Magna Carta: the baby steps

A page from the Magna Carta (with some modern ballpoint writing over it).Right now there are celebrations going on in Surrey and Berkshire to mark the 800th anniversary of the passing of Magna Carta, the charter sealed by King John that established the rule of law in England. A flotilla has been making its way down the Thames from Hurley, Berkshire to Runnymede (between Staines and Windsor, on the south bank of the Thames) where the document was sealed. David Cameron gave a speech about how ‘revolutionary’ the document was in its time; Ian Dunt of took the speech apart, showing that David Cameron, while in office, has betrayed every principle he identifies. As has been widely noted, including here ([1], [2]), this comes at a time when the government intends to do away with the Human Rights Act, which is a fairly modern bill of rights though not as robust, in constitutional terms, as those found in written constitutions (for example, courts cannot annul statute law by finding it incompatible).

The New Statesman ran a feature a couple of weeks ago on the myths surrounding Magna Carta, and one of the essays was by Melvyn Bragg, who noted that a prominent male intellectual had stood up at a recent public meeting and called it a “squalid little deal” which among other things made no mention of women. Bragg acknowledges that the document doesn’t say anything about “the rights of women, the welfare state, the trade unions or the euro”, nor about “the right to parliamentary democracy, trial by jury or habeas corpus”:

But it can be argued that all these flowed from and were triggered by this document. And not only in this country, but as time went on, most powerfully in America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and as a foundation stone in the constitution of India and elsewhere. After the Second World War, the UN set up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Eleanor Roosevelt called a “Magna Carta for all mankind”.

Magna Carta has 63 clauses in abbreviated Latin. Two of them that are still on the statute book, numbers 39 and 40, could be said to have changed the way in which the free world has grown. “No free man shall be taken, or imprisoned, or disseised [his lands taken away], or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way ruined; nor will we go against him nor sin against him except by the lawful judgment of his peers, his equals and by the law of the land.” And, “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.” These two clauses have so far proved to be indestructible, though often defied. They came to apply to all men and then all women, and have elasticated their earliest purpose to become universal with a legendary, even mythical aura to them.

The problem comes when this document is brandished not by peasants asserting their rights but by a politician seeking to take those rights away. It looks absurd that a country which has no written constitution or bill of rights is congratulating itself on being the country where a very early milestone in the history of constitutional government took place, when other countries have constitutions establishing the separation of powers and bills of rights that include things not dreamed of in the 13th century. Imagine two cousins, aged a couple of months either side of a year old, the younger of which is taken to visit his aunt and sees his older cousin walking by holiding onto furniture, and learns to walk from him. Then imagine twenty years later: the younger cousin can walk, run and cycle, while the elder still clings to furniture, yet tells the younger cousin that he taught him to walk.

Britain is like that older cousin: an adult bragging about the baby steps he took when he was barely more than a year old, when we are threatening to let go of the furniture and just settle for crawling! In reality, an adult like this is almost certainly disabled. What’s our excuse? Magna Carta is an important historical event and deserves to be commemorated. The boats were lovely. But the document is a product of the feudal 13th century, full of guarantees of agricultural and fishing rights that were relevant to that time and not to now, and only three of its clauses remain law — its relevance to our time is minimal, and to promote its virtues in the place of a law which protects the rights of ordinary citizens, including the weak and unpopular, is cynical and dishonest.

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