History of the Constitution of the United Kingdom
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The Constitution of the United Kingdom has evolved over a long period of time beginning in the predecessor states to the United Kingdom and continuing to the present day. The relative stability of the British polity over centuries, progressing without a revolution or regime change that lasted, has obviated the need to write a constitution from first principles, in contrast to many other countries. What Britain has instead is an accumulation of various statutes, judicial precedents, convention, treaties and other sources which collectively can be referred to as the British Constitution. It is thus more accurate to describe Britain’s constitution as an ‘uncodified’ constitution, rather than an ‘unwritten’ one.
- 1 Key statutes
- 2 Pre-Civil War England
- 3 The Civil War
- 4 Post-Civil War
- 5 The Kingdom of Great Britain
- 6 The United Kingdom
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Bibliography
- 10 External links
There are certain statutes that are significant in the history of the Constitution of the United Kingdom. Some have been repealed, several have been amended and remain in statute, while others are current legislation as originally enacted. None are entrenched.
Selected English and Welsh statutes
- Magna Carta (1215)
- Provisions of Oxford (1258)
- Provisions of Westminster (1259)
- Statute of Marlborough (1267)
- Statute of Rhuddlan (1284)
- Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542, Wales became a full and equal part of the Kingdom of England
- Petition of Right (1628)
- Instrument of Government (1653), first Constitution of England, replaced in 1657
- Humble Petition and Advice (1657), second Constitution of England
- Habeas Corpus Act 1679
- Bill of Rights 1689
- Act of Settlement 1701, agreed to by Parliament of Scotland as part of the Treaty of Union
- Union with Scotland Act 1706
Selected Scottish statutes
Selected British statutes
- Acts of Union 1800, union of Great Britain and Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
- Reform Act 1832, Reform Act 1867, Reform Act 1884, Representation of the People Act 1918, Representation of the People Act 1928, Representation of the People Act 1949, Representation of the People Act 1969, extending the vote to all adults equally
- Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949
- Government of Ireland Act 1920, Irish Free State (Agreement) Act 1922, Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922, and Irish Free State (Consequential Provisions) Act 1922
- Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927
- Statute of Westminster 1931
- His Majesty's Declaration of Abdication Act 1936
- Life Peerages Act 1958, House of Lords Act 1999
- European Communities Act 1972, European Union Act 2011
- Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973
- Human Rights Act 1998
- Scotland Act 1998, Government of Wales Act 1998, Government of Wales Act 2006, Northern Ireland Act 1998
- Freedom of Information Act 2000, Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, Civil Contingencies Act 2004, Constitutional Reform Act 2005,
- Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, Succession to the Crown Act 2013
Pre-Civil War England
Before the Norman Conquest
The Kingdom of England was formed in the mid 9th Century; for example, Alfred the Great issued laws as King of the West Saxons, and what is now recognised as England came about in 927 AD when the last of the Heptarchy kingdoms fell under the rule of the King of the English, Athelstan. On 14 October 1066, King Harold II of England was killed while leading his men in the Battle of Hastings against Duke William of Normandy. The event completely changed the course of English history. Until 1066, England was ruled by monarchs that were elected by the witan, (meaning wise). There were various elements of democracy at a local level too, known as folkmoot.
Henry I of England (c. 1068 – 1 December 1135) was king from 1100 to 1135, ruling through the Curia regis. When he ascended to the throne he granted the Charter of Liberties, a series of decrees and assurances to the barons. Probably the most important statement in the charter is at the beginning, where the king admits "that by the mercy of God and the common counsel of the barons of the whole kingdom of England I have been crowned king of said kingdom". This represented a step away from absolute rule; the king had recognised that the right to rule came not only from God but also from the common counsel of the barons.
King John (24 December 1167 – 19 October 1216) was King of England from 1199 to 1216. He was the youngest brother of Richard I. His reign was fraught with conflicts; there was conflict between England and France, between England and the Pope and between the King and the barons. Eventually the barons forced John to sign the Magna Carta, a practical solution to the political crisis he faced in 1215, which established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law.
Henry III (1 October 1207 – 16 November 1272) succeeded his father John. Henry was only nine years of age when he became king and so the country was ruled by regents until Henry reached the age of 20. Under pressure from the barons, led by Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, Henry had to accept constitutional limitations on the monarchy placed by Provisions of Oxford and Provisions of Westminster and the existence of the first representative English Parliament.
The Ordinances of 1311 were a series of regulations imposed on King Edward II by the Lords and higher clergy to restrict the power of the king.
Later in the 14th century, during the reign of Richard II, there was an uprising known as the Peasants' Revolt (1381). The rebels came very close to their demands (such as fair rents and the abolition of serfdom) being granted by the king, but at the end the protesters were tricked out of such gains. The revolt remains as an important moment in history, but it failed to contribute to the written body of the constitution.
The second Act of Supremacy (1559) restored these powers over the church to Elizabeth I, reversing normalising legislation passed during the reign of her sister Mary I, although the title Elizabeth gained was "Supreme Governor of the Church of England" rather than "supreme head", so as not to imply that she had control over the church's doctrine, or, that the Monarch was usurping the primacy of Jesus. The Act also required all office-holders, including the clergy, to take an oath of allegiance acknowledging the Queen as the supreme governor of the Church of England.
The monarchy had to get the consent of Parliament in all issues, but with the threat of war looming from Spain, Parliament showed great loyalty toward Queen Elizabeth, who was a strong leader. However, after the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, Parliament felt safer and thus it decreased its loyalty to the monarchy.
Parliament consisted of two levels of administration: the House of Lords that was made up of the influential peers of the realm and Lords Spiritual, and the House of Commons, which consisted of representative members of the aristocracy and the middle-class.
The House of Commons had grown sharply, doubling in size due to the prosperity of the middle-class during that time. There were a number of vocal Puritans in the House of Commons (although the extent to which they influenced the Commons is disputed, Sir John Neale identified a unified bloc of 43 members, whereas revisionists have suggested that this is an exaggeration) who began asking for more rights for the Puritans, but Elizabeth I was strong enough to ignore their demands. James I would later have problems with them.
John Aylmer, a Greek scholar, saw an immediate resemblance of the Tudor constitution to that of the classical republic of Sparta. Geoffrey Elton, who wrote The Tudor Constitution, gave hearty approval to Aylmer's conclusions. It was the Greek scholars, such as Aylmer, that popularised the Greek classical political terminology and influenced English and later British constitutionalist thought. They brought forward the idea of mixed government from Classical antiquity and applied it to their form of government.
James VI and I
When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 without issue, she was succeeded by her cousin James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and he became King James I of England. This was a major step towards creating a single British state, although the kingdom of Great Britain did not come about until a hundred years later.
James VI faced a fractious religious England since it contained Anglicans (of the Church of England), Puritans, Separatists (who wanted to break from the Church of England), and also many Roman Catholics, although many did not declare their continuing allegiance to Rome, which was the cause of much mistrust.
James VI was a believer in the Divine Right of Kings, which stated that Kings were chosen by God and should therefore be absolute and answerable only to God. This was corroborated by his Presbyterian belief in predestination, and such a birthright as kingship made him almost explicitly a part of the elect. Though he was Presbyterian (Calvinist, Huguenot, Puritan), he was against the Presbyterian idea of allowing the congregation (people) to elect their presbyters (church officials) since it undermined his absolutism (according to the Divine Right). Thus he was often at odds with the Puritans, who were English Presbyterians.
He did concede to the Puritans by commissioning the "King James Bible", an English language translation and interpretation of the Bible.
Then James VI began fighting with the Roman Catholics, but eventually gave them rights (after his secretly Catholic wife probably persuaded him to), exempting them from having to pay tithes to the Anglican Church, but this caused a great decrease in Anglican Church revenue, so he quickly took those rights away. The actions of King James VI were unpopular during his reign.
The Civil War
Charles I and the Civil War
James was succeeded by his son who became Charles I in 1625. Charles I believed in the Divine Right of Kings, like his father, and thus continued to fight with parliament.
Parliament's main power at this time was its control of the taxes. Parliament demanded more power over the taxes. Traditionally, Parliament had voted at the beginning of a King's reign on the amount allowed for a King's Tonnage and Poundage, the customs duties (taxes on imported goods like wool and wine) that made up a large portion of a king's annual income. Now Parliament wanted to re-evaluate these taxes annually, which would give it more control over the king. James I resisted this abrogation of his 'Divine Right' and dealt with the situation by dissolving Parliament. Charles I did the same at first and later just ignored its annual evaluations.
Charles acquired much of his money with forced loans from the rich. He also received a lot of money through taxes. One important tax that Charles collected was the Ship Money tax that required the counties bordering the sea to fund a navy to protect the English coastline. The coastal counties were unhappy with it since Charles was collecting the Ship Money tax during a time of peace and since he wasn't using it really to fund the navy. To get even more money, Charles placed the Ship Money tax on the interior counties as well, which angered the English people, because now Charles was creating new taxes without the consent of the Parliament, which was against the (unwritten) law. A man in London named John Hampden, who was also a member of Parliament, refused to pay this "new," interior Ship Money tax, so he was tried for a crime by Charles I and lost with a vote of 7 to 5. This meant that 5 of 12 jurors were against their king, which did not look good or bode well for Charles I.
But, Charles I was at war with France and Spain, and this drained a lot of money from him, so he was forced to call upon Parliament (1629) to make new taxes for him. Parliament would not grant Charles new taxes (more money) until he had signed the Petition of Rights that established conditions in which Charles had to submit to the law of the Parliament:
- The king could not establish martial law in England during times of peace.
- The king could not levy taxes without the consent of the Parliament.
- The king could not arbitrarily imprison people.
- The king could not quarter soldiers in private homes.
After Charles got the taxes from Parliament (1629), he dissolved Parliament and broke the tenets of the Petition of Rights which, under the divine right theory, he considered void.
On top of the wars England had with France and with Spain (both caused by the Duke of Buckingham), Charles I and William Laud (the Archbishop of Canterbury) began a war with Scotland in an attempt to convert Scotland to the Church of England (the Anglican Church). This was called the Bishops' War (1639–1640) and it had two major parts: The first Bishops' War (1639) ended in a truce. The second Bishops' War, the following year, began with the a Scottish invasion of England in which the Scottish defeated the English and remained stationed in England until their issues were solved. To get the Scottish out, Charles I signed the Treaty of Ripon (1640), which required England to pay an indemnity of £850 for each day that the Scottish were stationed in England.
During the second part of the Bishops' War, Charles I had run very low on money (since he was also fighting France and Spain), so he was forced to call a Parliament to make new taxes. He and the Parliament could not agree on anything, so after three weeks, Charles I dissolved the Parliament. Then he desperately needed new taxes, so Charles I called a Parliament again and it would only help him if he agreed to some terms, which ultimately made Charles I a constitutional monarch. It was called the Long Parliament (1640–1660), because it was not officially dissolved by its own vote until 1660.
These terms were:
- That Charles I had to impeach Thomas Wentworth and William Laud. He reluctantly placed them under arrest and put them in The Tower, executing Wentworth in 1641 (for which Charles I never forgave himself since he was close to Thomas Wentworth) and William Laud in 1645.
- Charles I had to agree to the Triennial Act (1641), which required the Parliament to meet every three years with or without the king's consent.
- Charles I had to abolish the Court of the Star Chamber, a royal court controlled completely by Charles I in which the prosecutor was also the judge (which pretty much guaranteed a guilty verdict for the defendant) and it was intended to be used to implement the will of the king legally with a "judicial" façade. It was considered an "extralegal" court. It dealt with odd cases and punishments.
- Charles I had to abolish the High Court, which was the same as the Court of the Star Chamber, though it dealt with religious heresy. It was considered an "extralegal" court.
- Charles I had to accept the Grand Remonstrance and allow the circulation of its copies, and it was a document that outlined (hyperbolically) the crimes that officials had accused Charles of committing since the beginning of his reign. Charles I was also never to do any of those crimes again.
- Charles I, most importantly, had to agree never to dissolve a Parliament without the consent of the Parliament.
Most of England believed that Parliament had done enough to curb the power of King Charles I, but the radicals in Parliament (the extremist Puritans) and the radicals around the country (again, extremist Puritans) wanted to reform the Church of England by getting rid of the bishops (and all other things with the semblance of Catholicism) and by establishing the Puritans' method of worship as the standard. This caused a political division in Parliament, so Charles I took advantage of it. He then sent 500 soldiers into the House of Commons to arrest five of the Puritans' ringleaders (John Hampden included). The five ringleaders had been tipped off, so they had left Parliament and Charles I was left with only shame for storming Parliament.
King Charles I left London and went to Oxford, and the English Civil War began (1642). The North and West of England were on Charles I's side (along with most of the Nobles and country gentry). They were known as the Cavaliers. Charles I created an army illegally (since he needed the Parliament's consent).
The South and East of England were on Parliament's side and were known as Roundheads, for their haircuts. In response to Charles I raising an army, they did so as well. Yet, they didn't have the military might that King Charles I (and his nobles) had, so they solicited the help of the Scottish with the Solemn League and Covenant that promised to impose the Presbyterian religion on the Church of England. They called their army the New Model Army and they made its commander Oliver Cromwell, who was also a member of Parliament. The New Model Army was composed mostly of Presbyterians.
Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth
Though Parliament won, it was clear to the Scots that it was not going to uphold the Solemn League and Covenant by imposing Presbyterianism on England (Puritanism wasn't quite Presbyterian), so the New Model Army, Parliament and the Scots began falling apart. The Scots were paid for their help and sent back to Scotland.
The Presbyterian Roundheads were interested in freedom to practice their religion and not in making the Presbyterian religion the state religion.
Cromwell proposed that Parliament reinstate the bishops of the Church of England and King Charles I as a constitutional monarch, but allow for the toleration of other religions. Though at the end of the war, the people of England could accept Charles I back in office but not religious toleration. They also wanted the New Model Army dissolved since it was a provocative factor. Thus Parliament disallowed religious toleration and voted to disband the New Model Army, but the New Model Army refused the order.
Charles I then made the same deal that the Roundheads had made with the Scottish and Parliamentary Presbyterians. He solicited the help of Scotland (and the Presbyterians) and in return he promised to impose Presbyterianism on England. The New Model Army would not allow this deal to be made (because it would give Charles I military power once more). Thus a "new" civil war broke out in 1648.
This time, Scotland, the Parliamentary Presbyterians and the royalists were on the side of Charles I. The New Model Army and the rest of Parliament were against him.
In the Battle of Preston (1648) Cromwell and his New Model Army defeated Charles I.
Then one of Cromwell's officers, Colonel Pride, destroyed the Presbyterian majority in Parliament by driving out of Parliament 143 Presbyterians of the 203 (leaving behind 60). The new Parliament constituted a Rump Parliament, which was a Parliament in which the minority (Presbyterians) carried on in the name of the majority that was kicked out. The Rump Parliament:
- Abolished the monarchy and the House of Lords in Parliament (it then executed Charles I after publicly trying him for crimes).
- Created a republic called the "Commonwealth" that was really just a dictatorship run by Cromwell.
Scotland was against Cromwell's "Commonwealth" (Republic) and declared Charles I's son king at Edinburgh as King Charles II, but Cromwell and the New Model Army defeated him (1650) and he fled to France where he stayed until 1660.
Cromwell then went to Ireland to govern it, but was "disgusted" with the Catholics, so he massacred many of them (in battle) and so the Irish rebelled against him as well.
Cromwell then dissolved the Rump Parliament and declared himself to be the Lord Protector (dictator).
Richard Cromwell and Charles II
Cromwell died (1658) and was succeeded by his son Richard Cromwell, who tried to keep power militarily and absolutely, but he was also incapable of unifying all of the diverse groups (religious and ethnic). General George Monk came down from Scotland and overthrew Richard. He then invited the remnants of the Long Parliament (the Rump Parliament) to reconvene. The Long Parliament met and officially ended (in 1660, after being open since 1640) when it voted to dissolve itself and create a new Parliament. The new Parliament began the Restoration (of the monarchy) by choosing Charles I's son Charles II to be the King of England.
Popular political movements
The idea of a political party with factions took form around the time of the Civil War. Soldiers from the Parliamentarian New Model Army and a faction of Levellers freely debated rights to political representation during the Putney Debates of 1647. The Levellers published a newspaper (The Moderate) and pioneered political petitions, pamphleteering and party colours. Later, the pre-war Royalist (then Cavalier) and opposing Parliamentarian groupings became the Tory party and the Whigs in the Parliament.
In 1649 Diggers, a small people's political reform movement, published The True Levellers Standard Advanced: or, The State of Community opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men.  This is another important document in the history of British constitutionalism, though different from the others listed here because the Diggers' declaration comes from the people instead of from the state. They are some times called "True Levellers" to distinguish themselves from the larger political group called the Levellers, which had supported the republicans during the civil war. The Diggers were not satisfied with what had been gained by the war against the king and wanted instead a dismantling of the state. They can be best understood through such philosophies as libertarianism, anarchism, and religious communism.
Also at this time, the Polish Brethren arrived in England and Holland. The sect of Polish Brethren had been driven out of Poland after The Deluge because they were commonly considered to be collaborators with the Swedish.
The Diggers' radical ideas influenced thinkers in Poland, Holland, and England, playing an especially important role in the philosophy of John Locke. Locke, in turn, profoundly impacted the development of political ideas regarding liberty, which would later influence the Founding Fathers of the United States.
The Glorious Revolution was the overthrow of James II in 1688 and his replacement with William and Mary as joint monarchs. The Convention Parliament of 1689 drew up a Declaration of Right to address perceived abuses of government under James II and to secure the religion and liberties of Protestants. This was enacted by the Parliament of England as the Bill of Rights 1689, which limited royal power and reaffirmed certain civil rights, building on the Petition of Right 1628 and the Habeas Corpus Act 1679. The Parliament of Scotland approved it as the Claim of Right.
Both the Bill of Rights and the Claim of Right contributed a great deal to the establishment of the concept of parliamentary sovereignty and the curtailment of the powers of the monarch. Leading, ultimately, to the establishment of constitutional monarchy. They furthered the protection of the rule of law, which had started to become a principle of the way the country is governed.
Act of Settlement
In the Act of Settlement 1701, Parliament altered the line of succession to the throne. In order to preserve the Protestant succession, Parliament ensured the Crown would pass to Sophia, the granddaughter of James I and first cousin to Charles II and James II. Sophia's son George I became King in 1714 and his descendants, including the incumbent monarch Queen Elizabth II, have reigned Britain ever since.
The Act also introduced the concept of judicial independence by establishing that judges can keep their position as long as they maintain "good behaviour". Before 1701 a judge's position was held at the disrection of the monarch and there were instances of judges being removed from their position after making judgements that the monarch did not like. After the Act of Settlement, a judge could only be removed from office by the agreement of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords with the subsequent approval of the monarch.
The Kingdom of Great Britain
On 1 May 1707, the Kingdom of Great Britain was created by the political union of the Kingdom of England (which included Wales) and the Kingdom of Scotland. This event was the result of the Treaty of Union that was agreed on 22 July 1706, and then ratified by both the Parliament of England and Parliament of Scotland each passing an Act of Union in 1707. This led to the formation of the first Parliament of Great Britain.
The United Kingdom
The United Kingdom was created by the Union in January 1801 of the Kingdom of Great Britain with the Kingdom of Ireland, which had been ruled by English and British monarchs since the Middle Ages, with the passing of the Act of Union 1800. This created the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 asserted the supremacy of the House of Commons by limiting the legislation-blocking powers of the House of Lords. The Life Peerages Act 1958 allowed the creation of life peers which gave the Prime Minister the ability to change the composition of the House of Lords.
Expansion of the electoral franchise
Between 1832 and 1928, numerous Acts of Parliament repealed voting restrictions and expanded the franchise from just 5% of the adult population to all adults aged 21 and over. The Representation of the People Act 1969 lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 leading to the universal suffrage enjoyed by citizens today.
The European Communities Act 1972 incorporated European Community law into United Kingdom law, which subsequently became European Union law. It is arguable that the European Communities Act of 1972 is “semi-entrenched”; for as long as the UK remains a member of European Union that Act cannot be repealed.
New Labour's reforms
In Labour's first term (1997–2001), it introduced a large package of constitutional reforms, which it promised in its 1997 manifesto. The most significant were:
- The creation of a devolved parliament in Scotland and assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, with their own direct elections.
- The creation of a devolved assembly in London and the associated post of a directly elected Mayor.
- The beginning of a process of reform of the House of Lords, including the removal of all but 92 hereditary peers.
- The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law by passing the Human Rights Act 1998.
- The passing of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
- The passing of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, creating the Electoral Commission to regulate elections and referendums and party spending to an extent.
- The granting of independence over decisions about monetary policy including interest rates to the Bank of England.
During the Labour government's second term (2001-2005), the House of Commons voted on seven options in February 2003 on what proportion of elected and appointed members (from 100% elected to 100% appointed) the House of Lords should have. None of the options received a majority.
In 2004, a Joint Committee (of the House of Commons and House of Lords) tasked with overseeing the drafting of the Civil Contingencies Bill, published its first report, in which, among other things, it suggested amending the bill's clauses that grant Cabinet Ministers the power "to disapply or modify any Act of Parliament" as overly wide, and that the bill should be modified to preclude changes to the following Acts, which, it suggested, formed "the fundamental parts of constitutional law" of the United Kingdom:
- Magna Carta 1215
- Bill of Rights 1689
- Crown and Parliament Recognition Act 1689
- Act of Settlement 1701
- Act of Union 1707
- Act of Union 1800
- The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949
- Life Peerages Act 1958
- Emergency Powers Act 1964
- European Communities Act 1972
- House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975
- Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975
- British Nationality Act 1981
- Supreme Court Act 1981
- Representation of the People Act 1983
- Government of Wales Act 1998
- Human Rights Act 1998
- Northern Ireland Act 1998
- Scotland Act 1998
- House of Lords Act 1999
- And the bill itself (passed as the Civil Contingencies Act 2004)
This amendment was defeated by the government and the bill was passed without it. However, the government partially one recommendation — the Human Rights Act 1998 may not be amended by emergency regulations.
Conservative-Liberal Democrat reforms
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition introduced several reforms including the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which reformed the Royal Prerogative and made other significant changes; the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which introduced fixed-term parliaments of 5 years; and the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which altered the laws of succession to the British throne after it came into effect in March 2015.
- Basic Law
- British constitutional law
- Constitutional law
- Constitutional monarchy
- Category:English constitutionalists
- English law
- History of democracy
- History of England
- History of the United Kingdom
- Lord Chancellor's Department
- Ministry of Justice
- Parliament in the Making
- Secretary of State for Justice
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The earliest, and perhaps greatest, victory for liberalism was achieved in England. The rising commercial class that had supported the Tudor monarchy in the 16th century led the revolutionary battle in the 17th, and succeeded in establishing the supremacy of Parliament and, eventually, of the House of Commons. What emerged as the distinctive feature of modern constitutionalism was not the insistence on the idea that the king is subject to law (although this concept is an essential attribute of all constitutionalism). This notion was already well established in the Middle Ages. What was distinctive was the establishment of effective means of political control whereby the rule of law might be enforced. Modern constitutionalism was born with the political requirement that representative government depended upon the consent of citizen subjects.... However, as can be seen through provisions in the 1689 Bill of Rights, the English Revolution was fought not just to protect the rights of property (in the narrow sense) but to establish those liberties which liberals believed essential to human dignity and moral worth. The "rights of man" enumerated in the English Bill of Rights gradually were proclaimed beyond the boundaries of England, notably in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 and in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789.
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- Joint Committee on Draft Civil Contingencies Bill - First Report
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- Andrew Blick, Magna Carta and contemporary constitutional change History and Policy (2015)