Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The Labour Party won its third straight election in May 2005, but with its majority in the House of Commons significantly reduced. Tony Blair remained prime minister, amid widespread speculation that he would leave office this term and be replaced by Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer. A terrorist attack in London in July led to efforts to strengthen antiterrorism legislation, as well as to improve the integration of Britain's Muslims. However, these efforts gave rise to concerns about the erosion of civil liberties.
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. 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, Tony 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 the June 2001 parliamentary elections, the Labour Party secured a second term in office with another landslide victory, trouncing the opposition Conservative Party.
Despite a promise to focus on public services, particularly the ailing health and transport systems, Blair's second term as prime minister was dominated by his support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, notwithstanding anger within his own Labour Party and demonstrations on the streets. After the end of the initial hostilities in Iraq, 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 the government had exaggerated the threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Although 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.
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, thwarting efforts to increasingly Europeanize taxes and foreign policy, but still suffered criticism that it had given in too much to other EU countries. Frustration with Labour's EU policy led to the Conservative Party winning the June 2004 European Parliament elections; the virulently anti-EU UK Independence Party came in third place with a surprising 16 percent of the vote.
A combination of the slow progress in improving public services, the continuation of the war in Iraq, and frustration with Europe led to Labour winning its third election as expected in May 2005, but with a much reduced parliamentary majority, from a margin of 165 seats to 66. Labour took just 36 percent of the vote, the smallest total of a majority-winning party in Britain's democratic history. Blair remained prime minister, but speculation grew over when, not merely if, he would be replaced as prime minister in his third term by Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer. Michael Howard, the leader of the Conservatives who had been seen as ineffective in capitalizing on Blair's weakness, promised to resign pending the outcome of a Conservative leadership election.
Shortly after the 2005 election, Britain's worries about the EU constitution were allayed when French and Dutch voters rejected the draft constitution in referendums. These rejections in effect killed the constitution and prevented Blair and Labour from facing-and potentially losing-a referendum at home. However, Britain's sometimes-troubled relationship with the EU remained in the spotlight at a summit in Luxembourg in June, when a group of EU countries led by France demanded an end to Britain's annual rebate from the EU budget. (Margaret Thatcher had negotiated the annual refund in the early 1980s, claming that Britain was unfairly taxed by the EU's Common Agricultural Party.) The argument left Britain further embittered with France and forestalled agreement on the budget.
On July 7, three bombings in London's Underground railway system and one in a bus killed more than 50 people and wounded hundreds. The bombers, also killed in the attacks, were British Muslims, three of Pakistani descent and one a convert to Islam. The attacks began a public soul searching about the failure of many immigrants and racial and religious minorities to become integrated into British society. Shortly after the attacks, British police shot dead an innocent Brazilian man, believing he was a terrorist suspect. Police claims that he acted suspiciously later unraveled: he had been followed because he lived in the house of a suspected terrorist and may have been shot as he ran to catch his train.
The aftermath of the attacks led to government proposals to toughen terrorism laws, but these have caused concerns about civil liberties. The proposals, first introduced on August 5, are wide-ranging. They would, for example, ban certain Islamist organizations; close mosques believed to be sources of terrorist agitation and recruitment; create a crime of "indirect incitement" to terrorism for those who glorify terrorism anywhere in the world; streamline the process by which clerics deemed to be radical would be deported, potentially to countries that practice torture; strip radicals who have been naturalized of their British citizenship; and create closed pretrial hearings at which secret evidence could be introduced. None of these had yet become law by the end of November. However, in a rare legislative defeat for Blair, a proposal to extend the time terrorism suspects could be held without detention from 14 to 90 days was voted down in the House of Commons in November. The Commons instead extended the period to 28 days.
Northern Ireland's peace process saw progress in 2005, though home rule has yet to be restored to the province. The Good Friday agreement of 1998 called for a locally elected assembly to be in charge of much of the province's governance. However, the assembly was suspended in 2002 after Sinn Fein, a hard-line Catholic nationalist party allied to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), 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 (DUP) 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, leaving it to be run from London.
Nevertheless, in July, after the Islamist terrorist attacks earlier in the month, the IRA formally pledged to "end the armed campaign," saying that it would now engage in purely political struggle. In October, an international commission verified that the IRA had put a large amount of weapons (guns and bomb-making materials) "beyond use." The commission could not verify that this was the IRA's entire arsenal, nor was it permitted to take photographs or other records. The DUP leadership remains skeptical, but there is nonetheless some chance that the two sides will return to negotiations that could restore home rule in coming years.
Citizens of the United Kingdom can change their govern-ment democratically. Each of the 646 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 Conservative Party-at the expense of third parties. The Liberal Democrats are the most disadvantaged; although they won 22.1 percent of the vote in the 2005 election, they received only 9.4 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 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.
The House of Lords can delay but ultimately not block legislation. Its membership (currently 725) has been reformed under Tony Blair's Labour government. Nearly all hereditary peers (nobles) have been removed from the body, with 92 remaining pending further reform. The remainder are "life peers," appointed by governments to serve for life, and a small number are bishops and archbishops. As the head of state, the monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, plays only a ceremonial role.
The center-left Labour party and the center-right Conservative Party dominate the political scene-one or the other has governed without coalition partners since World War II. The Liberal Democratic Party, now somewhat to the left of Labour, is the third-largest party. The other chief parties are mainly regional. These include the Welsh-nationalist Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party. They also include several parties in Northern Ireland: Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour party (both Catholic and republican), and the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (both Protestant and unionist).
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. However, in November 2005, the home secretary, David Blunkett, was forced to resign from the cabinet a second time, after failing to report according to parliamentary rules that he had taken paid work while he was out of the cabinet. The United Kingdom was ranked 11 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 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, which led to an extensive inquiry that eventually exonerated the 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. In 2005, the government proposed banning Hizb ut Tahrir, an Islamist group that advocates the creation of a Muslim caliphate in the Middle East and is opposed to democracy. The government sees the party as a source of violent extremism. The government respects academic freedom.
Civic organizations and nongovernmental organization (NGOs) are allowed to operate freely. Freedom of assembly 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.
An 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, and they complain of having come under increased suspicion since the July terrorist attacks in London. Women receive equal treatment under the law, but are underrepresented in politics and top levels of business.