Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Lord Chancellor Speaks

Interesting speech today at GWU Law School (where I teach) by Jack Straw, the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain.

The Lord Chancellor said he wanted to see Britain adopt a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, possibly as part of a larger project to codify the British Constitution.

Americans take a written Constitution for granted, but Britain doesn't have one. When a British lawyer refers to the British Constitution, he means the way the government is constituted. No one document sets forth all the rules, although there are several important documents that play a role: the 1689 Bill of Rights, the 19th century Reform Acts, and the Parliament Acts.

The Lord Chancellor said that while "an innate understanding of rights is a part of our national psyche," because the sources of rights are scattered, British people "might struggle to put their finger on what those rights are or in which texts they are located. "

As far as I can tell, this speech was the official announcement of this important policy initiative. It was rather exciting to see such a speech given in a university setting. It called to mind how the Marshall Plan was originally announced at a Harvard University commencement.

I asked the Lord Chancellor if the British Bill of Rights would be put to the British people for ratification or if it would be an ordinary act of Parliament. He didn't explicitly answer (I gathered that the latter was the plan) but he said that if the project for codifying the whole British Constitution were to forward, the plan was to put that to a referendum. He said that the British political parties agree that certain changes would be so significant -- switching currency to the Euro, for example, or leaving the European Union -- that they would require popular ratification.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your question to Mr Straw was indeed the question to ask. His hesitation to answer was significant.

If the proposed written Bill of Rights is nothing more than an act of Parliament, English history suggests that it will lack staying power.

The Magna Carta, perhaps the bulwark of the British Constitution, is part of the British Constitution as just such an act. It was enacted and unenacted by Parliament more than thirty times over the centuries since it first appeared in 1215.

Similarly, the Canadian Bill of Rights which appeared in 1960 was only an act of Parliament. In the early 1980's, public clamor for a Bill of Constitutional force, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was adopted.

But it too allows Parliament to suspend many parts of it as it chooses.

Here in the US, the Bill of Rights are Articles of the written Constitution no different than any other Article of the Constitution.

Unfortunately, our 'Bill of Rights' is misnamed. It was actually a Resolution of restrictions on government.

The term "BIll of Rights" carries a presumption of a prerogative granting of privileges to citizens by government, suspendable or revokable by government - too often done here in America through just such equivocation.

I expect that any written British Bill of Rights will be modeled after the Canadian Charter of Rights and freedoms - of very limited real meaning.