Prompted by Peter Riddell’s article in the Times today, I’ve just read through the speech that Jack Straw delivered yesterday on "modernising the Magna Carta". It’s heady stuff - all talk of Labour’s "quiet revolution" and of a UK Supreme Court – but the grandest suggestion is of a codified British Bill of Rights. As Straw puts it:
"The next stage in the United Kingdom’s constitutional development is to look at whether we need better to articulate those rights which are scattered across a whole host of different places, and indeed the responsibilities that go with being British.
We can learn a great deal from the United States example, and particularly with regard to the enviable notion of civic duty that seems to flow so strongly through American veins. It is made much easier to fulfil your civic duty when you have a clear sense of to what you belong, and what it is expected from you.
In the United Kingdom many duties and responsibilities already exist in statute, common practice or are woven into our social and moral fabric. But elevating them to a new status in a constitutional document would reflect their importance in the healthy functioning of our democracy."
If this is a real goal for the Justice Minister – and for the Government – then there are some very important questions that need to be raised. Should the public be involved in constructing any such document? And – if so – how involved should they be? Of course, the danger is that a complete lack of public involvement will de-legitimise the whole pursuit – particularly as Straw’s speech frames the "Bill of Rights" as some sort of social contract.
On this front, the Government’s unilateral approach to the Lisbon Treaty doesn’t inspire confidence. If we’re not getting a say on that document (which – whatever Brown claims - will significantly alter the UK’s unwritten constitution), then what hope do we have in future?