United Kingdom


Policy Performance


Economic Policies

With Brexit-driven concerns undermining economic stability, the United Kingdom falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 15) in the area of economic policy. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.5 points relative to 2014.

The looming uncertainty of Brexit has overshadowed the country’s economy. While economic response to the referendum was delayed, GDP growth slowed substantially over the past several years, reaching 1.3% in 2018. The export sector remains weak, and the lack of clarity regarding future UK-EU relations, especially financial-sector access to the continent, has weighed on the economy.

The labor market has remained strong, with unemployment rates falling to 4%. However, this has come at the cost of weakness in real wages and weak productivity growth. Youth unemployment rates are considerably higher, but falling. Real wages only recently reached their pre-crisis levels. A new “digital tax” on technology companies with UK users has been imposed.

Debt has peaked at a relatively high 85.2% of GDP in 2018, and is forecast to decline in the future. Low interest rates have kept debt-service payments manageable. Financial regulation is expected to remain closely aligned with EU standards, but the European Banking Agency is moving to Paris. In general, forecasts for the near future are predicated on a Brexit deal that sustains the UK’s economic structures.

Social Policies

With a largely effective social-benefits system, the United Kingdom scores well overall (rank 8) with regard to social policies. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.1 point since 2014.

Higher-education fee hikes remain very controversial, though enrollment rates have remained steady. Concerns about student debt levels have prompted proposals that fees should be reduced, or that the student loan system needs to be reformed. Universities fear that Brexit will harm their ability to attract EU students and researchers.

A reform seeking to repeal a series of targeted welfare payments with a single payment mechanism has met with implementation difficulties, and led to lower support levels for large families. An affordable-housing shortage has particularly affected urban low-income households. Gender-equity, child-care and parental-leave policies are robust. Pension reforms have shifted risk to individual pensioners, but the system is fiscally sustainable.

The universal health care service remains strong, but hospitals are experiencing funding difficulties. Winter crises, with hospitals struggling to find bed space, have become the norm. Anti-immigrant rhetoric following the Brexit “leave” campaign contributed to attacks on minorities and immigrants. Official policy has sought to reduce migration, in some cases targeting and deporting longtime residents.

Environmental Policies

As a strong voice for environmental protection internationally, the United Kingdom receives a high overall ranking (rank 9) for its environmental policies. Its score on this measure has gained 0.4 points relative to its 2014 level.

Despite strong environmental rhetoric, subsidies for green energy have been cut in recent years, 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.

Upon taking office, 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 has been 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. Following a public consultation, it has developed plans to reduce plastics use, including a new plastics tax.



Quality of Democracy

Despite increasing polarization and tension related to Brexit, the United Kingdom falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 18) with respect to democracy quality. Its score on this measure is unchanged relative to its 2014 level.

The debates over the impending Brexit overshadowed other political projects in the UK’s political system. The uncertainty has been of great concern to the business community, and the post-Brexit status of 3 million EU citizens living in the UK had not been clarified by the end of the review period. Vocal calls for a second referendum were largely resisted by the leaders of the two main parties.

For ordinary elections, paid television campaign advertising is banned, but major parties are granted free ad time. Donation-based party funding has produced abuses. The government occasionally seeks to restrict press freedom for security reasons, but such instances trigger considerable backlash. Media concentration is significant.

Civil rights are generally adequately protected, but anti-terrorism measures have become increasingly harsh. The “Snooper’s Charter” expanding the government’s surveillance powers was declared unlawful by a court. The Windrush scandal, in which government employees destroyed the legal documents of citizens with Caribbean roots, showed disregard for individual rights, but prompted a rapid political response.



Executive Capacity

With its powerful core executive, the United Kingdom scores well in international comparison (rank 8) with regard to executive capacity. Its score on this measure is unchanged relative to its 2014 level.

The prime minister sets the government agenda, while the Cabinet Office coordinates policy development. Political uncertainty has made strategic planning more difficult, and a special prime-minster’s advisory unit has been disbanded. During the Brexit debates, cabinet infighting has taken place at a scale rarely previously seen, complicating coordination.

RIAs are routinely performed, with sustainability an element of the review. Notably, the government has delivered no conventional RIA or sustainability review on the prospect of Brexit. Ex post evaluations are a vital part of policymaking. Efforts to consult organized economic and civil-society groups are made. The government was unable to develop a clear Brexit communication strategy.

The uncertainties of Brexit have proved a distraction elsewhere, undermining the efficiency of the civil service. The government has struggled to introduce major welfare reforms. Central government funding for local governments was heavily cut during the austerity years. Regulations are enforced by the highly professional civil service, but key industries can affect the passage and design of regulations.

Executive Accountability

With a mix of strengths and weaknesses, the United Kingdom falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 13) with respect to executive accountability. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.4 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, but all offices have limited resources and powers. An information commissioner enforces data-protection laws, but has no authority over security agencies.

For widely discussed issues, UK citizens show a high degree of policy knowledge in international comparison. 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.
Back to Top