The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland consists of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (not to be confused with the Republic of Ireland). The sovereign state is a constitutional monarchy, headed by Queen Elizabeth II, with a parliamentary government. Its capital, London, is the most populous city in the European Union, with almost nine million inhabitants. The UK has sovereignty over 17 territories which are not considered part of the United Kingdom itself: the independently administered islands of Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man, and 14 overseas territories, including Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Falklands, Gibraltar, and Montserrat.
The British economy is the fifth largest in the world, with nearly three-quarters of the GDP derived from the services sector. Despite close ties to the European Union and European Economic Community, the UK employs its own currency in the form of the pound sterling. The UK is the sixth most popular tourist destination and London the single most visited city in the world. The “green and pleasant land” is composed primarily of low hills, plains, lakes, and rivers, with some mountainous regions in the Scottish Highlands and Wales.
The UK enjoys a moderately temperate climate with four distinct seasons, including wet but mild winters; however, temperatures can vary significantly from the colder northern reaches of Scotland to the southeast portion of England nearest to the continental mainland. The country’s population is majority white at 87.1%, although the percentage of ethnic minorities is markedly higher in the London metropolitan area than elsewhere in the country. 95% of British inhabitants are monolingual English speakers, though immigration has recently led to a rise in secondary spoken languages, particularly South Asian (Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, etc.) and Polish. Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Cornish are protected regional languages. The Church of England and the Church of Scotland are their respective countries’ national churches, but the Church in Wales and the Church of Ireland are no longer extant.
The United Kingdom is usually represented by four distinct country teams in international sporting events, with the notable exception of the Olympics, during which the UK is represented by Team GB. Association football (soccer) is the country’s most popular sport, and its Premier League is the most watched professional football league in the world. Rugby, cricket, tennis, motorsports, equestrian events, golf, boxing, and snooker are other beloved British sports. The country’s cultural exports, from Shakespeare and J.K. Rowling to the Beatles, Radiohead, and Adele, have led to its reputation as a “cultural superpower.” The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) is the oldest and largest broadcaster in the world, with branches dedicated to television, radio, and digital coverage. Some of the world’s oldest and best universities are located in the UK, including Oxford and Cambridge.