The United Kingdom has a fiercely independent, developed, and international trading economy that was at the forefront of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution. The country emerged from World War II as a military victor but with a debilitated manufacturing sector. Postwar recovery was relatively slow, and it took nearly 40 years, with additional stimulation after 1973 from membership in the European Economic Community (ultimately succeeded by the European Union [EU]), for the British economy to improve its competitiveness significantly. Economic growth rates in the 1990s compared favourably with those of other top industrial countries. Manufacturing’s contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) has declined to about one-fifth of the total, with services providing the source of greatest growth. The United Kingdom’s chief trading ties shifted from its former empire to other members of the EU, which came to account for more than half its trade in tangible goods. The United States remained a major investment and trading partner, and Japan also became a significant investor in local production. American and Japanese companies have often chosen the United Kingdom as their European base. In addition, other fast-developing East Asian countries with export-oriented economies included the United Kingdom’s open market among their important outlets.
In the 1990s the movement known as Euroskepticism, which advocated political and economic disengagement from the EU, began gaining steam in the United Kingdom. By the second decade of the 21st century, support for this viewpoint had become so widespread that a referendum on continued British membership in the EU was put to the electorate. Some 52 percent of voters opted for British exit from the EU (popularly branded “Brexit”), setting in motion a protracted process that eventually culminated in the United Kingdom’s formal withdrawal from the EU on January 31, 2020, initiating a period of economic transition and uncertainty.
During the 1980s the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher pursued the privatization, or denationalization, of publicly owned corporations that had been nationalized by previous governments. Privatization, accompanied by widespread labour unrest, resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the coal-mining and heavy industrial sectors. Although there was some improvement in the standard of living nationally, in general there was greater prosperity in the South East, including London, than in the heavily industrialized regions of the West Midlands, northern England, Clydeside, and Belfast, whose economies suffered during the 1980s. During the 1980s and ’90s, income disparity also increased. Unemployment and inflation rates were gradually reduced but remained high until the late 1990s. The country’s role as a major world financial centre remained a source of economic strength. Moreover, its exploitation of offshore natural gas since 1967 and oil since 1975 in the North Sea has reduced dependence on coal and imported oil and provided a further economic boost.