Freedom in the World
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Tony Blair announced in September 2006 that he would step down as prime minister by mid-2007 at the latest, with Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown expected to replace him. The Conservative Party chose a new leader, David Cameron, in December 2005. An alleged plot to bomb transatlantic flights leaving London further increased terrorism concerns after the bombings of mid-2005 and contributed to a growing debate about the integration of Muslims in Britain.
The English state emerged before the turn of the first millennium and was conquered by Norman French invaders in 1066. Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, all home to speakers of Celtic languages, were subdued or incorporated into the kingdom over the course of centuries, initially through the sovereignty of the monarch and then through the union of parliaments. The union with Wales was formally completed in 1536, and Scotland joined with the creation of Great Britain in 1707. Ireland was formally absorbed in 1801, when the country became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689 began a gradual—but eventually total—assertion of the powers of Parliament, as Britain became one of the modern world’s first democracies. A significant extension of voting rights was passed in 1832, and subsequent reforms led to universal adult suffrage.
Separatism has persisted in the Celtic lands; most of Ireland won independence after World War I, with Protestant-majority counties in the north remaining a restive part of what became, as of 1927, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Most of Britain’s global empire, the most important portion of which was India, gained independence in the decades after World War II, although many 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 under the Labour Party government in 1997. Peace negotiations restored home rule to Northern Ireland in 1998, but the local government 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 the party’s 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 Conservatives.
Despite a promise to focus on public services, particularly the troubled health and transport systems, Blair’s second term as prime minister was dominated by his support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq amid opposition from within his own party. After the end of the initial hostilities in Iraq, the government suffered renewed criticism over the evidence and arguments it had offered to support its position during the run-up to the conflict.
A combination of slow progress in improving public services, the continuation of the war, and frustration with the government’s European Union (EU) policy led to a far less decisive Labour victory in May 2005 elections, with the margin of parliamentary majority reduced from 165 seats to 66. Labour took just 36 percent of the vote, the smallest total for a majority-winning party in Britain’s democratic history.
Blair remained prime minister after the 2005 election, but he was considerably weakened by speculation about the timing of his long-standing promise to give up the premiership in favor of Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer. Blair said in September 2006 that he would step down within a year. Michael Howard, the Conservative Party leader who had been seen as ineffective in capitalizing on Blair’s weakness, resigned as party leader, and David Cameron was elected to replace him in December 2005.
Britain’s sometimes troubled relationship with the EU remained in the spotlight at a summit in Luxembourg in June 2005, when a group of EU countries led by France demanded an end to Britain’s annual rebate from the EU budget. (Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had negotiated the annual refund in the early 1980s, claming that Britain was unfairly taxed by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.) The argument left Britain further embittered with France and forestalled agreement on the budget.
On July 7, 2005, three bombings in London’s Underground railway system and one on a London 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 set off a public debate about the failure of many immigrants and racial and religious minorities to become integrated into British society. Shortly after the attacks, British police shot and killed an innocent Brazilian man, suspecting he was a terrorist. More than a year after the shooting, no definitive punishments had been handed down for the deadly mistake.
The aftermath of the terrorist attacks led to government proposals to toughen antiterrorism laws, which in turn sparked concerns about civil liberties. The proposals, first introduced in August 2005, were wide ranging. However, in one of the first bills to be voted on by the House of Commons, Blair was defeated. Instead of extending the time terrorism suspects could be held without detention from 14 to 90 days, the Commons extended the period to 28 days. In another government setback, the Law Lords (the highest court in Britain) ruled in December that evidence obtained through torture could not be used at trial.
Concerns about terrorism extended into 2006. In February, a radical and outspoken Muslim cleric, Abu Hamza al-Masri, was convicted of soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred. (British National Party leader Nick Griffin was cleared of incitement charges in November after calling Islam a “vicious, wicked faith,” prompting claims by some observers that the justice system was biased against Muslims.) In August, authorities reported that they had disrupted a plot to blow up transatlantic airliners departing London. In October, the Guardian newspaper published what it said was a leaked document from the Department for Education and Skills advising professors to keep watch on Muslim students suspected of extremism.
A related issue flared in October after an assistant teacher was fired for refusing to remove her niqab , a face-covering veil worn by some Muslim women. Jack Straw, the Labour Party leader in the House of Commons, created a stir by saying he disliked the veil and asked his constituents—many of whom were Muslim—to remove it when they visited him. Despite an outcry against Straw, Blair supported him, calling the veil a “mark of separation.” The incident further fed the national debate over the integration of Muslims, both immigrants and their British-born children.
Northern Ireland’s peace efforts made some progress in 2005 and 2006, though home rule had yet to be restored by year’s end. The Good Friday agreement of 1998 called for a locally elected assembly to take responsibility for 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) paramilitary group, was caught spying on rival politicians and security officials. In new elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly in December 2003, Sinn Fein and the Protestant and loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) took the lead, edging out their more moderate rivals on both sides.
Nevertheless, after verifying in 2005 that the IRA had put a large number of arms permanently “beyond use,” the Independent Monitoring Commission, a body set up by the peace process, confirmed in October 2006 that the IRA had dismantled its paramilitary structures and seemed fully committed to peace. The DUP leadership remained skeptical, however. The British and Irish governments pushed the DUP’s leader, Ian Paisley, to meet with Sinn Fein’s leader, Gerry Adams. They called new Northern Ireland provincial elections for March 2007, and set up a transitional Northern Irish assembly as a placeholder until then. Adams and Paisely did not meet directly, but spoke to each other across the aisle in the transitional assembly. Sinn Fein support for the reformed police services remained a crucial sticking point; Paisley refused to work with Sinn Fein without such a commitment from the republicans.
The United Kingdom is an electoral democracy. Each of the 646 members of the House of Commons, the dominant lower chamber of the bicameral Parliament, is elected in a single-member district. This procedure multiplies the power of the two largest parties—the Labour Party and the Conservative Party—at the expense of smaller 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 executive and legislative powers is weak, since the prime minister is typically the leader of the majority party or coalition in the Commons. Furthermore, the executive has in recent years become more powerful, at the expense of the legislature. 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. Parliamentary elections must be held at least every five years.
The House of Lords, Parliament’s upper chamber, can delay, but not ultimately block, legislation initiated in the Commons. Its membership (currently 725) has been reformed under Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour government. Nearly all hereditary peers (nobles) have been removed from the body, with 92 remaining pending further reform. The rest are “life peers,” chosen by governments to serve for life; Law Lords, who serve as the country’s highest court; and a small number of bishops and archbishops of the Church of England. As the head of state, the monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, plays a largely 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. In Northern Ireland, the main Catholic and republican parties are Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, while the leading Protestant and unionist parties are the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party.
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 authority) than its Welsh counterpart, largely because of stronger separatist sentiment in Scotland. Welsh nationalism is primarily cultural. The Northern Ireland Assembly was temporarily 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 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The law provides for press freedom, and the media in Britain are lively and competitive. Daily newspapers across a broad political spectrum compete for readers. Although broadcasting is dominated by the state-owned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the organization is editorially independent and faces significant private competition. 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, it was a sign of the healthy political debate that is possible in Britain’s media. 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 Britain. In 2005, the government proposed banning Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), an Islamist group that advocates the creation of a transnational Muslim caliphate and is opposed to democracy, but the plan stalled and the group remains legal. Although it officially disavows violence, the government sees Hizb ut-Tahrir as an ideological source of violent extremism. Academic freedom is respected by British authorities.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected, as demonstrated by massive protests in recent years against the government’s participation in the Iraq war. Civic organizations and nongovernmental organizations are allowed to operate freely. Workers’ right to organize in unions is protected. Trade unions have traditionally played a strong role in the Labour Party, though this connection 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.
Legislation approved in 2005 launched a major reform of the top tiers of the justice system, calling for the Law Lords to be removed from the House of Lords and established as a separate Supreme Court. The original bill would also have abolished the ancient post of Lord Chancellor, the second-oldest office in Britain after the monarchy, which combined a legislative role 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 had represented a serious breach of the separation of powers, which was already weak in Britain. The final version of the legislation stopped short of eliminating the office of Lord Chancellor, but it still removed the post’s judicial function and ended the Lord Chancellor’s role as speaker of the House of Lords. The police maintain high professional standards, and prisons generally meet international guidelines.
Britain has large numbers of immigrants and locally born 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 2005 terrorist attacks in London and the alleged foiled plot in August 2006.
Women receive equal treatment under the law but are underrepresented in politics and top levels of business.