The United Kingdom (UK)—which includes the constituent countries of England, Scotland, and Wales along with the territory of Northern Ireland—is a stable democracy that regularly holds free elections and is home to a vibrant media sector. While the government enforces robust protections for political rights and civil liberties, recent years have seen concerns about increased government surveillance of residents, as well as rising Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. In a 2016 referendum, UK voters narrowly voted to leave the European Union (EU), through a process known colloquially as “Brexit,” which will have political and economic reverberations both domestically and across Europe in the coming years.
- In January, the regional government of Northern Ireland resumed after a hiatus of nearly three years, in a wide-ranging deal backed by the UK and Irish governments.
- In December, the UK and the EU finalized an agreement to govern their future relationship and finalize the UK’s departure from the bloc. Under its terms, UK travelers to EU member states will need visas in more circumstances, while EU citizens in the UK are required to seek settled status with the authorities.
- The government instituted a nationwide COVID-19-related lockdown in March before loosening some restrictions in May, though another lockdown was reimposed in England in late October and stricter restrictions were instituted throughout Great Britain in December. Police forces were criticized for using new and existing powers to disproportionately target racial and ethnic minorities throughout the crisis. The World Health Organization recorded 2.4 million cases and nearly 72,600 deaths at year’s end.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
Executive power rests with the prime minister and cabinet, which must have the support of the House of Commons. The leader of the majority party or coalition usually becomes prime minister, and appoints the cabinet. A snap general election was held in December 2019, where a majority Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was elected.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The UK has a bicameral Parliament. The more powerful lower chamber, the House of Commons, has 650 members directly elected to serve five-year terms. Members of the unelected House of Lords are appointed by the monarch. There were 793 members in December 2020. The body largely plays an oversight role in reviewing legislation passed by the House of Commons.
A general election was not due until 2022, but Prime Minister Johnson, who led a minority government after winning the premiership in July 2019, secured a new election from Parliament. The Conservatives, who focused their campaign on their intention to stop further delays to the Brexit process, won 365 seats in the December election, up from 318 in the last Parliament, and secured an 81-seat majority. The opposition Labour Party won 203 seats, down from 262 in the last Parliament.
The Scottish National Party, which campaigned to remain in the EU and advocates for Scottish independence from the UK, remained the third-largest party in the House of Commons, gaining 13 seats over its 2017 result and winning 48 of Scotland’s 59 parliamentary seats. The Liberal Democrats, the fourth-largest party, won 11 seats nationwide.
Elections for some local councils, police commissioners, and mayoralties in parts of England and Wales were scheduled for May 2020, but were delayed to May 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
The UK’s electoral framework is robust and well implemented, though a limited Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission that observed the 2017 election urged lawmakers to boost transparency surrounding campaign financing. Despite this recommendation, no individual donation caps currently exist. In September 2020, the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), a nongovernmental organization (NGO), called for the regulation of internet-based campaign and financing activities.
Parliament maintains a direct role in electoral management, notably through its involvement in the seat boundary drawing process. The Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020, which was enacted in December, will limit its future involvement. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, meanwhile, limits a prime minister’s ability to force a snap election, but the government introduced a bill to repeal it in December 2020.
Conservative governments have moved towards requiring voters to produce identification in order to vote. In August 2019, the ERS noted that 2,000 prospective voters living in English authorities participating in a pilot voter identification scheme were turned away from polling stations in that May’s local elections, and that a permanent requirement would disproportionately impact Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) voters.
The UK’s electoral infrastructure has contended with Russian interference dating back to the 2016 referendum on EU membership. In July 2020, a parliamentary intelligence committee criticized the government’s inability to investigate potential Russian interference in the referendum.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Parties do not face undue restrictions on registration or operation. The Conservative and Labour parties have dominated politics for decades, though other parties regularly win seats.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
Opposition parties operate freely, and have a realistic opportunity to increase their support and gain power through elections.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||4.004 4.004|
People’s political choices are generally free from domination by groups using extrapolitical means.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||4.004 4.004|
Under the UK’s system of devolution, Parliament has granted different degrees of legislative power to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Assembly, and the Scottish Parliament, augmenting the political representation of regional populations.
Women, LGBT+ people, and members of racial and ethnic minority groups are active in UK politics. After the December 2019 general election, a record 220 members of Parliament (MPs), representing 34 percent of the lower house, are female. LGBT+ and BAME representation also improved.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
Freely elected officials can generally make and implement national policy without significant influence from actors who are not democratically accountable. Parliament approved the Coronavirus Act 2020, which includes a two-year sunset clause and is subject to parliamentary review, to initiate a COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020.
Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly took place in March 2017, but legislators did not form a functioning government for a record-breaking 1,045 days after that poll. An agreement, which was facilitated by the UK and Ireland, was finalized in January 2020.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because Northern Irish legislators agreed on the formation of a regional government in January after a deadlock lasting nearly three years.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||3.003 4.004|
Large-scale official corruption is not historically pervasive, and anticorruption bodies are generally effective. However, the UK government issued numerous COVID-19-related tenders to politically connected recipients or to firms without relevant experience according to a December 2020 New York Times report examining $22 billion worth of contracts. A National Audit Office report issued in November highlighted conflict-of-interest and bias concerns in the tender process.
Politically connected firms also received tenders for other purposes; in March 2020, a firm connected to Conservative minister Michael Gove and then staffer Dominic Cummings received £840,000 ($1.04 million) to conduct Brexit-related focus group research without a public bidding process.
The UK faces scrutiny for the ways in which its banking and financial sectors, property market, and offshore services in overseas territories enable money laundering and facilitate corruption globally.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to reports of firms and individuals connected to the governing Conservative Party receiving COVID-19-related and other public tenders despite conflict-of-interest and bias concerns.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||4.004 4.004|
MPs are required to disclose assets and sources of income, and this information is made available to the public. Freedom-of-information legislation is reasonably well implemented, and journalists can generally access information to report to the public. However, in November 2020, NGO openDemocracy reported that requests deemed sensitive are vetted by a government office.
|Are there free and independent media?||4.004 4.004|
Press freedom is legally protected. The media environment is lively and competitive, espousing viewpoints spanning the political spectrum. The publicly owned British Broadcasting Corporation, which relies on dedicated license fees for most of its funding, is editorially independent and competitive with its commercial counterparts. The Conservative government has considered decriminalizing nonpayment of license fees, though the Daily Telegraph reported in December 2020 that the government was delaying its plans to 2022.
In 2018, the culture secretary announced that Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act would not be implemented, and ultimately would be repealed. Section 40 stipulates that, in media-related court cases, publishers who are not members of a recognized self-regulator can be ordered to pay opponents’ legal costs, even if they win. Section 40 was not repealed by the end of 2020.
Journalists have faced blacklisting from government officials during 2020. In May, the prime minister’s office banned a journalist working for openDemocracy from participating in daily press conferences, after the outlet reported on COVID-19 testing failures. In September, the Council of Europe (CoE) criticized the government after the Ministry of Defence blacklisted journalists from online news outlet Declassified UK the month before. The ministry apologized to the CoE later that month, and promised to conduct a review.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of religion is protected in law and practice. A 2006 law bans incitement to religious hatred, with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. Nevertheless, minority groups, particularly Muslims, continue to report discrimination, harassment, and occasional assaults. In October 2020, the Home Office reported 105,000 hate crimes in England (barring Greater Manchester) and Wales during its 2019–20 reporting period, an eight percent increase over 2018–19.
Muslims have been reluctant to discuss religious subjects or their identity in some settings, especially in the classroom, due to Prevent, a strategy designed to divert individuals vulnerable to terrorist or extremist recruitment. Educators and human rights groups have criticized the policy for forcing Muslims to self-censor, for fear of being referred to the program.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||3.003 4.004|
Academic freedom is generally respected, though the government has recently made political forays into the academic curriculum. In October 2020, Women and Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch commented that teaching critical race theory was partisan and illegal. That same month, the Department for Education issued guidance calling anticapitalism an “extreme political stance.”
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 requires schools and universities to help divert students from recruitment into terrorist groups, as part of the government’s long-standing Prevent strategy. Educators are expected to report students suspected of terrorist or extremist sympathies to a local government body, and vet the remarks of visiting speakers, among other obligations. Human rights NGO Liberty criticized the strategy in 2019, saying it stifled open debate and academic inquiry. That January, the government agreed to launch an independent review into Prevent, but its chair was dismissed that December, and the post remained empty at the end of 2020.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
Concerns about the effects of mass surveillance on unfettered private discussion have persisted for several years. The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 required communications companies to store customer metadata for 12 months and, in some cases, allowed this information to be accessed by the authorities without a warrant. The government later limited access to metadata for serious criminal investigations with the approval of an independent commission after the High Court ruled the legislation incompatible with EU jurisprudence in 2018.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 extended the deadline for the review of urgent surveillance warrants obtained without initial judicial authorization from 3 days to 12, and allows authorities to store biometric data for longer periods.
The UK government has advocated for the use of automated facial recognition (AFR), which builds “faceprints” of individuals based on recordings taken in public gatherings. In August 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled the South Wales Police’s use of AFR unlawful, but did not preemptively ban its use throughout the UK.
The government launched a contact tracing system meant to control the spread of COVID-19 in May 2020, but in July, it admitted that it did not conduct a required privacy assessment before launching the system. The system was also affected by at least three data breaches by that month.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is generally respected, though peaceful protesters have found themselves under police surveillance for attending public events in recent years.
Major protests were held under the Black Lives Matter banner in May and June 2020 in response to the police killing of George Floyd in the US. Many of these protests were peaceful, though acts of violence and vandalism, notably against statues commemorating slaveholders and historical figures accused of racism, were reported. Right-wing counterprotesters and members of football networks notably clashed with police during a mid-June protest in London, which ended with over 100 arrests.
Demonstrations against COVID-19-related measures also took place through much of 2020, with large monthly events taking place in London beginning in August. An early September demonstration was dispersed by police, who arrested 32 people amid clashes. Antilockdown protests also ended with arrests in late September, October, November, and December.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
NGOs generally operate freely. However, in recent years, disclosures of surveillance of NGOs and political organizations have drawn criticism. In October 2020, the Metropolitan Police apologized to an individual whose father, an undercover officer, engaged in a long-term relationship with his mother while surveilling animal rights and environmental organizations. In November, an inquiry into the conduct of undercover officers, which was originally announced in 2014, heard evidence, and remained in session at year’s end.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||4.004 4.004|
Workers have the right to organize trade unions, which have traditionally played a central role in the Labour Party. The rights to bargain collectively and strike are also respected.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
The judiciary is generally independent, and governmental authorities comply with judicial decisions. A new Supreme Court began functioning in 2009, improving the separation of powers by moving the highest court out of the House of Lords.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||3.003 4.004|
While due process generally prevails in civil and criminal matters, rights groups and some figures within the judiciary have criticized severe cuts in legal aid under reforms that took effect in 2013, which left many vulnerable people without access to legal counsel. The cuts notably affected immigration-related and family court cases.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 provided police with new enforcement powers, which have been criticized as disproportionately broad in scope. In July 2020, the Guardian reported that the Metropolitan Police was disproportionately fining BAME London residents for violating COVID-19 measures. UK police have also been accused of using existing stop-and-search powers disproportionately. In December, an individual claiming to have been stopped dozens of times by the Metropolitan Police and the City of London Police vowed to sue both forces for racial profiling.
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 allows authorities to seize travel documents of individuals attempting to leave the country if they are suspected of planning to engage in terrorist-related activities abroad, and to forcibly relocate terrorism suspects within the country. The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 makes viewing terrorist content online punishable by up to 15 years in prison, and allows law enforcement agencies to keep fingerprints and DNA of terrorism suspects for up to five years, even if no charges are ultimately filed.
The UK justice system still grapples with cases stemming from the Troubles, the 1968–98 conflict over the partition of the island of Ireland. In September 2020, territorial prosecutors upheld a previous decision not to prosecute 15 individuals allegedly involved in the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre. Separate charges against “Soldier F,” who is accused of murder and attempted murder for participating in the massacre, remained pending. In November 2020, the UK government declined to open an inquiry into the 1989 murder of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane, who was allegedly killed by a loyalist organization with the assistance of a soldier and a police informant.
Parliament began considering the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill, which would allow undercover officers to engage in criminal offenses to perform their roles, in September 2020. In November, a parliamentary human rights committee criticized it, warning it would allow agents to engage in especially violent activity.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because residents belonging to racial and ethnic minority groups were disproportionately stopped and searched by police forces using existing and COVID-19-related powers.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
Individuals living in the UK are largely free from violence, but acts of terrorism did occur in 2020. In February, two people were injured in a stabbing attack in London. In a June incident, three people were stabbed to death in the English town of Reading.
Northern Ireland has seen continued paramilitary activity. The Police Service of Northern Ireland reported two security-related deaths, 17 bombing incidents, and 79 terrorism-related arrests throughout 2020.
While prisons generally adhere to international guidelines, problems of overcrowding, violence, self-harm, and drugs in prisons worsened in the 2010s. In an August 2020 report, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons called prisons’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic swift, but noted that COVID-19-related measures caused “increasing levels of stress and frustration among many prisoners,” who consequently had little human contact.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
Foreign residents in the UK have been subject to increasing scrutiny since the 2010s. Under the ongoing “hostile environment” policy, which aims to persuade undocumented immigrants to voluntarily leave the UK or refrain from immigrating, individuals seeking public and private services face stringent immigration checks. In a September 2020 report, the Institute for Public Policy Research concluded that immigrants faced heightened racist treatment and poverty due to the policy. That same month, a parliamentary public accounts committee accused the Home Office of formulating biased immigration policies in a separate report.
The Windrush scandal of 2018 has spurred debate over the treatment of immigrants and minorities. Thousands of people arrived from Caribbean countries including Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados at the UK government’s invitation between 1948 and 1971, and received indefinite leave to remain in 1971. However, many Windrush-era immigrants and their children, who often traveled on their parents’ passports, were denied health coverage and housing in recent years, and at least 164 may have been wrongfully deported by February 2020. An independent report commissioned by the House of Commons, published in March, did not make a definitive finding of institutional racism within the Home Office, but did accuse it of “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness.”
Asylum seekers and migrants can be detained indefinitely, and there have been persistent reports of poor conditions and abuse in immigration detention centers. Asylum seekers also have reported difficulty finding suitable housing from landlords while their applications are processed. The government also vowed to end reunion rights for minor refugees and asylum seekers living outside the UK with family members living in the country. The House of Lords approved a legislative amendment to protect such rights in October 2020, though the lower house was expected to overrule it. In September, the Home Office began evicting refused asylum seekers from emergency accommodation provided at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, sparking fierce criticism from local government officials and NGOs.
Citizens of EU member states may encounter difficulties remaining in the UK. While many in this group of 3.4 million people should be eligible to remain after the UK’s departure from the EU, securing this status has proven difficult for some applicants. In September 2020, a University of Oxford report warned that a large portion of this group may not realize they are required to apply for “settled status,” or may face barriers to applying.
The UK has recorded a sustained rise in hate crimes against LGBT+ residents for much of the 2010s. The Home Office recorded nearly 16,000 such crimes during its 2019–20 reporting period in England (barring Greater Manchester) and Wales, a 19 percent increase over the 2018–19 reporting period.
The authorities actively enforce a 2010 law barring discrimination on the basis of factors including sexual orientation and gender reassignment. While women receive equal treatment under the law, gender discrimination persists in the workplace and elsewhere in society.
BAME residents face continued discrimination, including by the authorities. Stop-and-search powers are disproportionally used against BAME people; the Metropolitan Police initiated 105,000 such stops between April and June 2020, but only a fifth of such stops ended with an arrest, fine, or warning. According to Home Office internal data, this tactic is 40 times more likely to be directed at Black people in the UK. BAME people have also disproportionately contracted and died of COVID-19, according to a government report published in June.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
While UK residents generally enjoy freedom of internal movement, travel has been affected by COVID-19-related lockdowns. A strict lockdown was introduced in March 2020, though many measures were eased by the end of May. A four-week lockdown was initiated in England at the end of October, as the rate of COVID-19 infections increased, and stricter measures were implemented in Great Britain in late December. Varying restrictions in localities and constituent countries remained in force throughout the year.
UK passport holders saw their freedom to travel to EU member states lessened when an agreement on the UK’s departure from the bloc was reached in December 2020. Under its terms, visitors from the UK will require a visa for extended travel to EU member states in the Schengen border area beginning in January 2021.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||4.004 4.004|
Individuals may freely exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||4.004 4.004|
The government generally does not place explicit restrictions on personal social freedoms. Abortion and same-sex marriage were heavily proscribed or prohibited in Northern Ireland until Parliament passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019.
Domestic violence is common in the UK. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that nearly a third of English and Welsh women between the ages of 16 and 59 experience domestic abuse. Domestic violence increased during COVID-19-related lockdowns, with police data showing that two-thirds of women in abusive relationships experienced more violence during the first national lockdown.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
A 2016 report by a government commission expressed concern about the social and economic isolation of many members of ethnic and religious minorities, and of the poor. According to the ONS, income inequality rose to 34.6 percent in 2020.
The Modern Slavery Act 2015 increased punishments for human traffickers and provides greater protections for victims, but implementation has been weak. Children and migrant workers are among those most vulnerable to forced labor and sex trafficking. In June 2020, the International Organization for Migration reported that trafficking referrals and investigations fell in the UK during the first national lockdown.
UK workers have encountered unsafe and exploitative conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in July 2020, an undercover reporter revealed that workers in a Leicester garment factory were paid less than the minimum wage, and that COVID-19 mitigation measures were not enforced in the facility.
On United Kingdom
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Global Freedom Score93 100 free
Internet Freedom Score79 100 free