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Constitution-less Britain Debates the Need for One

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 1996



LONDON

Britain's political parties have begun to offer voters sharply different blueprints of how the nation should be governed.

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Among other things, they are at loggerheads on whether the nation that helped spawn modern democracy should have a written constitution. They also differ over whether Britons should have a bill of rights and a freedom of information act, and whether unelected hereditary members of the House of Lords should continue to vote on legislation.

The opposition Labour and Liberal Democratic Parties say a constitution should take the form of a clear-cut document. The ruling Conservatives insist the various governing documents and legal precedents suffice for now - as they have for centuries.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats want the House of Lords to be reformed to reflect popular mandates. The Conservative Party says that is unnecessary.

These debates promise to be central in the campaign for the next general election, which must be held by May 1997. If Labour wins, its victory will herald radical changes in areas such as civil rights and the balance of power between the central government and Scotland and Wales.

Prime Minister John Major's evident alarm at the vigor with which Labour and the Liberal Democrats are demanding a written constitution reflects the Conservative Party's concerns about its prospects in the election.

Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown, the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders respectively, say a bill of rights similar to that in the United States is essential. Mr. Major and the Conservatives counter that the government, through Parliament, should be the guardian of rights - a view that Mr. Blair has labeled "outmoded and dangerous."

Jack Straw, Labour's "shadow" home secretary, claims that public confidence in Britain's present system of government is "abysmally low." He has begun outlining a package of measures that seeks to make government more open and accountable. In an attempt to counter demands for radical constitutional reform, Major said June 26 that Blair and Mr. Ashdown were proposing to "tear Britain's unwritten constitution up by the roots."

Major proposed that Britain should have a "gradually evolving, living, and breathing" constitution in which the House of Commons safeguarded the rights of citizens. But he was immediately challenged by Ashdown, who said: "The House of Commons has failed to hold the executive to account. There is no proper protection for individual liberties." He called for a referendum on constitutional change.

In recent years, the powers of the executive have been greatly enhanced, while those of Parliament have waned, say opposition party leaders. Anthony Lester, a lawyer and civil rights campaigner, says a so-called unwritten constitution, in which the rights of citizens are not specified, "leaves too much power in the hands of the executive." Mr. Lester points out that in the past decade many British citizens have taken cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, and won.

"If we incorporated the European Bill of Human Rights into our own legislation, that would no longer be necessary," he says.

As well as insisting on a more modern constitution, Blair has called for a separate parliament for Scotland and a separate democratic assembly for Wales. Both these parts of Britain contain many voters who feel government from London has been insensitive to their needs.

Blair is calculating that there are votes to be won by conceding to local demands. Labour Party sources say he is likely to propose referendums in Scotland and Wales that ask voters whether they support "devolution" - a weakening of London's powers.