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 an 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.
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
The process of deindustrialisation has left behind lasting social problems and pockets of economic weakness in parts of the country.
More recently, the UK has suffered a deep economic slump and high public debt as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, which revealed its over-reliance on easy credit, domestic consumption and rising house prices.
Efforts to rein in the public debt - one of the developed world's highest - has led to deep cuts to welfare, government services and the military, prompting concern about social equality and a possible loss of international influence.
Despite being a major member of the EU, the country is not part of the eurozone, and looks unlikely to join. Opposition to the EU's common currency was boosted by a feeling that the pound had softened the blow of the financial crisis and spared the UK the eurozone crisis.
More generally, anti-EU feeling, fed by a concern over national sovereignty and perceptions of diminished autonomy, is strong among Britons.
Prime Minister David Cameron, under pressure from the Eurosceptic right of his Conservative Party, has promised that, if he is re-elected in 2015, he will hold a referendum on leaving the European Union, and will seek radical EU reform beforehand to justify continued membership.
Critics say risking a British exit from the EU could mean courting economic disaster, as most of the UK's international trade is within the EU.
In response to growing dissatisfaction with the UK's traditionally highly centralised nature, the London government devolved powers to separate parliaments in Scotland and Wales in 1999.
But this did not stop the centrifugal trend. A nationalist government has been in power in Scotland since 2007, and a referendum on independence is to be held in September 2014.
The UK government has promised to respect the outcome, but disagreements remain about the exact nature of the relationship between Scotland and the UK in case of a "yes" vote. London has refused to accept sharing the pound with Scotland. Scottish ministers say this is a bluff.
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.