Monday, 15 June 2015

Magna Carta: we can all celebrate the anniversary, even if we don't all understand it the same way

Anniversaries are the moment when the present chooses to reinterpret the past to suit its purposes.

800 years ago, on 15 June 1215, England’s leading landowners met at Runnymede, on the Thames, to the West of London. To hold land was, at that time, to hold huge power – it was, indeed, the only road to power. Land produced rent and, out of that rent, the owners could fund small armies, personally loyal to themselves.

The Magna Carta Monument at Runnymede
On that day, they met to cut down to size one of their number. They had all accepted that it was important that one should have authority over all of them but, though he might hold the title of King, they didn’t feel that was something he ought to let go to his head. He had to remember that he was ultimately just one of them, and he maintained his pre-eminence only with their consent.

The holder of that position in 1215, King John, was weak, and his peers, the barons, took advantage to extract concessions from him about just what a King might or might not do. They wanted rights guaranteed in writing, over his signature. In particular, they denied him the right to act against them at will, and they insisted that any of their number only be convicted of a crime if tried by a jury of his peers.

No free man shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised [dispossessed], outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.

The words “his” and “peers” are important in this context. The barons weren’t concerned with the rights of women. And they weren’t interested in “the people” – they were interested in their peers. 

But the present imposes its own interpretation on the past. What happens if you extend the meaning of “free man” beyond the narrow ranks of the barons? Then the Great Charter (literally Magna Carta) becomes a statement of basic rights of all Englishmen (and possibly Englishwomen).

By the seventeenth century, the view was taking hold that the English had always enjoyed certain liberties, but they’d been trampled on by foreigners forcing their way into the country (echoes of our own times). In this case, the foreigners were the Normans who conquered the place in 1066. This is a view which conveniently ignores the fact that the English – Anglo-Saxons – had themselves been invaders only a few centuries earlier, when they’d usurped the lands of the Celts.

In this view, what the barons obtained from John was a restatement, or reinstatement, of those primordial English rights. And Englishmen everywhere began to demand that they be recognised, including those fine Englishmen who set up the colonies in North America. When their representatives met in Congress in 1766 to protest a new tax imposed on them from Britain, the Stamp Act, they called on the authority of the Great Charter:

The invaluable rights or taxing ourselves, and of trial by our peers, of which we implore your Majesty’s protection are not, we most humbly conceive unconstitutional; but confirmed by the Great Charter of English Liberty.

Sadly, George III took a more jaundiced view of the Great Charter, and refused his loyal subjects in the thirteen American colonies the protection they required, losing their loyalty in consequence, and, after a disastrous war, the colonies too.

The tradition, however, persisted. Nearly 750 years after the signature of the Charter, Franklin Delano Roosevelt assured us in his 1941 inaugural:

The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history. It permeated the ancient life of early peoples. It blazed anew in the middle ages. It was written in Magna Carta.

Five years later, in his “Iron Curtain” speech, Winston Churchill declared:

We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.

The Great Charter itself
And then we get to David Cameron. He told the anniversary celebration at Runnymede:

Why do people set such store by Magna Carta? Because they look to history. They see how the great charter shaped the world, for the best part of a millennium, helping to promote arguments for justice and for freedom.

Sadly, he also declared that “here in Britain ironically, the place where those ideas were first set out, the good name of human rights has sometimes been distorted or devalued.” This is his justification for trying to repeal the Human Rights Act, which guarantees the Charter’s rights, and others besides, for every one of us.

The view that this is the spirit of the Charter may be ahistorical, but quite a few of us rather like it. As did Roosevelt and Churchill.

Cameron, it seems, disagrees.

As I said. Anniversaries are moments when we respect not the contemporary significance of events, but the significance that we draw from them today. Cameron, I suppose, has a right to his own. It’s just sad that it has to be so idiosyncratic.

Not to say more than a little worrying.

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