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Magna Carta and British socialism’s struggle for freedom in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain

The socialist and labour movements of Britain at the turn of the 20th century saw Magna Carta as an important symbol to invoke in their own struggles against the current system and its abuses.

Marcus Morris
13 May 2015
Magna Carta.

Flickr/etee. Some rights reserved. In the run up to the election, the Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, recently announced that if Labour were returned every school would be required to teach the history of Magna Carta. He was keen to ensure that ‘every school child is taught the medieval past and modern power of this heroic charter’.

Unsurprisingly, this declaration caused a variety of responses from those within his own party and those on the left more generally. For a number, Magna Carta should not be celebrated in this way, for it was nothing more than a tool of oppression, which merely entrenched an elitist system that cared little for the people. Others have supported the initiative, often arguing that what it did is not important; it is what it stands for that is significant. As such, Magna Carta should be seen as a potent symbol of the long struggle for the rights and freedoms of the British people.

Clearly, for those on the left today, the charter’s legacy is a highly contested one. The Charter has thus come to mean many different things to many different people, embodying a wide spectrum of beliefs and ideas (see Peter Linebaugh’s review of the new Penguin edition of Magna Carta in this series for a contemporary example of this). Moreover, this debate is not new, with the nascent labour and socialist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries contesting both the legacy and the contemporary relevance of this historic charter.

The movement was disparate and therefore so were its responses to Magna Carta. Nevertheless, the similarities to the responses to those of today are marked. Many criticised the charter as one that simply confirmed the existing order, stabilising the relationship between the barons and King John, and entrenching the oppressive feudal system. An article published in one labour newspaper in 1884 concluded: ‘by that instrument the barons, spiritual and temporal, emancipated themselves from the arbitrary thraldom of the king. For the serfs, that is to say the great mass of the population, they did nothing except to stipulate that fines should not extend to the deprivation of their tools’.

Others, though, embraced the cult of Magna Carta (or Charta, as it was more often known) that had developed over the course of the many centuries since its signing. Undoubtedly, some saw something in that cult, especially the notion that the charter represented the foundation of English liberty. Many more did not necessarily embrace such ideas, but saw its legacy as useful for present purposes and one that could be applied in their opposition to state power and the existing system. For others, however, the charter was a link back to the medieval world and a golden age for the British people.

A milestone in the concepts of rights and liberty

Magna Carta was, perhaps, the first legal document to establish the rights of citizens as opposed to those of kings in European history. It may have defended the rights of the nobility, many in the movement argued, but marked an important milestone in the emergence of the concepts of rights and liberty. Thus an article in one labour newspaper from 1884 would argue that ‘English freedom, such as it is, is the resultant of more than eight centuries of struggle’, with ‘the first great landmark in the development of English freedom … held to be Magna Charta’.

So, for some British socialists at the end of the nineteenth century, the charter was important because of its centrality to the development of English liberties. Moreover, in this they were also emphasising the distinctiveness of English political traditions. They argued that social reform (or revolution) was necessary. However, as H.M. Hyndman suggested in his influential England for All from 1881, ‘such changes as are needed may be gradual’ and ‘in England, fortunately, we have a long political history to lead up to our natural development, the growth of a great nation such as ours has its effect on all portions of the people’. Whatever its limitations, ‘Magna Charta was a beginning. It was the first break in cast-iron feudalism, and foreshadowed, however faintly, the representative system of government’.

Magna Carta was clearly central to the natural development of Britain’s distinctive political system. Indeed, it was embraced by the likes of Robert Owen and the Chartists in the first half of the nineteenth century, who called for an extension of the charter to the people in the form of a people’s charter, for similar reasons. Malcolm Chase explores these reasons in greater depth in an article in this series.

This embrace by groups such as the Chartists also betrayed an ulterior motive for why the late nineteenth-century socialist movement took such a stance in relation to the charter. Critics of the movement tended to depict it as a continental one, which had no bearing on either the British system or its political development. Socialism was portrayed as an unsuitable set of ideas for criticising state power in Britain.

Those in the movement thus attempted to legitimise and anglicise British socialism. Magna Carta was a key instrument in that legitimisation process. If they could present themselves as the heirs of the charter’s legacy, and equally those who had embraced it along the way in their struggle for freedom, they could claim to be the next stage in Britain’s natural political development. It is perhaps no coincidence that a number of members of the ‘Magna Charta Association’ would be founder members of the Democratic Federation in 1881, which would evolve into Britain’s first avowedly socialist political party, the Social Democratic Federation.

A symbol of society’s struggle with arbitrary authority

British socialists of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain highlighted the importance of the charter, while acknowledging its limitations, for reasons that reflected their understanding of the development of society too. To understand the nature of the social order and state power in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain (and their opposition to it), British socialists looked to the country’s past and its evolution to the current stage.

Ramsay MacDonald, in his Socialism and Society (1906), succinctly outlined this view: ‘History is a progression of social stages, which have preceded and succeeded each other like the unfolding of life from the bud to the fruit. To-day we are in the economic stage. Yesterday, we were in the political stage. To-morrow, we shall be in the moral stage’. To understand society today, therefore, one needed to understand why and how we had moved between those stages. It was in this context that some stressed the significance of Magna Carta.

MacDonald thus understood history as the ‘record of conflict between central and local authorities, between integrating and disintegrating forces, the King and the barons’. The charter was a key moment in such struggle and of the political stage more generally. William Morris concluded in his 1887 study, Feudal England, that ‘the history of the early period of England is pretty much that of the struggle of the king with the baronage and the church’, which culminated in the latter uniting, creating a force that ‘extorted Magna Charta from King John’. It was a symbol of society’s struggle with arbitrary authority and the evolution from one stage in society to another.

Further symbols would emerge as the centuries and stages developed, but this was ‘the first chapter’ without which ‘the sparse national liberties about which we sing such loud hosannahs would at this day be absolutely non-existent’ and could therefore be invoked by those involved in similar struggles.

The politics of nostalgia

Radical reformers committed to constitutional change, and those opposed to state power in its current form have tended to be caught up in the politics of nostalgia. They look back romantically at earlier periods and the actions of the reformers of those periods. Indeed, the barons at Runnymede were doing the same thing to some extent. The charter’s invocation should be viewed as part of this romanticisation of the acts of past reformers, with British socialists reflecting those who had done this before them.

It also, though, reflected the romantic view that many in the movement held of the medieval period more generally, with the charter construed as a key symbol of that period. Many, though certainly not all, of the leading figures of the movement saw this period as the ‘golden age of the people’. Hyndman, in the Historical Basis of Socialism in England (1883), argued that ‘in looking back through the history of our country, there is one period when by common consent men and women who worked with their hands were better off than at any time before or since’. The main catalyst in bringing about this ‘golden age’ was undoubtedly Magna Carta.

The figure who embraced this idea of a ‘golden age’ for the British people more than any other was William Morris. Indeed, a History of Socialism published in 1913 labelled him ‘a mediaevalist’ who ‘would have liked to turn back the clock to the days of John Ball’. For Morris, this pre-capitalist community with values inspired by the charter sharply and favourably contrasted with those of Victorian Britain. It was Magna Carta that had created the conditions from which the golden period could emerge and it should be celebrated as such. ‘In those middle ages which our school-books still speak of as days of darkness and ignorance, the great body of Englishmen were far better off in every way that they are now’.

This was not seen as a European-wide golden age though, for other countries did not have the great charter from which the liberties that Britons had developed. This understanding also reinforced those arguments about the significance of native traditions, the superiority of English liberties and the unique heritage that British socialists were attempting to appeal to and become a part of.

A contested legacy

The legacy of Magna Carta is clearly contested for many today and was for many in the past, often for similar reasons. Key to that is whether you view the charter as something that is symbolic or whether you focus on the contemporary effects. The socialist and labour movements of Britain at the turn of the 20th century certainly recognised the limitations of those effects, but chose to view Magna Carta as an important symbol to invoke in their own struggles against the current system and its abuses.

The charter thus became an important tool by which they could legitimise their fight and could join a long line of reformers who had used it in the same way. It was the first chapter in the opposition to the excesses of arbitrary rule and symbolic of Britain’s long road to freedom and liberty, which the working classes were still on. It was a starting part for the evolution of British society, the stages of which were fundamental to how many in the movement saw their Britain. Finally, the charter harked back to a golden age for the English people and was responsible for it.

Ultimately then, like many have concluded with this year’s anniversary, the significance of Magna Carta for those in the movement lay in what it stood for as a potent symbol of the long struggle for the rights and freedoms of the British people.

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