Freedom in the World
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Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
A scandal over lawmakers’ personal expenses erupted in May 2009, resulting in a loss of public faith in Parliament. Scotland’s justice secretary stirred controversy in August by releasing a Libyan man who had been convicted for the 1988 bombing of an airliner over the town of Lockerbie. Separately, the new Supreme Court began functioning in October, replacing a panel of the House of Lords as the country’s highest court and increasing the structural separation of powers.
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.
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, in 1997. Peace negotiations tentatively restored home rule to Northern Ireland in 1998.
The Labour Party won the 1997 general elections after adopting more centrist positions, ending nearly two decades of Conservative Party rule. Prime Minister Tony Blair led Labour to another major victory in 2001, though he faced opposition within the party for his support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq beginning in 2003.
A combination of slow progress in improving public services and the continuation of the Iraq war led to a far less decisive Labour victory in May 2005 elections, and the margin of the party’s parliamentary majority fell from 165 seats to 66. Blair remained prime minister, but he was considerably weakened by speculation about when he would hand the premiership to Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer.
On July 7, 2005, three suicide bombings in London’s Underground railway system and one on a London bus killed more than 50 people and wounded hundreds. The culprits were British Muslims—three of Pakistani descent and one a convert to Islam. The attacks set off a public debate about the integration of immigrants and racial and religious minorities into British society. They also led to wide-ranging government proposals to toughen antiterrorism laws, which in turn sparked concerns about civil liberties.
In previous decades, Britain’s main source of internal violence had been the struggle between unionists and Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland. This largely ended with the Good Friday peace agreement, signed in 1998. However, the locally elected Assembly called for in the agreement was suspended in 2002 after Sinn Fein—the political party linked to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), an outlawed Irish nationalist paramilitary group—was caught spying on rival politicians and security officials. Further peace talks and the formal disarmament of the IRA paved the way for fresh elections for the Assembly in March 2007 and the formation of a power-sharing local government by Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP’s longtime leader, Ian Paisley, became first minister.
In June 2007, Blair resigned and Brown took office as prime minister. Although he won some praise for his response to failed terrorist attacks that month, Brown subsequently suffered from flagging public support and a Labour Party fundraising scandal later that year. Meanwhile, David Cameron, a younger politician who had led the Conservative Party since late 2005, gained in the polls as he modernized and softened his party’s right-wing image.
Brown acted decisively to counter the international financial crisis in late 2008 and early 2009 by shoring up ailing banks with public money, and his approach was hailed abroad as a model response. Nevertheless, Labour was left far behind by the Conservatives in the June 2009 European Parliament elections, which also handed the nationalist—and many say racist—British National Party its first two seats.
The European voting took place amid a major scandal concerning the widespread exploitation of parliamentary expense accounts by lawmakers. In May, the media had revealed that many Parliament members routinely used public funds for luxury items, home renovations, and other dubious purposes. Both major parties were implicated, and the image of the entire institution was tarnished. The speaker of the House of Commons resigned as a result.
In August, Scotland’s justice secretary made the controversial decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of a U.S. airliner over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. Al-Megrahi was allowed to return home to Libya on compassionate grounds, as he was terminally ill. The move drew criticism in Britain and the United States, and led to accusations that the British government had pushed for the release to bolster economic relations with Libya, though officials in London rejected the claims.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
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 2005elections, they received only 9.4 percent of the seats in the House of Commons. The parliamentary opposition holds ministers accountable in 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, but it can ultimately overrule the Lords. The Lords membership, currently more than 700, was reformed under Prime Minister Tony Blair, and all but 92 hereditary peers (nobles) were removed. The rest are “life peers,” chosen by governments to serve for life; Law Lords, who until late 2009 served 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.
In addition to the Labour and Conservative parties and the 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 2002 after complications in the peace process, but restored in 2007.
Corruption is not pervasive in Britain, but high-level scandals have damaged the reputation of the political class under both Labour and Conservative governments. Instances of political donations made in exchange for “honors” (peerages and titles) have been reported under the Labour government, and a party-funding scandal tarnished the government in 2007. In 2009 a parliamentary expenses scandal drew a great deal of attention, although there was only limited corruption involved. At the same time, two members of the House of Lords were suspended for accepting bribes to amend legislation. Britain was ranked 17 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The law provides for press freedom, and the media in Britain are lively and competitive. Daily newspapers span the political spectrum, though the combined effects of the economic crisis and rising internet use have driven some smaller papers out of business. The state-owned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is editorially independent and faces significant private competition. England’s libel laws are among the most claimant-friendly in the world, leading wealthy foreign litigants—known as libel tourists—to use 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. The government is also increasingly using so-called super-injunctions to forbid the media from reporting certain information and even from reporting on the injunction, as occurred in one high-profile case with the Guardian newspaper in 2009. The government has faced criticism for rampant delays in fulfilling freedom of information requests. In 2009 the government refused to fulfill a request on security grounds for the first time; the query sought the minutes of cabinet meetings leading up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. Internet access has not been restricted by the government. However, in 2009 the government announced that internet firms will be required to store increased information on user activities, including visits to foreign websites, and additional proposals designed to combat internet piracy have raised protests for their severity.
Although the Church of England and the Church of Scotland have official status, the government both prescribes freedom of religion in law and protects it in practice. Nevertheless, Muslims especially report discrimination, harassment, and occasional assaults. A 2006 law banned incitement to religious hatred, with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.Academic freedom is respected by British authorities.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected. However, police were criticized in April 2009 for corralling and striking protesters during an international summit, and for abusing a passerby who later died. Civic and nongovernmental organizations are allowed to operate freely. Workers’ right to organize in unions is protected. Trade unions have traditionally played a leading role in the Labour Party, though this connection weakened as the party moved toward the center beginning in the 1990s.
A new Supreme Court began functioning in October 2009, improving the separation of powers by moving the highest court out of the House of Lords. An earlier round of reform in 2005 had removed the judicial and legislative functions of the Lord Chancellor, who remains a senior figure in the cabinet. The police maintain high professional standards, and prisons generally adhere to international guidelines.
Britain’s antiterrorism laws are some of the strongest in the democratic world, and are frequently criticized by rights groups. Terrorism suspects can be detained without charge for 28 days, and in 2009 the European Court of Human Rights awarded compensation to 11 people who had been detained without trial after 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. Also in 2009, a government report found that many people arrested under the antiterrorism laws had been subsequently charged with different crimes, indicating that the laws may have been misused. It also showed that people of Asian descent have been arrested on flimsier grounds than others. In June the Law Lords ruled that the evidence used against a defendant may not be kept secret under so-called control orders—restrictive conditions placed on terrorism suspects—as was previously the case.
In several cases the government has been accused of “outsourcing” torture by extraditing terrorism suspects to their home countries, where they could be abused in custody. According to a 2009 UN report, at least 15 people claimed to have been tortured in other countries with the knowledge of British authorities.
Violence in Northern Ireland has been rare in recent years. However, the murders of two soldiers and a policeman in March 2009 were claimed by IRA splinter groups that oppose the peace agreement. Four splinter groups remain active, but they may not total more than a few hundred people. Also in March, Parliament passed a law allowing devolution of responsibility for policing and criminal justice to the Northern Ireland government, though the transfer was not finalized by year’s end.
In September 2009, the director of public prosecutions published guidelines describing circumstances in which a person was unlikely to be prosecuted for assisting another person’s suicide, a topic that has been hotly debated in the country. While such assistance remained illegal, the factors that could dissuade a prosecution included the age, intent, and illness of the deceased, and the motives of those assisting them.
Britain has large numbers of immigrants and locally born descendants 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 plots of recent years. Racist incidents are more common in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the country. In a particularly severe incident in June 2009, thugs drove more than 100 Romanians, mostly Roma, from their homes; many ended up temporarily leaving the country.
Women receive equal treatment under the law but are underrepresented in politics and the top levels of business. Women on average earn 23 percent less than men. Abortion is legal in Great Britain but heavily restricted in Northern Ireland, where it is allowed only to protect the life or the long-term health of the mother. Northern Irish women seeking abortion typically travel to Great Britain.