BRITAIN has long taken pride in the fact that its constitution,
unlike those of most other democracies, is unwritten. But pride is
giving way to doubt, and pressure is building for a fresh look at
ways of securing the rights of British citizens.
Anthony Barnett, an advocate of a written constitution and a
bill of rights, says he thinks that relying on Magna Carta, signed
by England's King John at Runnymede in 1215, is an insufficient
basis for ensuring that the rule of law prevails.
Mr. Barnett is coordinator of Charter 88, a nonpartisan group of
lawyers and intellectuals modeled on Charter 77, the human-rights
group that played a major part in destroying communism in
He notes that Britain is the only member of the 12-nation
European Community and its 25-nation sister body, the Council of
Europe, without a written constitution.
"The result is that Britain is now regularly facing
constitutional issues it is ill-equipped to handle," Barnett says.
King John's "great charter" was imposed on him by rebel barons
who saw it as a barrier against the monarch's arbitrary actions. It
remains the basis of Britain's common-law system and such
institutions as the right of trial by jury and habeas corpus.
But growing numbers of British political observers and groups
say its rambling provisions do not fit with modern times. The
Liberal Democrat party will enter the coming general election with
calls for a written constitution guaranteeing civil liberties at
the center of its policies.
The opposition Labour Party also is proposing constitutional
reforms, including a separate parliament for Scotland, a British
bill of rights, and the abolition of the House of Lords.
The ruling Conservatives will fight the election on the "Magna
Carta principle a defense of the status quo - but Douglas Hurd,
the foreign secretary, whose work brings him into regular contact
with European governments, is on record as saying that his party
should give "serious thought" to constitutional change.
Prominent members of Britain's political and legal establishment
are now counted among those who demand that the country should have
a bill of rights.
Lord Scarman, a former judge of the Court of Appeal, has been
campaigning for a written constitution for decades, arguing that
allowing Parliament to pass laws without regard to a framework of
citizens' rights is a recipe for unfairness.
Since Britain entered the European Community (EC) 19 years ago
and began rubbing shoulders with countries where human rights are
enshrined in written constitutions, Mr. Scarman's campaign has been
taken up by a younger generation.
Last November, Charter 88 organized its own convention in
Manchester at which four draft constitutions were considered. All
the drafts indicated that across the political spectrum there is a
demand for fundamental change.
Tony Benn, the left-wing Labour Member of Parliament (MP),
proposed an elected upper chamber to replace the House of Lords. He
also argued that women should have 50 percent of the seats in the
lower and upper houses, and that the government should appoint a
human-rights commissioner with the power to refer to Parliament
abuses of human rights by the courts. …