London — Does Britain need a written constitution? Pressure is building on this issue as more Britons begin to answer yes. The latest recruit to the cause -- whose supporters often point to the US Constitution as an example of what is needed -- is the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, head of the legal system in Britain.
Debate on the subject has been heightened by public reaction to the activities of growing numbers of left-wing members of Parliament committed to the modification or destruction of some of the nation's oldest and most revered institutions.
Among those institutions is the House of Lords, Parliament's upper chamber, which continues to review legislation passed by the much more powerful House of Commons.
Without a written constitution, Lord Hailsham believes a radical government would do away with the Lords, and thus lower the barriers that help to prevent bad laws from finding their way onto the statute books.
Apart from New Zealand and Israel, Britain is the only Western democratic state without a written constitution. Unlike the US, the country is ruled under a highly complex system of laws and precedents that Parliament alone is empowered to change. Judges can interpret this "unwritten constitution," but their interpretations often differ.
There is no supreme court to act as a restraint on the legislature, and almost everything depends on the wisdom of Parliament and parliamentarians. This is what is beginning to cause anxiety in some political circles.
At the last annual conference of the Labour Party a majority of delegates voted to abolish the House of Lords.
Earlier, Tony Benn, the party's left-wing champion, said that in government Labour should be prepared to create 1,000 peers with instructions to vote for the abolition of the upper chamber.
Coupled with this move is a tendency for the Labour Party to take radical positions on economics, industrial relations, and defense. Some observers of the parliamentary scene in Britain believe that if and when Labour returns to power it will be under heavy influence from the trade unions, and they fear that Parliament will be used to rubber-stamp the ideas of powerful special-interest groups.
Without a written constitution to specify how far Parliament can go without being challenged, such moves might be difficult to prevent. This is why Lord Hailsham, who has spent much of his career as a parliamentarian, sees merit in adopting something comparable to the American system of checks and balances. He is not alone.
With the Lords under the shadow of a left-wing Labour threat, the idea of a written constitution is more popular in the upper house than in the lower. Nonetheless, support for a change in British constitutional customs is growing, and probably will continue to do so as long as the Labour Party cleaves to policies that are both controversial and radical.