1999 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.5
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 1


In 1999, Prime Minister Tony Blair of the Labour Party presided over a remapping of the British political landscape, highlighted by the implementation of a Northern Ireland peace agreement and the devolution of legislative powers to Scotland and Wales. As part of his overall agenda to reinvent and modernize Britain's traditional political system, Blair all but dissolved one segment of the House of Lords, dismissing most hereditary peers from the chamber. His government commands a 179-seat majority in parliament and enjoys the highest popularity ratings in British history. With the opposition Conservative Party in disarray, the government has room to implement its political agenda. However, allegations of corruption have tainted numerous Labour politicians, including some close to the prime minister.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland encompasses the two formerly separate kingdoms of England and Scotland, the ancient principality of Wales, and the six counties of the Irish province of Ulster (see Northern Ireland under Related Territories). The British parliament has an elected House of Commons with 659 members chosen by plurality vote from single-member districts and a House of Lords with 478 hereditary and appointed members. A cabinet of ministers appointed from the majority party exercises executive power on behalf of the mainly ceremonial sovereign. Queen Elizabeth II nominates the party leader with the most support in the House of Commons to form a government.

Blair's "New Labour," so called because of its radical shift from its socialist past, adopted Conservative-style positions on a number of issues and swept general elections in May 1997. The government continues to define itself as it goes along by blending traditional Labour and Conservative policies. Since taking office, Labour has abandoned tax-and-spend policies, devolved monetary policy to the Bank of England, and imposed strict spending limits. But it has also reintroduced the minimum wage and restored rights to trade unions.

With his sizable parliamentary majority, Blair has successfully pushed through a number of reforms. Devolution of power to Scotland and Wales took place in May 1999, with both territories establishing their own legislatures. The 129-member Scottish parliament and the 60-member Welsh assembly exercise control over transportation, health, education, and housing, while foreign, defense, and economic policies remain under British parliamentary control. The Labour Party dominated parliamentary elections in both territories. In November, the government carried through with a sweeping reform measure for the House of Lords. Of the 1,144 members, 666 hereditary peers lost their sitting. Some 500 life peers, along with 92 remaining hereditaries, will remain until further reform of the 800-year-old chamber, which wields no significant political power but does act as a tempering influence on the House of Commons. In March 1998, the government announced the creation of a mayoral seat and a 25-member assembly for London. Elections are scheduled for 2000.

Prime Minister Blair continued to make overtures to left-wing Tories to join his pro-European Union "Britain in Europe" campaign. On European Monetary Union (EMU), the government still rules out joining the single currency during the current parliamentary term, which very likely precludes a referendum until 2002.

On December 1 1999, the new 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly based in Belfast, was officially handed power by the British parliament, ending 27 years of direct rule from London and ushering in a new era of Protestant-Catholic relations in North Ireland. The inauguration of a shared-power arrangement between the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), stems from the Good Friday Agreement, of April 10, 1998. Central to the Ulster Unionists acceptance of the power-sharing arrangement was the IRA's promise to agree to a timetable for decommissioning its arms. The assembly, elected by proportional representation, establishes a north-south ministerial council to consult on matters of mutual concern to Ireland and Northern Ireland and establishes a British-Irish council of British, Irish, Northern Irish, Scottish, and Welsh representatives to discuss particular policy issues.

Allegations of financial and political misconduct have multiplied since Labour's election. Peter Mandelson, the trade and industry secretary and chief Blair ally, resigned in late 1998 after it was revealed that he had accepted a $373,000 loan from Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson. At the time of the disclosure, Robinson was under investigation by Mandelson's office for corruption. Robinson also resigned. The affair forced the resignation in January of Press Secretary Charlie Whelan, amid accusations that he leaked news of the loan. However, allegations of impropriety have apparently not taken a toll on Blair's popularity; in the fall he was enjoying the highest approval ratings of any British prime minister in history.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of the United Kingdom can change their government democratically. Voters are registered by government survey and include both Irish and Commonwealth (former British empire) citizens resident in Britain. British subjects abroad retain voting rights for 20 years after emigration. Welsh and Scottish legislatures have authority over matters of regional importance such as education, health, and some economic matters. The Scottish parliament has limited power to raise taxes.

In November 1999, when the government dismissed 666 hereditary peers from the House of Lords, critics charged that Lords reform should have begun with arrangements for a partial election, lest a government pack the house with cronies. Hereditary peers had constituted more than half the members of the Lords; the balance are government appointees.

Britain does not have a written constitution, and civil libertarians have criticized legal attempts to combat crime and terrorism as dangerous to basic freedoms. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which is renewed every two years, suspects may be detained without charge or legal representation for up to seven days. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 allows a jury to infer guilt from a defendant's silence. In the wake of a bombing that killed 28 people in Omagh, Northern Ireland, in August 1998, the government called an emergency session of parliament to pass the toughest antiterror laws in British history. The laws make it possible to jail suspected terrorists on the word of a senior police officer and allow security forces to seize the property and money of known terrorists. In November 1999, Home Secretary Jack Straw announced a set of proposals to "modernize and make permanent" the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Included in the proposals was a move to broaden the definition of terrorism, which could implicate those who propose the political use of violence. Civil rights leaders decried the new proposals, fearing they would curtail legitimate political activity. The new bill will also grant wider powers to police, enabling them to seize assets in drug smuggling cases.

In November, the government passed the Human Rights Act of 1998, incorporating articles of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law. The act compels all public bodies to act in accordance with the convention and allows British citizens to take alleged violations of the convention to British courts. In September 1999, the ministry of defense suspended further action against homosexuals serving in the armed forces after the European Court of Human Rights ruled the British ban on gays in the military unlawful.

In April 1999, 78-year-old Anthony Sawoniuk, a naturalized British citizen, was sentenced to two life prison terms for his role in the killing of 18 Jews in a Polish town in 1942. Sawoniuk was the first person tried in Britain under its 1991 War Crimes Act. In October, a London court moved to extradite General Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile, to Spain, where he faces charges of torture, murder, and other human rights violations. The high court in London set March, 2000, as the start date for Pinochet's appeal process.

A government report issued in February 1999 found London's police force "riven with pernicious and institutionalized racism." The findings stem from complaints of police harassment of blacks and the specific case of Stephen Lawrence, an 18-year-old black man stabbed to death in 1993 by a group of white youths. The inquiry into the crime was said to have been mismanaged by the police. The report recommends setting recruitment targets for black and Asian officers and extending the 1976 Race Relation Act to the police and other public bodies, thereby opening up the police force to greater public scrutiny.

Though uncensored and mostly private, the British press is subject to strict libel and obscenity laws. Print media are privately owned and independent, though many of the national daily newspapers are aligned with political parties. The BBC runs about half the electronic media in the country. It is funded by the government, but editorially independent. In March 1999, Britain's Independent Television Commission (ITC) ordered MED TV, a London-based Kurdish-language channel, to cease broadcasting for 21 days for issuing calls for violence in Turkey. MED TV is the world's only Kurdish language TV station, watched by thousands in eastern Turkey. In April, MED TV's license was revoked by the ITC. In May, authorities in London shut down a website containing names of more than 100 secret intelligence operatives, posted by a former MI6 agent.

In May 1999, the government introduced a draft Freedom of Information bill, allowing public access to a wide range of information previously denied, including police data. Several exclusionary clauses were attached to the bill, including information regarding national security, defense, international resolutions, safety of the individual and the public, commercial interest, and law enforcement.

British workers are free to form and join independent trade unions. A 1998 Fairness at Work bill proposes to boost worker rights and improve union recognition. It includes improvements in maternity and sick leave, provisions for equality between part-time and full-time workers, and higher rewards for unfair dismissal. It also grants unions automatic recognition where 50 percent of workers in a workplace are union members or if 40 percent of workers support recognition.

A national minimum wage policy was introduced in April 1999, establishing a graduated pay scale based on age.

Criticism of British immigration policy continued in 1999. In June, human rights and refugee groups criticized the new British Immigration and Asylum Bill, claiming the new law will increase poverty among foreigners in Britain. Specifically criticized was a proposal in the bill to replace benefits with food vouchers. The vouchers, good only in certain stores, will not allow for bargain shopping, critics charge.

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