Foreign relations and armed forces
HMS Illustrious - one of the Royal Navy's Invincible class aircraft carriers
A test launch of a Trident II MIRV SLBM from one of the Royal Navy's Vanguard class submarines
The Royal Air Force's Eurofighter Typhoon - an advanced fighter aircraft
The United Kingdom is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a member of the G8 and NATO, and a member state of the European Union. The UK has a "Special Relationship" with the United States. Apart from the US and Europe, Britain's close allies include Commonwealth nations, Ireland and other English speaking countries.
Britain's global presence and influence is further amplified through
its trading relations and its armed forces, which maintain
approximately eighty military installations and other deployments
around the globe.
The Army, Navy and Air Force
are collectively known as the British Armed Forces (or Her Majesty's
Armed Forces) and officially the Armed Forces of the Crown. The commander-in-chief is the monarch, HM Queen Elizabeth II and they are managed by the Ministry of Defence. The armed forces are controlled by the Defence Council, chaired by the Chief of the Defence Staff.
The United Kingdom fields one of the most technologically advanced
and best trained armed forces in the world. According to various
sources, including the Ministry of Defence, the UK has the second highest military expenditure in the world, despite only having the 27th largest military in terms of manpower. Total defence spending currently accounts for 2.2% of total national GDP, compared to 4.4% at the end of the Cold War. It is the second largest spender on military science, engineering and technology. The Royal Navy is a, operating blue-water navy, currently one of the few, along with the French Navy and the United States Navy. The British Armed Forces are equipped with advanced weapons systems, including the Challenger 2 tank and the Eurofighter Typhoon jet fighter. The Ministry of Defence signed contracts worth £3.2bn to build two new supercarrier sized aircraft carriers on 3 July 2008.
The United Kingdom is one of the five recognised countries possessing nuclear weapons, utilising the Vanguard class submarine-based Trident II ballistic missile system.
The British Armed Forces are charged with protecting the United Kingdom and its overseas territories,
promoting the United Kingdom's global security interests, and
supporting international peacekeeping efforts. They are active and
regular participants in NATO, including the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, as well as the Five Power Defence Arrangements and other worldwide coalition operations. Overseas garrisons and facilities are maintained at Ascension Island, Belize, Brunei, Canada, Diego Garcia, the Falkland Islands, Germany, Gibraltar, Kenya, and Cyprus.
The British Army had a reported strength of 102,440 in 2005, the Royal Air Force a strength of 49,210 and the 36,320-strong Royal Navy, which includes the Royal Marines, who provide commando units specialising in amphibious warfare.
The United Kingdom Special Forces, provide troops trained for quick, mobile, military responses in counter-terrorism, land, maritime and amphibious operations, often where secrecy or covert tactics are required.
There are reserve forces supporting the regular military. These include the Territorial Army, the Royal Naval Reserve, Royal Marines Reserve and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. This puts total active and reserve duty military personnel at approximately 429,500, deployed in over eighty countries.
Despite the United Kingdom's military capabilities, recent pragmatic
defence policy has a stated assumption that "the most demanding
operations" would be undertaken as part of a coalition. Setting aside the intervention in Sierra Leone, operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq may all be taken as precedent. Indeed the last war in which the British military fought alone was the Falklands War of 1982, in which they were victorious.
Law and criminal justice
The Royal Courts of Justice of England and Wales.
The High Court of Justiciary - the supreme criminal court of Scotland.
The United Kingdom does not have a single legal system due to it
being created by the political union of previously independent
countries with Article 19 of the Treaty of Union guaranteeing the continued existence of Scotland's separate legal system. Today the UK has three distinct systems of law: English law, Northern Ireland law and Scots law. Recent constitutional changes will see a new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom come into being in October 2009 that will take on the appeal functions of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, comprising the same members as the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords,
is the highest court of appeal for several independent Commonwealth
countries, the UK overseas territories, and the British crown
England, Wales and Northern Ireland
Both English law, which applies in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland law are based on common-law principles. The essence of common-law is that law is made by judges sitting in courts, applying their common sense and knowledge of precedent (stare decisis) to the facts before them. The Courts of England and Wales are headed by the Supreme Court of Judicature of England and Wales, consisting of the Court of Appeal, the High Court of Justice (for civil cases) and the Crown Court (for criminal cases). The Appellate Committee of the House of Lords
(usually just referred to, as "The House of Lords") is presently the
highest court in the land for both criminal and civil cases in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland and any decision it makes is binding on every other court in the hierarchy.
Crime in England and Wales increased in the period between 1981 and
1995 though, since that peak, there has been an overall fall of 48% in
crime from 1995 to 2007/8. Despite the fall in crime rates, the prison population of England and Wales
has almost doubled over the same period, to over 80,000, giving England
and Wales the highest rate of incarceration in Western Europe at 147
per 100,000. Her Majesty's Prison Service, which reports to the Ministry of Justice, manages most of the prisons within England and Wales.
Scots law, a hybrid system based on both common-law and civil-law principles, applies in Scotland. The chief courts are the Court of Session, for civil cases, and the High Court of Justiciary, for criminal cases. The Appellate Committee of the House of Lords
(usually just referred to as "The House of Lords") presently serves as
the highest court of appeal for civil cases under Scots law but only if
the Court of Session grants leave to appeal or the initial judgement
was by a majority decision. Sheriff Courts deal with most civil and criminal cases including conducting criminal trials with a jury, known as Sheriff solemn Court, or with a Sheriff and no jury, known as (Sheriff summary Court). The Sheriff Courts provide a local court service with 49 Sheriff courts organised across six Sheriffdoms. The Scots legal system is unique in having three possible verdicts for a criminal trial: "guilty", "not guilty" and "not proven". Both "not guilty" and "not proven" result in an acquittal with no possibility of retrial.
The Cabinet Secretary for Justice is the member of the Scottish Government responsible for the police, the courts and criminal justice, and the Scottish Prison Service, which manages the prisons in Scotland. Though the level of recorded crime in 2007/8 has fallen to the lowest for 25 years, the prison population, at over 8,000, is hitting record levels and is well above design capacity.