Britain's Constitutional Question Politicians and Others Urge Adoption of a Written Charter and a Bill of Rights

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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 Czechoslovakia.

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. …

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