Britain in Facts and Figures

By Munson, James | Contemporary Review, July 1995 | Go to article overview

Britain in Facts and Figures


Munson, James, Contemporary Review


A passion for statistics is one of Great Britain's most important legacies from the Victorian era. Victorians were the first to collect, collate and compare statistics. They did so to chart their phenomenal success as the world's first industrialised and urbanised country. They went on to use the information they gathered to analyse the problems that this very industrialisation and urbanisation created and to find ways of coping with them. A modern offshoot of this passion is the Official Handbook(*) published each year by Her Majesty's Government through the Central Office of Information. The 1995 edition gives readers an unequalled source of statistical information about life in the United Kingdom today.

The population of the United Kingdom as of mid-1992 stood at 57,998,000 of whom 21,554,000 were employed; the majority of these, some 73 per cent, were in what is now called the 'service industry'. Only 20.3 per cent were in manufacturing and in those two statistics one sees the tremendous change in British economic life in the country in which factory life began. Just as the West Riding of Yorkshire prospered in the Victorian era and the Midlands grew in the 1930s, so in the thirty years from the 1960s to the 1990s has East Anglia been the fastest growing English region both in population and employment. It is not surprising that East Anglia saw widespread support for the 'Thatcher Revolution' in the 1980s.

Britons, like others in the developed world, live much longer: the average man lives for about 73 years and the average woman, for about 78 whereas in 1901 a man could expect to live for only 49 years and a woman, for only 52. Families are smaller: the average size of households has fallen from over four people in 1911 to 2.4 in 1992. More people are now living on their own while there are more 'single parent families' due to divorce or the disappearance of a 'partner'. Finally, people prefer smaller families. It is not surprising that the birthrate is still below that required for the long-term replacement of the population. Both men and women marry later while fewer couples get married in the first place: in 1992, eighteen out of every 100 non-married men and women between the ages of 16 and 59 lived together outside matrimony. The numbers are growing, especially among divorced women who are perhaps thinking twice before remarrying. Of those who do decide to get married, divorce is growing. Indeed, Britain has one of the highest divorce rates in western Europe: there were, in 1992, about 13.6 divorces for every 1,000 married couples. Increasingly people live as if they were married and illegitimacy is growing apace: about half of all births registered outside marriage are from couples living together. Like most countries, the UK is seeing the number of elderly people rising as a proportion of the population.

Another characteristic of the British over the last two hundred years has been their propensity to emigrate to other parts of the world, mainly to English speaking countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as to the United States. This reached its peak in the years before the First World War (1914-1918) and in 1992, only 227,000 people emigrated from the United Kingdom. Their destinations have also changed. The largest group, 25 per cent, left for nations in the European Union while only 19 per cent left for Australia, Canada or New Zealand and 16 per cent for America.

One of the most remarkable changes to affect British life since the end of the Second World War has been the influx into the United Kingdom of large numbers of immigrants from various parts of the Indian subcontinent and the West Indian islands. The years of massive immigration, with all its unsettling and sometimes disturbing affects on century-old patterns of life, have passed. In 1992, 215,900 people settled in the UK and this number was five per cent lower than the previous year. Again, changes of historic significance are reflected in the statistics: the largest number, 32 per cent, came from nations within the European Community while only 16 per cent came from the 'old dominions' of Australia, Canada and New Zealand and eight per cent from the United States. …

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