The end of the seventeenth-century saw a period of dramatic change in British Politics that laid the foundations for the liberal democratic government that is still in place today. One of the most important pieces of legislation passed during this period was undoubtedly the Bill of Rights (1689) – so what did it do?
What was the background to the Bill of Rights?
In 1649 King Charles I had been executed following a trial and England became a republican government with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. After Oliver Cromwell’s death his son, Richard, became Lord Protector but was utterly inept and was removed after less than a year. With England in constitutional turmoil, many people called for the return of the monarchy and in 1600 Charles II returned to England in an event known as the restoration of the monarchy. However, when Charles died in 1685 with no children a new constitutional crisis emerged. This was because his younger brother, James, was a Catholic. During Charles II’s reign many Parliamentarians had pushed for an exclusion bill that would have stopped Catholics taking the throne, however, it was not passed. Unlike Charles II, James was an unpopular monarch. Much of his unpopularity stemmed from the fact that he was a Roman Catholic and sought to reassert the rights of other Roman Catholics in England. The reign of James was characterised by a constant struggle with Parliament, reminiscent of that of his grandfather, Charles I.
Soon after becoming King James faced rebellions and in 1688 a group of powerful Protestant nobles invited William, the protests Prince of Orange, to come to England with an army and remove James and James fled to France. The English Parliament declared that James had abdicated and invited William and his wife Mary (James’ daughter) to act jointly as monarch. This event was known as the Glorious Revolution.
Despite supporting William and Mary, Parliament wanted to make clear that they wanted clearer controls on the monarchy. As such, they passed the Bill of Rights.
What did the Bill of Rights do?
Despite its name, the Bill of Rights was not really about protecting the rights of ordinary citizens, but was primarily about entrenching the rights of Parliament. As such, the Bill of Rights did a number of things. It said that:
- The Monarchy could not suspend laws without the consent of Parliament.
- The Monarchy could not levy taxes without the consent of Parliament.
- The Monarchy could not keep a standing army at a time of peace without the consent of Parliament.
- Cruel and Unusual Punishments were not to be inflicted in England.
- Parliament should be a permanent institution and not merely gathered at the Monarchy’s request.
One particularly important right that was outlined in the Bill of Rights was Parliamentary Privilege. The wording of the clause was:
” That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament “
This right protects Parliamentarians from being sued or prosecuted for actions taken that are clearly done as part of their parliamentary duties. There are a number of famous cases where parliamentarians have relied on parliamentary privilege:
The Zircon Affair (1985) – In 1985 a documentary about a spy satellite programme that the government ruled breached the Official Secrets Act was aired in the House of Commons. The MPs that watched it were protected from legal consequences due to parliamentary privilege.
John Hemming and Ryan Giggs (2011) – The then Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming used parliamentary privilege to name footballer Ryan Giggs as the subject of a super-injunction over issues in his private life. Despite naming Giggs being contempt of court it was a privileged statement as he made it in Parliament and he could not face legal reprcussions.
Lord Hain and Philip Green (2018) – The former Labour Cabinet Member and now peer used the privilege in 2018 to name businessman Philip Green as the subject of an injunction preventing publication of a story that he had used Non-Disclosure Agreements to prevent women he was alleged to have sexually harassed from speaking about their experiences.
Why was the Bill of Rights important?
There are a number of reasons why the Bill of Rights was important but primarily these can be summarised as:
- It marked the moment where Britain clearly became a form of constitutional monarchy.
- It reasserted ancient rights, including those such as Habeas Corpus, which dated all the way back to the Magna Carta in 1215.
- It formed the basis of later statements of rights that would develop later.
Whilst the Bill of Rights did not provide the same protections for citizens as the US Bill of Rights (1792) it is nonetheless extremely important in Britain’s constitutional development. Its passage saw the creation of Britain as a constitutional monarchy, something that remain a core principle of the UK constitution today.
Bill of Rights (1689) – A piece of legislation passed in 1689 that entrenched the rights of Parliament.
Restoration of the Monarchy (1660) – The restoration of Charles II to the English Throne following the end of the Commonwealth.
Glorious Revolution (1688) – The installation of William of Orange and Mary Stuart on the throne following the abdication of James II.
Parliamentary Privilege – The protection in place for members of parliamentarians that means they are not cannot be prosecuted for statements made whilst carrying out their role as MPS.
Constitutional Monarchy – A system in which the monarch has a mainly symbolic and ceremonial role and political decisions are made by elected officials.