Leading article: Rights and wrongs

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The Independent Online

The lack of a written constitution has long been a source of national pride. We flattered ourselves that we were enlightened enough not to need everything written down in black and white. And the fact that nothing was codified afforded a certain – and, to many, enviable – flexibility.

But the days of our national singularity in this respect may be numbered. Speaking in the US yesterday, the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, held out the prospect of a single document enshrining every citizen's rights and responsibilities and outlining how the different arms of government work – a written constitution, in other words.

We have no quarrel with the principle. Bits and pieces of what comprise other countries' national constitutions are scattered about in a host of different parliamentary Acts and legal judgments. There is no reason why they should not be assembled and condensed into a simple statement of rights, responsibilities and structures. A constitution can be seen as an integral part of being a modern state.

Two recent trends also militate in favour of having something written down. The influence of the judiciary has been growing, altering the balance between the different branches of government. And reforms have been introduced – such as the half-hearted modernisation of the House of Lords, and devolution – without adequate consideration of their wider repercussions.

Our fear, though, is that any attempt to codify the current ramshackle arrangements will follow the first version of the EU Constitutional Treaty into the twin traps that caused its death: unnecessary detail, and prolixity. If we are to have a written constitution, it must stick to basic principles and, like its timeless US predecessor, be easily carried in the pocket.

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