United Kingdom


Sustainable Policies


Economic Policies

Forced to deal simultaneously with Brexit and the coronavirus, the United Kingdom falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 16) in the area of economic policy. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.3 points relative to 2014.

The COVID-19 pandemic struck just as the country was adjusting to the new realities of Brexit. Growth in this highly services-based economy turned sharply negative in mid-2020, but bounced back later in the year. By the end of 2021, GDP had reached its pre-pandemic level. Strong spending on a furlough program meant that the unemployment rate peaked at just 5.1%, and fell to 4.1% by late 2021.

Government spending was on the rise even before the pandemic, with Prime Minister Johnson promising an end to austerity. Total debt jumped from 82.8% of GDP in 2019 to 95.9% in 2021. National Health Service contributions have been increased, and a tax on digital services has been imposed.

The formal completion of Brexit led to a number of difficulties, including friction at EU borders and supply-chain disruptions. Labor shortages are emerging in areas such as care and agriculture. Research cooperation with the EU has been disrupted, but the government is increasing its domestic science budget.

Social Policies

With a largely effective social benefits system, the United Kingdom scores well overall (rank 12) with regard to social policies. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.3 points since 2014.

The universal healthcare system remains strong, but service provision has been unable to keep pace with rising demand. Shortages of protective equipment and inadequate testing facilities marred the initial response to the pandemic, but the early rollout of vaccines helped sustain the system. COVID-19 death rates were relatively high.

Education is handled separately by the UK’s four constituent nations, leading to different policies and outcomes. Test results have improved in recent years, and school spending has risen. The government has followed strict immigration policies since Brexit. However, while incidents of discrimination do occur, public policy and societal norms are oriented toward the inclusion of minorities.

Cuts in welfare spending have been particularly difficult for single mothers. Pandemic-era lockdowns disproportionately affected women, who bore the brunt of added childcare burdens. Pension eligibility ages have risen. The pension system is fiscally sustainable. Global development aid has been cut, though the country remains a major aid contributor.

Environmental Policies

As a strong voice for environmental protection, the United Kingdom falls into the top ranks internationally (rank 5) for its environmental policies. Its score on this measure has improved by 1.0 point relative to its 2014 level.

The country’s withdrawal from the European Union has forced it to develop a new environmental framework, enshrined in the ambitious Environment Act 2021. This includes a goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, with an emissions reduction of 78% compared to 1990 levels by 2035. An independent new Office for Environmental Protection will report regularly on progress.

The new act sets clear statutory targets in the areas of air quality, biodiversity, water and waste. Offshore wind power has been the largest focus for renewable energy, but nuclear energy has also been considered. New measures to curb the use of plastics, including a plastics tax, are planned. Public opposition has largely halted a move toward more fracking.

The country has played a prominent role in recent climate negotiations, hosting the COP26 event in Glasgow.

Robust Democracy


Quality of Democracy

With Brexit-related political disruptions receding, the United Kingdom falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 17) with respect to democracy quality. Its score on this measure is unchanged relative to its 2014 level.

The adoption of the final Brexit agreement between the EU and the UK at the end of 2020 significantly reduced uncertainty, through many details remain to be clarified. A new Human Rights Act has been proposed to substitute for EU rules. EU citizens resident in the UK before 2021 can continue to vote, but for new arrivals, this will depend on whether their home country offers UK citizens the same right.

Donation-based party funding has produced abuses in the past. Labor union funding for parties has been restricted, reducing the Labour Party’s income. A proposed rewrite of election rules has triggered considerable criticism. The country is a leader in providing open access to government data.

Civil rights are generally adequately protected. Laws on government surveillance powers are being rewritten in response to court judgements. Critics say a proposed shift in the balance of power between parliament and the judiciary could endanger government accountability. Explicit corruption is rare, but a number of pandemic-era procurement scandals emerged.

Good Governance


Executive Capacity

With its well-established central government procedures, the United Kingdom scores well in international comparison (rank 7) with regard to executive capacity. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.3 points relative to its 2014 level.

The disarray of the Brexit preparation process has receded, with governing procedures returning effectively to normal. The Cabinet Office plays the primary policy coordination role, guided by the prime minister. Several cross-departmental coordination units were set up during the pandemic. Informal coordination is an important aspect of policy development.

RIAs are frequently if not systematically performed. However, implementation was patchy during the Brexit process. Social partners are not formally engaged in the policymaking processes, but are often consulted. The conclusion of Brexit has improved the coherence of communication overall, though messaging around the pandemic-era parties held by Prime Minister Johnson was shambolic.

Parliamentary majorities tend to facilitate the implementation of government objectives. The collective responsibility of ministers promotes discipline. The devolved administration structure leads to significant variation in standards across the UK. Monitoring shortcomings have been exposed in a number of agencies in recent years. The government is seeking to establish a new post-EU international profile.

Executive Accountability

With a generally positive balance, the United Kingdom performs well (rank 8) with respect to executive accountability. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.6 points as compared to its 2014 level.

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. An information commissioner enforces data-protection laws.

For widely discussed issues, UK citizens show a high degree of policy knowledge in international comparison. The government went to considerable lengths to keep the population informed during the pandemic, while media outlets held policymakers to account. 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 are capable of formulating policies, but their lack of influence during the Brexit process revealed their limitations. Civil-society organizations are also sophisticated and offer reasonable, if sometimes narrow, proposals.
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