LONDON — Eight-hundred years ago this month, rebellious barons and a despised, cash-strapped king gathered in a verdant riverside meadow 20 miles outside London to seal an agreement that would change the course of history.
The words of the Magna Carta have inspired democratic movements the world over and formed a basis for countless constitutions — most notably the one crafted by another group of king-defying aristocrats over a long and sweaty Philadelphia summer.
Yet somehow, despite birthing the principles of due process and equal rights under law, Britain never got around to codifying a constitution of its own. Now, with this ancient land experiencing teenage-style existential angst, many Britons wonder whether it is finally time to change that.
Britain is one of just three major democracies that lack formal, written constitutions. Its empire has come and gone, it has triumphed in world wars, and yet it has never seemed to need a written constitution.
But Britain has rarely faced the sort of fundamental challenges to its identity that it is confronting today. Scotland nearly split the United Kingdom apart in an independence referendum last September and may try to do so again after a landslide election victory for nationalists last month. Britain as a whole will soon have to decide whether it is part of Europe. And because of the country’s peculiar electoral system, last month’s parliamentary vote produced perhaps the most distorted results in British history.
That web of problems offers few easy answers. Advocates of a written constitution say none of the big problems are likely to be solved unless Britain does what others accomplished long ago and goes through the difficult process of writing down some basic rules.
“We’ve got a long tradition of helping other countries do it, without recognizing that we need to do it ourselves,” said Jeremy Purvis, a member of the House of Lords who introduced a bill last week that, if passed, would trigger a constitutional convention. “But this is the moment.”
In truth, Britain does have a constitution, although only the most sophisticated legal scholars, perhaps with the aid of archaeologists, know where to find it.
Instead of one document that can be stuffed into a breast pocket or waved about by politicians for dramatic effect, the British constitution lies scattered across centuries’ worth of common law, acts of Parliament, treaty obligations and historical conventions. Much is left unsaid: There is, for instance, no formal job description for the prime minister, and Parliament conducted a multi-year inquiry during the last parliamentary term to figure it out.
British schoolchildren learn little about their nation’s constitution, and even the Magna Carta, which was not itself a constitution and whose many archaic provisions have largely been repealed, often seems to get less respect here than it does in the United States. Pressed by David Letterman on what Magna Carta means in English, Prime Minister David Cameron famously flubbed the question. (“Great Charter” is the right answer.)
“People should know the rules of their governance,” said Graham Allen, a member of Parliament who until recently chaired the constitutional reform committee. “But I don’t think most Britons even know we have a constitution.”
Allen has long waged what has seemed at times a quixotic quest to talk Britain into writing down what it stands for. His committee even commissioned a four-year effort by scholars at King’s College London to craft a model constitution that can be used as a blueprint if the nation ever comes around on the issue, which tends to rate low in surveys of which issues matter most to voters.
The result was published last year. At 71 pages, it lays out everything from the formal name of the country (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) to a bill of rights.
Allen then sought feedback from the public, and “for the Jeffersons or the Mandelas amongst us,” he promised a bottle of House of Commons champagne to whoever could come up with the most eloquent preamble. The winning entry begins: “United, we stand in celebration of the diverse voices that make up the great chorus of our nation.”
Others have taken their own stabs at a codified constitution, which, if enacted, would remove Britain from a small, constitutionally starved club that includes New Zealand and Israel. The London School of Economics recently unveiled a crowd-sourced document pulled together from online contributions and brainstorming events around the country, including “a constitutional carnival” highlighted by musical performances and generous servings of cotton candy.
The constitution issue has gained more prominence lately, not only because of the anniversary of the Magna Carta, which will be marked June 15 with an event graced by the queen and foreign dignitaries, but also because of strains on the United Kingdom.
The threat of Scottish independence is felt most acutely. The United Kingdom is not one nation, but four — Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. For centuries, power has been monopolized in London, but demands are rising for control closer to home. The response has been scattershot and unbalanced, with each nation receiving different levels of power amid increasing tensions within the union.
Purvis, the House of Lords member who is pushing for a constitutional convention, said the United Kingdom needs to refresh and define itself to survive.
“In the vacuum of there not being a statement about what holds the union together, it allows nationalism in England and Scotland to flourish,” he said. “I want there to be something that holds together as Britishness.”
His bill may clear the House of Lords, but it is unlikely to pass the all-important House of Commons. Cameron’s Conservative Party, which gained a majority of seats in the House of Commons in last month’s election, despite winning just 37 percent of the vote, has not ruled out the idea of a convention but has generally been cool to it.
And what Cameron’s party wants, it gets. Britain’s system is sometimes referred to as an elected dictatorship because it lacks a true separation of powers. The courts have no mandate to vet the laws, and Parliament generally falls in line with what the prime minister and his government decide.
That’s one of the main reasons that Allen has pushed so hard for a new approach. But in a reflection of current reality, Allen’s constitutional reform committee was effectively disbanded last week.
“Government is an 800-pound gorilla. Parliament is a mouse. If the mouse squeaks, the gorilla stomps on the mouse,” Allen said. “I was stomped on.”
Defenders of Britain’s traditional ways say there is good reason not to change what has worked for this country for ages. Philip Norton, a member of the House of Lords and a constitutional scholar, said that codifying the constitution would amount to fitting the country with “a straitjacket” when it needs to be flexible enough to evolve with changing times.
“It’s undesirable, unnecessary and unachievable,” Norton said.
Anthony King, a University of Essex political scientist, said there is no doubt that Britain’s political structures need significant renovation. But trying to craft a written constitution might only deepen the country’s problems, given the quality of those likely to be in charge of such a process.
“If you look at the people who drew up the American constitution, here was a group with outstanding intellectual capacity — James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, George Mason,” he said. “You couldn’t replicate that in Britain in 2015 — probably not in most countries in 2015.”
Constitutions, King said, usually arise out of major upheaval, such as war or revolution. That spark has never been lit for Britain, and he said he doubts that the country’s current challenges — serious as they may be — will be enough to force the issue.
“The system is unsatisfactory, but it’s not ghastly,” he said. “We’re going to muddle along. Brits pride themselves on that.”
Karla Adam contributed to this report.