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Great Britain, officially United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, constitutional monarchy (1996 est. pop. 57,412,000), 94,226 sq mi (244,044 sq km), on the British Isles, off W Europe. The country is often referred to simply as Britain. Technically, Great Britain comprises England (1991 pop. 46,382,050), 50,334 sq mi (130,365 sq km); Wales (1991 pop. 2,798,200), 8,016 sq mi (20,761 sq km); and Scotland (1991 pop. 4,957,000), 30,414 sq mi (78,772 sq km) on the island of Great Britain, while the United Kingdom includes Great Britain as well as Northern Ireland (1991 pop. 1,577,836), 5,462 sq mi (14,146 sq km) on the island of Ireland. The Isle of Man (1991 pop. 69,788), 227 sq mi (588 sq km), in the Irish Sea and the Channel Islands (1991 pop. 145,821), 75 sq mi (195 sq km), in the English Channel, are dependencies of the crown, with their own systems of government. For physical geography and local administrative divisions, see England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, Northern. The capital of Great Britain and its largest city is London.
Great Britain is the fourth most populous country in Europe. The English constitute more than 80% of the nation's inhabitants. The Scottish make up nearly 10%, and there are smaller groups of Irish and Welsh descent. Great Britain's population has shown increasing ethnic diversity since the 1970s, when people from the West Indies, India, Pakistan, Africa, and China began immigrating; in the late 1990s these groups accounted for close to 3% of the population. English is the universal language of Great Britain. In addition, about a quarter of the inhabitants of Wales speak Welsh and there are about 60,000 speakers of the Scottish form of Gaelic in Scotland. The Church of England, also called the Anglican Church (see England, Church of), is the officially established church in England (it was disestablished in Wales in 1914); the monarch is its supreme governor. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland is legally established in Scotland. There is complete religious freedom throughout Great Britain. By far the greatest number of Britons (some 27 million) are Anglicans, followed by Roman Catholics and other Christians. There are smaller minorities of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists. There are 88 universities in Great Britain, the most famous being those at Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, London, and St. Andrews.
Great Britain is one of the world's leading industrialized nations. It has achieved this position despite the lack of most raw materials needed for industry. The country also must import about 40% of its food suplies. Thus, its prosperity has been dependent upon the export of manufactured goods in exchange for raw materials and foodstuffs. Within the manufacturing sector, the largest industries include machine tools; electric power, automation, and railroad equipment; ships; motor vehicles and parts; aircraft; electronic and communications equipment; metals; chemicals; petroleum; coal; food processing; paper and printing; textiles; and clothing. During the 1970s and 80s, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs were lost, but in the 1990s over 3.5 million jobs were created in service-related industries. By the late 1990s, banking, insurance, business services, and other service industries accounted for two thirds of the GDP and employed almost 70% of the workforce. This trend was also reflected in a shift in Great Britain's economic base, which has benefited the southeast, southwest, and Midlands regions of the country, while the north of England and Northern Ireland have been hard hit by the changing economy. The main industrial and commercial areas are the great conurbations, where about one third of the country's population lives. The administrative and financial center and most important port is Greater London, which also has various manufacturing industries. London is Europe's foremost financial city. Metal goods, vehicles, aircraft, synthetic fibers, and electronic equipment are made in the West Midlands conurbation, which with the addition of Coventry roughly corresponds to the former metropolitan county of West Midlands. The industrial Black Country and the city of Birmingham are in the West Midlands. Greater Manchester has cotton and synthetic textiles, coal, and chemical industries and is a transportation and warehousing center. Liverpool, Britain's second port, along with Southport and Saint Helens are part of the Merseyside conurbation. Leeds, Bradford, and the neighboring metropolitan districts are Britain's main center of woolen, worsted, and other textile production. The Tyneside-Wearside region, with Newcastle upon Tyne as its center and Sunderland as a main city, has coal mines and steel, electrical engineering, chemical, and shipbuilding and repair industries. The South Wales conurbation, with the ports of Swansea, Cardiff, and Newport, was traditionally a center of coal mining and steel manufacturing; coal mining has declined sharply, however, in many parts of the region. Current important industries also include oil refining, metals production (lead, zinc, nickel, aluminum), synthetic fibers, and electronics. In Scotland, the region around the River Clyde, including Glasgow, is noted for shipbuilding, marine engineering, and printing as well as textile, food, and chemicals production. The Belfast area in Northern Ireland is a shipbuilding, textile, and food products center. Great Britain has abundant supplies of coal, oil, and natural gas. Production of oil from offshore wells in the North Sea began in 1975, and the country is self-sufficient in petroleum. Other mineral resources include iron ore, tin, limestone, salt, china clay, oil shale, gypsum, and lead. About 25% of Britain's land is arable, and almost half is suitable for meadows and pastures. Its agriculture is highly mechanized and extremely productive; barley, wheat, rapeseed, potatoes, sugar beets, fruits, and vegetables are the main crops. The widespread dairy industry produces milk, eggs, and cheese. Beef cattle and large numbers of sheep, as well as poultry and pigs, are raised throughout much of the country. There is also a sizable fishing industry, with cod, haddock, mackerel, whiting, trout, salmon, and shellfish making up the bulk of the catch. The country's chief exports are manufactured goods, machinery, fuels, chemicals, semifinished goods, and transport equipment. The chief imports are manufactured goods, machinery, semifinished and consumer goods, and foodstuffs. Since the early 1970s, Great Britain's trade focus has shifted from the United States to the European Union, which now accounts for over 50% of its trade. Germany, the United States, France, and the Netherlands are the main trading partners, and the Commonwealth countries are also important.
Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy. The constitution exists in no one document but is a centuries-old accumulation of statutes, judicial decisions, usage, and tradition. The hereditary monarch, who must belong to the Church of England according to the Act of Settlement of 1701, is almost entirely limited to exercising ceremonial functions. Sovereignty rests in Parliament, which consists of the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the crown. Effective power resides in the Commons, whose 659 members are elected from single-member constituencies. The executive-the cabinet of ministers headed by the prime minister-is usually drawn from the party holding the most seats in the Commons; the monarch usually asks the leader of the majority party to be prime minister. Elections must be held at least once in five years, but within that period the prime minister may at any time request the crown to dissolve Parliament and call for new elections. Most legislation originates in the Commons. Traditionally, the hereditary and life peers of the realm, high officials of the Church of England, and the lords of appeal (who exercise judicial functions) had the right to sit in the House of Lords. In 1999 both houses voted to strip most hereditary peers of their right to sit and vote in the chamber. The House of Lords may take a part in shaping legislation, but it cannot block a bill passed by the Commons, and it has no authority over money bills. The lords of appeal constitute the highest court in Great Britain. The crown need not assent to all legislation, but assent has not been withheld since 1707. The two main parties are the Conservative party, descended from the old Tory party, and the Labour party, which was organized in 1906 and is moderately socialist. The Liberal Democrats, formed by a merger of the Liberal party and the Social Democratic party, is a weaker third party. Both Scotland and Wales have nationalist parties whose goal is the independence of those respective regions.
Until 1707, this section deals primarily with English history. England and Wales were formally united in 1536. In 1707, when Great Britain was created by the Act of Union between Scotland and England, English history became part of British history. For the early history of Scotland and Wales, see separate articles. See also Ireland; Ireland, Northern; and the tables entitled Rulers of England and Great Britain and Prime Ministers of Great Britain. Early Period to the Norman Conquest Little is known about the earliest inhabitants of Britain, but the remains of their dolmens and barrows and the great stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury are evidence of the developed culture of the prehistoric Britons. They had developed a Bronze Age culture by the time the first Celtic invaders (early 5th cent. B.C.) brought their energetic Iron Age culture to Britain. It is believed that Julius Caesar's successful military campaign in Britain in 54 B.C. was aimed at preventing incursions into Gaul from the island. In A.D. 43 the emperor Claudius began the Roman conquest of Britain, establishing bases at present-day London and Colchester. By A.D. 85, Rome controlled Britain south of the Clyde River. There were a number of revolts in the early years of the conquest, the most famous being that of Boadicea. In the 2d cent. A.D., Hadrian's Wall was constructed as a northern defense line. Under the Roman occupation towns developed, and roads were built to ensure the success of the military occupation. These roads were the most lasting Roman achievement in Britain (see Watling Street), long serving as the basic arteries of overland transportation in England. Colchester, Lincoln, and Gloucester were founded by the Romans as colonia, settlements of ex-legionaries. Trade contributed to town prosperity; wine, olive oil, plate, and furnishings were imported, and lead, tin, iron, wheat, and wool were exported. This trade declined with the economic dislocation of the late Roman Empire and the withdrawal of Roman troops to meet barbarian threats elsewhere. The garrisons had been consumers of the products of local artisans as well as of imports; as they were disbanded, the towns decayed. Barbarian incursions became frequent. In 410 an appeal to Rome for military aid was refused, and Roman officials subsequently were withdrawn. As Rome withdrew its legions from Britain, Germanic peoples-the Anglo-Saxons and the Jutes-began raids that turned into great waves of invasion and settlement in the later 5th cent. The Celts fell back into Wales and Cornwall and across the English Channel to Brittany, and the loosely knit tribes of the newcomers gradually coalesced into a heptarchy of kingdoms (see Kent, Sussex, Essex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria). Late in the 8th cent., and with increasing severity until the middle of the 9th cent., raiding Vikings (known in English history as Danes) harassed coastal England and finally, in 865, launched a full-scale invasion. They were first effectively checked by King Alfred of Wessex and were with great difficulty confined to the Danelaw, where their leaders divided land among the soldiers for settlement. Alfred's successors conquered the Danelaw to form a united England, but new Danish invasions late in the 10th cent. overcame ineffective resistance (see ?thelred, 965?-1016). The Dane Canute ruled all England by 1016. At the expiration of the Scandinavian line in 1042, the Wessex dynasty (see Edward the Confessor) regained the throne. The conquest of England in 1066 by William, duke of Normandy (William I of England), ended the Anglo-Saxon period. The freeman (ceorl) of the early Germanic invaders had been responsible to the king and superior to the serf. Subsequent centuries of war and subsistence farming, however, had forced the majority of freemen into serfdom, or dependence on the aristocracy of lords and thanes, who came to enjoy a large measure of autonomous control over manors granted them by the king (see manorial system). The central government evolved from tribal chieftainships to become a monarchy in which executive and judicial powers were usually vested in the king. The aristocracy made up his witan, or council of advisers (see witenagemot). The king set up shires as units of local government ruled by earldormen. In some instances these earldormen became powerful hereditary earls, ruling several shires. Subdivisions of shires were called hundreds. There were shire and hundred courts, the former headed by sheriffs, the latter by reeves. Agriculture was the principal industry, but the Danes were aggressive traders, and towns increased in importance starting in the 9th cent.