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Can Prince William help bring Britain into the new Europe and the new millennium?

He's handsome enough to be a movie star, charming enough to have his own talk show. And some day, he will probably be king. That's quite a burden for a young man of 18. But Prince William, also known as Wills, seems to handle pressure with grace and dignity (see sidebar, p. 12).

Wills is no ordinary prince. And the United Kingdom (UK)--the country he will one day rule--is no ordinary country. But one thing is certain: It's not what it used to be.

The Sun Never Sets

The Industrial Revolution, which began in the UK in the 1700s, made the country the world's richest. Soon, the United Kingdom controlled vast areas throughout the world--in almost every time zone. This led to a popular saying: "The sun never sets on the British Empire." By 1900, the empire included 20 percent of Earth's land surface and 23 percent of its population. Australia, Canada, India, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa are just some of the countries that fell under British rule (see map, p. 13).

But between 1914 and 1945, the British Empire faced two crippling world Wars--and a series of economic crises. Colony after colony demanded independence--often through bloody rebellion.

Today, the UK is still a leading industrial and trading nation, as well as a strong U.S. ally. But it no longer has a large empire.

Britain's New Look

Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy, ruled by a prime minister and a parliament. Will's grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, is the head of state, but her powers are largely ceremonial. Prime Minister Tony Blair leads the government.

Blair became prime minister in 1997, after his Labour Party won a landslide victory in elections to Parliament. He vowed to remake his tradition-bound country of "bowler hats and pinstripe trousers" into "Cool Britannia, a place "far more dynamic and open and forward-looking."

Now Blair faces serious challenges. "People say he won't get voted in again," said Nicola Sairhurst, 20, "because he's not listening to what the public is saying."

When Blair came to power, he made education his top priority. His government has introduced a national curriculum, with mandatory achievement tests for students of all ages. Rather than receiving a set salary, teachers will soon be paid according to their performance.

Nicola, who is studying to be a teacher, doesn't think that all of Blair's changes have been for the better. Now in her third year at a university, Nicola told JS that there are "a lot of empty places" at school because "young people don't want to go into debt."

Students were once eligible for government grants that did not have to be repaid. Now, students who can't afford tuition and books must apply for loans, which must be repaid after graduation. Nicola is already in debt [pound]11,000 (about $16,000).

A New Bill of Rights

Despite such controversies, Blair can take credit for his diplomatic efforts. He has worked hard to end the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, where violence has claimed more than 3,000 lives in the past 30 years.

In 1999, he allowed Scotland and Wales to elect their own national parliaments for the first time. Under a system called devolution, both Scotland and Wales now run most of their own domestic affairs.

Blair has also made civil liberties a cornerstone of his administration. Unlike the U.S., Britain has no formal written constitution. For centuries, laws passed by Parliament and legal precedents set by judges were the British people's main protection against abuse of civil rights.

In October, Britain got its first Bill of Rights. A Freedom of Information Act will soon follow.

Pound or Euro?

Like the U.S. and many European countries, Britain has watched as unrest in the Middle East has led to rising fuel prices. In September, British farmers, truckers, and taxi drivers blocked oil depots, causing shortages at many gas pumps. The protesters wanted Blair to lower Britain's high gasoline taxes.

Blair would not cave in--and he suffered in opinion polls. Although Blair has since regained some of his popularity, his future--as well as Britain's--is uncertain.

Britain belongs to the European Union (EU), an organization of 15 European countries that promotes cooperation among its members. Last year, 12 of the 15 EU nations adopted the same currency, the euro. Britons are still debating whether or not to replace their currency--the pound sterling--with the euro.

Two thirds of the British people oppose the idea, but Blair has said that ruling out any future conversion could have a "devastating effect" on the British economy.

Switching to a new currency would have huge psychological implications for Britons. They are separated from their European neighbors by more than just the English Channel.

Britain is a land with a unique identity. Here, sausages are called bangers, and tea is a meal eaten in the evening. Sports fans go to the pub to watch football, which Americans call soccer. Oh, yes, and private schools are called public schools. Wills, of course, attended one of the best: Eton College. (It's actually a high school.)

No one knows if Britain's quaint customs will be lost as the country's identity merges more and more with Europe's. But even Wills, who is now taking a survival course in the Chilean jungle, must take comfort in one familiar saying: "There'll always be an England."


The world was shocked in 1997 when Princess Diana, Wills's popular and glamorous mom, was killed in a car crash in Paris. William and his younger brother, Harry, now 15, faced the loss bravely.

Diana's death raised questions about the future of the British monarchy. Some Britons say it is too expensive and outdated.

But the monarchy has lasted almost 1,200 years-through wars, revolutions, and scandals.

Will's father, Prince Charles, is next in line for the throne. But most eyes are trained on Wills--a young man with his mother's charm, popularity, and good looks.

What's next for Wills? After returning from the Chilean jungle, he plans to attend St. Andrew's College in Scotland.


The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not a large country--more than 70 of the world's countries are larger. But it has played a major role in world history. It once ruled a huge empire, as the world map below shows. Today, its possessions include only a few islands plus territory in Antarctica. The UK itself consists of Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) plus Northern Ireland (map at left).


AREA: 94,548 sq mi, not quite as large as the state of Oregon.

POPULATION: 59,800,000; 89% urban.

GOVERNMENT: Constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. Head of state: Queen Elizabeth II. Head of government: Prime Minister Tony Blair.

ECONOMY: Important manufacturing and trading nation. The UK imports a third of its food and many raw materials.

Manufacturing: steel, heavy machinery, electronic equipment. Mining: petroleum, coal, natural gas. Agriculture: barley, potatoes, sugar beets, wheat.

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Author:McCabe, Suzanne
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Date:Nov 27, 2000
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