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Article

Since the end of World War II a key question that successive U.K. governments have faced is what position the country should occupy in global affairs. Such a question stemmed from the legacy of Empire, which both offered global connections and at the same time financial demands in terms of the need to maintain a global footing. These issues came to a head when the United Kingdom applied (unsuccessfully) to join the European Community (the forerunner of the European Union (EU)) in the 1960s when the country was reappraising its position in the world. And while the United Kingdom eventually joined the Community in 1973, there remained an underlying skepticism about membership within the public at large as well as within sections of the Conservative and Labour parties. This suspicion gained more traction from the 1990s onward as the then EU appeared to be moving to a deeper level of integration in the wake of the Maastricht Treaty. This spurred on Euroskeptics in the United Kingdom to campaign for independence. To put a lid on this pressure for reform, David Cameron held a referendum on U.K. membership in 2016. His gamble that this would once and for all seal the United Kingdom within the EU by closing down the issue of withdrawal did not actually materialize, as the electorate voted to leave, which in turn set the country on a path to depart the EU in 2020. Yet, despite these developments, just as was the case in 1945, the United Kingdom is in many ways still searching for a role in the world in 2020.

Article

Chris Hanretty

Courts in the United Kingdom have evolved gradually over the past 700 years. The modern court system is sophisticated, displaying both specialization by area of law and regional differentiation. The English and Welsh court system, for example, is separated from the Scottish and Northern Irish court systems. Across all different jurisdictions within the UK, courts display moderate to high levels of de facto judicial independence without many guarantees of de jure judicial independence. Appointment to the courts system since the reforms of 2005 is strongly apolitical; this, coupled with a weak form of fundamental rights review, means that debates about judicial politics have been limited. Particularly sensitive issues arise in relation to courts’ handling of multilevel governance, and more particularly the relationship between the Westminster Parliament and the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales, and between the Westminster Parliament and the Court of Justice of the European Union. Because of the gradual introduction of human rights guarantees in domestic law, and progressive devolution of power from center to periphery, UK courts offer lessons for those interested in the introduction of rights catalogs and in theories of constitutional review.

Article

Civil–military relations in the United Kingdom have traditionally not been a major issue. This is partly a reflection of its history. The U.K. mainland has not been invaded since 1066. Since the civil war in the 17th century and the union of Scotland with England at the beginning of the 18th century, there has not been a need to maintain significant land forces at home. The Royal Navy has provided the first and main line of defense. The civil war in many ways set the tone for subsequent civil–military relations. Most powers related to the armed forces have been retained under the royal prerogative, effectively in the hands of the prime minister, but Parliament has retained a degree of oversight and controls the purse strings. However, beneath this veneer there are increasing tensions between the military and political authorities as the former have sought an increasing role in policymaking, particularly in terms of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, the armed forces themselves have struggled to come to terms with adapting to the society from which they are drawn. Since the 1990s they have had to give ground on the issues of gender and sexuality, and they are increasingly criticized for their lack of diversification—an issue that they have sought to mask by recruiting from the Commonwealth.

Article

Baldur Thorhallsson

Iceland’s European policy is a puzzle. Iceland is deeply embedded in the European project despite its non-EU membership status. Iceland is a member of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) (1970), the European Economic Area (EEA) (1994), and Schengen (2001). Moreover, Iceland applied for membership in the European Union (EU) in 2009. Nonetheless, the Icelandic political elite have been reluctant to partake in the European integration process. They have hesitated to take any moves toward closer engagement with Europe unless such a move is seen as necessary to deal with a crisis situation. Decisions to engage with the European project have not been made based on outright economic and political preferences. They have primarily been based on economic or political necessity at times when the country has faced a deep economic downturn or its close neighboring states have decided to take part in European integration. The country has essentially been forced to take part in the project in order to prevent crises from emerging or to cope with a current crisis situation. For instance, in 2009, Iceland unexpectedly applied for membership in the EU after the collapse of its economy nine months earlier. However, four years later, after a swift economic recovery and after Iceland having been “betrayed” by the EU in the so-called Ice-save dispute with the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, the accession process was put on hold. The EU was no longer seen as an economic and political savior. Iceland’s close relationships with its powerful neighboring states, the United States and the United Kingdom, have also had considerable influence on the country’s European policy. Iceland’s membership in the EFTA, the EEA, and Schengen was largely dictated by the Nordic states’ decisions to join the organizations and because of crisis situations their lack of membership would have meant for Iceland were it to be left out. Moreover, the decision by the United Kingdom to leave the Union has firmly frozen Iceland’s accession process and contributed to increased criticism of the transfer of autonomy from Reykjavik to Brussels that takes place with the EEA Agreement. Furthermore, many at the right of center in Icelandic politics do not see any security reasons for joining the EU, as Iceland’s defense is guaranteed by a bilateral defense treaty with the United States and membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). European debates about partial and full participation in the European project have led to harsh opposition in Althingi (the National Parliament), deep divisions in society at large, and public protests. Opposition has been driven by an overwhelming focus on sovereignty concerns. The political discourse on sovereignty and self-determination prevails except when the country is faced with a crisis situation. To prevent a crisis from emerging or to deal with a current crisis, Icelandic politicians reluctantly decide to take partial part in the European project. They are determined to keep autonomy over sectors of primary political importance, sectors that are close to the heart of the nation, those of agriculture and fisheries.