Freedom in the World
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The Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair suffered erosion in its popularity in 2004 owing to difficult conditions in Iraq and the slower-than-promised improvements in public services on which Labour has campaigned. Labour did poorly in the June elections for the European Parliament, whereas a party hostile to Britain's European Union membership achieved its best-ever result. This was partly due to British voters' concerns about the EU's draft constitution, finalized shortly before the elections.
The English state emerged before the turn of the first millennium and was conquered by Norman French invaders in 1066. Celtic-speaking Wales and Ireland were incorporated into the kingdom over the course of the centuries; Scotland joined on more favorable terms with the creation of Great Britain in 1707. The Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689 began a gradual - but eventually total - assertion of the powers of parliament, as Britain became one of the world's first democracies, with a significant extension of voting rights in 1832.
Separatism has persisted in the Celtic lands: most of Ireland won independence after World War I, with Protestant-majority Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom. Most of Britain's global empire, the most important portion of which was India, became independent in the decades after World War II, although many of Britain's former colonies maintain links with the country through the Commonwealth. Significant powers were devolved to a Scottish parliament (and fewer to a Welsh assembly) established by the current Labour Party government, which was first elected in 1997 and was reelected in 2001. Peace negotiations restored home rule to Northern Ireland in 1998, but home rule has since been suspended because of breakdowns in the peace process.
After nearly two decades of Conservative Party rule Blair's "New Labour," so called because of its radical shift from its socialist past, adopted Conservative-style positions on a number of issues and swept general elections in May 1997. In June 2001 parliamentary elections, the Labour Party secured a second term in office with another landslide victory, trouncing the opposition Conservative Party. The United Kingdom's third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, increased its representation in parliament.
Despite a promise to focus on public services, particularly the ailing health and transport systems, Blair's second term as prime minister has been dominated by his support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Blair supported George W. Bush, the U.S. president, in the UN Security Council and on the world stage, despite anger within his own Labour Party and demonstrations on the streets. After the end of the initial hostilities in Iraq, however, the government suffered renewed criticism surrounding the case it had made for the war in the run-up to the conflict. In particular, the government clashed with the BBC over a report that it had exaggerated the threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Though a report cleared the government of deception, the suicide of a government scientist who had been a source for the BBC damaged the government's reputation. At the same time, Michael Howard, who became leader of the Conservative Party in late 2003, was unable to offer a strong challenge to Blair and the Labour Party from the opposition benches in 2004.
In 2004, the European Union (EU) completed negotiations on a new draft constitution. The British government claimed that it had successfully negotiated Britain's relatively Euroskeptic views into the draft. In particular, a proposal that could have seen EU foreign policy and tax policy be subjected to "qualified majority votes" (in which more populous countries have a larger vote) was not included; instead, Britain and the other 24 EU members will retain a veto in these areas. However, the opposition Conservative Party successfully pressured the government into promising to hold a referendum on the constitution, which Blair had initially resisted. There is a significant threat that Britain will vote no on the document when the referendum is held, preventing it from coming into force. British skepticism about the EU was further demonstrated by the European Parliament elections in June, in which the Conservatives beat Labour and the virulently anti-EU UK Independence Party came in third, winning 16 percent of the vote. Turnout at that election was just 38 percent.
Despite sustained increases in spending, the government has failed to deliver major improvements in public services, notwithstanding repeated promises to the electorate to do so. Some improvement has come, notably in health care. The Conservative Party, which failed to take advantage of the government's disappointing progress, was seen as lacking in fresh ideas and compelling leadership. Conservatives' support for the war in Iraq also made it difficult for the party to appear as a viable and meaningfully different alternative to Labour.
Northern Ireland's peace process, anchored by the Good Friday agreement of 1998, remains stalled since the suspension of the power-sharing government in Belfast in October 2002. This occurred after Sinn Fein, a hard-line Catholic nationalist party allied to the Irish Republican Army, was caught spying on ministers of the Northern Ireland government and on other parties. In new elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly in December 2003, Sinn Fein and the Protestant and loyalist Democratic Unionist Party did best, edging out their more moderate rivals on both sides. The two parties have not been able to work together to restore home rule to the province, which is run from London as long as the Northern Ireland government is suspended. Nonetheless, the two parties negotiated with each other through British and Irish government intermediaries in 2004, and a breakthrough on the subject of weapons decommissioning could lead to fresh elections in 2005.
The British can change their government democratically. Each of the 659 members of the House of Commons is elected in a single-member district. This procedure multiplies the power of the two largest parties, Labour and the Conservatives, at the expense of third parties. The Liberal Democrats are the most disadvantaged; although they won 16.8 percent of the vote in the 2001 election, they received only 7.9 percent of the seats in the House of Commons. The separation of powers is weak, with the prime minister and all members of his cabinet also being members of the legislature. The executive has in recent years become more powerful at the expense of the House of Commons. The monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, is the head of state but plays only a ceremonial role. The opposition party plays a crucial role in the Commons; although it is unable to block legislation, it holds ministers accountable in parliamentary debates that are widely covered in the press.
After a period of centralization under Conservative governments from 1979 to 1997, the Labour Party made constitutional reform a key part of its 1997 election platform. In government, it has delivered a far-reaching (though asymmetrical) devolution of power to Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The first elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly were held in 1999. The Scottish body has more power (including some tax-raising powers) than its Welsh counterpart, largely because of stronger separatist sentiment in Scotland. Welsh nationalism is largely cultural; with official protection and encouragement, the number of Welsh-language speakers actually grew 17 percent from 1991 to 2001. The Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended in October 2002 after complications in the peace process.
The government is largely free of pervasive corruption. The United Kingdom was ranked 11 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The media market in Britain is free, lively, and competitive. Many daily newspapers across a broad spectrum of political opinions compete for readers. Although broadcasting is dominated by the state-owned BBC, the corporation is editorially independent of the government. In 2003, the BBC claimed that the government exaggerated evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, leading to an extensive inquiry that eventually exonerated government. While the episode tarnished the reputations of both the government and the BBC, more generally, it was a sign of the healthy political debate that is possible in Britain. Internet access is not restricted by the government.
Although the Church of England and the Church of Scotland are established churches, the government both prescribes freedom of religion in law and protects it in practice. Scientology is not recognized as an official religion for charity purposes. Muslims and other religious minorities complain of discrimination. The government respects academic freedom.
Civic organizations and NGOs are allowed to operate freely, and the freedom to assemble is respected, as demonstrated by massive protests against the government's participation in the Iraq war in February 2003. The right to organize in unions is protected. Trade unions have traditionally played a strong role in the Labour Party, though this is weakening as the party moves to the center and seeks a larger role for the private sector in traditional public sector areas, such as health care.
A historical oddity in the justice system was removed in 2003 when the post of Lord Chancellor was abolished. The position, the second-oldest office in Britain after the monarchy, combined a legislative seat in the House of Lords, a senior executive position in the cabinet, and a powerful judicial position as, effectively, the top judge in the country. As such, it was a serious breach of the separation of powers (already weak in Britain), and the Labour government abolished it in 2003, creating the cabinet position of secretary for constitutional affairs. However, the top judges in the land remain the Law Lords, a combination of legislative and judicial authority that weakens judicial independence. The police maintain high professional standards, and prisons generally meet international standards.
Britain has large numbers of immigrants and second-generation children of immigrants, who receive equal treatment under the law. In practice, their living standards are lower than the national average. Women also receive equal treatment under the law, but are underrepresented in politics and the top levels of business.