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The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,commonly known as the United Kingdom, the UK or Britain, is a sovereign islandcountry located off the northwestern coast of continental Europe. The UKincludes the island of Great Britain, the northeast part of the island of Ireland,and many small islands. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with a landborder, sharing it with the Republic of Ireland. Apart from this land border,the UK is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, the English Channeland the Irish Sea. The largest island, Great Britain, is linked to France bythe Channel Tunnel. The UnitedKingdom has a temperate climate, with plentiful rainfall all year round.
The United Kingdom is a union of four constituent countries:England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It is governed by a parliamentary system with its seat ofgovernment in London, the capital, and is a constitutional monarchy with QueenElizabeth II as the head of state. The Crown Dependencies of the ChannelIslands and the Isle of Man, formally possessions of the Crown, are not part ofthe UK but form a federacy with it. The UK has fourteen overseas territories,all remnants of the British Empire, which at its height encompassed almost aquarter of the world’s land surface, making it the largest empire in history.
The UK is a developed country, with the fifth (nominal GDP)or sixth (PPP) largest economy in the world. The UK is a major power withstrong economic, cultural, military and political influence and is a nuclearpower, with the second or third (depending on method of calculation) highestdefense spending in the world. In contrast with some other European countries,high foreign-born immigration is contributing to a rising population,accounting for about half of the population increase between 1991 and 2001. TheUK government is currently introducing a new points-based immigration system toreplace the existing schemes for immigration from outside of the EuropeanEconomic Area.
The UK, a leading trading power and financial center, is oneof the quintet of trillion dollar economies of Western Europe. Over the pasttwo decades, the government has greatly reduced public ownership and containedthe growth of social welfare programs. Agriculture is intensive, highlymechanized, and efficient by European standards, producing about 60% of foodneeds with less than 2% of the labor force. The UK has large coal, natural gas,and oil reserves; primary energy production accounts for 10% of GDP, one of thehighest shares of any industrial nation. Services, particularly banking,insurance, and business services, account by far for the largest proportion ofGDP while industry continues to decline in importance. Since emerging fromrecession in 1992, Britain’s economy has enjoyed the longest period ofexpansion on record; growth has remained in the 2-3% range since 2004,outpacing most of Europe.
Tourism is very important to the British economy. With over27 million tourists arriving in 2004, the United Kingdom is ranked as thesixth major tourist destination in the world. London, by a considerable margin,is the most visited city in the world with 15.6 million visitors in 2006, aheadof 2nd placed Bangkok (10.4 million visitors) and 3rd placed Paris (9.7million).
UK house prices are softening. After many false alarms, thelong-lasting boom seems over. UK house prices fell by 2.5% nationally in March,the biggest monthly decline since September 1992, according to the HalifaxBuilding Society. House prices were still 1.1% up on the year, but both theHalifax and Nationwide now say they expect a decline in prices over the courseof this year – a significant change of view, in contrast to recent optimism.