Freedom in the World
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In 2011, widespread telephone hacking by News of the World journalists was uncovered, leading the paper’s owner, U.S.-based News Corporation, to close it in July. The ensuing investigations also revealed that police had failed to properly investigate earlier reports of hacking, and that officers had received money from News of the World reporters. Separately, voters rejected altering the electoral system in a national referendum held in May, and in July London and other cities were rocked by youth riots, which the police struggled to contain.
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 vis-à-vis the monarchy, 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, 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.
On July 7, 2005, coordinated suicide bombings in London killed over 50 people and wounded hundreds more. The four culprits were British Muslims. 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 peace agreement. However, the Northern Ireland Assembly established by the agreement was suspended in 2002 after Sinn Fein—the political party linked to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), an outlawed Irish nationalist militant 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).
In June 2007, Blair resigned, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown took office as prime minister. 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, in the June 2009 European Parliament elections, Labour was outperformed by both the Conservatives and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which strongly opposes British membership in the European Union. Voters also handed the far-right, xenophobic British National Party (BNP) its first two seats.
Parliamentary elections were called for May 2010, and the opposition Conservatives led the field with 306 seats. Labour placed second with 258, the Liberal Democrats took 57, and smaller parties divided the remainder. Conservative leader David Cameron, lacking a majority, formed a rare coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.
The new government faced a daunting economic situation, including a ballooning budget deficit. In October, Prime Minister Cameron announced a severe program of tax increases and spending cuts, prompting large public protests. The austerity measures came into full swing in 2011, and economic growth barely remained in positive territory.
In March 2011, referendum voters in Wales endorsed a reform that increased the autonomy of the Welsh Assembly, giving it authority to make laws in 20 subject areas without consulting Parliament.
In a national referendum in May, proposed by the Liberal Democrats and carried out as part of the coalition agreement, voters considered a new “instant runoff” electoral system under which they would rank parliamentary candidates by preference, and a candidate would have to receive more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes to win outright. Some 40 percent of eligible voters turned out for the plebiscite, and two-thirds rejected the new method in favor of the existing first-past-the-post system. Elections were held the same day for the legislatures of Northern Ireland and Scotland. Sinn Fein and the DUP consolidated their control in Northern Ireland, and the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) made major gains in Scotland.
In July, the weekly tabloid News of the World was closed by its owner—media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation—amid mounting allegations that its reporters had hacked into the telephone messages of hundreds of public figures and crime victims over the past several years. Related investigations, including those by other media outlets, exposed corrupt links between reporters and police, who had failed to adequately pursue previous reports of hacking or alert possible victims, and allegedly sold favors and information to News of the World journalists in some cases.
Shortly after the paper was closed, News Corporation withdrew its bid to acquire the British satellite broadcaster BSkyB, in which it already held a minority stake. The deal had raised concerns about the growth of News Corporation’s perceived power within Britain’s media and political establishments. Highlighting those concerns, Andy Coulson, Cameron’s communications director until January, was arrested in July for his alleged role in the phone hacking while serving as a News of the World editor prior to 2007. Responding to public criticism, the prime minister launched a series of official inquiries into the hacking scandal. One probe found in November that other papers had engaged in hacking, and that the number of hacking requests by News of the World staff was larger than originally thought. The inquiries and parallel criminal cases were ongoing at year’s end.
Separately, on August 4, the fatal police shooting of a 29-year-old suspect in London led to four nights of rioting in the capital and a number of other cities. The police appeared unprepared to deal with the outbreak, and failed to stop looting and other criminality in many instances. The riots sparked new discussions in Parliament over changes to policing in the country, as well as debates about economic inequality and the social integration of the children of immigrants.
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. Parliamentary elections must be held at least every five years. Executive power rests with the prime minister and cabinet, who must have the support of the Commons.
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 about 800, consists mostly of “life peers” nominated by successive governments. There are also 92 hereditary peers (nobles) and some two dozen bishops and archbishops of the Church of England. The monarch, 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 SNP. 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. Parties that have never won seats in Parliament, such as the UKIP and BNP, fare better in races for the European Parliament, which feature proportional-representation voting.
Corruption is not pervasive in Britain, but high-profile scandals have damaged the reputation of the political class under both Labour and Conservative governments. In January 2011, a former Labour member of Parliament, David Chaytor, received an 18-month prison sentence for lying about mortgage payments on property he owned outright. In May, Lord Taylor of Warwick, a Conservative, was sentenced to 12 months in prison for lying about travel and property expenses. After a series of delays, a 2010 antibribery law, which has been called one of the most sweeping in the world, was implemented in July. Following accusations that London police officials had received bribes from News of the World reporters, the commissioner and assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police both resigned in July. Britain was ranked 16 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The law provides for press freedom, and the media are lively and competitive. Daily newspapers span the political spectrum, though the economic downturn 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 them to silence critics; a suit is possible as long as the allegedly libelous material was accessed in Britain, and the burden of proof falls on the defendant. In some cases, this practice has led to self-censorship. A bill that would significantly overhaul the country’s libel laws was unveiled in March 2011, but it was still under discussion at year’s end. On rare occasions, the courts impose so-called superinjunctions, which forbid the media from reporting certain information or even the existence of the injunction itself. The government has faced criticism for rampant delays in fulfilling freedom of information requests, and in January 2011 it introduced plans for a Public Data Corporation to make public information more accessible. Internet access has not been restricted by the government, though the amount of information that internet firms must store on user activities, including visits to foreign websites, was increased in 2009.
Although the Church of England and the Church of Scotland have official status, freedom of religion is protected in law and practice. Nevertheless, minority groups, particularly Muslims, 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, though the authorities’ use of “kettling,” in which protesters are surrounded and tightly confined, has recently been criticized for discouraging peaceful demonstrations. Civic and nongovernmental organizations are allowed to operate freely. Workers have the right to organize trade unions, which have traditionally played a central role in the Labour Party.
A new Supreme Court began functioning in 2009, replacing an appellate body within the House of Lords. The police maintain high professional standards, and prisons generally adhere to international guidelines. However, the government came under criticism from UNICEF in October 2011 for potentially breaching the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by jailing a large number of minors with no prior criminal records following the August riots.
Britain’s antiterrorism laws are some of the strongest in the democratic world, and are frequently criticized by rights groups. In January 2011, the government proposed reforms that would reduce its existing powers to detain terrorism suspects for 28 days without charge and impose “control orders”—which include monitoring and restrictions on freedom of movement—on others, also without formal charges. However, critics said the changes were largely superficial, and the issue remained a matter of debate throughout the year.
The government has been accused of “outsourcing” torture—particularly during the years after 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States—by extraditing terrorism suspects to their home countries, where they could be abused in custody. In 2010, the Cameron government agreed to investigate these allegations, but human rights organizations in 2011 criticized the terms of the inquiry as “secretive, unfair, and deeply flawed,” as the government said evidence would not be requested from foreign governments and victims would not have the opportunity to question British intelligence officials. In July, victims’ lawyers and human rights groups announced that they would boycott the inquiry.
Violence in Northern Ireland has been rare in recent years, and the last provisions of a 2009 law delegating responsibility for policing and criminal justice to the government of Northern Ireland came into effect in 2010. However, a Catholic recruit for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was killed in a car bomb attack outside his home in April 2011; members of an IRA splinter group claimed responsibility. Other Catholics who have joined the PSNI have faced threats from republican militants. In June, fighting broke out in Belfast between police and extremists on both sides. The riots spread across the territory and lasted several nights.
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. In October 2011, Cameron called on the public to report suspected illegal immigrants to the authorities.
A 2010 equality act consolidated previous antidiscrimination laws and covers categories including age, disability, race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation. Since 2005, same-sex couples have been able to form civil partnerships with the same rights as married couples.
While women receive equal treatment under the law, they remain underrepresented in top positions in politics and business. Women won 143 seats in the House of Commons in the 2010 elections. 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.