Equal rights for all: the limits of Magna Carta and the 1965 Race Relations Act

The commemoration of Magna Carta should not be a complacent celebration, but an opportunity to explore what more we need to do as a nation to secure equal rights for Black and minority ethnic people.

Omar Khan
17 August 2015

The various commemorations of the Magna Carta emphasise its importance in the Britain’s development as a liberal democratic society. The main idea is that the Magna Carta established key principles that we – and indeed other countries – continue to build on even as the various articles of the document have been superseded.

That most of the Magna Carta’s articles have been superseded suggests a further point: that lofty principles require further elaboration to become a social reality, including in legislation, policy implementation, and indeed in terms of social attitudes. Runnymede recently hosted an event to jointly commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and the 50th anniversary of the Race Relations Act to remind us of the importance of liberal democratic ideals, but also the inability to deliver on those ideals for Black and minority ethnic people in Britain. We reflected on the historical importance and lessons of these commemorations, but further asked what more is needed to make equal rights a reality for Black and minority ethnic people – whether in terms of legislation, policy, or social change and activism.

The Runnymede Trust was so named in 1968 to characterise the extension of rights and equality to BME people as a natural or perhaps inevitable development of the principles first sealed in Magna Carta. This naming is a challenge to those who read the Magna Carta in nativist terms as a document expressing  the unique genius of the English people, and the first in a line of acts passed by enlightened white male legislators in the development of English (and latterly, British) liberal democracy and culture. So while at Runnymede we continue to assert the fundamental centrality of BME people within Britain’s national story, and seek to ensure they are equal participants in British democracy and society, our current focus should be on how we best implement these ideals so that racial inequalities are eliminated in Britain in the 21st century.

By jointly commemorating the Magna Carta and the 50th anniversary of the Race Relations Act, we remind ourselves that neither the Magna Carta nor indeed the Bill of Rights, Somersett’s Case (outlawing chattel slavery in England and Wales) or any other Act of Parliament was able to prevent egregious discrimination and inequality perpetrated on Black and minority ethnic people living in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, some legislators – most notably Enoch Powell – rather affirmed that the values of Magna Carta required people to be allowed the freedom to discriminate. Powell’s argument was that ancient English liberties were being threatened by culturally dissimilar foreigners who weren’t steeped in the tradition of Runnymede and Magna Carta, and if these liberties then resulted in discrimination against non-white people, well that was the price of liberty.

In this context it’s clear enough why Runnymede founders wished to reclaim the legacy of Magna Carta. But it’s equally obvious why they didn’t focus only or even mainly on historical or philosophical debates, and rather turned their attention to legislation. This was all the more pressing given the fundamental weaknesses in the 1965 Act, which continued to allow discrimination in the provision in goods and services and in housing. One of the most shocking aspects of the ‘no Black, no dogs, no Irish’ signs was not only their explicit racism, but that they remained legal in Britain despite the many Acts of Parliament over the years, including the 1965 Race Relations Act.

The subsequent passage of the 1968 and in particular the 1976 Race Relations Act fundamentally improved British legislation, including extending protection against discrimination across goods and services and housing, developing the concept of indirect discrimination, and establishing the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) as a body to monitor and enforce the legislation. This moves us from the first theme of the conference – legislation – to the second, namely policy or the implementation of legislation. One response to how we achieve equal rights in Britain is that we need clearer or additional legislation – a written Constitution perhaps, or legislative backing for affirmative action or other measures. A second response is to say that with the passage of the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act, we now do have adequate legislation to reflect the values implicit in liberal democracy , but that this legislation is being inadequately implemented, a problem that emerged immediately following the establishment and weakening of the CRE. As Runnymede argued in the case of the 2015 summer budget, policymakers today not only don’t adequately assess the impact of legislation on ethnic minorities, but they don’t positively support measures that might actually reduce racial inequalities. One reason appears to be their unfamiliarity with the ongoing evidence of racial inequalities, but another is lack of leadership, or of public or political pressure to do anything about that evidence.

This leads to the third and final theme, namely the role of activism or ‘pressure from below’ in realising liberal democratic principles, including equality. With the centenary of women’s suffrage on the horizon, we are reminded of the role of ordinary people and of public opinion and social pressure to deepen the quality of our democracy, and the demand for rights from below should be seen as a fundamental aspect of democratic progress in Britain, whether those demanding their rights were barons in Runnymede, Chartists, Suffragettes or anti-racist campaigners in the 1960s and 1970s.

Here it’s worth remembering the social context for the 1965 Act: the 1958 Notting Hill riots and the Black community’s response to physical violence and security, the 1964 racist election in Smethwick, and the visit of Martin Luther King Jr to London in December 1964 on his way to receive his Nobel Peace Prize for his struggle for justice on behalf of black people in the United States. In the 1970s and 1980s the anti-racist movement was crucial for ensuring that politicians policymakers at least considered the issue of race though it was unable fully to challenge Britain’s historic role in exploiting non-white people, nor to realise equal rights for their descendants living across the UK.

Reflecting on these twin commemorations,  we must reform what is often a teleological Whiggish story of enlightened liberal men (or perhaps not-so-liberal in the case of Michael Gove’s intent to teach all schoolchildren the virtues of the ‘unstable sociopath’ Clive of India) inevitably deepening democracy through legislative acts. Instead we must educate all our children properly by recognising the wider array of voices that led the change for equal rights in the face of antidemocratic, illiberal and racist resistance among the powerful.

But commemorations should not only look backward, and thinking more positively towards a future, the final question is whether we need further legislation, better policy implementation or indeed a wider social movement to ensure those in power do in fact address racial inequality, and so that Black and minority ethnic people finally experience fairness and equality  in Britain.

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