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The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (usually shortened to the United Kingdom, the UK, or Britain) is a country and sovereign state that lies to the northwest of Continental Europe with the Republic of Ireland to the west. It occupies the majority of the British Isles and its territory and population are primarily situated on the island of Great Britain and in Northern Ireland, which shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland on the island of Ireland.
The United Kingdom is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, and its ancillary bodies of water, including the North Sea, the English Channel, the Celtic Sea, and the Irish Sea. The mainland is linked to France by the Channel Tunnel. The United Kingdom is a political union made up of four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom also has fourteen overseas territories, including Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Pitcairn Island group, British Indian Ocean Territory, the Falkland Islands, and British Antarctic Territory among others. The dependencies of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, formally possessions of the Crown, form a federacy with the United Kingdom collectively known as the British Islands. The constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth II is also the Queen and Head of State of 15 other Commonwealth Realms such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Jamaica.
Despite the disolution of the British Empire and the decline of the UK's influence throughout the world, it remains a Great power. A member of the G8, the United Kingdom is a highly developed country with the fifth largest economy in the world and second largest in Europe, estimated at US$2.2 trillion. It is the third most populous state in the European Union with a population of 60.2 million and is a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the United Nations (UN), where it holds permanent membership on the Security Council. The UK is a major military power and is an acknowledged nuclear power.
For over 25 years the British economy has been home to what became known in the 1980s as the Anglo-Saxon model, focusing on the principles of liberalisation, the free market, 'common law' relating to property, and low taxation and regulation. Based on market exchange rates, the United Kingdom is the fifth largest economy in the world; the second largest in Europe after Germany, and the fifth-largest overall by GDP (nominal).
The British were the first in the world to enter the Industrial Revolution, and, like most industrialising countries at the time, initially concentrated on heavy industries such as shipbuilding, coal mining, steel production, and textiles. The empire created an overseas market for British products, allowing the United Kingdom to dominate international trade in the 19th century. However, as other nations industrialised and surplus labour from agriculture began to dry up, the United Kingdom began to lose its economic advantage. As a result, heavy industry declined, by degrees, throughout the 20th century. The British service sector, however, has grown substantially, and now makes up about 73% of GDP.
The service sector of the United Kingdom is dominated by financial services, especially in banking and insurance. London is one of the world's largest financial centres with the London Stock Exchange, the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange, and the Lloyd's of London insurance market all based in the city. It also has the largest concentration of foreign bank branches in the world. In the past decade, a rival financial centre in London has grown in the Docklands area, with HSBC, Citigroup, and Barclays Bank all relocating their head offices there. The Scottish capital, Edinburgh also has one of the large financial centres of Europe.
Tourism is very important to the British economy. With over 27 million tourists a year, the United Kingdom is ranked as the sixth major tourist destination in the world.
The British manufacturing sector, however, has greatly diminished since World War II. It is still a significant part of the economy, but only accounted for one-sixth of national output in 2003. The British motor industry is a significant part of this sector, although all large-volume producers are now foreign-owned. Civil and defence aircraft production is led by the United Kingdom's largest aerospace firm, BAE Systems, and the pan-European consortium known as Airbus. Rolls-Royce holds a major share of the global aerospace engines market. The chemical and pharmaceutical industry is also strong in the UK, with the world's second and third largest pharmaceutical firms (GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, respectively) being based in the UK.
The United Kingdom's agriculture sector accounts for only 0.9% of GDP.The UK has large coal, natural gas, and oil reserves, although the natural gas and oil reserves are diminishing. Primary energy production accounts for about 10% of Gross domestic product (GDP),  one of the highest shares of any industrial state.
The currency of the UK is the pound sterling, represented by the symbol £. The Bank of England is the central bank, responsible for issuing currency. Banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland retain the right to issue their own notes, subject to retaining enough Bank of England notes in reserve to cover the issue. The UK chose not to join the Euro at the currency's launch, although the government has pledged to hold a public referendum for deciding membership if "five economic tests" are met. UK Public opinion is against the notion.
Government involvement throughout the economy is exercised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Gordon Brown) who heads HM Treasury, but the Prime Minister (Tony Blair), is First Lord of the Treasury (the Chancellor of the Exchequer being the Second Lord of the Treasury). However since 1997, the Bank of England, headed by the Governor of the Bank of England, has control of interest rates and other monetary policy. The UK government has greatly increased public sector spending (i.e.: government spending of taxes) since 1995, and annual spending on investment in infrastructure has grown from £5.6bn in 1997 to £29bn in 2006.
Education and science
The United Kingdom contains some of the world's leading, and oldest, seats of higher education , such as the ancient multi-faculty universities at Oxford and Cambridge. It has produced innumerable scholars, scientists and engineers including Sir Isaac Newton, Bertrand Russell, Adam Smith, James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin, Sir Humphry Davy, Joseph John Thomson, Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher, Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, Alexander Fleming, Francis Crick, Sir Joseph William Bazalgette and Isambard Kingdom Brunel; the nation is credited with numerous scientific discoveries including hydrogen, gravity, the electron, structure of DNA, and inventions including the chronometer, television, the modern bicycle, the electronic computer, along with the later development of the World Wide Web. In 2006, it was reported that the UK was the most productive source of research after the United States; with the UK producing 9% of the world's scientific research papers with a 12% share of citations.
Engineering and innovation
As birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, the UK was home to many significant inventors during the late 18th and early 19th century. Famous British engineers include Isambard Kingdom Brunel, best known for the creation of the Great Western Railway, a series of famous steamships, and numerous important bridges. Recent British inventors include James Dyson, inventor of the Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner. As above, notable engineering firsts include the steam locomotive and the modern railway, television, electric lighting, the electric motor, the screw propeller, the internal combustion engine, the jet engine. Two notable innovations are vaccination and anibiotics.
Other notable figures in the fields of engineering and innovation include:
- Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the world wide web)
- James Blundell (performed the first blood transfusion)
- Frank Whittle (inventor of the jet engine)
- E. Purnell Hooley (Inventor of tarmac)
- Edwin Beard Budding (Inventor of the lawnmower)
- Stephen Perry (inventor of the rubber band)
- Thomas Fowler (inventor of the thermosiphon)
- Richard Trevithick (builder of the earliest steam locomotive)
- Joseph Swan (developer of the light bulb)
- George Cayley (inventor of the seat belt)
References and external articles
- Official website of the British Monarchy
- Official website of the United Kingdom Government
- Official tourist guide to Britain
- Official Yearbook of the United Kingdom
- "Britain second in world research rankings", Guardian, 21 March 2006, retrieved 14 May 2006.
- "Top 500 World Universities (1-100)", Shanghai Jiao Tong University, 2005. Retrieved 15 May 2006</ref>
- Wikipedia contributors, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
- United Kingdom travel guide from Wikitravel.