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Debate: Bill of rights in the UK

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Should the UK have a Bill of Rights?

Background and context

Many countries have a Bill of Rights, or similar constitutional document. This lays out certain fundamental (‘inalienable’) rights that citizens of the country possess. These have typically included the right to free speech, the right to a fair trial and freedom from torture. The UK at present has a ‘virtual’ constitution, which is made up of the hundreds of legal precedents accumulated over the years. It has been proposed to make this into a proper, written Bill of Rights. However, a number of problems are posed by the idea of introducing such a Bill into the UK. Firstly, does the concept of a ‘right’ make any sense, both on its own and in relation to other people ? And if it does, then how should ‘rights’ be decided and laid down ? The proposition will not only need to mount a defence of ‘rights’, but explain how they will be framed and subject to change. This topic has been written from the point of view of someone debating the issue in the United Kingdom. The same arguments could be applied in similar ways in other countries that did not have a Bill of Rights.

Contents

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Rights: Is it important to enshrine principles in a Bill of Rights?

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Yes

  • People have certain fundamental rights, the infringement of which should be illegal. These are based on the simple principle of ‘do as you would be done by’. Men and women should have the right, for example, to free speech because we recognise that being forced to stay silent on matters important to you is intolerable. We know that human nature is not perfect, and susceptible to behaviour which infringes the rights of others. Thus, to prevent these rights ever being infringed by individuals or governments, these need to be enshrined in a legal document.


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No

  • A bill of rights would enshrine principles that will change in the future. Any society always assumes that it’s position on matters is the most sensible, most rational, and, ultimately, best. In fact, societies throughout history have had wildly differing expectations of life, depending on their religious, political and cultural environment. For example, a thousand years ago, women were considered inferior to men, and this was a viewpoint which the vast majority of women shared, as they had been brought up to believe in it. The problem occurs when one society, with its own idiosyncratic views, attempts to formulate a legal document that will bind future generations. For example, the American Bill of Rights was considered revolutionary and foresighted in its time, but now rights such as the right to bear arms are outdated and an obstacle.


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Problem: Is the lack of a Bill of Rights a real problem in Britain today?

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Yes

the british public do indeed require a bill of rights. if he rights of the british people were ever to come into question, or if a british citizen was trying to defend their rights, then there is no bill currently in place that supports all of those such rights. this can lead to loopholes being formed and exploited, thus depriving the people of britain basic rights due to a lack of legislation.

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No

  • The lack of a Bill of Rights is not a real problem. This is not a real problem, and many countries around the world have solved it in the process of constructing their own Bill of Rights. All that is needed is a common sense appreciation of the relativity of rights, and to put in place a legal network that protects the rights of all concerned. For example, the free speech/privacy dichotomy was resolved in the case of the press by limiting free speech to that which concerned he public interest, and this is considered by an independent body, the Press Complaints Commission.
  • The concept of ‘rights’ is problematic when multiple rights are infringed. Rights are problematic when one considers what happens when a person, in exercising their rights, infringes the rights of another person. For example, a person shouting abuse in public could be said to be exercising their right to free speech, but it infringes on the happiness of others. And press intrusion into the lives of famous people such as Princess Diana, whilst compromising their privacy, was justified in terms of free speech.


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Changes: Is it possible to make appropriate changes to a Bill of Rights?

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Yes

  • Changes to a Bill of Rights can be made by amendments. A system where changes are agreed upon by Parliament and constitutional specialists in conjunction would enable ossified and out of date rights to be eliminated (such as the right to own slaves was in the American Bill) whilst preserving the principles believed in by citizens of the UK. In the end, the points raised by the Opposition have all been nit-picking criticisms; the advantages of a Bill of Rights by far outweighs the difficulties in solving the legal problems.


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No

  • An unchanging bill of rights can enshrine bad principles. Is the constitution to be unchangeable? If so, then it is a supreme example of a societies’ arrogance, and a minefield of future problems, for example those which might be caused by new scientific discoveries. If not, who can change them? If judges, then they are undemocratically appointed, and do not represent the wish of the people. If decided by a popular vote, the it undermines the entire principle of ‘unalienable’ rights, as the Bill will become subject to the ‘tyranny of the majority’ that it was supposed to counter. The Proposition has tied itself in logical and legal knots, making the exercise of a Bill not only impossible in theory but dangerous in practice.


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Pro/con resources

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Yes


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No

See also

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