Now, yet another aspect of Britain's position should perhaps be emphasized -- the situation of the island between two great continents. Its position is now less favourable, and equivocal too, for Britain retains some of the links and something of the roles that belong to earlier periods. It is still an island off the shore of Europe; 24% of Britain's exports go to European countries. But it is a part of Europe without being in Europe, and the delicate negotiations to establish free trade in industrial products between the countries of western Europe and Britain are, still not complete. Britain is also of the Atlantic world, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization thus strategically as well as economically closely linked to America. The United States takes the largest single share of Britain's exports and provides the greatest single share of its imports. But Britain is not only of the Atlantic world. As the senior member of the Commonwealth its links stretch out across the Pacific and the Indian oceans; the Commonwealth takes 40% of Britain's export trade, and much British capital is invested in Commonwealth countries. Responsibilities to, and interests in, the Commonwealth cross its interests in Europe and emphasize the position at the centre of world ocean-routes. The advantages of continentality, of huge areas organized as one for political and economic strength is evident, and, in an air age, the two great 'heartlands' of North America and the Asia face each other across the Arctic rather than across the Atlantic Ocean.
All Britain is affected by the external situation, its agricultural, mining and manufacturing activities, and thus the density and distribution of its population is to a large extent a reaction to it. The opportunity to draw upon the world for supplies of food and raw materials in return for satisfying the needs of areas overseas for manufactured goods and technical and financial aid, has allowed continuous growth of population and the steady increase of the proportion that is urban. But the reaction is no longer wholly individual or local. Government policy and planning, through agricultural subsidies and price-fixing, grants to aid and powers to limit industrial expansion in certain areas, and plans to control building and thus movement of population, play an important role.
The pattern of distribution of the population before the days of a world economy when Britain fed its people from its own acres reflected essentially the agricultural value of the land. The pattern before 1750 so far as it can be reconstructed from taxation returns and parish registers, checked by calculations from later census figures, shows a broad belt of country stretching from the Wash to the Severn estuary as most densely peopled. London and its immediate environs already housing some three-quarters to a million people, or nearly a sixth of the total, lay almost in the middle of the southern edge of this belt. To the south and east of it, large tracts of forest, Epping and Hainault to the north of the Thames, the Weald to the south, lowered the density of population, and to north and west, even in the lowlands, population thinned rapidly. The uplands and the highlands were but poorly peopled.
Although the greater part of the population was throughout engaged in agriculture, as time passed industry occupied an increasing number. But even in 1750 industry was widely dispersed, and, broadly speaking, industrial distribution too was related to the fertility of the soil. This was true not only of such industries as milling and malting, leather working, and the building of carts and waggons, carriages and coaches, and even ships, but also of the two major industries, iron working and textile manufacture. Industry played the biggest part in the economy first, where people were most numerous, therefore specialization easiest and local markets largest, that is where soil was most fertile; and secondly where soil was infertile and thus where there existed a stimulus to eke out the resources of the land by making things to sell to richer neighbours. Within the rich lowlands, Norwich was the centre of the worsted industry, and the Stroud, the Windrush and the Wiltshire Avon valleys held pride of place in the broadcloth industry. On its fringes Exetery was renowned for serges, Lancashire for its cottons, and West Yorkshire for its kersies and shalloons. In the remote valleys of Central Wales and around Kendal in the Lake District, hill farmers made fatter their living by making and marketing cloth. In the Forest of Dean, in the Stour and the Severn valleys and in Derbyshire and Yorkshire dales furnaces and forges were particularly numerous and ironmasters busy. However, nowhere as yet did industry dominate the population pattern though locally it increased the density.