Freedom in the World
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A government report released in November 2012 recommended the formation of a new regulatory body to oversee the press, while a bill under discussion would allow authorities to access data retained by internet and phone companies on users’ online communications—including emails, mobile phone calls, web browsing history, and details of messages sent on social media. In May local elections, the Labour Party had its best performance in 15 years. Controversial family migration rules introduced in June placed new restrictions on spouses, partners, and dependents entering Britain. Meanwhile, in April, the United Kingdom fell into its first double-dip recession since the 1970s.
The English state emerged before the turn of the first millennium and was conquered by Norman French invaders in 1066. 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. Wales, Scotland, and then 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. 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 the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1921. Significant powers were devolved to a Scottish Parliament, and fewer to a Welsh Assembly, in 1997. The struggle between unionists and Irish nationalists over governance in Northern Ireland largely ended with the 1998 peace agreement, which established the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, the assembly was suspended a number of times before further peace talks, and the formal disarmament of the Irish Republican Army (IRA)—an outlawed Irish nationalist militant group—paved the way for fresh assembly elections in 2007. Those elections resulted in the formation of a power-sharing local government between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
After nearly two decades of Conservative Party rule, the Labour Party won the 1997 general elections, and 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. Slow progress in improving public services and the continuation of the Iraq war led to a far less decisive Labour victory in 2005.
In June 2007, Blair resigned, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown became prime minister. Brown countered 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. Nevertheless, in the June 2009 European Parliament elections, the Conservatives and the UK Independence Party (UKIP)—which strongly opposes British membership in the European Union—outperformed Labour, while the xenophobic British National Party (BNP) won its first two seats.
In the May 2010 Parliamentary elections, the Conservatives led 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 daunting economic challenges, including a ballooning budget deficit. Cameron introduced unpopular austerity measures in 2011, and economic growth remained just barely positive.
A March 2011 referendum increased the Welsh Assembly’s autonomy, giving it authority to make laws in 20 subject areas without consulting Parliament. Sinn Féin and the DUP consolidated their control in May elections for the Northern Irish legislature, while the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) made major gains in Scotland’s election held the same day.
In July 2011, media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation closed the weekly tabloid News of the World amid mounting allegations that its reporters had hacked into the telephone messages of hundreds of public figures and crime victims. Cameron appointed Lord Justice Leveson that same month to lead an inquiry into the general operation of the UK press and suspected collusion between the police and reporters.
At an EU summit at the end of January 2012, the UK opted out of the EU fiscal compact—the Referendum on the Treaty on Stability, Coordination, and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union—which restricts the borrowing and spending of EU member states. Cameron has discussed possibly offering a referendum on the treaty as part of the Conservative platform for the next general election in 2015. In preparation, the UK foreign secretary is currently performing an audit of the impact of EU legislation on the UK.
In April, the UK fell into its first double-dip recession since the 1970s. After three straight quarters of contraction, GDP rose by 1 percent in the third quarter of 2012, though analysts considered the improvement a “blip,” with growth remaining largely unchanged.
After much debate between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament over the terms of a referendum on Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom, a compromise was reached in October between Cameron and Scottish first minister Alex Salmond. The agreement schedules the vote for the fall of 2014, with a single yes-or-no question on independence; those 16 years and older will be permitted to participate.
Developments during 2012 challenged the strength of the ruling coalition. In May local elections, the Labour Party’ won 38 percent of the popular vote—its best performance since 1997. In July, a significant number of Conservatives voted against a bill that would have provided for an 80 percent directly elected House of Lords—instead of its current appointed and hereditary membership—fearing the change would threaten the primacy of the House of Commons. In response, the Liberal Democrats—who viewed the Conservatives’ abandonment of the Upper House reform as violating the coalition agreement—said they would not support changes that would recast constituency boundaries.
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 around 800, consists mostly of “life peers” nominated by successive governments. There are also 92 hereditary peers (nobles) and 26 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 SNP. In Northern Ireland, the main Catholic and republican parties are Sinn Féin 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 political reputations under both Labour and Conservative governments. The Bribery Act, which is considered one of the most sweeping anti-bribery legislation in the world, came into force in July 2011. In October 2012, a senior Scotland Yard official was charged with offering to illegally provide News of the World with information on a 2010 police inquiry into phone hacking.
Press freedom is legally protected, 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 (BBC) is editorially independent and faces significant private competition. 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. 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. Claimants win 90 percent of cases. A bill that would significantly overhaul the country’s libel laws passed its third reading in the House of Commons in December 2012 and was pending in the House of Lords at year’s end. UK newspaper and magazine publishers currently regulate themselves voluntarily under the Press Complaints Commission, which does not have any legal powers. On November 29, 2012, the Leveson Inquiry report recommended forming a new, independent regulatory body to oversee the press.
The BBC faced a series of scandals in 2012 that prompted the resignation of director general George Entwistle in November. In early October, ITV—BBC’s main rival—released a documentary exposing allegations of sexual abuse against the late Jimmy Savile, a popular BBC television and radio presenter and philanthropist. The exposé led to a broad criminal investigation that implicated a number of police departments accused of mishandling abuse allegations and other government-funded institutions, such as the BBC, schools, and hospitals, where Savile is accused of having abused some 300 girls and young women. In late 2011, the BBC program Newsnight had canceled a segment on accusations against Savile of sexual abuse. An independent investigation, the Pollard Inquiry, was launched in late 2012 into the culture and practices at the BBC during Savile’s era. The Pollard Inquiry’s report, which was published in December, found that the BBC lacked adequate leadership and was highly disorganized, and stated that the decision to remove the Newsnight investigation into Savile was flawed but done in good faith by the program’s editor. Separately, in early November, Newsnight wrongly linked Conservative Party politician Lord McAlpine to allegations of sexual abuse at a children’s home in Wales.
The government does not restrict internet access. However, a draft communications data bill under consideration would require internet and phone companies to allow public authorities to see a year’s worth of details about the identities, locations, and duration of online communications for users of social media, e-mails, mobile phone calls, and voice calls placed over the internet. However, in December 2012, the Joint Committee on the Communications Data Bill released a report criticizing the bill as too sweeping and calling for consultation with technical experts, public institutions, and civil rights groups, among others, before redrafting. The prime minister announced at year’s end that the bill would be rewritten.
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.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected in law and in practice. Civic and nongovernmental organizations may 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. A new Justice and Security Bill under consideration at the end of 2012 would allow civil courts to hear secret evidence in private in cases related to national security. Critics charged that defendants would not have access to evidence against them, and ministers, rather than judges, would decide which evidence would be withheld or presented in court. The new bill came after the government, unable to reveal sensitive intelligence information in court, had to settle millions of pounds in claims with terrorist suspects alleging abuse in November 2011. The bill was moving through Parliament at the end of 2012, having passed its second reading in the House of Commons in December.
Britain’s strict antiterrorism laws have undergone several changes in recent years. In January 2011, the detention of terrorism suspects without charge was limited to 14 days. Britain’s “control order” regime—including forcible relocation of terrorism suspects and restrictions on their internet usage—was replaced in January 2012 with new Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs). TPIMs limit restrictions on the movement of terrorist suspects, when evidence to prosecute or deport them is lacking, to two years and removes the possibility of their relocation.
The government has been accused of “outsourcing” torture by extraditing terrorism suspects to their home countries, where they could be abused in custody, but has consistently denied complicity in illegal rendition and torture. In January 2012, a criminal investigation was launched into MI6’s role in delivering two Libyan opponents of Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi to Libya, where they were allegedly tortured for years by Qadhafi’s secret police. A 1994 law protects MI6 agents who carry out decisions authorized by a cabinet minister from liability for criminal acts abroad, but the two Libyans are suing MI6, former Labour government ministers, and a number of other government institutions. A larger inquiry into the UK’s involvement in improper treatment of detainees held by other countries was shelved in January due to the Libyan cases.
Violence in Northern Ireland has abated in recent years, and Queen Elizabeth II even shook hands with Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of Ireland’s Sinn Féin party and former IRA commander, in June 2012. However, more than 20 Northern Irish police officers were injured in Belfast in July during rioting over the annual Protestant Orange Order parade in a nationalist area of northern Belfast. In November, an off-duty prison guard was shot and killed outside of the Maghaberry Prison, where protests from some 40 jailed members of various IRA splinter groups had occurred over the guards’ policy of strip-searching inmates. A group claiming to be the successor of the IRA claimed responsibility for the shooting.
In July 2005, coordinated suicide bombings in London carried out by four British Muslims killed more than 50 people and wounded hundreds more. The attacks set off a public debate about the integration of immigrants and racial and religious minorities into British society. Riots in London and other UK cities in August 2011 sparked new debates in Parliament over policing, economic inequality, and the social integration of the children of immigrants. To improve immigrant integration, changes were proposed in July 2012 to the citizenship test given to foreign nationals to include more questions on Britain’s history and culture. The government has also introduced a language test for spouses, allegedly to help immigrants assimilate.
Britain’s large numbers of immigrants and their locally born offspring receive equal treatment under the law, but their living standards are lower than the national average, and they complain of having come under increased suspicion amid the recent terrorist attacks and plots. An immigration report released in November 2012 found that the UK has a large backlog of asylum cases, with some 147,000 asylum seekers who made a claim before March 2007 having waited an average of seven years for a decision. Conservatives pledged to reduce the number of immigrants significantly by 2015. In 2011, the government implemented a cap of 20,700 skilled migrants from outside the EU, which has been criticized as prohibiting growth. New family migration rules introduced in June 2012 set an annual income threshold for any British citizen wishing to bring a spouse, partner, or dependent into the UK from outside the European Economic Area, instituted a stricter language test, and increased the probationary period for partners.
A 2010 equality act consolidated previous antidiscrimination laws for 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. In Northern Ireland, a judge in October 2012 rejected a 1987 law that prohibited unmarried and same-sex couples from adopting children, ruling that the law violated European human rights laws on privacy and discrimination.
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. Ireland’s first abortion clinic opened in Belfast in October 2012 and drew protests from about 400 people, who called for its shutdown. The clinic may provide abortions only in exceptional cases, and only to women who are less than nine weeks pregnant.