United Kingdom


Policy Performance


Economic Policies

Despite the uncertainty created by the Brexit vote, the United Kingdom receives high overall rankings (rank 10) in the area of economic policy. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.6 points relative to 2014.

After years of cuts in public spending, the prospect of Brexit has shifted the country’s economic calculus. The widely predicted deterioration has not emerged; GDP growth remains middling, and deficits are moderate but sustainable as long as interest rates remain low. Nevertheless, the government has postponed its goal of reaching budget surplus until the year 2020.

Unemployment rates have fallen significantly, to the point that full employment has become an official objective. The minimum wage has been raised to the level of a living wage. Youth unemployment is high, but moderate by EU-wide standards.

Income taxes are progressive, with significant opportunity for avoidance at high income levels. Brexit’s potential impact on access to EU research funding, as well as on the country’s financial sector, is causing concern.

Social Policies

With a largely effective social-benefits system, the United Kingdom scores well overall (rank 7) with regard to social policies. Its score on this measure has lost 0.2 points since 2014.

Competition-based reforms have continued in the education sector. A controversial new proposal to create state-run secondary schools based on academic selection has not yet been implemented. Higher-education fee hikes have been very controversial, though enrollment rates have remained steady.

Child poverty is down, but inequality levels are high. The NEET share (not in employment, education or training) is falling. An affordable-housing shortage has particularly affected urban low-income households. Gender-equity, child-care and parental-leave policies are robust.

The universal health care service remains strong, but hospitals are experiencing funding difficulties. Pension reforms have shifted risk to individual pensioners, but the system is fiscally sustainable. Anti-immigrant rhetoric surrounding the Brexit “leave” campaign contributed to attacks on minorities and immigrants. Concern over terrorist threats remains high.

Environmental Policies

As a strong voice for environmental protection internationally, the United Kingdom receives a high overall ranking (rank 10) for its environmental policies. Its score on this measure has gained 0.1 point since 2014.

Despite strong environmental rhetoric, subsidies for green energy have been cut, and the government has intensified support for fracking and nuclear power. Market-based mechanisms continue to inform environmental policy, paired with planning systems such the effort to protect green belts around urban areas. Some ecological programs have fallen victim to spending cuts.

Prime Minister May dissolved the Department of Energy and Climate Change, merging it with the newly established Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Much environmental policy is still determined by the EU; while some post-Brexit divergence is possible, the UK is expected to maintain most large commitments.

The government ratified the Paris climate-change accord in late 2016. It has also announced plans to relax regulations for on-shore wind farms and natural-gas fracking.



Quality of Democracy

Despite a robust and well-regulated electoral system, the United Kingdom receives middling overall scores (rank 22) with respect to democracy quality. Its score on this measure is unchanged relative to 2014.

Though referendums typically play little role in UK governance, the Brexit vote transformed British politics. For ordinary elections, paid television campaign advertising is banned, but major parties are granted free ad time. Donation-based party funding has produced abuses. In 2015, a Conservative-backed act restricted trade-union financing for political parties, which will reduce Labour Party income.

While the media is broadly independent, recent scandals exposed links between press organizations and politicians. The government has actively sought to prevent reporting on the issue of state surveillance. Media concentration is significant.

Civil rights are generally adequately protected, but anti-terrorism measures have become increasingly harsh. A tribunal ruled that intelligence services had illegally collected private-citizen data for nearly two decades. Anti-discrimination laws are broad, though the Brexit vote exposed anti-immigrant feelings. The as-yet-unclear form of Brexit has clouded legal certainty.



Executive Capacity

With its powerful core executive, the United Kingdom falls into the top ranks internationally (rank 7) with regard to executive capacity. Its score on this measure has increased by 0.4 points since 2014.

The prime minister sets the government agenda, while the Cabinet Office coordinates policy development. Strategic planning has been improved, in part through civil-service professionalization. New cabinet committees are routinely created in response to political shifts. Concerns are emerging that the Brexit-related workload will undermine government coordination.
RIAs are routinely performed, with sustainability an element of the review. Efforts to consult organized economic and civil-society groups are made, often in the impact-assessment process. The Brexit referendum saw a public split within key government-party circles, leading to a lack of communication coherence that is still apparent.

Post-Brexit-vote party divisions have constrained Prime Minister May’s ability to implement strategy. Local and regional governments are gaining power. The uncertainties and demands associated with Brexit are a serious risk to productive international coordination.

Executive Accountability

With a mix of strengths and weaknesses, the United Kingdom falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 12) with respect to executive accountability. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.1 point as compared to 2014.

Parliamentarians, especially in the opposition, have relatively few resources, though formal oversight powers are adequate. The National Audit Office is independent and well-regarded. The ombuds system has been expanded in recent years, but all offices have limited resources and powers.

Citizens have a moderate level of policy knowledge. Increasing amounts of government information are available online, with outreach campaigns targeting specific groups. Although the country’s main broadcast media produce high-quality news programming, newspaper quality varies widely.

Parties allow members – and in Labour’s case, “registered supporters” – to elect leaders, but other decisions are more centralized. Economic-interest organizations have become more assertive faced with the prospect of Brexit. Civil-society organizations are also sophisticated and offer reasonable, if sometimes narrow, proposals.
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