THE United Kingdom, unlike Malaysia, does not have a written constitution. What this means is that there is not a single document, like our own Federal Constitution, which is the highest law of the country. That is not to say that the United Kingdom has no constitution; the constitution of the United Kingdom can be found in several different sources.
The United Kingdom does not have a codified bill of rights, unlike for example, Part II of our Federal Constitution. But again, that does not mean people of the United Kingdom have no rights or their rights are not protected. The protection of individual rights can be traced back 700 years to a single document known of the Magna Carta.
In the early 13th century, England was ruled by King John.
John was the younger brother of King Richard I, better known as King Richard the Lionhearted. When Richard died, John was anointed King of England.
King John inherited a country that was not in the best of positions. King Richard I's exploits during the crusades took a toll on the country. But England did have lands in the north of France. These lands, however, were lost to the King of France during King John's reign. King John tried to regain those lands, but after a decisive battle in Bounvines, France, King Philip II of France finally ended King John’s expedition to regain the lost England territories.
His exploits in France made John unpopular back in England. The barons opposed him, unhappy with his fiscal policy that among others resulted in higher taxes. After John's defeat at Bouvines, some of the barons formed a coalition and rebelled against him. Hostilities erupted between the rebellious barons and John and those who were still loyal to him.
In order to avoid war, negotiations for peace took place. The rebellious barons made several demands to John in order to protect what they perceived to be their rights. King John and the rebellious barons finally agreed to terms.
John would sign the Magna Carta and in return, the rebellious barons would lay down their arms.
And so in 1215, the Magna Carta was signed. It contained several clauses which protected the independence of the churches in England as well as the rights of the barons. Most importantly, Clause 39 of the Magna Carta provides that "no free man could be imprisoned, stripped of his rights or possession, without due process being legally applied".
It was, for the large part, an agreement between the State and rich and powerful stakeholders. It was never intended to be a charter that protected individual rights. The "free man" in Clause 39 did not refer to the majority populace who were serfs and were always oppressed by the rich and powerful feudal lords.
Indeed, the Magna Carta itself did not manage to keep the peace during King John's time. Both sides reneged on their promises eventually leading to the First Baron's War.
But the legacy of the Magna Carta outlasted those who entered into it. And its effect was felt long after those who were party to it were gone. It became an important document in common law countries throughout the world. For the first time in England's history, the powers of the reigning monarch were curtailed by a charter. The Magna Carta later led to the development of constitutionalism, the rule of law and protection of individual liberties.
It became the basis of the principle that is relevant today that the powers of the executive are not absolute. The executive and by extension, the State, cannot act according to its whims and fancies to the detriment of the individual.
The notion that no person shall be punished without due process of law was developed further throughout the centuries that followed until it came to a point that such notions are pretty much a staple in the bills of rights of today. This notion can be found in many modern constitutions.
Next year will be the 700th year since the Magna Carta was signed. The United Kingdom and the rest of the world will no doubt celebrate what has been described by celebrated English judge Lord Denning as "...the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot".
> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own