Freedom in the World
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Tony Blair stepped down as prime minister as expected in 2007, passing his job to Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, in June. Brown’s response to minor terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London soon after he took office bolstered his popularity. However, later in the year, his indecision on whether to call early elections undermined his position and boosted the opposition Conservative Party.
The English state emerged before the turn of the first millennium and was conquered by Norman French invaders in 1066. Wales, Scotland, and lastly Ireland were subdued or incorporated into the kingdom over the course of centuries, culminating in the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. The Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 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. 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 was later 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 won a second landslide victory.
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 when he would hand the premiership to Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer. Blair said in September 2006 that he would step down within a year. Michael Howard, who had been seen as ineffective at capitalizing on Blair’s weakness, resigned as Conservative Party leader, and David Cameron was elected to replace him in December 2005.
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. (For this the police in 2007 were found guilty of violating health and safety laws and fined, though no individual officers were punished, and the head of London’s police resisted calls to resign.)
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.
Northern Ireland’s peace efforts made progress from 2005 to 2007, culminating in the creation of a power-sharing government in Belfast by two parties that were previously considered hard-line rejectionists: the Catholic and republican Sinn Fein, and the Protestant and loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP’s longtime leader, Ian Paisley, became first minister. This was a breakthrough in the stalled peace process. The locally elected Assembly called for in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 had been suspended in 2002 after Sinn Fein was caught spying on rival politicians and security officials. Sinn Fein and the DUP had then taken the lead in December 2003 Assembly elections, edging out their more moderate rivals, but were unable to form a government. An independent commission confirmed in 2006 that the guerrilla Irish Republican Army (IRA), which was linked to Sinn Fein, had dismantled its paramilitary structures. Only after this, and a crucial policing reform that included more Catholics in the renamed Police Service of Northern Ireland, were fresh elections held in March 2007 and the new power-sharing government formed. Small-scale violence flared up at the end of the year.
In June 2007, Tony Blair finally resigned, and Gordon Brown took office as prime minister. That same month, a series of amateurish terrorist attacks took place: two similar car bombs were found and disabled in London, and the next day, a jeep loaded with propane crashed into Glasgow airport and caught fire. No one was killed except for one of the attackers in Glasgow, who died of his burns in August. Eight men were taken into custody, including several doctors, and all the suspects were of Arab or South Asian descent. Brown’s actions afterward, including a reorganization and strengthening of the national security agencies, won him popularity. However, his plan to double the amount of time police could hold suspects without charges to 56 days, an echo of Blair’s earlier efforts, was reduced to 42 days under pressure; it remained uncertain whether it would be passed at year’s end.
In the autumn, Brown further distanced himself from Blair by announcing that he would remove all of Britain’s troops from Iraq by the end of 2008. Soon after, he speculated publicly about calling early elections, which are not uncommon in Britain. His wavering on whether to do so, and his eventual decision not to, made him appear weak in the eyes of many, and gave a boost to the Conservative Party. He also suffered a party-funding scandal that broke in November, when it emerged that a wealthy property developer donated 650,000 pounds ($1.3 million) to the party through intermediaries, a practice against his own government’s policies.
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, the third-largest party, are the most disadvantaged; although they won 22.1 percent of the vote in the 2005 elections, 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 lead 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 more than 700) was 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. The monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, plays a largely ceremonial role as head of state.
Aside from the dominant Labour and Conservative parties and the third-ranked, left-leaning Liberal Democrats, the chief parties are 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 DUP.
After a period of centralization under Conservative governments from 1979 to 1997, the Labour Party 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, but restored in 2007.
The government is largely free of pervasive corruption, though minor instances of political donations for “honors” (peerages and titles) have made news during the Labour government, and in 2007 a party-funding scandal (discussed above) tarnished the government. The United Kingdom was ranked 12 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 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 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; however in 2006, the Guardian newspaper reported on what it said was leaked guidance by the department of education to university professors, asking them to be on the lookout for extremism among Muslim students.
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 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 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 amid the terrorist attacks and alleged terrorist plots in recent years.
Women receive equal treatment under the law but are underrepresented in politics and top levels of business.