Queen Elizabeth II is Head of the Commonwealth and head of state of 16 Commonwealth countries.
The UK hosts in London the HQ of the Commonwealth Secretariat, Commonwealth Foundation, Association of Commonwealth Universities, Commonwealth Business Council, Commonwealth Games Federation, Commonwealth Local Government Forum and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
Scholarships and fellowships are awarded by the United Kingdom to citizens of other Commonwealth countries under the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan.
Three Britons have won the overall Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and four the Best First Book award.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) consists of a group of islands off the western coast of Europe. The largest, Great Britain, comprises three countries: England, Scotland and Wales. Ireland, to the west, consists of the UK’s province of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. There are several offshore islands and island groups, the largest lying off Scotland.
The UK is a union of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Crown dependencies (the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man) are largely self-governing with the UK responsible for their defence and international relations and are not part of the United Kingdom.
London (capital, England, pop. 7.74m in 2010), Birmingham (England, 942,800), Glasgow (Scotland, 578,800), Liverpool (England, 452,800), Edinburgh (Scotland, 451,900), Leeds (England, 441,000), Sheffield (England, 415,200), Manchester (England, 396,300), Bristol (England, 373,000), Cardiff (Wales, 316,800), Leicester (England, 296,600), Bradford (England, 279,000), Coventry (England, 267,800), Kingston upon Hull (England, 265,600), Belfast (Northern Ireland, 258,700), Plymouth (England, 253,200), Stoke-on-Trent (England, 249,100), Derby (England, 247,500), Wolverhampton (England, 246,100), Nottingham (England, 240,400), Southampton (England, 236,900), Portsmouth (England, 203,600), Swansea (Wales, 173,900), Norwich (England, 171,200), Newcastle-upon-Tyne (England, 168,100), Aberdeen (Scotland, 165,600), Oxford (England, 146,700) and Cambridge (England, 117,000).
There are 419,630 km of roads, 100 per cent paved; motorways account for some 3,500 km. At least 70 per cent of households own one or more cars, 27 per cent owning two or more.
The world’s first passenger steam railway (the Stockton and Darlington Railway) began operation in Britain in 1825. The system was nationalised in 1948 and privatisation was completed in 1997, though Railtrack, the company that managed the railway infrastructure, reverted to public ownership in 2001, as Network Rail. There are 31,471 km of railway.
The Channel Tunnel was opened to traffic in 1994. It operates a fast undersea train shuttle between Folkestone in England and Calais in France, carrying cars, freight and passengers, linking London with Paris and Brussels. There are underground railway systems in London (‘the tube’) and Glasgow. Liverpool has a metro- like system. Several light rail systems were built during the 1990s, including the Docklands Light Railway, Tyne and Wear Metro, Manchester Metrolink, South Yorkshire Supertram, the Midland Metro and the Croydon Tramlink.
There are about 100 commercially significant ports and several hundred small harbours. The main ports are London, Dover, Tees and Hartlepool, Grimsby and Immingham, Southampton, Liverpool and Felixstowe. Forth, Sullom Voe (Shetland) and Milford Haven mostly handle oil.
London’s international airports are Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and City Airport. Other major international airports are Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. There are more than 150 civil aerodromes.
United Kingdom is a member of the Council of Europe, European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, United Nations and World Trade Organization.
The UK is just under 1,000 km long and just under 500 km across at the widest point. The country is low-lying in the east of England, with mountains in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Pennine chain forms a ridge down northern England. The Cambrian Mountains stretch across Wales, with Snowdon in the north-west rising to 1,085 metres. Northern Ireland has the Sperrin, Antrim and Mourne Mountains. Scotland has almost 300 peaks over 913 metres and Ben Nevis in the Grampian range rises to 1,343 metres. The Scottish Orkney and Shetland islands in the north and Hebrides in the north-west are mountainous and fiorded island chains. The UK is well-watered, with navigable rivers including the Thames, Severn, Trent, Mersey and Tyne. There are many lakes, especially in the north-west (the Lake District) and in Scotland and Northern Ireland (known respectively as lochs or loughs).
The climate is mild, cool-temperate and oceanic. Rainfall is generally heaviest between September and January. Air currents across the Atlantic are warmed by the Gulf Stream and make the rainfall unpredictable but also give the country a warmer climate than usual for its latitude. The northerly latitude gives long days in summer and long nights in winter.
The most significant environmental issues are: continuing reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in line with Kyoto Protocol commitments; air pollution mainly by motor vehicles; and the need to recycle a progressively larger proportion of solid waste.
The original natural vegetation consisted largely of forest, but 76 per cent of the land area is now cultivated farmland or pasture. There is moorland in Yorkshire (northern England), the south-west and Scotland. Forest areas have doubled since 1919 and represent 12 per cent of the land area, having increased at 0.5 per cent p.a. 1990–2010. Fourteen national parks in England, Wales and Scotland, regional parks and various designated areas help to protect the environment. Arable land comprises 25 per cent of the total land area.
About 30,000 animal species are found in the UK. Indigenous wildlife originally included bears and wolves, but human settlement has long rendered these extinct. Surviving larger mammals include deer, otters, badgers and foxes; marshland areas support waders and other birds, and there are many migrants. Conservation schemes protect numerous species and important habitats. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 extended the list of protected species, and three conservation agencies (English Nature, the Countryside Council for Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage) have schemes to recover and reintroduce threatened species. Five mammal species and four bird species are thought to be endangered (2012).