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Magna Carta – why it matters 800 years on

June 10, 2015


Next Monday is a significant date in terms of British history.  It marks the 800th anniversary of the agreement, in a meadow besides the Thames, at Runnymede between Staines and Windsor, of the Charter of Liberties (later to be known as the Magna Carta or Great Charter) .  While some of its notoriety relates to later interpretation, in particular in the 17th century, it is nonetheless synonymous with the tradition of liberty, due process and representative Government in this country and, by transference, more widely in the English speaking world.

Magna Carta was the culmination of a long running fight between King John, and it is fair to say his predecessors, and the English aristocracy about the limits of royal power and, in particular, how royal power impacted on the rights, privileges and livelihoods of the aristocracy.

John is a notorious figure in British history.  Unlike his later Plantagenet successor Richard III, he has not had the redeeming experience of having been dug up in a 21st century car park.  His reputation lies exactly where the medieval chroniclers on whose testimony we are most dependent for information about his reign left it – in tatters.  They portrayed him as a tyrant who squandered his inheritance, murdered his enemies, raped their wives, lost his treasure in the Wash and died a horrible death after eating a surfeit of lampreys.

As ever the truth is probably a bit more complex.  The records of his Government which survive show evidence of an able administrator concerned with the extension of royal justice, undoubtedly paranoid, suffering with the unfair comparison with his courageous but equally flawed brother, Richard the Lionheart and dealt a bad hand in the nature of issues and opponents he had to deal with.  In the end John’s difficulties, like those of many rulers, came down to money and the abuses he committed against aristocratic privilege reflect to a great extent the challenges he faced in raising sufficient resources to protect his overseas possessions in France.

Nonetheless at the end of his reign he lost control of his kingdom and was forced by aristocrat rebels to concede a Charter of Liberties which dealt with their grievances about the arbitrary use of royal power.  For a variety of reasons it has had life which has extended well beyond the circumstances in which it was granted and has a special place in our history.

It is important to note that this was a Charter of Liberties not a Charter of Liberty.  Unlike later statements such as the US Declaration of Independence, there is no overarching political theory of freedom or equality underpinning Magna Carta.  It reflects no more than the attempts of a vested interest to reassert its privileges yet somehow it is contributed something to the DNA of British life and Government which has had a longer term effect.

There are a number of reasons why it is important that we use this anniversary to reflect on the state of liberty in our country.

First it reminds us of the central importance of safeguards which protect human rights, grant equality in front of the law and provide restrictions on the use of arbitrary power.  Britain has in many ways one of the best traditions in respect of these principles but we have relied as much on custom and practice as formal measures to provide those safeguards.  Magna Carta has great symbolic value as the most famous statement of our liberties which successive rulers of this country have wished to align themselves to in in intent, if not in practice.

There is an importance in having a statement of freedoms which transcends any individual Government. In 1945, at the end of the bloodiest and most brutal conflict in human history, another land mark declaration of human rights was put together in the form of the European Convention of Human Rights.  The war and the horrors of the Nazi regime made it self-evident that basic human rights, so grossly abused in the previous 12 years should be given international recognition and protection.

A major contribution was made to its drafting by British politicians and British jurists, their thinking grounded in the tradition going back to Magna Carta. For me it would be a retrograde step to repeal the Human Rights Act and especially to sever our link to the European Court of Human Rights   There is something reassuring about a commitment to guarantee rights which goes beyond the writ of any national Government.  International rulings can at times be awkward for national Governments but in general they are a welcome protection for ordinary people against arbitrary authority.

Second it reminds us of the importance of fair laws and the fair application of laws.  Whatever a Government chooses to do the basis for its actions must be transparent and open to challenge.  The arbitrary and inconsistent exercise of power is both harmful to individual citizens but also in due course undermines trust in Government itself.  As I have commented in earlier blogs, there has been too much of tendency in recent years for Governments (of both political complexions) to rush to legislation, often in response to media pressure.  Poorly though out laws pushed through Parliament eventually the erode the trust on which the authority of Government is based.  As King John discovered fear can only get you so far in securing the support and compliance of those you govern.

The final point is that justice must not be or be perceived to be “for sale”.  One of the issues which prompted the barons to rebel against King John was his practice of selling justice and we must always be concerned at the perception that wealth can in some ways buy an advantage in front of the law.  Today it feels, increasingly, that the quality of justice which is open to the poor is  of a different character to that which is open to the rich.  This is in part as result of cuts to legal aid, in part because of the ability of the rich to buy a level of legal expertise not affordable by others, in part because of the increasing ability of rich individuals and corporations to use their wealth to buy levels of access to lawmakers not open to the more disadvantaged in society.

So Monday June 15th and the anniversary of Magna Carta should be treated as more than just a dry historical occasion.  This issues which led to the meeting at Runnymede are just as important today and we should use this moment as a genuine opportunity to  celebrate the tradition of this liberty in this country and to think afresh about the challenges facing it and the steps we need to take to guarantee it for the future.


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