The Bill of Rights, 1689 and 1998

Mark Goldie celebrates a new Bill of Rights and looks at its precedent

We are on the verge of having a Bill of Rights. Parliament is about to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. No longer will people have to make the long and expensive trek to Strasbourg to uphold their civil liberties. Resonant historical parallels are being invoked.  ‘Britain’s first Bill of Rights for 300 years’, pronounced The Times. ‘Not since 1689 ...’ said Lord Lester.

There’s a puzzle here. If England invented the idea of a ‘Bill of Rights’, why has it been necessary to start all over again? When Mrs Thatcher was asked about a Bill of Rights, she said ‘we already have one’. What she overlooked was that the 1689 Bill is of scarcely any use now. It did not primarily aim to enshrine individual rights, but rather to assert parliamentary supremacy over a wayward monarch.  It was a catalogue of James II’s arbitrary actions. The Bill decreed that parliaments should be convened frequently and that their proceedings should be immune from interference, that elections should be free, and that taxation should be subject to parliamentary control.

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