Monday, August 08, 2011

The Greatest Idea Whose Time Has Come

Britain must adopt Bill of Rights ASAP

Of all the facts about British politics not widely known to many outside of the UK -- and perhaps even to many within it -- is that the country lacks a comprehensive written constitution. It's the only democratic state that lacks such a document.

Britain has a constitution of sorts; in political science it's known as a British-style constitution, and they're commonplace throughout the Commonwealth. What this means is that the foundational law in Britain has written and unwritten components, formal and informal components.

It includes various statutes, privy council rulings, constitutional convention, and the rules of Parliament... among other components. But Britain's own constitution lacks what some would consider two key components: a formal bill of rights, and a formal written constitution -- which in the case of a British-style constitution basically amounts to an anchor law.

A formal bill of rights may finally be on the way. At the direction of the David Cameron-led coalition government, a commission considering the implementation of a bill of rights has been studying the subject.

As with so many things, it began amdist tensions with the European Union over the role of EU statutes within British law. In 2005, the European Union Court of Human Rights ruled that a British ban on prisoners voting was discriminatory. In February, British MPs voted to spurn that ruling.

This controversy has led to the formation of the commission, and the consideration of a bill of rights that would satisfy the European Convention on Human Rights, but would allow Britain the freedom to interpet that convention as it sees fit, rather than remain beholden to the EU court. In time, such a charter would be expected to replace the Human Rights Act.

Britain has long considered itself a leader in establishing the rights and freedoms of its citizens. The Magna Carta -- itself considered part of the anchorless British constitution -- was truly a milestone law in human civilization. That it has no formal bill of rights is a testament to the manner in which these rights and freedoms emerged in British law -- very slowly, over time -- but it's also been an egregious oversight.

The establishment of a British Bill of Rights is the greatest idea whose time came a long time ago. It's time for the UK to make it a formality by writing and passing a bill of rights as quickly as can be responsibly done.

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