Britain has no written constitution, but rather a set of conventions, customs, and statutes. Only Parliament may enact or change laws, but any person can take proceedings against the government to protect their legal rights. "Habeas corpus" enshrines freedom from unlawful or arbitrary detention. In principle, English and colonial subjects have similar legal protections and commercial liberty.
Despite increasing social and industrial unrest, even leading to strikes that require suppression by the police or army, Britain remains for the most part a law-abiding society. The start of the Irish war for independence and the creation of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1919 lead to a guerilla conflict, including terrorist acts on the British mainland, that lasts the whole century.
Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill sign the Atlantic Charter, forging a postwar commitment to the hope "that all men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from want and fear."
Britain is the first country to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in March 1951. The convention establishes the most effective international system of human rights protection yet invented.
The period after 1960 sees a determined effort by successive governments to tackle the problem of racism. The 1965 Race Relations Act makes racial discrimination illegal and is followed by a number of bills giving the Race Relations Board more powers. In the same year, the Murder Act leads to the abolition of the death penalty and the end of hanging in Britain.
Attempts to crack down on high levels of street crime spark riots in South London's Brixton neighborhood and violent clashes between the police and mainly nonwhite demonstrators. Riots spread through England. Allegations of police brutality coupled with a 1983 report condemning the police as bigoted, racist, and sexist damage the respect the police have traditionally enjoyed.
In 1990 Margaret Thatcher's introduction of the poll tax breeds resentment, which in turn leads to mass demonstrations and violence in London, and eventual repeal of the measure. The following year, the Harare Declaration unites Britain and Commonwealth member countries in the goals of upholding democracy, rule of law, good governance, and social justice.
The 1998 Human Rights Act gives Britain its first full Bill of Rights; for the first time, individuals have a range of overarching civil rights enforceable in all British courts. The act incorporates into British law the European Convention on Human Rights. Public authorities are obliged to respect all rights laid down by the European convention.
The British government's tough reaction to an increase in violent crime raises worries that a pillar of civil rights, trial by jury, may be sacrificed. In the aftermath of September 11 an antiterrorism bill is proposed, including detention without trial, that critics fear will undermine the rule of law and civil liberties. Other reforms expand on-the-spot fines and a crackdown on sex offenders.
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