United Kingdom


Policy Performance


Economic Policies

With uncertainty created by 2016’s Brexit vote persisting, 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 prospect of Brexit has shifted the country’s economic calculus. The economic response to the referendum was delayed, but GDP growth slowed substantially in 2017, to 1.8%. The export sector remains weak, and uncertainty about future UK-EU relations are weighing on the economy. The government has postponed its goal of reaching budget surplus until the year 2020.

Unemployment rates remain very low, to the point that full employment has become an official objective. However, this has come at the cost of weakness in real wages and weak productivity growth. Real wages only recently reached their pre-crisis levels.

Debt has peaked at a relatively high 86.5% of GDP, with net borrowing still at moderate but declining levels. 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. Researchers fear new barriers to collaboration with EU counterparts.

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 0.2 points since 2014.

Higher-education fee hikes remain very controversial, though enrollment rates have remained steady. Concerns about student debt levels have prompted renewed debate over tertiary funding. Universities fear that Brexit will harm their ability to gain access to EU students and researchers.

Child poverty is down, but inequality levels are high. 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 for emergency intakes, have become the norm. 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 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 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

With a robust and well-regulated electoral system, the United Kingdom falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 15) with respect to democracy quality. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.1 point relative to 2014.

Though referendums typically play little role in UK governance, the 2016 Brexit vote transformed British politics. Domestic and international negotiations over its form continue. The supreme court ruled that parliament had to be heard before starting the EU negotiations. The continued lack of clarity over the outcome has diminished legal certainty.

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. While the Brexit vote exposed some anti-immigrant feelings, general social attitudes are very strongly anti-discriminatory, and laws in this area are broad. High-level corruption is rare, though local-level cases emerge occasionally.



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 0.2 points since 2014.

The prime minister sets the government agenda, while the Cabinet Office coordinates policy development. Strategic planning has been improved in recent years, although political uncertainty has made this task more difficult. 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, no conventional RIA had been performed on the Brexit plans by the end of the review period. Efforts to consult organized economic and civil-society groups are made. The May government has been unable to develop a clear Brexit communication strategy.

Despite uncertainty, the government has generally been able to implement its programs. Monitoring has been expanded with a new Department for Exiting the European Union that oversees departments’ Brexit-related activities. However, the Grenfell Tower fire exposed major failings with regard to construction supervision.

Executive Accountability

With a mix of strengths and weaknesses, the United Kingdom receives comparatively high overall scores (rank 12) with respect to executive accountability. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.2 points 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. A pending proposal would merge numerous existing ombuds offices into a single service.

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.
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