The UK has a partially regulated market economy. Based on market exchange rates the UK is today the sixth-largest economy in the world and the third-largest in Europe after Germany and France, having fallen behind France for the first time in over a decade in 2008. HM Treasury, led by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is responsible for developing and executing the British government's public finance policy and economic policy. The Bank of England is the UK's central bank and is responsible for issuing the nation's currency, the pound sterling. Banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland retain the right to issue their own notes, subject to retaining enough Bank of England notes in reserve to cover their issue. Pound sterling is the world's third-largest reserve currency (after the U.S. Dollar and the Euro). Since 1997 the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, headed by the Governor of the Bank of England, has been responsible for setting interest rates at the level necessary to achieve the overall inflation target for the economy that is set by the Chancellor each year.
The UK service sector makes up around 73% of GDP. London is one of the three "command centres" of the global economy (alongside New York City and Tokyo), is the world's largest financial centre alongside New York, and has the largest city GDP in Europe. Edinburgh is also one of the largest financial centres in Europe. Tourism is very important to the British economy and, with over 27 million tourists arriving in 2004, the United Kingdom is ranked as the sixth major tourist destination in the world and London has the most international visitors of any city in the world. The creative industries accounted for 7% GVA in 2005 and grew at an average of 6% per annum between 1997 and 2005.
The Industrial Revolution started in the UK with an initial concentration on the textile industry, followed by other heavy industries such as shipbuilding, coal mining, and steelmaking. The empire created an overseas market for British products, allowing the UK to dominate international trade in the 19th century. As other nations industrialised, coupled with economic decline after two world wars, the United Kingdom began to lose its competitive advantage and heavy industry declined, by degrees, throughout the 20th century. Manufacturing remains a significant part of the economy but accounted for only 16.7% of national output in 2003.
The automotive industry is a significant part of the UK manufacturing sector and employs over 800,000 people, with a turnover of some £52 billion, generating £26.6 billion of exports. The aerospace industry of the UK is the second- or third-largest national aerospace industry depending upon the method of measurement and has an annual turnover of around £20 billion. The pharmaceutical industry plays an important role in the UK economy and the country has the third highest share of global pharmaceutical R&D expenditures (after the United States and Japan).
In the final quarter of 2008 the UK economy officially entered recession for the first time since 1991. Unemployment increased from 5.2% in May 2008 to 7.6% in May 2009 and by January 2012 the unemployment rate among 18 to 24-year-olds had risen from 11.9% to 22.5%, the highest since current records began in 1992. Total UK government debt rose from 44.4% of GDP in 2007 to 82.9% of GDP in 2011.
The poverty line in the UK is commonly defined as being 60% of the median household income. In 2007–2008 13.5 million people, or 22% of the population, lived below this line. This is a higher level of relative poverty than all but four other EU members. In the same year 4.0 million children, 31% of the total, lived in households below the poverty line after housing costs were taken into account. This is a decrease of 400,000 children since 1998–1999. The UK imports 40% of its food supplies.
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“Unaware of the absurdity of it, we introduce our own petty household rules into the economy of the universe for which the life of generations, peoples, of entire planets, has no importance in relation to the general development.”
—Alexander Herzen (18121870)
“It enhances our sense of the grand security and serenity of nature to observe the still undisturbed economy and content of the fishes of this century, their happiness a regular fruit of the summer.”
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“War. Fighting. Men ... every man in the whole realm is in the army.... Every man in uniform ... An economy entirely geared to war ... but there is not much war ... hardly any fighting ... yet every man a soldier from birth till death ... Men ... all men for fighting ... but no war, no wars to fight ... what is it, what does it mean?”
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