The country today
The country today
21st Century Britain
2001 census; 58,789,194
Great Britain has long been a cosmopolitan place, shaped by the cultures and peoples that have arrived through invasion, migration, empire and trade, ever since rising sea levels separated the island from mainland Europe. Much of the white population is a hodge-podge of pre-Celtic, Celtic, Roman, Viking, Anglo-Saxon and Norman ancestry. More recent arrivals follow in the shadow of the dwindling memory of the British Empire and the United Kingdom’s continuing high profile in international affairs. Alongside increasing movement of citizens within the European Union, all of this ensures that above all, Britain remains a place of change.
It is said that there are around 200 different languages spoken within these shores. Around 8–10 per cent of the population is from ethnic minorities, but the concentration of immigrants varies enormously by region and by area. In wealthy rural and semi-rural parts of the country the population is overwhelmingly white, whereas many inner city suburbs of London and provincial cities such as Birmingham and Bradford have substantial communities of other ethnicity.
The United Kingdom has a long history of immigration, with large-scale European influxes in the 19th century and early 20th century. After the Second World War many West Indians were invited to help with the shortage of labour and they were followed around a decade later by immigrants from India and Pakistan. There has also been a steady stream of Chinese, most notably from the former colony of Hong Kong.
British society is far more integrated than it was 30 years ago, but it is still to some extent insular. Recent statistics indicate that social mobility is not as high as the government has previously hinted. However, the rigid class divisions of the past have relaxed considerably and equal opportunities continues to be a leading issue. This is perhaps best represented by the huge numbers of students of all classes and ethnicities that join the workforce each year from Britain’s government subsidised universities.
21st Century trends
Since the relaxing of laws on labour movement and the expansion of the European Union, more Europeans (particularly from eastern Europe), have made Britain their home. Poles in particular have arrived in large numbers and have been among the most successful at assimilating into the community, largely as a result of their value in the skilled manual labour market.
The recent conflicts and degree of polarisation between the Muslim and Christian worlds has exacerbated tensions in some areas of Great Britain, and in some instances radical Muslim clerics have been arrested or expelled from the country. However, the moderate majority, who now account for over 3 per cent of the population, flourish in the UK.
Multiculturalism is an important political topic in modern Great Britain with an ongoing debate that focuses on balancing the rights and responsibilities of immigrants. On the whole, Britain continues to be a very tolerant society and it is usually only the minority on the far right of the political spectrum who dispute that most immigration over recent decades has been good for both the economy and overall quality of life in Great Britain. National polls regularly indicate that the favourite meal on the nation’s tables is the British-Indian dish, chicken tikka masala.
Britain continues to be a safe haven for political refugees and asylum seekers from several trouble spots of the world. While many residents would like to wash their hands of such problems, others point to the legacy of empire and the leading role that Great Britain still plays in many parts of the world.
By the time the Millennium drew to a close the concept of being British had becoming increasingly nebulous. The country is now home to immigrants from over 100 different ethnic backgrounds, and many are now second generation, some retaining the garb and traditions of their country but speaking in a broad English regional accent. Sport is the most obvious melting pot where English-born players of Indian fathers play cricket for England against India, while many top British athletes and footballers are of Afro-Caribbean extraction. Meanwhile, “being British” abroad has taken something of a battering as a result of football hooliganism and the continuing popularity of cheap, boozy holidays by the sea.
With streamlined 21C communications, a growing interest in all things regional (from dialects to food, music and handicrafts), and with fashionable wealthy cities like Cardiff and Edinburgh to call their own, Scotland and Wales are no longer sleepy backwaters to be patronised by London. Of the three mainland British nations it is the English who have suffered the most with regard to their sense of identity. The regionalisation of power to Scotland and Wales (even if the really big decisions are still taken in Whitehall), large-scale immigration, and the demands and legislation of the European Union, have taken their toll on the English national psyche. Meanwhile the Scots and Welsh, with their gleaming new assemblies have grown in confidence.
Over the last three decades British lifestyle has become increasingly Americanised with more time spent at work, less time spent on the family, a move from the city to the suburbs, shopping at out-of-town centres rather than in neighbourhood corner shops and an increasing reliance on the motor car over public transport. Materialism and conspicuous consumption reached its zenith in the late 1980s and early 1990s as typified by “yuppies” (young upwardly-mobile professionals) flaunting expensive cars and massive salaries, at least until the recession of the early 90s. The new millennium boom in London’s financial services industry brought enormous City bonuses, while exacerbating a spendthrift consumer culture. All of this came to an abrupt end in 2008 with the collapse of credit markets around the globe. Economic conditions have been cautious ever since.
British society has shifted from the relatively tight-knit community-structure of the 1950s and 1960s to a culture of the individual. While many people have benefited in material terms from the economic boom years, lifestyle changes have had serious implications on the country’s physical infrastructure, behaviour and health. Topical debate is dominated by recurring issues of “binge (excessive) drinking”, teenage pregnancies, poor child care, increasing obesity and lack of moral leadership.
Sunday has long ceased to be the “day of rest”, when it was once de rigeur to attend church. The main Sunday pastimes are now shopping and sport. Church attendances in the UK have plummeted to half of what they were 50 years ago and the UK is third from bottom in this respect in the European Union. It is reckoned that only around 15 per cent of Britons attend church at least once a month, though it is also estimated that nearly 60 per cent still place their faith in Christianity. Of course, with the huge influx of immigration in the UK there are also many other religions now being practised here.
The British have long been a sporting nation, popularising many international sports (football/soccer, golf, cricket, rugby, tennis). Football remains the most popular team game with the English Premier League acknowledged widely as the best (and certainly the richest) in the world. However its make up (over 55 per cent of players are foreign) is one of the principal reasons for the over-hyped but under-performing English national team, which has failed to win an international tournament since 1966. The influx of foreign players (and coaches) is also now widely felt in other traditional English sports, such as rugby and cricket.
British media varies from the sublime to the ridiculous, as represented by the “tabloid” (small-format) newspapers, which specialise in deliberately outlandish features and celebrity gossip, garnished with soft porn. Despite claims of “dumbing down” to retain its audience in the face of increasing multi-channel satellite and cable TV competition, the BBC retains its unique licence fee subsidy and maintains a strong presence in global media, underpinned by informative programming and a welcome absence of advertising. The BBC dominates the airwaves with several national radio stations and many more local frequencies, while its controversial investment in the online iPlayer has paid dividends in the long-run, with many users choosing to watch key events, such as Wimbledon tennis, online instead of on TV.
Of the broadsheet newspapers, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian and The Independent are all good quality serious daily reads peppered with informed opinion leaning towards the left (The Guardian) and the right (The Daily Telegraph) with varying shades of politics in between.
Red-top tabloid newspapers enjoy far wider circulation and run the gamut of entertainment from the ostentatious headlines of the News of the World to the best-selling pages of the Sun. The Daily Mirror, Daily Mail and Daily Express are other populist newspapers, each enjoying large readerships nationwide.
The English language owes its rich vocabulary to the many peoples who have settled in Great Britain or with whom the British have come into contact through overseas exploration and conquest. Old English’s origins are Anglo-Saxon and thus West-Germanic, with a peppering of Old Norse (Viking). Middle English was Norman influenced, while Modern English continues to develop and adopt from other languages. In 1600 there were about 2 million English speakers. The number is now nearer 400 million, including not only the population of countries such as Australia and New Zealand, Canada and the United States of America, but also of those where English is the only common and thus official second language.
Old English, Anglo-Saxon and Norman French – Old English, a Germanic dialect spoken in AD 400 from Jutland to northern France, was established in Britain by AD 800 and by the 16C had taken on the syntax and grammar of modern English. Although Norman French was made the official language after the Norman Conquest, Anglo-Saxon eventually gained precedence and Norman French survives principally in formal expressions used in law and royal protocol. It continued to be spoken in the Channel Islands long after it became obsolete in England.
Modern English – English is a very flexible language which has readily absorbed a considerable inheritance from Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman-French origins. Although the spoken language owes most to Anglo-Saxon, the written language shows the influence of Latin, which for many centuries formed the major study of the educated classes.
Immigration over the past hundred years or so has brought many other languages into everyday use by sizeable communities in Britain. Yiddish-speaking Jews came from Russia in the 19C and early 20C and their German-speaking co-religionists fled from Nazi persecution in the 1930s.
The largest immigrant communities in Britain today are from Europe – mainly Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain – and from the Caribbean Islands, Africa, Hong Kong, India and Pakistan. Generations born here are often bilingual, speaking the mother tongue of their community and current English with the local accent.
Celtic-speakers were pushed westward by the invading Anglo-Saxons and their language was relegated to “second class” status. Gaelic, as some of the various branches of the Celtic language are now known, is still spoken to some extent in Scotland and Ireland.
Scottish Gaelic declined in status in lowland Scotland during the medieval period, while the Highland Clearances and teaching of English led to its decline in the Highlands in the 18C–19C.
Cornish – This branch of the Celtic languages was the only language of the Cornish peninsula until towards the end of the reign of Henry VIII. Although Dolly Pentreath, who was born in Mousehole in 1686 and died in December 1777, is claimed to be the last speaker of Cornish, there were no doubt other Cornish speakers, none of whom would have outlived the 18C. Modern efforts to revive the language have had some success.
Welsh – In the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284, Edward I recognised Welsh as an official and legal language. After the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 Welsh nobles hopefully followed the Tudors to London but Henry VIII decreed that “no person shall hold office within the Realme, except they exercise the English speech”.
The tradition of poetry and literature in the Welsh language, guarded by the bards and eisteddfodau, dates from Taliesin in the 7C. In 1588 the Bible was published in Welsh by Bishop Morgan and it was largely the willingness of the Church in Wales to preach in Welsh which saved the language from extinction. Reading in Welsh was encouraged by the Sunday School Movement, begun in Bala in 1789.
The University of Wales was established in 1893. Teaching in Welsh was introduced in primary schools in 1939 and in secondary schools in 1956. Since 1982 Channel S4C has broadcast television in Welsh to speakers of an everyday living language.
Manx – The language spoken in the Isle of Man was similar to the Gaelic of the Western Isles of Scotland but there has been no viable Manx-speaking community since the 1940s. The present Manx dialect of English shows much influence from Lancashire owing to fishing and tourism in the 19C.
Scots Gaelic – In Scotland the Gaelic-speaking area, the Gàidhealtachd, is mostly confined to the Western Isles. The language, which was the mother tongue of 50per cent of the population in the 16C, is now spoken by less than two per cent. The “Normanised” kings of Scotland, particularly David I (1124-53) introduced the Anglo-Norman language and later contact with the English court led to English becoming the language of the aristocracy. After the Union of the two kingdoms in 1603, the Statute of lona attempted to impose the teaching of English on the sons of the chiefs and in 1616 the Scottish Privy Council decreed – “that the Inglishe tongue be universallie plantit and the Scots language, one of cheif and principalle causis of the continewance of barbaritie and incivilitie amongst the inhabitantis of the Ilis and Heylandis, may be abolisheit and removeit”.
In 1777 a Gaelic Society was formed in London, the first of many all over the world, which maintain and encourage Gaelic language and literature. The percentage of Gaelic speakers in Scotland is increasing slowly, particularly in Lowland areas.
This Viking language, akin to Icelandic, survived in Orkney and Shetland, until the 18C. It was the dominant tongue in Orkney until the Scottish-speaking Sinclairs became Earls of Orkney in 1379 and it remained the language of Shetland until well after the pledging of the Northern Isles to James III of Scotland in 1468-69. Modern dialects of both Shetland and Orkney still contain a sizeable body of words of Norn origin – types of wind and weather, flowers, plants and animals, seasons and holidays. A high percentage of place names throughout the islands are Norn.
Great Britain provides a cosmopolitan choice of food but also has a rich tradition of regional dishes, all using local fish, game, fruit and dairy products to best advantage. Some of the treats listed below can be hard to find and do not appear in touristy restaurants. You may need to enlist the services of local specialists, such as independent butchers and food shops and farmers markets in order to track them down.
London and the South East
Steak and kidney pie is chief among the many varieties of pie found. The Kentish marshes nurture fine lamb while Whitstable is famous for its oysters; Dover sole and other fresh fish are available along the coast. Chelsea Buns, dough buns folded round dried fruit, have been enjoyed since Georgian days. Maids of Honour are small puff pastry tarts with ground almond, served almost exclusively at the eponymous tea rooms in Kew, next to the famous Royal Botanical Gardens.
The West Country
Devon and Cornwall are known for clotted cream, served on scones with strawberry jam. It is equally delicious on the apple pies, richly flavoured with cinnamon and cloves, for which the region is renowned. Fresh and potted mackerel are a coastal delicacy, as are pilchards. Cheddar cheese is named after the caves in which it is ripened. Cornwall has given its name to the Cornish pasty, a mixture of beef (skirt), turnip or swede, potatoes and onion baked in a pastry case, shaped like a half-moon, so that it could be carried down the mine to be eaten at midday.
Heart of England
The Vale of Evesham is England’s fruit growing area – plums and greengages are a speciality, with apples and pears. Herefordshire raises fine beef; the local cider, a refreshing but deceptively potent drink, is used in local dishes, including a pigeon casserole, with cider and orange. Gloucestershire produces excellent cheeses. Worcestershire asparagus, in season, rivals any in flavour and Worcestershire sauce, a blend of anchovies, garlic, treacle and spices, has been enjoyed worldwide since 1839.
Thames and Chilterns
Brown Windsor soup made with beef, mutton, carrots and onions is delicious. Aylesbury duck and green peas might be followed by Bucks cherry bumpers, cherries in shortcrust pastry, or some Banbury apple pie. Breakfasts should always finish with chunky Oxford marmalade on toast.
Lincolnshire grows fine potatoes and these feature in many dishes particularly with delicate pink, green and white slices of stuffed chine of pork, a piece of back of fat pig, stuffed with green herbs. Three regional cheeses enjoyed countrywide are Stilton, Red Leicester and Derby sage. Bakewell tarts are made of shortcrust pastry with an almond and jam filling. Melton Mowbray pies comprise succulent lean pork in jelly, with a little anchovy flavouring in a pastry case.
Norfolk is famed for its dumplings. mussels in cider and mustard. During the summer samphire, “poor man’s asparagus”, grows wild along the salt marshes and is eaten with melted butter. In Suffolk they serve a spicy shrimp pie, cooked with wine, mace and cloves in a puff pastry case. Cromer crabs are full of flavour and Colchester oysters, introduced by the Romans, are excellent.
Yorkshire, Humberside and the Northeast
Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding – a succulent batter pudding on which the juices of the roasting meat have been allowed to drip – rivals York ham and parkin – a dark oatmeal cake made with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and treacle – as Yorkshire’s great contribution to British gastronomy. Wensleydale cheese goes well after any of the many game pies or potted grouse for which the area is renowned. Newcastle has potted salmon and along the Northumberland coast baked herrings are a delicacy.
Cumbria and the Northwest
Fish of all sorts from the Irish Sea, cockles, scallops, the smaller flavourful “Queenies” from the Isle of Man, potted shrimps in butter, from Morecambe Bay, and Manx kippers are the glory of this region. Char, a fish from the deepwater lakes of the Lake District, is eaten fresh-caught or potted. Cheshire produces two fine cheeses, one white and one a blue vein. Cumberland sauce goes perfectly with ham or game pies.
Lamb is traditionally eaten with mint sauce, mutton with redcurrant jelly. Welsh honey lamb is delicious, cooked in cider, with thyme and garlic, basted with honey. Caerphilly produces a light, crumbly cheese. Leeks, the emblem of Wales, appear in many dishes. A speciality of the Gower is the local sea trout – sewin – stuffed with herbs before being cooked. Welsh cakes and griddle scones with currants are best eaten hot with butter. Bara brith is a rich cake bread, full of dried fruits and citrus peel.
Scottish beef and lamb are renowned, as is Scottish venison, grouse (in season) and salmon. Partan Bree is a tasty crab soup and there are Arbroath smokies and kippers to rival kedgeree, made with salmon, haddock or other fish, with rice, hard-boiled eggs and butter. Haggis served with swede (the Scots refer to this as turnip or “neeps”) is a tasty meal traditionally accompanied by a wee dram of whisky. Mutton pies are made with hot water pastry and oatmeal bannocks may be spread with local honey. Dundee makes a rich, dark and chunky orange marmalade. Raspberries from this part of the world are a treat too.
Beers in Britain can be divided into two principal types: ales and lagers which differ principally in their respective warm and cool fermentations. Beer is served in kegs or casks.
Keg beer is filtered, pasteurised and chilled and then packed into pressurised containers from which it gets its name.
Cask beer or “Real Ale” is neither filtered, pasteurised nor chilled and is served from casks using simple pumps. It is considered to be a more flavoursome and natural beer.
Bitter is the traditional beer in England and Wales. Most are a ruddy brown colour with a slightly bitter taste imparted by hops. Some bitters are quite fruity in taste and the higher the alcoholic content the sweeter the brew.
Mild is normally only found in Wales, the West Midlands and the North West of England. The name refers to the hop character as it is a gentle, sweetish and full flavoured beer. It is generally lower in alcohol and darker in colour than Bitter, caused by the addition of caramel or by using dark malt.
Stout can be either dry, as brewed in Ireland (Guinness is the standard bearer) with a pronounced roast flavour with plenty of hop bitterness, or sweet. The latter sweetened with sugar before being bottled are now rare.
In addition there are Pale Ales (like Bitter), Brown Ales (Sweet, like Mild) and Old Ales (sweet and strong) and Barley Wine which in fact is a very sweet, very strong beer.
In Scotland the beers are often known as 60/- (shillings), 70/-, 80/- or even 90/-. This is a reference to the now defunct shilling which indicated the barrel tax in the late 1800s calculated on alcoholic strength. The 60/- and 90/- brews are now rare. Alternatively the beers may be referred to as Light, Heavy, or Export which refers to the body and strength.
The term whisky is derived from the Gaelic for “water of life”. Scotch Whisky (spelt without an ‘e’) can only be produced in Scotland, by the distillation of malted and unmalted barley, maize, rye, and mixtures of two or more of these.
Malt whisky is produced only from malted barley traditionally dried over peat fires. A single malt whisky comes from one single distillery and has not been blended with whiskies from other distilleries.
The whisky is matured in oak, ideally sherry casks, for at least three years which affects both its colour and flavour. All malts have a more distinctive aroma and more intense flavour than grain whiskies and each distillery will produce a completely individual whisky. There are approximately 100 malt whisky distilleries in Scotland.
Grain whisky is made from a mixture of any malted or unmalted cereal such as maize or wheat and is distilled in the Coffey, or patent still, by a continuous process. It matures more quickly than malt whisky. Very little grain whisky is ever drunk unblended.
Blended whisky is a mix of more than one malt whisky or a mix of malt and grain whiskies to produce a soft, smooth and consistent drink. There are over 2000 such blends which form the vast majority of Scottish whisky production.
Deluxe whiskies are special because of the ages and qualities of the malts and grain whiskies used in them. They usually include a higher proportion of malts than in most blends.
Irish Whiskey is traditionally made from cereals, distilled three times and matured for at least seven years.
Cider has been brewed from apples in Great Britain since Celtic times. Only bitter apples are used for “real” West Country cider which is dry in taste, flat (non-sparkling) and high in alcoholic content. A sparkling cider is produced by a secondary fermentation.
Britain’s wine industry has improved by leaps and bounds and there are now several high quality small vineyards mostly in the south of the country. One of the most famous, Denby’s, is in Surrey.
Great Britain is composed of England, Wales, Scotland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. The first three countries are part of the United Kingdom, which also includes Northern Ireland but not the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, which have their own parliaments and are attached to the Crown.
The United Kingdom is a Constitutional Monarchy, a form of government in which supreme power is nominally vested in the Sovereign (the King or Queen). The origins of monarchy lie in the seven English kingdoms of the 6C to 9C – Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, Essex, Wessex, Sussex and Kent. Alfred the Great (871-899) began to establish effective rule, but it was Canute (Cnut), a Danish king, who achieved unification.
The Coronation ceremony gave a priestly role to the anointed monarch, especially from the Norman conquest (1066) onwards. The monarchy became hereditary only gradually. The Wars of the Roses, which dominated the 15C, were about dynastic rivalry and the Tudors gained much from their exploitation of the mystique of monarchy. Although the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united in 1603, the parliaments were not united until the Act of Union in 1709. The stubborn character of the Stuarts and the insistence of Charles I on the “Divine Right” of Kings was in part responsible for the Civil War and the King’s execution, which was followed by the Commonwealth (1649-60) under Oliver Cromwell, the only period during which the country was not a monarchy.
At the Restoration (1660) the monarch’s powers were placed under considerable restraints which were increased at the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the accession of William of Orange.
The Iast vain attempt made by the Stuarts to regain the crown was crushed in the Jacobite risings in 1715 and 1745.
During the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) the monarch’s right in relation to ministers was defined as “the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn”, although Victoria clung tenaciously to her supervision of the Empire.
The United Kingdom has no written constitution. The present situation has been achieved by the enactment of new laws at key points in history. The document known as Magna Carta was sealed by a reluctant King John at Runnymede (near Windsor) on 15 June 1215. Clause 39 guarantees every free man security from illegal interference in his person or his property. Since the reign of Henry VII (or perhaps even earlier) “Habeas Corpus” has been used to protect people against arbitrary arrest by requiring the appearance in Court of the accused person within a specified period.
The supreme legislature in the United Kingdom is Parliament, which consists of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Medieval parliaments were mainly meetings between the king and his lords. The Commons were rarely summoned and had no regular meeting place nor even the right of free speech until the 16C. Between 1430 and 1832 the right to vote was restricted to those possessing a freehold worth 40 shillings. The Reform Act of 1867 enfranchised all borough householders; county householders were included in 1884. In 1918 the franchise was granted to all men over 21 and women over 30; in 1928 the vote was extended to women over 21. Today all over the age of 18 are entitled to vote provided they have entered their names on the electoral roll. Since 1949 the parliamentary constituencies have been organised on the principle that each should contain about 65 000 voters, which produces 659 Members of the House of Commons.
The member elected to represent a constituency is the candidate who receives the largest number of votes. The government is formed by the party that wins the greatest number of seats. The House of Lords, at whose meetings the sovereign was always present until the reign of Henry VI, consists of the Lords Spiritual (the senior bishops of the Church of England) and the Lords Temporal (Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts and Barons). Under the Crown, the country is governed by laws which are enacted by the Legislature – the two Houses of Parliament – and enforced by the Judiciary – the Courts of the land.
Agriculture and Fishing
Until the 18C, the economy of Great Britain was largely agricultural. In the 18C a combination of social and economic conditions led to landowners devoting their wealth and attention to improving land and methods of cultivation, giving rise to the Agricultural Revolution. Rapid population growth made it necessary to increase domestic agricultural productivity, as this was before the days of extensive overseas trade of consumables. Land enclosure became increasingly widespread, with even common land being suppressed by acts of Parliament, landowners arguing that the system of enclosure was better for raising livestock, a more profitable form of agriculture than arable farming. Landowners enlarged their estates by taking over land abandoned by people leaving the countryside for the town, or emigrating to the New World, and developed a system based on maximising profit by introducing many efficient new farming methods. Milestones in this evolution include the use of fertiliser, abandoning the practice of leaving land to lie fallow every three years, and the introduction of new crop varieties (root crops for fodder and cultivated pasture) which in turn fostered the development of stock raising and increasing selectivity.
Nowadays, the average size of a British farm is around 170 acres/68ha, one of the highest figures in Europe. Agriculture, mechanised as much as possible, employs only 2.3 per cent of the workforce. The practice of mixed farming, combining stock raising and crop farming, means that modern Britain meets its domestic needs in milk, eggs and potatoes, and almost totally in meat (with a national flock of about 29 million head, the United Kingdom is ninth in the world for farming sheep). The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy has hit British farmers hard, the imposition of quotas forcing them to cut production of milk and adopt less intensive farming methods.
The fishing industry, once a mainstay of the island’s economy, has declined considerably mainly because of modifications to national fishing boundaries and their attendant fishing rights. Arrangements drawn up for the Anglo-Irish zone and the approved quotas have stabilised the annual catch for UK vessels at around 800,000 tons, but have not succeeded in arresting the decline of once-great fishing ports such as Kingston-upon-Hull or Grimsby after the departure of the canning factories.
Coal was mined well before the 18C (Newcastle was exporting 33,000 tons of coal per year as early as the mid-16C), but became a large-scale industry only after the invention of the steam engine. Since the industry’s heyday in the early 20C, production has been dropping steadily, despite a brief revival in the 1950s. Nowadays, in the wake of sweeping pit closures, in which deposits were exhausted or where it was felt extraction was no longer profitable, production has dropped significantly. In 2005, total UK production was 20 million tonnes, mainly concentrated in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. Production figures have not been helped by the fact that the high cost of exploiting most mines means that Britain can import coal more cheaply from countries such as Australia, nor by competition from oil and gas.
In the 1960s, prospecting in the North Sea gave rise to sufficiently promising results for the countries bordering the sea to reach an agreement, under the Continental Shelf Act of 1964, on zones for extracting natural gas. Thanks to deposits along the Norfolk and Lincolnshire coasts, Britain is the world’s fifth largest producer, however domestic demand is so great that gas nonetheless has to be imported from Norway. Further north, off Scotland and the Shetland Islands, oil deposits give Great Britain further independence in the energy sector, with total crude oil production at 70 million tons in 2007, but still down from 124 million tons in 1998.
Like the majority of developed countries, the United Kingdom converts a large proportion of its primary energy sources into electricity. About 70 per cent of the electricity currently produced is thermal in origin (the Drax power station in Yorkshire is the most powerful in Europe). Hydroelectricity is negligible, as the relatively flat relief makes it impossible to build any sizeable hydroelectric power stations (only existing stations are in Scotland and Wales).
Nuclear energy, which has evolved since the construction of the experimental reactor at Calder Hall inaugurated in 1956, is produced by a dozen or so nuclear power stations, nearly all of which are to be found on the coast so that they can be cooled adequately. More recently, the wind has been harnessed to produce energy at Burgar Hill in the Orkneys, among other places.
In the second half of the 18C, hot on the heels of the Agricultural Revolution, capital began to flow from the land into industry, with new industrialists using the money from their family’s success as cultivators of the land to set up factories, mills and businesses.
The presence of iron ore in Yorkshire, the Midlands and Scotland gave rise to the iron and steel industry which at its peak in the 19C was one of the industries at the core of the country’s economy. However, by the beginning of the 20C the mineral deposits were exhausted, and Great Britain found itself importing ore from abroad, effectively bringing about the decline of its own inland iron and steel regions (Durham, the Midlands) in favour of those located on the coast (Teesside) and in South Wales (Port Talbot, Newport). UK steel production is currently at 13–14 million tons per year. Metal processing industries have equally suffered gravely in the face of competition from abroad. There are few remaining large UK shipyards operating in the commercial sector, although a large naval shipbuilding programme for the Royal Navy, replacing old aircraft carriers, promises some continuity for the naval yards of Portsmouth, Plymouth, the Clyde, Barrow and Rosyth.
Britain’s car industry once led Europe, with production levels of 2.3 million vehicles in the mid-1960s. It included some prestigious national companies, such as Triumph, Rover, Jaguar, Bentley and Rolls Royce. Industrial disputes gave rise to a management crisis, however, culminating in nationalisation (British Leyland in 1975) and privatisation. In 2004 the UK’s automotive industry ranked ninth in the world by size. Japanese firms like Honda, Nissan and Toyota have assembly plants in the UK. VW owns Bentley, Ford owns Aston Martin, while BMW holds a corral of largely defunct British brands, but does produce the Mini (Oxfordshire) and Rolls Royce cars (Chichester). As of 2008, Tata, an Indian car manufacturer, owns Jaguar Land Rover.
Great Britain has contributed to the rapid evolution of the electronics and computer industries. Foreign companies such as Honeywell, Burroughs, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Mitsubishi have set up business in Scotland, providing a much-needed economic impetus in place of the region’s defunct traditional industries. In 2009, the government placed much emphasis on ‘Digital Britain’ as one of the pillars of the plan to beat the recession, with continuing investment in communications and bolstering of creative industries.
Great Britain developed a flourishing textile industry, thanks to its large numbers of resident sheep and the ground-breaking inventions of the Industrial Revolution, and maintained its position as world leader until the mid-20C. Yorkshire, with Bradford as capital, was home to 80 per cent of wool production. Lancashire, with Manchester as its centre, specialised in cotton. However, this national industry has declined, overtaken by artificial fibres, illustrating the preponderant role that the chemical industry now plays in Great Britain’s economy. Some of Britain’s largest industrial groups are chemical-based: Coats Viyella, synthetic fibres; Courtaulds, synthetic fibres, paint and varnish production; ICI, paint, varnish and fertilisers. The largest British chemicals firm is British Petroleum (BP), and two other giants in the field of petrochemicals are supported by an Anglo-Dutch financial association: Shell and Unilever.
Great Britain imports more primary materials than it exports. Services, particularly insurance, banking and business services, account for the largest proportion of GDP, while industry, particularly heavy industry, continues to decline in importance. A reduction in trade with North America has been offset by an increase in volume of trade with European Union member-states, which counts for half of British exports.
Settlement markets, marine and air insurance brokers (Lloyd’s, the world’s leading marine risk insurers), life insurance, bank loans, deposits and other financial services combine to make the City of London the world’s foremost financial centre. The huge profits generated by this business sector and the interest from investments abroad guarantee the United Kingdom’s income.
Great Britain was the first European country to emerge from the economic crisis of the late 1980s/early 1990s; and during the second half of the decade and the early part of the Millennium continued to outperform its European neighbours and most other world economies in terms of unemployment rate, inflation and other indicators of economic growth. The credit freeze resulting from the sub-prime mortgage market fallout and debt crisis placed the UK back in recession from 2008 onwards. This has been met by the government with enormous cash subsidies and controversial ‘quantitative easing’ (the creation, if not physical printing, of new money).