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Freedom in the World

Freedom in the World 2017

United Kingdom


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Quick Facts

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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.

Key Developments: 
  • 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.
Executive Summary: 

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. 

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