In
the peace settlement Britain acquired, as League of Nations mandates,
additional territories in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. But the four
years of fighting had drained the nation of wealth and manpower.
The basic domestic
economic problem of the post–World War I years was the decline of
Britain's traditional export industries, which made it more difficult for
the country to pay for its imports of foods and raw materials. A Labour
government, was in power for the first time briefly in 1924. In 1926 the
country suffered a general strike. Severe economic stress increased during
the worldwide economic depression of the late 1920s and early 30s.
World War II and the
Welfare State: On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany
attacked Poland. Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on Sept.
3, and all the dominions of the Commonwealth except Ireland followed.
Chamberlain broadened his cabinet to include Labour representatives, but
after German victories in Scandinavia he resigned (May, 1940) and was
replaced by Winston S. Churchill. France fell in June, 1940, but the heroic
rescue of a substantial part of the British army from Dunkirk (May–June)
enabled Britain, now virtually alone, to remain in the war.
Extensive damage was
sustained, and great urban areas, including large sections of London, were
devastated. The British people rose to a supreme war effort.
The wartime alliance of
Great Britain, the USSR, and the United States led to the formation of the
United Nations and brought about the defeat of Germany (May, 1945) and Japan
(Sept., 1945). The British economy suffered severely from the war. Manpower
losses had been severe, including about 420,000 dead; large urban areas had
to be rebuilt, and the industrial plant needed reconstruction and
modernization. Leadership in world trade, shipping, and banking had passed
to the United States, and overseas investments had been largely liquidated
to pay the costs.
The 1960s and 70s:
In 1959 Great Britain helped to form the European Free Trade Association
(EFTA), but in 1961 the government of Harold Macmillan announced its
decision to seek membership in the European Economic Community. Because of
French opposition as well as Britain's request for special considerations
for the countries of the Commonwealth and of EFTA, agreement on British
entry was not reached until 1971. Britain finally entered what had become
the European Community (now the European Union [EU]) in Jan., 1973.
Labour returned to power
in 1964 under Harold Wilson, and the steel industry was renationalized. The
country faced the compound economic problems of a very unfavorable balance
of trade, the instability of the pound sterling, a lagging rate of economic
growth, and inflationary wages and prices. A number of sterling crises were
followed by government controls and cutbacks.
A major crisis erupted
in Northern Ireland in late 1968 when Catholic civil-rights demonstrations
turned into violent confrontations between Catholics and Protestants.
British army units were dispatched in an unsuccessful attempt to restore
calm. In 1972 the British government suspended the Northern Ireland
Parliament and government and assumed direct control of the province.
Coal miners voted to
strike in early 1974, the early 1970s brought the development of oil and
natural gas fields in the North Sea, which helped to decrease Britain's
reliance on coal and foreign fuel.
The Thatcher Era to the
Present: In May, 1979, the Conservatives
returned to power under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, who set out to
reverse the postwar trend toward socialism by reducing government borrowing,
freezing expenditures, and privatizing state-owned industries. Thatcher also
managed to break trade unions through a series of laws that included the
illegalization of secondary strikes and boycotts. A violent, unsuccessful
yearlong miners' strike (1984–85) was Thatcher's most serious union
increased popularity by her actions in the Falkland Islands conflict with
Argentina; she led the Conservatives to victory again in 1983 and 1987, the
latter an unprecedented third consecutive general election win. In 1985,
Great Britain agreed that Hong Kong would revert to Chinese sovereignty in
1997. In 1986, the Channel Tunnel project was begun with France; the rail
link with the European mainland opened in 1994.
A decade of Thatcher's
economic policies resulted in a marked difference between the developed
southern economy and the decaying industrial centers of the north. Her
unpopular stands on some issues, such as her opposition to greater British
integration in Europe, caused a Conservative party revolt that led her to
resign in Nov., 1990, whereupon John Major became party leader and prime
minister. A peace initiative opened by Prime Minister Major in 1993
led to cease-fires in 1994 by the Irish Republican Army and Loyalist
paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. Peace ended in 1996, as the IRA again
resorted to terrorist bombings. In July, 1997, the IRA declared a new
cease-fire, and talks begun in September of that year included Sinn Fein.
Late in 1999, direct rule was ended in Northern Ireland.
stormy relationship with the EU was heightened in 1996 when an outbreak of
“mad cow disease” in England led the EU to ban the sale of British beef;
the crisis eased when British plans for controlling the disease were
approved by the EU. Although the EU ban was ended in 1999, France continued
its own ban on British beef, causing a strain in British-French relations.
In the elections of May,
1997, Labour won, and Tony Blair was made prime minister. In August of
1997, Britain mourned the death of Princess Diana, the former wife of Prince
Charles, who was killed in a car accident in Paris. Blair's pledge to
decentralize government was endorsed in September, when Scotland and Wales
both voted to establish legislative bodies, giving them a stronger voice in
their domestic affairs. A bill passed by both houses of Parliament in 1999
stripped most hereditary peers of their right to sit and vote in the House