Head of State Queen Elizabeth II
Head of Government Prime Minister Tony Blair
Foreign Minister Jack Straw
Area 243,305 km2
Population 59.8 million
Language English (Welsh or Gaelic in certain areas)
Currency British pound
Per capita GDP € 23,792 (2000)
GDP growth 2.25% (2001)
Constitution - Domestic politics
Despite the absence of a formal (written) Constitution, the United Kingdom is one of the oldest constitutional monarchies in Europe. Legislative power is vested in the 659-member House of Commons, one of the two chambers of the British Parliament. Its members are elected by majority vote for a maximum five-year term. The functions of the other chamber, the House of Lords, are advisory in nature, while the role of the monarch is mostly symbolic, representing Britain on state visits and at ceremonial occasions.
The most recent elections were held in 2001, when the Labour Party maintained its absolute majority in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party campaigned with an anti-European message, which caused some alarm in EU circles. After its poor performance in the election, the party got a new leader, Iain Duncan Smith.
Under Tony Blair’s first government (1997-2001), several constitutional changes were introduced. The British state has followed a process of devolution with regional parliaments being introduced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland after local referendums. The regional Parliaments, which opened in 1999, have administrative powers in a number of areas but no legislative power.
The government has announced massive public investments worth GBP 43 billion for the period 2001-2004. The investments are aimed at improving public services and helped the government win re-election in 2001. The Finance Act 2002/2003 raised tax rates for the first time in 20 years in order to secure financing for the investments, which include the modernisation of the National Health Service.
The UK is a leading trading power and financial center. Over the past two decades the government has significantly reduced public ownership and contained the growth of social welfare programs. Services – in particular banking, insurance and business services – account for the largest proportion of GDP while industry continues to decline in importance. Agriculture is intensive and highly mechanized. The UK has extensive coal, natural gas and oil reserves. The economy is one of the strongest in Europe, with low inflation, interest rates and unemployment.
Britain is facing the dilemma of whether to enter the Eurozone. Blair has promised that a currency change will only be adopted after a referendum, but the latest opinion polls and the position of the Conservative Party show that anti-Euro feeling is still strong in the UK.
In addition to its important EU dimension, British foreign policy focuses on the trans-Atlantic relationship, co-operation within the Commonwealth and active support for the UN, including for the strengthening of peacekeeping efforts. The close ties between the UK and the US have grown even stronger since the tragic events of September 11. The UK has played a prominent role in building and maintaining the international political and diplomatic coalition against terrorism. The British effort has consisted in military contributions to the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban and making troops available for the international security force in Afghanistan.
Under Blair’s government, British foreign policy has attempted to strengthen its ethical dimension. It has advocated the doctrine of humanitarian intervention as an international measure against the violation of human rights and has energetically supported the curbing of the arms trade when repressive regimes are involved. In this direction, the British Foreign Office has also begun to cooperate more closely with domestic and transnational NGOs, especially on humanitarian and environmental issues.