In the 19th century, Britain had the world's leading economy: Its overseas trade thrived, its standard of living rose steadily, and its citizens pioneered industrial innovations. With the growth of the economies of other nations in the 20th century, the British economy remained relatively strong. It has continued to grow, and Britain remains a major producer of industrial goods and provider of services, as well as a center of world trade and finance.
In the 20th century, Britons saw their per capita总数 disposable可用的 income triple增至三倍,
an accomplishment all the more remarkable considering Britain‘s size and limited natural resources. The skills and ingenuity精巧 of Britain’s highly trained workers, managers, and
entrepreneurs企业家 have enabled the British economy to function well and provide for its large population.
Although Britain's economy was strong in the 20th century, it faced a number of persistent problems. The balance of trade was one. Britain has had to import more than a tenth of its food and much of its raw materials, as well as many manufactured goods, and it has to export sufficient products and services to balance the cost of its imports. Another problem has been industrial inefficiency, which was particularly evident in older industries such as coal mining, shipbuilding, and textiles, which produced more products than they could sell. Some industries that had been nationalized (taken over by the state) after 1945, such as British Oil Corporation, British Airways, and British Telecommunications, were unprofitable and operated at a considerable cost to taxpayers.
In addition, trade unions sometimes required companies to hire more workers than were needed, and time was lost due to strikes as workers pressed for higher wages. These trade union problems increased the cost of goods, which helped cause inflation通货膨胀. Inflation occurs when the
demand for products is higher than the supply, which leads to an increase in the value and price of products. At the same time, unemployment remained high-11 percent of the workforce in the early 1980s-and efforts to lower it were not successful. These problems were particularly evident during the 1970s, when high oil prices triggered a worldwide recession经济衰退.
Since the mid-1970s, Britain has benefited from a worldwide economic upswing高涨 as well as
internal improvements. The government has taken a number of steps to encourage economic growth. It curtailed缩减 the power of unions and sold some nationalized industries, including British Airways and British Telecommunications, to private companies (called privatization). The government sought to encourage business and private investment by lowering taxes and easing restrictions, such as deregulating解除管制 the stock exchange and lifting restrictions on certain
Simultaneously, it sought to curb its spending and services. Newer, more profitable high-tech industries absorbed more workers and managers, while many older, less-efficient firms folded. Britain‘s economy received a boost推进 with the discovery and exploitation of abundant oil
reserves in the North Sea. Because of this oil, Britain no longer depends on imports of foreign petroleum products and also profits from exports of petroleum products. In 1997 Britain's economy grew at a rate of 2.5 percent, one of the highest rates among members of the European Union.
Britain‘s land surface is minimal最小的 compared to many other nations, but British agriculture
is very intensive and highly productive. In recent decades output has risen steadily, and
agricultural labor has become more productive, due to innovations in farm machinery, biological engineering of seeds and plants, and the increased use of fertilizers, pesticides杀虫剂, and
herbicides除草剂. Consequently, imports of food, feed, and beverages饮料 dropped from 36
percent of total imports in 1955 to 11 percent in 1985, and to 10 percent by 1994. Compared to other nations in the European Union, Britain's agricultural sector is much smaller in terms of employment and contribution to the GDP 国内生产总值 (gross domestic product). In 1996
agriculture employed approximately 2 percent of the workforce and contributed 1.4 percent of the GDP.
About 74 percent of Britain‘s land area is devoted to some type of agricultural use. Large parts of Britain, notably Scotland and Wales, are suitable only for grazing放牧. In the mid-1990s, about
72 percent of Britain’s agricultural land was used for grazing or grassland, or lay fallow休耕地,
and about 28 percent was used to grow crops. There were about 234,300 farms, two-thirds of them owner-occupied. The average size of a farm in 1996 was 73 hectares公顷 (180 acres英亩).
Mining has been enormously important in British economic history. Salt mining dates from prehistoric times, and in ancient times traders from the Mediterranean shipped tin from the mines of Cornwall. These tin mines are almost completely exhausted today, and the last tin mine in Britain closed in March 1998. Britain‘s abundant coal resources were critical during the Industrial Revolution, especially because the coal was sometimes conveniently located near iron and could be used in the iron and steel manufacturing processes. These mined resources were so important to the Industrial Revolution that entire populations moved to work at coal and iron sites in the north and Midlands of England. Today the iron is almost exhausted, and even though most good-quality coal seams煤层 are depleted耗尽, coal is still the third most mined mineral in Britain.
Besides coal, raw materials for construction form the bulk of mineral production, including limestone石灰石, dolomite白云石, sand, gravel砂砾, sandstone, common clay, and shale页岩.
Some china clay and salt are also extracted. Small amounts of zinc锌, lead石墨, tin, silver, and
gold are mined. According to British law, the owners of land have title to the minerals below the surface. The only exceptions are gold, silver, oil, and natural gas, which the Crown owns and leases借 to producers. Mining and quarrying采石, including oil and gas extraction, accounted for
2.8 percent of the GDP in 1996 and employed 1 percent of the labor force.
The history of manufacturing in Britain is unique because of Britain‘s role as the birthplace of the
Industrial Revolution. During the Middle Ages the production of woolen textiles was a key industry in Britain. In the 16th and 17th centuries, new industries developed. These included silk weaving, garment making, and the manufacturing of hats, pottery, and cutlery餐具. All of these
operations were generally conducted in small craft shops and were labor-intensive. In the 18th century a number of changes in British society prepared the way for the Industrial Revolution. Colonial and commercial expansion created markets in North America, Africa, and parts of Asia. Coal and iron mining developed as Britain‘s decreasing forests created the need for another energy source, and new smelting冶炼 techniques made iron implements cheaper to
produce. An agricultural revolution in the 18th century introduced new crops and crop rotation techniques, better breeding methods, and mechanical devices for cultivation. This coincided with a rapid increase in population, in part due to better hygiene卫生 and diets食物, providing both
consumers and workers for the new manufacturing operations.
During the Industrial Revolution new methods of manufacturing products were developed. Instead of being made by hand, many products were made by machine. Production moved from small craft shops to factories, and population shifted to urban areas where these factories were located. Cotton textile factories using newly developed steam-powered machines produced more goods at a lower cost per item. Textiles, shipbuilding, iron, and steel emerged as important industries, and coal remained the most important industrial fuel. The Industrial Revolution dramatically raised the overall standard of living.
The structure of industry has changed substantially in the last half of the 20th century. The coal mining and cotton textile industries have declined. As coal production declined, oil production replaced it as a major industry. Motor vehicle production became a significant part of the industrial base, but was subject to severe foreign competition. As incomes increased, consumer demand rose for durable goods such as cars and kitchen appliances. British industrial production also expanded into communications equipment, including fiber optics光纤, computers,
computer-controlled machine tools, and robots. Britain now manufactures approximately 40 percent of Europe's desktop computers.
Scotland is also a major producer of computers. The so-called Silicon Glen 硅谷between
Glasgow and Edinburgh employs about 40,000 people in the electronics industry and is the site of many overseas computer firms. Scotland and Northern Ireland are still noted for their production of whiskey and textiles, especially linen from Northern Ireland and tweed呢料 from Scotland.
Britain remains an important manufacturing country, although it imports large quantities of manufactured goods from overseas, particularly vehicles and electronic equipment. About 4 million workers, about 20 percent of the workforce, were engaged in manufacturing in 1997. In 1996 manufacturing accounted for about 21 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). The leading traditional manufacturing regions of England are Greater London and the cities and regions around Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, and Newcastle upon Tyne.