United Kingdom | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

United Kingdom

United Kingdom

Freedom in the World 2011

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In the May 2010 parliamentary elections, the Conservative Party captured the most seats, but failed to secure an absolute majority and subsequently formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. The Labour Party—placing second in the elections—was forced into opposition after 13 years in power. In October, the coalition government—under the leadership of David Cameron—shifted its attention to the nation’s slow economic recovery, announcing large-scale public spending and defense cuts.

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. While Blair remained prime minister, he was considerably weakened by speculation over 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 more. 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 tighten 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 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. However, the locally elected Northern Ireland Assembly, as 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 to the assembly in March 2007 and the formation of a power-sharing local government between 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 Brown won some praise for his response to failed terrorist attacks earlier that month, he subsequently suffered from waning public support and a Labour Party fundraising scandal later in the year. 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 for a time hailed abroad as a model response. Nevertheless, Labour was outperformed 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.
In April 2010, Gordon Brown announced that parliamentary elections would be held in May; constituency boundaries were redrawn, increasing the number of seats in the House of Commons by two for a total of 650. David Cameron’s centre-right Conservative Party returned to power after 13 years of rule by the centre-left Labour Party. The Conservatives captured 306 seats, Labour secured 258 seats, the Liberal Democrats took 57, and the remaining seats went to smaller parties. Without an absolute majority, Prime Minister Cameron formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats,the first formal coalition government to rule the United Kingdom in 70 years.
After coming to power, Cameron’s coalition faced a daunting economic situation. With a ballooning budget deficit, the United Kingdom was only slowly emerging from a deep recession caused by the 2008 global financial collapse. In October 2010, Cameron announced the nation’s most severe austerity program in generations, including deep cuts in government spending and defense funding. Public anger over the cuts was substantial and prompted the largest protests seen in London since the 2003 Iraq War. Meanwhile, the armed forces of the United Kingdom and France began closely cooperating and cost-sharing. The cost of Britain’s nuclear deterrent came under particular scrutiny, though there was no plan to eliminate it. The new government also promised to review the Labour governments’ tightening of security at the perceived expense of civil liberties.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The United Kingdom is an electoral democracy. Each of the 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 23 percent of the vote in the 2010elections, they received only 8.8 percent of the seats in the House of Commons. In exchange for their participation in the coalition government, the Liberal Democrats demanded, among other requests, a referendum on a new electoral system which would give parties a number of seats more in line with their share of the vote. The referendum did not take place by year’s end. 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 former 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 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 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) were reported under the Labour government. In May 2009, the media revealed that many members of Parliament—from both major parties—had routinely used public funds for luxury items, home renovations, and other dubious purposes. Sir Thomas Legg, chair of the House of Commons’ independent audit commission investigating the scandal, issued a report in February 2010 demanding that nearly 400 members of Parliament reimburse the government for $2.1 million in illegitimate expenditures. However, the report was criticized by some as being overzealous, and Sir Paul Kennedy overturned or reduced the payments owed by many of those who appealed.Britain was ranked 20 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The law provides for press freedom, and the British media 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 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 try to sue for libel in a British court as long as the material was accessed in Britain, and the burden of proof falls 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.The government has faced criticism for rampant delays in fulfilling freedom of information requests. Internet access has not been restricted by the government. However, the government in 2009 increased the amount of information that internet firms must store on user activities, including visits to foreign websites.
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 inprison.Academic freedom is respected by British authorities.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected. Civic and nongovernmental organizations are allowed to operate freely. Workers have the right to organize trade unions, which 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 the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. A report issued by the government in 2009 found that many people arrested under the antiterrorism laws had been subsequently charged with different crimes, indicating that the laws may have been misused.
The government has occasionally 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.In October 2010, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Sir John Sawers, publically denounced torture as abhorrent and illegal, but stressed that in an era of public disclosures and transparency, secrecy was necessary to ensure the safety and security of the United Kingdom. Sawers is the first chief of MI6 to make a public speech in its 101-year history.
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. Parliament passed a law in 2009 delegating responsibility for policing and criminal justice to the Northern Ireland government, the last provisions of which came into effect on April 12, 2010.
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.
Women receive equal treatment under the law but are underrepresented in politics and the top levels of business. Women currently hold 143 seats in the House of Commons.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.