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Is Liberty British? 28 Jan 2009

Britain gave its former colonies constitutions – but hasn't got round to writing one itself. What shape are our freedoms and rights in today, 800 years after Magna Carta? Not a very good one, say Linda Colley and AC Grayling

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Britain's Elastoplast constitution

In this fascinating talk, two experts on British history ask how British is the notion of liberty. As our colonies gained independence, we mass-produced constitutions for the emerging states – but our own idea of constitution resides not in a single document but a diffuse collection of documents, rulings and ideas, from Magna Carta to the Human Rights Act.

Those experts are historian and Princeton scholar Professor Linda Colley, guest curator of Taking Liberties and author of Britons: Forging the nation 1707-1837 and Captives: Britain, Empire and the world 1600-1850; and Professor AC Grayling, writer and professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. His many books include Towards the Light: The story of the struggles for liberty and rights that made the modern west.

And they had plenty to say. Grayling talked at length about the "Elastoplast constitution", a work in progress forever being patchworked together as new situations demand. He pointed out that many rights and freedoms were revoked in the decades following the French Revolution, and that similar restrictions are happening right now.

Prof Colley explained how the right to vote has come in fits and starts, with 1830s Britain being one of the best-enfranchised nations in Europe, but early 1900s Britain being among of the worst.

Covering every major domestic constitutional event from the Laws of Forests to the Human Rights Act, this debate is required listening for anyone interested in history, warning us about mistakes of the past that are being repeated today.

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