United Kingdom profile
The United Kingdom is made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It has a long history as a major player in international affairs and fulfils an important role in the EU, UN and Nato.
The twentieth century saw Britain having to redefine its place in the world. At the beginning of the century it commanded a world-wide empire as the foremost global power.
Two world wars and the end of empire diminished its role, but the UK remains a major economic and military power, with considerable political and cultural influence around the world.
Britain was the world's first industrialised country. Its economy remains one of the largest, but it has for many years been based on service industries rather than on manufacturing.
Despite being a major member of the EU, the country is not part of the eurozone. The prospect of its joining receded still further after the UK blocked proposed changes to the EU's Lisbon Treaty aimed at addressing the crisis in the eurozone, which by the autumn of 2011 had reached an acute phase.
Prime Minister David Cameron, bowing to pressure from the Eurosceptic right of his Conservative Party, has proposed a referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union. Both the Liberal Democrat junior coalition partner and Labour opposition party have spoken out against the referendum, which would not be held before the next general election is due in 2015.
In recent years the UK has taken steps to devolve powers to Scotland and Wales. The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and the National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff opened in 1999.
A referendum on independence for Scotland will be held in September 2014, just over 300 years after the 1707 union with England that laid the foundation for today's UK. The authorities in London have promised to respect the outcome of the vote, which was agreed after negotiations with a strongly pro-independence government in power in Scotland since 2007.
At a glance
- Politics: Prime Minister David Cameron, from the centre-right Conservative Party, heads a coalition with the UK's third party, the Liberal Democrats. Scotland and Wales have a degree of political autonomy. A vote on Scottish independence is due in 2014.
- Economy: The UK is striving to recover from a slump that followed the 2008 global financial crisis. Austerity measures aim to tackle a large budget deficit. London's financial industry is a significant part of the services-based economy
- International: The UK is a key global player diplomatically and militarily. It plays leading roles in the EU, UN and Nato
Country profiles compiled by BBC Monitoring
In Northern Ireland, after decades of violent conflict, the Good Friday agreement of 1998 led to a new assembly with devolved powers, bringing hopes of lasting peace. The assembly was suspended in 2002 amid a row over alleged IRA activities. Its suspension was to last for three and a half years.
In a bid to restart the political process and after consultations with Dublin, the UK passed legislation paving the way for the recall of the Northern Ireland Assembly in May 2006.
But assembly leaders missed a November deadline to form a power-sharing executive. Assembly elections in the following March led to the eventual swearing-in of the leaders of the power-sharing government on 8 May 2007, ending five years of direct rule from London.Diversity
The UK is ethnically diverse, partly as a legacy of empire. Lately, the country has been struggling with issues revolving around multiculturalism, immigration and national identity.
This is against a background of concerns about terrorism and Islamist radicalism, heightened after the suicide bomb attacks on London's transport network in 2005.
Some politicians and commentators say a stronger sense of shared British values is needed to foster integration within a mixed society. And while some advocate tough policies on limiting immigration, others attempt to put the case for it as a positive force.
One of the more recent trends in migration has been the arrival of workers from the new EU member states in Eastern Europe.Culture
The UK has been at the forefront of youth culture since the heyday of the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the 1960s.
It has a rich literary heritage encompassing the works of English writers such as William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, Scot Robert Burns, Welshman Dylan Thomas and Northern Irishman Seamus Heaney.
Traditional music has deep roots across the UK, which has also produced classical composers from Henry Purcell in the Baroque period to Benjamin Britten in the 20th century.