The British Isles have been inhabited since Palaeolithic times, but its history really starts with the invasion of southern England by the Romans in A.D. 40. The Romans remained in England until around 410, when gradually the Germanic speaking Saxons took over in the 5th Century and created seven kingdoms.
By the 9th Century it was the turn of the Vikings, mainly Danish settlers, who next invaded the British Isles, before the Normans took their turn in the famous Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the establishment of William, Duke of Normandy (William the Conqueror) as the new King.
Democracy had an early start in the British Isles and on 20th January 2015 the United Kingdom celebrated the 750th anniversary of what is seen as the first parliament in England. A somewhat makeshift affair, it was called by Simon de Montfort in 1265 and brought together two knights from every shire and two burgesses from the towns. In theory Henry III was the ruler of the country, but his power had been whittled away and it was de Montfort and a group of barons seeking major reforms who were nominally in charge.
Inevitably for the times, Henry was never going to allow the barons to tell him what to do and the subsequent battles saw Henry regain control. However the 1265 parliament had set the standard for the idea of a representative parliament.
Henry died in 1272 and was succeeded by King Edward I who established the ‘Model Parliament’ in 1295. It was so named because it set the model for future parliaments and in his writ of summons Edward said “what touches all, should be approved of all, and it is also clear that common dangers should be met by measures agreed upon in common.”
It was during Edward III’s reign that parliament split into two. In 1341 the knights and burgesses sat in one chamber and the clergy and nobility sat in the other. From this the House of Commons or lower house was formed, although it was still subordinate to the Crown and the Lords. By 1376 the House of Commons had gained confidence and was making demands of the King’s Ministers. Sir Peter de la Mare was tasked with the job of representing the Commons before the Crown and, although imprisoned for his boldness, he set the precedent for the creation of the office of the Speaker of the House of Commons.
The next major landmark in the creation of a democratic United Kingdom was the Laws in Wales Acts of 1535 and 1542, which made Wales a full and equal part of the Kingdom of England and which were enacted during the reign of Henry VIII of England.
There followed a turbulent period when parliaments were routinely prorogued and by 1642 the first of two civil wars (The English Civil Wars) broke out between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. This was the time of Oliver Cromwell and, after his defeat and capture, Charles I was beheaded on 30th January 1649. The Commonwealth of England was created and Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector. The Commonwealth of England did not prove a great success and following the death of Cromwell in 1658 the monarchy was restored in 1660 with the establishment of Charles II’s reign.
What is possibly the most important of all Acts of Parliament, the Bill of Rights, was passed on 16th December 1689. It was the first time that the House of Lords sided with the House of Commons against the monarch, and laid out important rights for the people including the requirement for the Crown to seek the consent of the people as represented in the Houses of Parliament. Charles had little choice because, by this time, parliament controlled the finances of the country.
In 1706 and 1707 the parliaments of England and of Scotland both passed the Acts of Union (Union with Scotland Act 1706 and Union with England Act 1707) which brought the two kingdoms together into a single united kingdom called Great Britain. Parliament became the Parliament of Great Britain and was based at the Palace of Westminster in London.
This was followed by the Acts of Union between the Kingdom of Great Britain and Kingdom of Ireland in 1801. This created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This isn’t quite the country we recognise today because in 1920 the Government of Ireland Act separated Ireland into the six counties of Northern Ireland and the remainder as Southern Ireland. Subsequently the Irish Free State was established in 1921, making southern Ireland independent from the United Kingdom and this was ratified by the British and Irish parliaments in 1922. Northern Ireland remained as part of the United Kingdom.
The 1800s were also the time of the United Kingdom’s great expansion of its empire. The empire originated in the 16th Century with the setting up of trading posts worldwide. Under Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) the empire flourished and by 1922 it controlled one-fifth of the world’s population and almost a quarter of the Earth’s total land area. Today those nations are independent states and the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary organisation, has 53 independent and sovereign states as members.
Commonwealth member states all contributed to the British war effort in the First World War (1914 – 1918) and Second World War (1939 – 1945) with their troops fighting with great distinction in the trenches in France, Gallipoli, the North African desert, Burma and many other campaigns.
Back in the United Kingdom, the political parties you see in parliament today are some of the oldest in the world.
The centre-right Conservative Party was founded in 1834 but can trace its roots back to the Tories (a title still used in place of Conservatives but mainly by opponents) who emerged in 1678 and who were royalists.
The centre-left Liberal Democrats are a new formation (1988) of the second oldest party, the Liberal Party which was founded in 1859 and which can trace its history back to the Whigs of 1678 who wanted to further limit the powers of the monarchy.
The third major party of the modern era, the centre-left Labour Party, is a relative newcomer; it was formed in 1900 out of the trade union and socialist movements.
The parties came together in Coalition or National Governments during the First World War and the Second World War, but beyond that the Conservatives and Liberals were the two strong parties alternating in majority governments until 1924 when Labour’s Ramsey MacDonald first took office. From then on Labour became the second largest party vying with the Conservatives.
Labour’s first big break came in 1945 when they won the post-war general election and were in office until 1951. After 13 years of Conservative rule Labour won in 1964 and again in 1966, but the Conservatives were back under the leadership of Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1970. Three years later, in 1973, the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (EEC) and what is now the European Union (EU).
In 1974 the country had two general elections, but it was Labour led by Harold Wilson and then James Callaghan who prevailed in the October. By 1978 the country was suffering major strikes and that winter was known as the Winter of Discontent. In the following May (1979) Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives to what was to become eighteen years of Conservative rule; eleven years under her stewardship and a further seven years under John Major’s premiership.
Major’s government suffered from a small 21 seat majority and a fractious parliamentary party over the increasingly federalist role of the European Union. Ultimately, his difficulties with party discipline led to one of the biggest defeats ever for the Conservatives in 1997 and the installation of a Labour government led by Tony Blair. Labour were to have their longest period in power, latterly under the leadership of Gordon Brown, until the financial crisis of 2007 and Great Recession of 2009.
The Blair years are perhaps most notable for the creation of the National Assembly for Wales in 1998 and the Scottish Parliament in 1999, but since then we have seen the rise of nationalist parties such as Plaid Cymru (PC) in Wales and the Scottish National Party (SNP).
With the financial crisis and an overspending Labour government, the Conservatives should have won an easy victory in 2010, but under the leadership of David Cameron the election resulted in a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party. Cameron entered into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats during a period when austerity was the key driver of economic policy.
During the tenure of Prime Minister Cameron, Scotland held a vote on independence in 2014, which resulted in a narrow victory for those wishing to remain part of the United Kingdom. However, it subsequently led to ever more Scottish demands and a further rise in Scottish nationalism.
During Cameron’s time, the UK’s relationship with the European Union was an increasingly contentious issue and when the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won the 2014 European Elections, the Prime Minister was forced to offer a referendum on EU membership.
Despite this, UKIP took nearly four million votes in 2015 to emerge as the third largest party nationally, having only been formed in 1993. Throughout the election campaign the opinion polls had suggested that the 2015 general election would be close between Labour and the Conservatives. In the end the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote meant that the Conservatives emerged with a 12 seat majority in the 650 seat House of Commons and will be in office until 2020 having promised an ‘In-Out’ referendum on the EU in 2017.
Queen Elizabeth II is Head of State.
The bicameral parliament is made up of the House of Lords which 740 seats consisting of approximately 622 life peers, 92 hereditary peers, and 26 clergy. The House of Commons has 650 members elected by popular vote to serve five year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places the United Kingdom at joint 10th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 81 (where 100 is least corrupt).