On Magna Carta day, 798 years after the Magna Carta was signed by King John, what is there to celebrate?
If you go to the long meadow of Runnymede beside the Thames where the Magna Carta was sealed in 1215, there is a strange surprise. It is best located today by saying it is just to the west of Heathrow Airport and the M25, between the M3 and the M4. There you will find a memorial to the great Charter, erected by the American Bar Association in 1957. The land itself belongs to the National Trust, it too seems to have been gifted thanks to American patrimony. Sitting in the Magna Carta Tea Room you can reflect that it seems to be the only truly English erection. Otherwise, here, at what is arguably and mythologically the centre and starting point of that great Anglo Saxon contribution to civilisation, namely 'the rule of law', there is an absence – a wonderful meadow but no pompous parliamentary statue or monument, not even a stick in the ground to say, “Hey world, look here, this is where we did it”.
All sorts of marvellous medieval achievements are officially celebrated, but not this one.
Today is Magna Carta day. Most people have no idea that it is because it isn't marked in the calendar anymore than the site itself.
Why is this so, especially in a country that drips with conceit about its longevity and continuity? I think the best way to start to reflect on the Magna Carta is to ask why there is this silence. Why isn't the old dog barking?
The answer is that the Magna Carta presents a many layered embarrassment to the British Establishment.
It brought the monarchy to account. Our monarchy is supposed to be much loved, above politics and unpolitical. It's awkward to be reminded that at times it was none of these things and that the Queen's ancestors were rapacious enemies of the country's well being. Even if this was in past, the act itself of forcing a monarch to the table to get him to behave stinks of lèse-majesté. When the Queen visits Westminster Hall for a major occasion under its magnificent hammer-beam roof, a cloth is laid discreetly over the plaque that marks the spot where Charles I stood when he was condemned to death. Apparently we don't want remind the monarch of what we once did even if the monarchy was then restored. But any celebration of Magna Carta has to say it was built upon rather than reversed. In so far as we are a monarchy, and we are, this is the first embarrassment.
To try and right the wrongs of how we were governed, King John was forced to sign a great Charter of principles. It stands as forerunner of the written constitutions that are now the mark of all decent democracies. Yet we who were then amongst the first are now last. We, the people, we of all people, do not have a document that we can call our own and that holds those who rule us to account. How embarrassing is that! To celebrate this great piece of paper would be call attention to the absence of such a document today. Much was made in the great period of British constitution building and debate of the advantages of not having a mere paper constitution, but the confidence in these debates has waned since the First World War, the end of Empire and the erosion of the sovereignty of parliament into the nonsense it is today. At least the Victorians knew why they didn't celebrate Magna Carta. We have no such constitutional confidence today.
And who were the people who wrote the Magna Carta? With its references to the Welsh law and Welshmen and Scottish kings (not to speak of the added embarrassment of its open discrimination against Jews) it is a strong and clear English document, about the realm of England. Britain does not get a mention. The signing at Runnymede can't be celebrated as a shared document of today's UK. It draws attention to the British establishment's uneasy place and what is now the United Kingdom's missing country without a parliament, voice or representation of its own, the country that can and indeed should claim the Magna Carta as its own: England! This is a third, deep embarrassment.
Then there is the all too evident class nature of the terms set out in the Magna Carta itself. There is no pretence of democracy. It is written by barons on behalf of barons. You just need to think about what was going on then, as set out in the Magna Carta, to realise that today we have our own barons. In the nineteenth century they were still the great landed aristocrats, if enriched by the fruits of Empire. Today, our Barons are the great corporations forcing the government to bend to their will. Indeed, you could see the signing by the long water meadow at Runnymede as a first example of collective lobbying by vested interests of the day, forcing the executive to do their will. It is certainly a most embarrassing example of the naked exercise of power from above and therefore perhaps best not brought to the attention of the children.
Of course, the Magna Carta was not all bad. Famously, Article 39 is worth restating in full: “No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.” Yes, most inhabitants then were not “freemen”. The protections set out were a privilege so far as the majority of those alive in England at the time were concerned. But we can trace back to this claim the right to fair trial by jury that is a keystone of our own system of justice and we can sense here the origins of the first articulation of rights-based democracy by Thomas Rainsborough in 1647, “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government”. But what we can take pride in, in the Magna Carta, is from an official point of view, a fifth and further embarrassment. Especially today. Our current parliament has just abolished our right to lawful judgement by our peers through the creation of secret justice. Concerns for liberty are openly dismissed by Peers of the Realm, especially those who were once Labour ministers. The undermining of legal aid means justice once more is becoming something that is sold - and the agencies of Her Majesty's State are collaborating with PRISM in a lawless surveillance of our private and shared activities as they build over us their system of control. The right to liberty may never have been something those who rule this country wished to bring to the special attention of their subjects, which is what we still remain. But today the modern threat to our liberties has never been greater. Perhaps their still classified name for the files they keep on on their domestic opponents is KING JOHN.
There is at least yet one more reason our rulers are embarrassed by the implications of the Magna Carta. This is the lesser charter whose more modest purposes gave its companion document its 'larger' adjective: the Charter of the Forest. Of course, it is as much an exaggeration to say its claimed and regulated woodlands as a commons as it would be to say that Article 39 was meant to ensure habeus corpus for all. But the principles of the freeman's right to honey or the poor to gather wood on their backs and carry it home without tax are set down. As Peter Linebaugh argues in his exhilarating book, The Magna Carta Manifesto, this was an early assertion of shared access to an essential, ecological resource. In the era of neo-liberal market fundamentalism, greedily embraced by our ruling order, when the very idea of value is being enclosed and privatised, to celebrate in any way a fundamental claim to a shared commons is very embarrassing indeed.
These six reasons sketch out why Britain's rulers do not memorialise and arguably hate the Magna Carta. For them the more it is lost in the background of what is called the “rich tapestry” of our history the better. Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education makes a song and dance about the need to teach the country's children the history of our Kings. But of the contest between despotic King and resentful barons, that might seem an ideal episode to capture the imagination of the young to start them off with a patriotic examination of the forces at work that made our country what it is, he seems less enamoured. He does have a special interest in the Magna Carta – but this is because he is the Parliamentary Sponsor of “The Magna Carta Club for Conservative minded business and professional persons. With a membership restricted to 70, its principal aims are:
- To support the traditional ideas enshrined in the British Constitution going back to ‘Magna Carta’.
- To improve communications between Business and Parliament and, in particular, between Business and Political leaders.
- To hold social functions at least three times a year where members and their spouses /partners can have an opportunity to meet in a private and informal atmosphere... [and] hold one function a year to raise funds for a charity.
Oddly enough in 2010-11 the charity chosen by the Magna Carta Club was Gove's constituency party to whom it gave £10,000.
Why not, then, simply leave it to the Americans with their belief in paper documents and holding power to account, to pay the costs of putting up a memorial in Runnymede and express their appreciation for the way we secured for them at least a tradition of liberty?
It is a question that should be put especially to the Labour Party and the left. Once more the left is mobilising to oppose the capitalist policies of a Tory government, with a great rally promised for next Saturday. But its assumption still seems to be that the British State can be used to ensure equality and fairness and even democracy.
The opposite is the case. As well as demanding different policies from the parties at Westminster we the people should occupy Runnymede. The meaning of the encounter with King John that we should celebrate is clear enough. Eight hundred years of rule by barons is more than enough. It is time for us to enjoy the four principles implicit in the Greater and Forest Charters that were initially set out by the Thames:
- A democratic constitution that holds all power and authority to account
- The entrenchment of our liberties and freedom from all arbitrary power and the right to justice for all
- A parliament for England that can freely be part of a federal Britain and a European Union if the English so choose
- The protection and enhancement of our countryside, our cities, our education, our health service, our main broadcaster and our internet, as shared commons
This is a draft of a contribution to be given at the Magna Carta Day Debate held by Our Democratic Heritage at SOAS, Thornhaugh St, London, 1pm to 3pm, Saturday 15 June 2013.