16th December is the 328th birthday of The English Bill of Rights, or to give it the full title The Bill of Rights 1689. It was not the first document of its kind to set down rights for citizens/subjects, hell it isn’t even the first in England (that honour goes to Magna Carta which sets down some inalienable rights we still have today). It is, however, vitally important in the formation of our modern political system.
The Political Situation that Led to the Document
100 years before France decided to dispense with its monarchy, England was having a political crisis of its own. For the first time, England as a nation stopped being a monarchy and became a Commonwealth under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. This government began with the beheading of King Charles I and ended with the death of Cromwell, who, in the last years of his life, was urged to become king.
The period that followed is known as The Restoration. The new King Charles II was known as “The Merry Monarch”. He enjoyed a largely happy reign but things were not well. He died in 1685 and was succeeded by Charles I other son: James II. He was strongly pro-Catholic, upsetting the new largely Protestant nobility. What’s more, he showed all the signs of believing in absolute rule of the monarch that led to his father’s execution. But the nobility had a plan; they would depose James II and in his place install the Dutch husband of his sister Mary, William. Mary insisted that they rule jointly, that being of the official bloodline she would not surrender power to her husband.
The Context of the English Bill of Rights
The “war” known as The Glorious Revolution would see William invited to bring a Dutch army to seize the throne and rule jointly. But the nobility had a trump card to ensure that no monarch ever again decided to get above their station. One year after the succession of William & Mary, they pushed The English Bill of Rights through Parliament. It would change the nature of monarchy in Britain forever.
The king/queen (in the case of William and Mary – both) was no longer able to act under the authority of God alone. It tied the monarch to the wishes and ruling of the Parliament. The one legacy of Cromwell that the country decided to keep was to see the birth of our modern Parliamentary Democracy. The concept of Divine Right of Kings was now dead; Parliament ruled supreme and set down legal rights for subjects and obligations for the Crown. This was just as unprecedented as Magna Carta was some 470 years before and just as important.
What is in the English Bill of Rights?
I’m glad you asked because not only do some of the clauses listed below survive to this day into modern acts and rights (and was hugely influential on the two most important documents on the American system of government), they are seen as inalienable in most modern democracies.
- The Crown may not (to include the monarch and any advisors) throw out or suspend any law unless he/she has the consent of Parliament
- Any subject, regardless of position, may legally petition the monarch on their own behalf or that of anyone else and not face prosecution
- Taxes are levied and altered by Parliament. The Crown may not adjust or raise taxes without Parliamentary consent. This had been one of the major problems of Charles I reign
- Only Parliament may raise and keep a standing army in peacetime. The Crown may not do so without Parliamentary consent. Today, the monarch is Commander in Chief but Parliament alone decides when and where to deploy military forces
- Crucially, it establishes the right of free elections of MPs to Parliament
- One adopted by the American Bill of Rights is the right to bear arms for one’s own defence. Sadly, the clause here only permits “Protestants” but crucially, a fail-safe exists within the English Bill of Rights that seemingly does not exist in the US document “suitable to conditions and as permitted by law”. This permits Parliament to adjust and amend gun laws
- No member of the crown or any other organisation outside of Parliament may question, impeach or challenge Parliamentary decisions (Are you seeing this, Daily Mail?)
- No cruel or unusual punishments; fines ought to be proportional and just
- Provisions are also made the free and regular sessions of Parliament to ensure strength, preservation and amending grievances of laws
These are the most important to us today. Some are less relevant such as that jurors in a criminal trial ought to be a freeholder. Finally, it listed 12 points that declared James II flight to France as abdication, listing the reasons for why his actions were illegal. Indeed, some of the points above were in direct reference to James acts to ensure they never happen again.
What of the English Bill of Rights Today?
I have already mentioned the English Bill of Rights influence on the US Bill of Rights, and in my previous article on Magna Carta, how that influenced the US Constitution. Yet too few people know about this Bill from 1689 and it’s a real shame. But who is to blame for the ignorance of it and our lack of understanding on why we have the system of government that we have? I would say successive government meddling with the school system and misplaced priorities in history lessons.
The quality and standards of teaching of some of the most important aspects of our history are being lost or were never there in the first place. Learning modern world history is all well and good, but schools need to teach how our own system of government came to be and why we have a parliamentary democracy that works the way it does at all. If we did that, perhaps people can make a more informed decision at the ballot box come election time and we wouldn’t be quite so held to ransom by media barons determined to disrupt and undermine our democracy. Now, more than ever before, we need to understand, appreciate and promote our democratic rights or lose them.