The Act of Union 1800 united the Kingdom of Great Britain with the Kingdom of Ireland, which had been gradually brought under English control between 1169 and 1691, to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This was also an unpopular decision, taking place just after the unsuccessful United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798 (see also Society of the United Irishmen). The timing, when further Napoleonic intervention or an invasion was feared, was predominantly due to security concerns. In 1922, after bitter fighting which echoes down to the current political strife, the Anglo-Irish Treaty partitioned Ireland into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, with the latter remaining part of the United Kingdom. As provided for in the treaty, Northern Ireland, which consists of six of the nine counties of the Irish province of Ulster, immediately opted out of the Free State and to remain in the UK. The nomenclature of the UK was changed in 1927 to recognise the departure of most of Ireland, with the name United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland being adopted.
The United Kingdom, the dominant industrial and maritime power of the 19th century, played a leading role in developing Western ideas of property, liberty, capitalism and parliamentary democracy – to say nothing of its part in advancing world literature and science. At its zenith, the British Empire stretched over one quarter of the earth’s surface. The first half of the 20th century saw the UK’s strength seriously depleted in two World Wars. The second half witnessed the dismantling of the Empire and the UK rebuilding itself into a modern and prosperous nation.
The UK has been a member of the European Union since 1973. Its attitude towards further integration is conservative, and there is significant Euroscepticism in UK politics. It has not yet chosen to adopt the euro, owing to internal political considerations and the government’s judgement of the prevailing economic conditions. Some British economists demand that the European Central Bank be reformed to mirror the Bank of England before the UK joins the Euro, a demand which, given the German economic difficulties following adoption of the Euro, would seem to be possible in the future.
Constitutional reform is also a current issue in the UK. The House of Lords has been subjected to ongoing reforms, Scotland elected its own parliament in 1999 and in the same year, devolved assemblies were created in Wales and Northern Ireland. According to opinion polls, the monarchy remains generally popular in spite of recent controversies. Support for a British Republic usually fluctuates between 15% and 25% of the population, with roughly 10% undecided or indifferent . Despite the country’s liberal heritage, the Government’s Information Commissioner stated in 2004 that the country is currently in danger of becoming a surveillance society.
The United Kingdom is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations (successor organisation to the former British Empire) and NATO. It is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council and holds a veto power. It is one of the few (no more than ten) nuclear powers on the planet.