Brexit. A snap election. Chaos in Westminster. Many questions are being raised about the UK right now, but what does the rest of the English-speaking world really want to know about our complicated little country? We turned to Google to find out some of the more common (and curious) questions asked about the UK.
What is the United Kingdom?
It might seem like a stupid question, but the UK is something of a mystery to many foreigners – and it’s easy to see why. Short for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the UK is a sovereign nation made up of four separate countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Confused? Well we’ve only just started because the UK is also referred to as Britain. That’s not to be confused with Great Britain – which describes the island comprising England, Scotland and Wales – or the British Isles, an archipelago that includes Ireland, the UK and three British Crown Dependencies: the Isle of Man, the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey. Let’s move on…
Why is Northern Ireland part of the UK?
In 1801, the Acts of Union saw Ireland become part of the UK, which, a few decades later, moved its economy away from mercantilism (economic nationalism, essentially) and towards free trade. This new system exacerbated existing divisions between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, because it mainly benefitted the industrial northeast of the country, where Protestants made up a majority of the population. The rest of the country, which was largely Catholic, relied heavily on agriculture and suffered greatly from free trade as it caused food prices to plummet.
The Irish Famine (1845-1850) dealt another deadly blow to the island, killing more than one million people and forcing many more to flee the country. The famine gave rise to an Irish nationalist movement, which pushed for a new Irish Parliament. In 1886, William Gladstone, the British PM, proposed legislative independence for Ireland – known as Home Rule – but this was opposed by the House of Commons and Protestants in northeast Ireland, who feared they would be a minority in a Catholic country. Rising tensions led to the bloody Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), between Ireland and Britain, which ended in a truce. Post-ceasefire talks led to the creation of the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland) and Northern Ireland. The latter remains part of the UK.
Why do motorists in the UK drive on the left?
In the Middle Ages the highways of Britain were littered with nefarious characters and those travelling on them were forced to carry a sword for defence. Most of the population were – as they are today – right handed and travelling on the left, according to historians, allowed carriage drivers and horsemen to fight off any oncoming assailants with their swords. This stuck and British road users have driven on the left ever since.
Why does the UK have a mild climate?
Scotland doesn’t have polar bears, but technically it should: the northern reaches of the country are on the same latitude as Churchill, Canada, which is the self-proclaimed “polar bear capital of the world”. So why is the weather so much warmer in the UK? Why are there no bears?
For that we have to thank the Gulf Stream, which huffs and puffs in the skies above Britain. This jet stream moves around a bit, but often brings warm air up from the tropics, which keeps Britain and its neighbours relatively clement. Harsh winters are often blamed on the jet stream heading further south, which allows polar air in.
Is the UK the only country to put its clocks back?
No. Daylight saving, as it is known elsewhere, is observed in many countries around the world including Australia, France, Spain and the US.
Is the UK in Europe?
Have these people not been reading the news? Geographically speaking, the UK is very much part of Europe. It’s also currently part of the European Union (EU) – often referred to, colloquially, as “Europe” – but voted to leave the bloc last year. It now has two years to divorce itself from the EU. It’s a touchy subject, to be honest.
What is the UK national debt?
Are you sitting down? Because according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), at the end of 2016, the government gross debt was £1,731.4 billion, equivalent to 89.3 per cent of the UK’s GDP. Ouch. If it makes you feel any better, according to Eurostat, Spain’s debt equates to 99.8 per cent of its GDP, Italy’s 132.3 per cent and Greece’s 177.4 per cent. Let the good times roll.
Does the UK have a constitution?
Britain does not have a codified constitution – a document that defines the structure of government and its relationship with citizens – but it does have an unwritten constitution, which has been formed by myriad Acts of Parliament, court judgements and conventions.
Why do British people say “cheers”?
Americans find this particularly confusing because they associate it exclusively with clinking glasses on special occasions (“to the bride and groom – cheers”, for example). However, in Britain it is also used as a synonym for “thank you”. Cheers for asking, though.
What does the UK export?
According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), the UK’s top exports are gold, cars, pharmaceuticals, gas turbines and refined petroleum. Weirdly, its top imports are cars, pharmaceuticals and refined petroleum.