Freedom in the World
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The United Kingdom (UK)—comprised of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales—is a stable democracy that regularly holds free elections and is home to a vibrant free press. While the government enforces robust protections for political rights and civil liberties, recent years have seen concerns about increased government surveillance of residents, as well as rising Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. In a 2016 referendum, UK voters narrowly voted to leave the European Union (EU), in a development that will have political and economic reverberations both domestically and across Europe in the coming years.
- In a June referendum that sent shockwaves across the continent, voters chose to leave the EU by a margin of 51.9 percent, in what became known as “Brexit,” a word coined to capture Britain’s exit from the union. A desire to reduce immigration was a critical concern among “Leave” voters.
- Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the “Remain” campaign, resigned following the Brexit vote and was replaced by Theresa May, who was appointed following a Conservative Party leadership contest.
- Street crime and harassment against immigrants and Muslims increased in the wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and continued throughout the contentious campaign surrounding the EU referendum, during which elements of the Leave side blamed immigrants for economic woes and stress on social services.
- Jo Cox, a Labour MP who supported the Remain campaign, was murdered by a far-right extremist a week before the referendum. The attacker was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in November.
The referendum in June 2016 to decide whether the UK should leave or remain in the EU resulted in a 51.9 percent vote to leave, upending UK politics. The Leave campaign centered in large part on the issue of immigration, with proponents arguing that the sizable number of EU nationals living and working in the UK had done harm to the economy and overburdened its network of social services. The Remain campaign had emphasized economic benefits of immigration and EU membership, and the UK’s commitment to the liberal democratic values the EU embodied. However, the Remain campaign was widely described as listless and hampered by divisions between Cameron and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Cameron, whose Conservative Party had won general elections held in 2015, announced his intention to resign the day after the vote, triggering a Conservative Party leadership election that resulted in the appointment of Prime Minister Theresa May in July. Prime Minister May quickly vowed to curb immigration.
The Brexit campaign and the vote’s results, as well as the political aftermath of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, brought about widespread concerns of rising anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, with the Council of Europe expressing concerns about hate speech among politicians and in popular tabloid newspapers. Police in December also recorded an 18.2 percent increase in racist and religious hate crimes over the previous year. Additionally, days before the Brexit vote, Labour MP Jo Cox—who had campaigned for the Remain side—was killed by a far-right-wing extremist. The assailant was convicted of murder in November, with the presiding judge imposing a life sentence for what he described as a crime committed to advance Nazi ideology.
Mass surveillance by the security services, including the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), remained a concern during the year. In December, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled, in a case concerning the 2014 Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA), that “general and indiscriminate” retention of emails and electronic communications by the government was illegal unless it was targeted in order to fight cases of serious crimes, including terrorism. However, DRIPA was replaced in November 2016 by the new Investigatory Powers Act, which permitted even greater surveillance. At year’s end, UK courts were set to decide how to implement December’s ECJ ruling under domestic laws. The ruling could prompt legal cases against the new legislation—though if the UK leaves the EU, it will no longer be bound by ECJ decisions.
Each of the members of the House of Commons, the dominant, lower chamber of the bicameral Parliament, is elected in a single-member district. 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. The Commons must reconsider any measure defeated by the Lords, but it can ultimately overrule the upper chamber. The Lords’ approximately 800 members consist mostly of “life peers” nominated by successive governments. There are also 90 hereditary peers (nobles) and 26 bishops and archbishops of the Church of England. The monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, plays a largely ceremonial role as head of state. Elections in Britain are consistently free and fair.
The Conservative Party, which had been ruling in coalition with a smaller party, the Liberal Democrats, won an unexpected victory in the 2015 general elections, taking 36.9 percent of the popular vote and increasing its share of Commons seats by 24 for a total of 330, an outright majority. The second-ranked Labour Party took 30.4 percent of the vote and 232 seats, a loss of 26. The Scottish National Party (SNP) won 4.7 percent of the vote and 56 seats, an increase of 50. The Liberal Democrats won 7.9 percent of the vote and lost 49 seats, leaving them with just 8. The Euroskeptic, populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), campaigning on an anti-immigration platform, secured only one seat, despite having won the country’s 2014 European Parliament elections and taken two Commons seats in 2014 by-elections. Turnout for the 2015 voting was 66.1 percent. Local elections in England took place on the same day, with the Conservatives winning control of 163 of 279 councils; Labour placed second with control of 74 councils.
In February 2016, Prime Minister Cameron scheduled a June referendum on membership in the EU, fulfilling a years-old pledge to hold a vote on the issue. He led the Remain campaign. The referendum resulted in a 51.9 percent vote to leave the EU, against 48.1 percent who voted to remain. The results revealed deep divisions within the UK: England and Wales voted to leave by 53.4 percent and 52.5 percent, respectively; while voters in Scotland chose to remain by 62 percent, as did voters Northern Ireland, by 55.8 percent. Cameron resigned the day after the vote, triggering a Conservative Party leadership election that resulted in the appointment of May as Prime Minister in July. She proclaimed that “Brexit means Brexit” and assembled a team to prepare for the negotiations to leave the EU. Meanwhile, the main opposition Labour Party embarked on a protracted leadership battle that resulted in the incumbent Jeremy Corbyn being reelected in September. Nigel Farage, head of the UKIP—which claimed much of the credit for the Brexit vote’s results—resigned in July, saying he had fulfilled his political ambitions. Paul Nuttall was elected the UKIP’s new leader in November.
In the wake of the referendum result both Scotland and Northern Ireland began exploring political solutions to maintain their membership in the EU. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon suggested that Scotland might seek a new referendum on independence if the UK pursued “hard Brexit” policies that could reintroduce strict border controls and lead the UK to leave the EU’s common market. In Northern Ireland, the referendum’s result gave rise to politically sensitive questions about how to resolve the Brexit vote with provisions of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
In May 2016, regional elections to the Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies, as well the Scottish Parliament, took place. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) remained the largest party after elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) lost votes, coming in second and fourth, respectively. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was the third biggest party. In the Welsh Assembly, Labour remained the largest party, while UKIP won seats in the Assembly for the first time. In Scotland, the governing SNP remained the largest party, with the Conservatives surpassing Labour to become the second-largest party.
In December 2016, the government announced that it would soon begin requiring voters to produce identification in order to vote, drawing criticism that such a requirement would discourage participation among poorer voters. Officials also said they would prevent political activists from distributing absentee ballots.
The Conservative Party and Labour Party have dominated British politics for decades, though several other parties regularly win seats in Parliament. The SNP supplanted the Liberal Democrats as the third-largest party in the 2015 elections. Smaller parties, such as UKIP and the Greens, fare better in races for the European Parliament, which feature proportional-representation voting.
Under Britain’s system of “devolution,” the UK Parliament has granted certain powers to subnational legislatures, augmenting the political representation of regional populations as well as parties like the SNP. In Wales, Plaid Cymru champions Welsh nationalism. A 2011 referendum increased the Welsh Assembly’s autonomy, giving it authority to make laws in 20 subject areas without consulting Parliament.
The 2016 Scotland Act, approved in March, transferred further powers to the Scottish Parliament in areas such as taxation, welfare, and abortion law, in line with a pledge made by the main British parties ahead of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, which had been defeated.
In Northern Ireland, the main Catholic and republican parties are Sinn Féin and the SDLP, while the leading Protestant and unionist parties are the UUP and the DUP. The armed struggle between unionists and Irish nationalists over governance in Northern Ireland largely ended with the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, which established the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Britain’s freely elected officials make and implement national policy, and corruption is not pervasive, though high-profile scandals have damaged political reputations under both Labour and Conservative governments. The Bribery Act, which is considered one of the most sweeping pieces of antibribery legislation in the world, came into force in 2011. In 2015, then first minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson was accused of accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks to sell assets managed by the Republic of Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) to the U.S. investment firm Cerberus. An investigation of the sale was ongoing at year’s end.
Parties in the United Kingdom are financed through membership fees, donations, and state funding (if they are in opposition), and there have been scandals over donations to political parties. A lobbying register established in 2015 was criticized for its narrow scope and lack of enforcement mechanisms.
A 2013 World Bank study concluded that Britain’s freedom of information laws are “reasonably successful.” Civil liberties groups and the press have criticized government-proposed reforms to limit freedom of information requests.
Press freedom is legally protected, and the media are lively and competitive. Daily newspapers span the political spectrum, though economic pressures and rising internet use have driven some smaller papers out of business. On rare occasions, the courts have imposed so-called superinjunctions that forbid the media from reporting on certain information or even the existence of the injunction itself.
The state-owned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is editorially independent and competitive with its counterparts in the commercial market. A series of scandals have plagued the broadcaster in recent years, including the convictions of several employees and former employees for sexual and verbal abuse in 2013, and a controversy involving senior managers who were given inordinately high severance payouts and executive pay.
In the wake of a 2011 scandal in which reporters at the News of the World were accused of hacking the voicemails of hundreds of public figures and crime victims, a 2013 royal charter created a special panel that would certify an independent regulatory body for the press. Press freedom advocates have questioned the independence of the Press Recognition Panel established by the charter, suggesting that it is too closely linked to the government. In October 2016, a regulator known as Impress received recognition under the royal charter and was later endorsed by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). With the establishment of a royal charter–approved regulator, officials may invoke Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, through which tough financial penalties can be imposed on publications that fail to register with it.
The 2013 Defamation Act overhauled the country’s plaintiff-friendly libel laws, introducing a “public interest” defense, setting more stringent requirements for claimants, and making it more difficult for foreigners to file complaints in cases with little connection to Britain. The number of problematic defamation cases has decreased in recent years.
The government does not restrict internet access. New online criminal offenses were introduced in 2015 under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act, including the dissemination of images of a naked person without the subject’s consent, also known as “revenge porn.”
Although the Church of England and the Church of Scotland have official status, freedom of religion is protected in law and practice. A 2006 law bans incitement to religious hatred, with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. Nevertheless, minority groups, particularly Muslims, report discrimination, harassment, and occasional assaults. The Muslim community has come under threat and Muslims have faced occasional violence from far-right groups like the English Defence League. In the weeks following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the Metropolitan Police reported that Islamophobic hate crimes in London tripled; in 2016, the police recorded an 18.2 percent increase in racist and religious hate crimes over the previous year.
Academic freedom is generally respected. However, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015 requires schools and universities to prevent students from being drawn into terrorism and to vet the remarks of visiting speakers as part of that effort. The new legal obligation raised concerns that open debate and academic inquiry could be stifled. A Private Member’s Bill was presented to Parliament in June 2016 to repeal provisions in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act that require teachers and those caring for children to report evidence of extremism among children in preschool or primary school settings. Its second reading will take place in early 2017.
The effects of mass surveillance on free and open private discussion are also a growing concern. In 2015, a government-commissioned report on surveillance by British security agencies held that although the power to collect bulk communications data on British citizens may be justified, privacy concerns must be considered early in the collection process. It also stated that judges, rather than ministers, should authorize warrants for the collection of data related to criminal matters, and that there should be judicial review of warrants related to national security that are authorized by ministers.
DRIPA, the 2014 law governing intelligence agencies’ authority to monitor communications data, was replaced in November 2016 by the Investigatory Powers Act, known by critics as the “snooper’s charter.” DRIPA had been ruled unlawful by the High Court in 2015, in part because it allowed the agencies to conduct surveillance without judicial oversight. It was also struck down in December 2016 by the ECJ, which held that the government could use “bulk data” or “mass surveillance” collection only to deal with serious crime and that there should be restrictions on access to data to protect against violations of citizens’ privacy.
The new Investigatory Powers Act requires communications companies to store metadata on customers’ activity for 12 months and, in some cases allows this information to be accessed by police and other security officials without a warrant. However, judicial commissioners must review ministerial authorization of warrants for the actual interception of communications, including their content. The new law could be subject to legal challenges as a result of the ECJ ruling, although if the United Kingdom withdraws from the EU, it will not be bound by rulings of the ECJ.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected, though police have been criticized for certain crowd-control tactics in recent years. A number of demonstrations and assemblies were organized during 2016, including rallies across the country against a British exit from the EU, following the June referendum result.
Civic and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely. Groups identified as terrorist organizations can be banned, and there are concerns that the legal definition is broad enough that it could be interpreted to encompass legitimate associations and activism. Surveillance of NGOs has also drawn criticism. In 2015, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) disclosed that Amnesty International was among the groups whose data GCHQ had accessed and illegally retained. The U.S.-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) filed a complaint in 2015 with the tribunal alleging that its communications had also been the target of such surveillance, which had entailed cooperation with the U.S. National Security Agency. In May 2016 the IPT ruled in the HRW case that data collected on persons “situated outside” the United Kingdom cannot give rise to a claim of infringement of the right to privacy under UK law and the European Convention on Human Rights. In November, HRW filed a challenge with the European Court on Human Rights to force the IPT to state whether or not the group had been subject to GCHQ surveillance, and if so, whether such surveillance was illegal.
A lobbying law adopted in 2014 was heavily criticized for limiting the amount of money organizations can spend during election years; opponents assert that the law’s ambiguous language could lead to self-censorship and hinder the work of smaller groups.
Workers have the right to organize trade unions, which have traditionally played a central role in the Labour Party. The rights to bargain collectively and strike are also respected.
A new Supreme Court began functioning in 2009, transferring final judicial authority from the House of Lords. In 2015, the Criminal Justice and Courts Act, a sweeping legal reform law, came into effect. Among other things, it increased maximum prison sentences for terrorists and pedophiles, made certain kinds of extreme pornography illegal, and introduced measures to reduce recidivism.
The police maintain high professional standards. While prisons generally adhere to international guidelines, an increase in violence and suicides in jails was reported after recent austerity cuts resulted in reduced prison staffing, and the Prison Governors Association in October 2016 called for a public inquiry into the problem. Inmates are banned from voting. Although the European Court of Human Rights has ruled on several occasions that this is a violation of prisoners’ rights, an EU court ruled in 2015 that voting bans can be legal for prisoners convicted of serious crimes.
Britain’s strict antiterrorism laws allow authorities to control the movement of terrorism suspects when the evidence against them is insufficient for prosecution or deportation. The 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act has been criticized for giving excessive powers to police, including the authority to seize travel documents of individuals attempting to leave the country if they are suspected of planning to engage in terrorist-related activities abroad, and to forcibly relocate terrorism suspects within the country up to 200 miles away from their homes.
Anti-immigrant rhetoric surrounding the EU referendum campaign appeared to fuel a spike in harassment of and physical attacks against foreigners in the UK, many of which targeted immigrants from Poland. In an attack that shook the country’s politics days before the referendum, Labour MP Jo Cox, an advocate for the Remain campaign, was murdered by a far-right extremist who had shouted “Britain first” as he shot and stabbed her. The assailant was convicted of murder in November, with the presiding judge imposing a life sentence for what he described as a crime committed to advance Nazi ideology. There have also been concerns about rising Islamophobia in the wake of the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks.
Immigrants and their descendants receive equal treatment under the law, but generally face living standards below the national average. The Immigration Act 2016, which took effect in July, requires landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants, obliges banks to perform background checks before opening an account, and makes it a criminal offense for migrants to obtain jobs without appropriate paperwork. It also allows police to seize vehicles belonging to illegal migrants and allows authorities to electronically track those released on bail while awaiting deportation.
In 2015, the High Court found that the government’s fast-track procedure for asylum seekers—under which failed applicants were detained while their appeals were processed in an expedited manner—unlawfully prioritized speed over fairness. The Court of Appeal confirmed the ruling later that year and the system was suspended, although it is not yet clear what kind of system has replaced it. Meanwhile, in January 2016, former prisons and probation ombudsman Stephen Shaw submitted to Parliament a series of recommendations to improve the welfare of vulnerable asylum-seekers in detention. The “Shaw Report,” commissioned by the government in 2015, said too many asylum-seekers were being detained, and among other things recommended a ban on the detention of pregnant asylum-seekers and limits on the amount of time other asylum-seekers may be detained.
The authorities actively enforce a 2010 law barring discrimination on the basis of factors including sexual orientation and gender reassignment.
Citizens generally enjoy freedom of travel and choice of residence, employment, and institution of higher education. Economic activity is not excessively influenced by the government.
A government-commissioned report by Dame Louise Casey on social integration in the United Kingdom released in December 2016 expressed concern about the social and economic isolation of many members of ethnic and religious minorities and of the poor. The report also criticized “regressive religious and cultural practices” in segments of some communities.
While women receive equal treatment under the law, they remain underrepresented in top positions in politics and business. The number of women in the House of Commons rose to 192, or 30 percent, as a result of the 2015 elections, from about 23 percent before the elections. Gender discrimination persists in the workplace in practice. Abortion is legal in Great Britain, though heavily restricted in Northern Ireland, where it is allowed only to protect the life or the long-term health of the mother.
Same-sex marriage became legal in 2013. Religious organizations are permitted to refuse to conduct same-sex marriages.
The Modern Slavery Act, which increases punishments for human traffickers and offers greater protections for victims, became law in 2015. Children and migrant workers are among those most vulnerable to forced labor and sex trafficking.