Freedom in the World
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Gordon Brown, the Labour government’s prime minister, was unpopular for much of 2008 and the opposition Conservative Party gained popularity and confidence. However, Brown’s response to the financial crisis in late 2008 improved Labour’s standing in the polls. Meanwhile, public and political resistance prevented the amount of time that police could detain suspects without charge from being extended.
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 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 his own party.
A combination of slow progress in improving public services and the continuation of the war led to a far less decisive Labour victory in May 2005 elections, with the margin of parliamentary majority reduced from 165 seats to 66. 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. 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 terrorists, 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 some 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; although the police in 2007 were found guilty of violating health and safety laws and fined, 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, although one of Blair’s first measures 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.
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. 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. An independent commission confirmed in 2006 that the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which was linked to Sinn Fein, had dismantled its paramilitary structures. Only after this, and a crucial reform that included more Catholics in the police force, 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, 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, all of Arab or South Asian descent. Brown’s actions afterward, including a reorganization and strengthening of the national security agencies, won him some popularity, although overall approval of his leadership declined for most of his first year. His economic policy making seemed unsure, in contrast with his successful tenure as chancellor of the exchequer. Meanwhile, Labour suffered a party-funding scandal that same year.
Brown’s efforts to double the amount of time that police could hold suspects without charge to 56 days continued in 2008. The period was shortened to 42 days in a bill submitted in 2008. Although the bill passed the House of Commons in June, despite individual Labour members’ opposition, it was soundly defeated by the House of Lords. Brown, rather than trying to force it past the Lords, decided to hold the bill in reserve in case of emergency.
Late in the year, a Conservative politician, Damian Green, was suspected of soliciting moles in the Home Office (interior ministry) to pass him embarrassing information on the government’s immigration policy. Green was arrested and held for nine hours, and police searched his parliamentary office, a major breach of precedent. The affair resulted in an investigation over whether police had faced improper political pressure to pursue Green.
Cameron, the new, young conservative leader, modernized his party’s image, and the Conservatives led in polls for most of 2008. However, near the end of the year, Brown was decisive in the face of the international financial crisis. The government’s quick decision to spend public money to capitalize ailing banks was hailed as a model response internationally and was copied by other countries including the United States. This response helped boost Labour’s popularity slightly, though the Conservatives remained substantially ahead at year’s end.
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 lead opposition party plays a crucial role in the Commons; although it is unable to block legislation without defections from the governing party (a rare occurrence), 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 legislation initiated in the Commons. If it defeats a measure passed by the Commons, the Commons must reconsider (though it can ultimately triumph over the Lords according to the Parliament Act). 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.
The dominant political parties are the Labour and Conservative parties and the third-ranked, left-leaning Liberal Democrats. Other parties 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 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. 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 instances of political donations for “honors” (peerages and titles) have made news during the Labour government, and a party-funding scandal tarnished the government in 2007. The United Kingdom was ranked 16 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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. The combination of the 2008 economic crisis and challenges from the internet led to a spate of small newspaper closings in 2008. 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. Wealthy foreign litigants—known as libel tourists—are increasingly using Britain’s libel laws to silence their critics; anyone can sue for libel in a British court as long as the material was accessed in Britain, and the burden of proof is on the defendant. In some cases, this practice has led to self-censorship. 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 taxpurposes. Muslims especially complain of discrimination, harassment, and occasional instances of assault. In 2006, Parliament passed a law banning incitement to religious hatred, with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.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. Academic freedom is respected by British authorities.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected. 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 reformed 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’s anti-terror laws are some of the toughest in the democratic world, and are frequently criticized by groups like the Muslim Council of Britain. Public and political resistance kept the without-trial detention period from being extended to 42 days in 2008, and support for introducing national identification cards has waned.
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 actual and alleged terrorist plots in recent years.
Women receive equal treatment under the law but are underrepresented in politics and top levels of business. Abortion is legal in Great Britain but is heavily restricted in Northern Ireland, where it is legal only to protect the life or the long-term health of the mother. Northern Irish women seeking abortion typically travel to Great Britain.