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Official Name: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Capital City: London

Type of Government: Constitutional Monarchy

Official Languages: English

Area: 244,103 sq. km/94,225 sq. mi

Population: 61.8 million

Religion: Christian – Church of England, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic; Muslim; Sikh; Hindi; Jewish

Currency: Pound Sterling (£)

Number of Time Zones: 1

Greenwich Mean Time GMT; Eastern Standard time EST plus 5 hrs. Daylight savings time – known as British summer time – observed from late March to late October.

Weights and Measures: metric system

Country Domain: .uk

Country Tel Code: 44


The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland comprises the main island of Great Britain, which includes England, Scotland, and Wales, and Northern Ireland on the island of Ireland. Each region has its own distinctive culture and customs, and reserves some political rights.

The U.K. for the newcomer

Expatriates will find living in the U.K. a pleasant and enriching experience. The British are a close-knit homogeneous people who value their traditions. Visitors will find that they are justly proud of their many accomplishments over a long history in the arts, sciences, and politics and welcome sharing them with visitors.

Politics and government

The United Kingdom is, and has been for centuries, a constitutional monarchy with an hereditary monarch. The role of the monarch is largely ceremonial. The executive power rests in the hands of the Prime Minister, who is the leader of the majority party in Parliament. The Prime Minister selects the members of his cabinet. Governments generally remain in power for five years unless they lose a vote of “no confidence” in Parliament, or they choose to call an early election.

Legislative authority rests with the Parliament, which consists of two “houses”, Lords and Commons. The House of Lords has about 700 peers (members), including archbishops and bishops, and far fewer hereditary peers after many were excluded from membership by the House of Lords Act 1999 reform bill. Many members of the House of Lords align themselves with a political party, with the exception of “Crossbenchers”, or peers without a party affiliation.

The House of Lords can suggest amendments to laws passed by the House of Commons, but exercises little real power. The true legislative power is held by the 659-member House of Commons, whose members are elected for five-year terms from single-seat constituencies.

The U.K. legal system is based on common law that has grown up through the centuries, and on acts of Parliament.

Political challenges

Three major challenges confront the U.K. now. One is its commitment to the European Union (EU), with its charter to unite all of Europe politically and financially. The U.K. is resisting relinquishing any of its traditional sovereignty. The U.K., which approves of many of the trade policies of the EU, does not wish to be isolated within the EU, but transferring power and decision-making to the EU, regardless of its extent, is difficult for many British to accept.

The second challenge is maintaining the peace in Northern Ireland after decades of violent conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The Belfast Agreement of 1998, known unofficially as the Good Friday Agreement, brought hopes of a lasting peace and thus far parties have remained committed to resolving conflict by political means through the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, tensions still simmer between the unionist and nationalist communities.

The third challenge is Britain’s war against extremism. Domestically, the U.K. is having to deal with the threat of Islamic terrorism and the growing acceptance of more Nationalist views. Government is also struggling to maintain public support for the U.K.’s military commitment to the war in Afghanistan, where a lack of clarity as to the political strategy there has weakened public resolve.


The U.K. remains one of the world’s great trading and financial centers, with London as its hub. However, its overreliance on the financial services industry has meant that the U.K. has felt the effects of the global financial crises more than most of its EU partners. Nevertheless, the UK remains a major destination for companies from many countries investing abroad or seeking a European base.

Expatriates and business visitors are attracted by economic and logistic considerations, as well as by stable legal and business practices. Since English is the common global language of business, the U.K. poses a language barrier to fewer business people than other centers where English may not be the official language.


Citizenship and national identity

Citizens of the U.K. are British, and are known as “the British” or “Britons.” Although citizenship confers to the United Kingdom, inhabitants of the four constituent parts of the U.K. have their own separate national identities which should not be confused as great offense may be taken if you mistake one for another: the English; the Scots or Scottish – but never the Scotch which only refers to the alcoholic drink; the Welsh, and the Northern Irish. The term “the Irish” could be taken as referring to citizens of the Republic of Ireland, also known as Eire or southern Ireland, which is a separate country and not part of the U.K.


The U.K.’s population numbers some 61.8 million and is growing at a rate of about 0.6 percent annually. About 51.8 million live in England, 5.2 million in Scotland, 3 million in Wales, and 1.8 million in Northern Ireland. The country is primarily urban, with 80 percent of England’s population living in cities, while the percentage of urban dwellers in Scotland is not as high, and in Northern Ireland the balance is approximately fifty-fifty. England has one of the world’s highest population densities – 242 per sq km. Life expectancy averages 79 years: 76 years for males and 81 years for females.

Ethnic makeup
The great majority of the present inhabitants of the United Kingdom derive from fairly homogeneous groups that settled the land before the end of the 11th century: Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavians, and Normans.
Since World War II, racial diversity in the U.K. has increased as some two million Asians, Africans, and West Indians have emigrated to the U.K., settling mainly in urban areas. This has enhanced Britain’s cultural diversity, but not without the introduction of racial tensions particularly in some inner city areas where ethnic minorities have established cultural enclaves.

Today’s population approximately 81.5 percent English; 9.6 percent Scots; 2.4 percent Irish; 1.9 percent Welsh; 1.8 percent Ulster; and 2.8 percent West Indian, Indian, Pakistani, and other.

Cultural traditions

In spite of their regional differences, the British are generally a close-knit, homogeneous people who value their traditions. They are rightfully and fiercely proud of their many accomplishments over a long history in the arts, sciences, and politics, at home and internationally. The British have produced major composers and architects, and have excelled in the art of the written and spoken word.

Many of the country houses which are dotted across the British countryside, once the domain of the privileged and wealthy, have become national treasures, preserved, restored, and opened to the public with the aid of private and public funding. Here you can still see the glories of a past life-style, along with splendid evidence of one of Britain’s more famous national pastimes, gardening.

In literature alone, Britain has produced extraordinary authors and poets through the centuries – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson, Austen, Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, Woolf, and T.S. Eliot. The list is seemingly endless, and British literature occupies a preeminent place in any study of the English language. Still today, works of British dramatists from all ages are performed throughout London and around the world.

After World War II, British creative genius flowered anew, although in a surprising direction for such a supposedly tradition-bound society. Rock music groups from gritty Liverpoo and other cities, funky fashions from London’s Carnaby Street, and other “Made-in-Britain” innovators and innovations were in the forefront of popular culture worldwide.

The British continue to excel in the performing arts, producing many of the world’s most accomplished actors and musicians.

The British have struggled for decades with the balance between purely cultural or academic pursuits, at which they excel and which they tend to place somewhat on a pedestal, and the need to bring these into a modern context. Public funding for the arts has been reduced in recent years and replaced only to a certain extent by commercial sponsorship. A national lottery was introduced, some of the proceeds of which go toward subsidizing the arts, but without massive government subsidies, many peripheral artistic ventures have failed. Nevertheless, popular interest in the arts continues to flourish – there are more than 2,000 museums and galleries open to the public in Britain, visited by an estimated 80 million people.

Similarly, the British continue to be at the cutting edge of scientific research and discovery in many fields – Britain has won some 90 Nobel prizes for science, and 10 of the world’s top 35 medicines were discovered and developed in Britain. Those in academia are encouraged to accept that it might be necessary or desirable to allow commercial development and exploitation of these ideas. Without the investment by commercial firms, many exciting research projects struggle to find funding.

Social structures

Still deeply entrenched in the modern nation is a class system rooted in the feudal past. Class distinctions are a formidable obstacle to upward mobility and a divisive influence upon virtually every aspect of national life. These divisions are especially pronounced in politics where they underlie the frequently bitter ideological conflict between the Conservative and Labour parties that have shared power for most of the 20th century. Class distinctions are not necessarily related to money as much as they are to family background, education, speech, leisure activities, and the like. Class is not a topic for discussion among the British.


Since Henry VIII left the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, the English monarch has headed the Church of England. Members of the Church of England are called Anglicans, and beliefs and practices are similar to Episcopalians in the U.S. Anglicans number 27 million, about half the total population. The U.K. also has 9 million Roman Catholics, 1 million Muslims, about 800,000 each of Presbyterians and Methodists, 400,000 Sikhs, 350,000 Hindi, and 300,000 Jews.

Although the Church of England is the established church in England, religion is considered a private matter. Freedom of beliefis respected, and society is overwhelmingly secular.

Scotland has its own established church, the Church of Scotland,which is Presbyterian, with about 1.3 million members.

Northern Ireland has a Protestant majority of about 950,000 anda large Roman Catholic minority of 650,000. The historical conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants continues to be a source of division and strife in Northern Ireland.


English is the official language of the U.K., although Gaelic, a legacy of the Celtic past, is still spoken in parts of the Scottish Highlands. Welsh, also of Celtic and Breton origin, is a second official language in Wales and appears on road signs and buildings.

The English spoken in the U.K. may sound quite different from that spoken in other countries whose native language is English. Also, regional accents such as Cockney, Yorkshire, Lowlands Scottish, Irish brogue, and a broad range of dialects will require some concentrated listening until the ear adjusts. Many ordinary words have different meanings or spellings than when used in other English-speaking countries, but these will become familiar with repeated usage.

English is widely used internationally in business, politics, and diplomacy – it is the official language of the United Nations, for example. Therefore, the British are accustomed to expecting that everyone who chooses to live and do business in their country will speak English. You will need a good command of the language to survive – interpreters are seldom if ever used.

Remember that it is a standing joke that, to the British, North Americans do not speak proper “English;” only the English do. Generally, however, non-English-speaking foreigners who attempt to speak English will not be made to feel uncomfortable if their English is not perfect.

Further insights

The British have been developing their social and business style for centuries, and although even they may not be aware of it, some of today’s habits can be traced back to age-old origins. It is tempting to generalize about how the British behave, and you should remember that there are often exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, a good understanding of the traditional “way of doing things” is important for the foreign visitor. It is never wrong to err on the side of conservative or traditional manners, even if it may appear somewhat old-fashioned. Some of the younger members of the business community, with more exposure to international businesspeople and different styles, may abandon some of their more traditional habits, especially when in the company of foreigners.

A sense of history

To understand the British you must be familiar with the country’s history, in particular the influence of its island status on its fortunes in war and peace. The British have a clear sense that they are independent and individual, and are proud of the many achievements of their country and its people. Overlaying this is recognition that the U.K. can no longer “go it alone” in world affairs. The older generations may retain a sense of sadness over the decline of the British Empire, while the more modern outlook recognizes that this would be an anachronism in today’s world.

Sometimes all of this manifests itself in a sense of superiority and exclusivity. It would not be unusual for a British person to appear aloof and “stuffy” in the company of foreigners. On the other hand, you may receive a warm and friendly welcome, and a display of eagerness to share with you the glories of the country. Other contrasts will also be noticed: the traditional pinstripe-suited gentleman of the City and the wild hair styles and eccentric dress of the “young things” in the West End; the privacy and reserve of the older generation compared to the openness and energy of younger professionals.

Regional and class differences also play a part in determining the British character – you will encounter variations of attitude and style in different parts of the country, as well as finding behavior shaped by a person’s social and educational background.

British attitudes

Toward family

The British are very conscious of their family backgrounds. It used to be quite common for this to be more instrumental in securing a good position than professional qualifications, although this is no longer true. Family background is an integral part of British class distinctions.

Today, many British people preserve their family lives quite separately from their business lives. Personal privacy definitely extends to family matters. Nevertheless, you can expect to see family photographs on a person’s desk in the office and, if these are prominently displayed, polite inquiries about the people shown in the pictures are usually welcomed.

Toward foreigners

In the changed international scene following World War II, the British have been compelled to submerge, if not entirely abandon, their traditional innate disdain for anything and anyone not British. They are now much more receptive of foreigners, but distinctions are still drawn, subconsciously if not openly.

North Americans are likely to be more readily accepted, allother things being equal, than continental Europeans. On a social basis, contact with British acquaintances and neighbors is likely to be very cordial.

The government encourages foreign investment and ownership inthe U.K.; for example, it is the primary location for U.S. investment in Europe. Regulations and policies are firmly committed to free enterprise, competition, and international trade. Other than in some areas of the defense industry, there are virtually no restrictions on investment or special controls on foreign business activities. There are no requirements for British participation in a venture; exchange controls; or restrictions on normal transfer of dividends, profits, and capital. Government agencies and local firms are particularly eager to attract new business to Northern Ireland with assurances of an expanding economy and civil order.

Toward women

Women are generally accorded equal status to men both socially and professionally. The old attitude that it was the man’s role to earn enough money to support his wife, and that having a working wife reflected poorly on the man’s ability to hold onto a decent job, is a thing of the past.

In the case of the non-working wife, the husband’s attitude about her often reflects the privacy with which all family matters are handled. The British like to joke about the shadowy but powerful presence of the wife at home, who dictates to her husband what he may or may not do.

Toward hierarchy

For an understanding of British attitudes concerning hierarchy you must come to grips with the complex issues of class distinctions. Although the “old school tie” network is less powerful than it used to be, it continues to be a factor in business.

In the workplace, it will be clear who is senior to whom. To some extent, the British attitude toward work focuses on climbing the ladder of promotion within a company, or finding the best “position” by changing employers. Many people find it important to have an impressive job title that establishes their relationship to fellow-employees.

All employees in an organization may use first names, but it is best not to do so until your counterpart initiates this practice. This aura of informality does not override the corporate hierarchy, however.

The British believe in a system of established rules that guide them in their decision-making process. Although individuals rather than a group make decisions and take responsibility, the individual relies on the framework in place.

Toward work

Generalizations are difficult to make – you may encounter some employees with the old “9 to 5″ attitude but these are on the decline. Increasingly competitive conditions have lessened the adherence to fixed working hours and there is, particularly in the newer industries, an energetic go-ahead atmosphere and creative approach to problem solving.

The adversarial relationship between the labor unions and management so evident in the 1970s and 1980s has been replaced with a new spirit of cooperation. Trade union membership is down. Today’s membership is estimated to be around 7 million workers – half of its 1970s peak of 14 million. Membership is highest in the public sector where unions are influential in negotiating pay and working conditions.

Toward religion

There is complete freedom of religion in the U.K., and with increasing numbers of immigrants from diverse cultures, you will see places of worship of all types.

Religion, as with many aspects of personal life, is a private matter. Whether or not you are an active member of a church or other place of worship is of interest only to yourself and your family. An interesting fact that supports this view is that questions about a person’s religion are not included on official census questionnaires, as they are in other countries.

Information provided in association with Living Abroad