From King John to Baron Bragg: celebrating Magna Carta

As the Queen is prepared to annoint the humiliation of King John with a witticism there is a gathering anger against the way Britain is governed.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
11 June 2015

Magna Carta memorial at Runnymede. Flickr/Jean-Francois Phillips

The New Statesman’s recent cover feature on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta is, in every meaning of the word, hopeless. If this is the best the official magazine of Britain’s left can do in the form of critical engagement with the country’s official history then bunker down for another century of lost opportunities, if not eight of them. It is particularly telling because the magazine's editor, Jason Cowley, is encouraging long-form journalism, reportage and reviewing, without the usual Labourist contempt for ideas or Conservative scoffing at being serious. Also, with his exemplary Scottish coverage, the weekly glimmered with some genuine interest in democracy in Britain, rather than its ghastly Westminster simulacrum. But cometh the constitutional symbol of our system as a whole, cometh the ghosts of clichés past. Cowley’s predecessor Anthony Howard would be proud - the mental decline he presided over at the paper’s home Great Turnstile and which he later sought to inflict on the rest of the country as the official steward of the celebrations of 1688, dribbles on.


When it had to take a measure of 800 years of the status quo to whom does the left’s ‘foremost weekly’ first turn? The Right Honourable Baron Bragg of Wigton. This is the Labour Peer who passes himself off as Melyvn on the Today programme and BBC Radio 4.  Baron Bragg never publically opposes a Labour Party policy, hence the recent excitement when he denounced its proposal of a Mansion Tax. He warned that any levy on Baronial dwellings in his native constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn would lose the seat for his party (Labour in fact won with an 11 per cent swing).

In the Statesman, Baron Bragg is particularly exercised by the fact that when he attended a recent public meeting on Magna Carta “a well-known public intellectual, leaned forward and to a packed room pronounced with a world-weary confidence: ‘The fact is that Magna Carta was a squalid little deal… Moreover, it did not mention women’. It is difficult to think of a more politically correct, less historically accurate and more impoverished view of history than this”, Bragg continues, “yet I was the only one who (publicly) protested.” In fact both allegations are simply incorrect. Squalid or not the Magna Carta was never a “little deal” as the copies sent across the country with the King’s seal make clear. With respect to women, section 7 of the Great Charter stipulates that on the death of her husband a widow has the right to her dowry “immediately and without difficulty”; section 8 that widows cannot be forced to marry “while they wish to live without a husband”; and section 54 says “No one is to be arrested or imprisoned through the appeal of a woman for the death of anyone other than her husband”.

Perhaps the Baron was discomforted by his own responsibility for such inappropriate talk. He can be a brilliant populariser of obscure or difficult topics. But when it comes to British history where, like any Lord of the realm, he has his own vested interest, Bragg shunts away relevance and turns our history into chat. At the start of the year he presented a four-part BBC series on the Magna Carta with an approach so low key that it asphyxiated the possibility that listeners might see in Magna Carta a symbol of the need to challenge despotism, an inspiration to fight for liberty, an example to codify our rights, an assertion that all must have access to justice (when legal aid is being shredded), or a foundational document for a shared claim to the commons. Throughout January he was given the power to set the scene for the 800th anniversary year on Radio 4. He did so with a casual uninterest that prepared the way for the ridiculous sneers he now protests against.

Indeed, he continues his contrived populism writing in the Statesman: “after many close escapes since then the Big Charter helped create civilised society, and its journey goes on”; and that the two famous clauses of Magna Carta “hit a nerve in societies all over the world. They have become sacred tablets”.

Look past the dreadful clichés to his description of the Magna Carta as “the Big Charter”. Geddit? The Baron can talk peasant like the rest of us. But his attempt to tell us that ‘Magna’ does not refer to a choc ice but means “Big” is a howler. Every account of Magna Carta except his programmes relates how it came to be called the Magna Carta because it is the greater of two “charters of liberties”, the other being the Charter of the Forest issued two years later in 1217. The two were linked from that year and were published together in the first scholarly edition of both, William Blackstone’s famous The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest in 1759. As Peter Linebaugh, successor to E P Thompson, demonstrates in his wonderful The Magna Carta Manifesto, subtitled “Liberties and Commons for All” (published in 2008), the popular claim to rights mythologised thanks to Magna Carta is extended and intensified by the Charter of the Forest.

It is shameful that the narrow scholarship and banal broadcasters of our own sad moment should snuff out this wonderful widening of the Magna Carta, fought for in its own time, echoed across centuries and etched in its name (see Linebaugh’s magisterial review of David Carpenter new 600 page history).

Instead, as if to give himself street cred, Baron Bragg reaches for contemporary relevance by adding to his list of the Charter’s historic influence, “in the argument about 42-day detention in 2008, Magna Carta was headlined in some of our newspapers”. A foreign reader might be baffled while the casual British one familiar with the episode might conclude – indeed is meant to conclude – that Lord Bragg naturally opposed 42-days detention. This was part of a Labour Bill to permit the state to jail people for 42 days without charge. It was not just “some newspapers” that invoked the Magna Carta in the face of this appalling proposal. In the House of Lords itself an amendment was moved by Lord Dear to strike it down. This is how he concluded his speech to their Lordships,

… worst of all, the legislation seeks further to erode fundamental legal and civil rights that have been the pride of this country for centuries. Simple mathematics will tell us that 793 years ago Magna Carta declared in one line: “'To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice”. We have recommended that principle to the rest of the world and have in part fought wars to preserve it. It set our legal system apart from the world for many years and it was held up as an exemplar. We have gone far enough. There is no proven case for change. This attempt to appear tough on terrorism is a shabby charade that is unworthy of a democratic process, and we should reject it.

Torn between towing his party’s line or being aroused by these fine words to defend our liberty, Baron Bragg abstained. Yes, he did not even vote against 42 days detention without charge. Such is the presumption of the ermine he felt no need to alert the new generation of Statesman readers to his failure to contribute to his “journey of civilisation”. 


The second contributor to the New Statesman’s Magna Carta reflections is Helena Kennedy. Also a member of the House of Lords but in her case at least an outspoken defender of liberties, she helped to vote down 42-days detention without trial. She does not bother to talk about the Magna Carta. Instead she uses the occasion of the New Statesman’s invitation to excoriate today’s accumulation of arbitrary power: in the surveillance state, in global corporations and in financial abuse. She then rightfully scorns the duplicity of the present governments scaremongering over Human Rights and denounces the threadbare “spectacle of self-congratulation” surrounding the official celebrations. It is a stirring, welcome contribution. If it is met with catatonia this is no fault of the wake up call in itself. Yet she does not engage with the celebration or assert a counter-tradition. Kennedy brings to life the spirit of opposition to despotism but where are the forces that can organise the many who agree with her? This is a question for the weekly of the left, one that has apparently not crossed its mind to ask. If she is half right, what should be done? If her anxiety is merely alarmism and we can take confidence in our Bragg-like creation of civilised society then I’d like to read why.


Owen Jones is a young, 30-year-old, Guardian columnist and ‘contributing writer’ to the New Statesman. His first book, Chavs was an ideological triumph that called out the revolting new snobbishness of the UK’s mediaocracy against poor working people and changed, or at least dented, the culture. He speaks out against unfairness and inequality in clear language, and is a brave almost lone voice on TV chat shows in defying the neoliberal tide. It seems impious to utter a word of caution with respect to such a genuinely good and rare man.

Yet I find that while the books he writes are stimulating he does not appear to read. His voice emerges as if untouched by the research of others. This gives a purity to his argument that seems natural and therefore fresh, yet they are strikingly old, their appeal to a timeless solidarity all too familiar. His outrage at social and economic injustice reassure me that I am not alone, for which I am genuinely grateful, but where does it take us?

Owen’s deportment is fully on show in his contribution to the Statesman’s Magna Carta feature, with no specific scandal for him to sink his teeth in. He shows no interest in the issues it raises for the future of constitutional democracy or the fight against surveillance. Nor does he like the Magna Carta itself and its pledge of access to justice, regarding it as simply “a striking example of a useful myth” that can be “appropriated”. With such an instrumental use of the past he is a dab hand,

"Whatever your views on Magna Carta, it is clear that political, economic and social rights were wrestled from the most powerful classes at huge cost. The great tradition of struggle and dissent is all too frequently – and conveniently – scrubbed from the history books, but it built this country. The Peasants’ Revolt; the English Revolution, with the Levellers and Diggers; the Chartists; the trade unionists; the suffragettes; the anti-racist, feminist and LGBT movements; the postwar Labour government; the peace movements; the anti-poll-tax movement – all confronted the determined opposition of ruling elites. The sacrifice of our ancestors was often immense, which is why it is an act of disrespect to allow their victories to be chipped away."

Such a jumble of different causes, moments and even governments is barely a tradition and certainly no coherent narrative, and anyway our country was built by its imperialism. Jones claims his list of causes show “Democracy is continuously imperiled and threatened by those above”. Surely it shows that our lack of democracy is regularly contested if rarely with success by anybody. The Levellers, for example, were well ahead of all Labour governments with respect to democracy by demanding fair voting, as Caryl Churchill’s play A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (now revived at the National Theatre) neatly reminds us. But she is unflinching in her depiction of the defeat and the personal consequences for the losers. By contrast, Jones concludes,

"In the tradition of our ancestors, we have to reclaim power from these unaccountable elites. Free-market capitalism has left our society a racket for a tiny few. Instead, we have to build a society run to meet the needs and aspirations of working people. Easy? No. But our ancestors fought far more insurmountable odds and they still won in the end."

Our left-wing ancestors didn’t “win in the end”. Whereas the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest were genuine, if partial, medieval achievements that became resources that were drawn upon – including by those not the oppressed of the earth. 


The next contributor is a thinking person’s Tory, Jesse Norman MP. It's excellent that right-wing voices are part of the Staggers coverage, they have a claim on our history and an understanding of it. But they too suffer from allowing their desires to shape their judgements. Norman makes the necessary point that the Magna Carta helped establish the idea of the rule of law as separate from executive, regal power. He concludes by wagging his finger at those on the left who want to change the way things are run (if this issue of the New Statesman is anything to go by a declining breed),

"However, the story of Magna Carta also carries an implicit warning to modern radicals. Understanding our constitution requires a careful reading of British history; it cannot simply be imported from America. There is no constitutional Year Zero. Changing the rules by which we are governed requires particularly careful thought. To codify our constitution would be to destroy it.

I was in an IPPR seminar with Jesse Norman. He made a similar point and the scholars present pointed out that writing down a constitution did not mean copying America’s. Let alone a Pol Pot regime! But he is into warning not listening. Codification, he alleges, would “destroy our constitution” (although the Magna Carta was of course an act of codification). This claim is based on the premise that Britain’s constitution is intact. Yet though it stumbles its core principle is shattered. The absolute sovereignty of the Westminster parliament no longer extends north of the border. Ever since Holyrood was created by a referendum of the Scottish people in 1997, popular sovereignty exists there, a shift that became definitive with the  ‘Vow’ to the people of Scotland, before last year’s independence referendum, that their parliament is “permanent”. This is only the most recent example of a systemic breakdown. Modern radicals are the ones who seek to mend the polity, the destroyers are those like Jesse Norman MP and Lord Bragg who indulge themselves with the wreckage.


The feature ends with a reader-friendly account of the Magna Carta by Tom Holland assuring us we all need our myths and it is good to celebrate Runnymede’s 800th anniversary.


David Cameron was awarded a first class degree at Oxford after being tutored in our country’s constitutional politics by Vernon Bogdanor. When he went onto the David Letterman show in New York in September 2012, his host asked him what, “literally”, the words Magna Carta meant. “Again, you are testing me”, the Prime Minister replied, all coy. Letterman told him, “Oh it would be good if you knew this” to which Cameron responded, “Yeah, well it would be.” The Daily Telegraph report continues, “The Prime Minister was saved by a commercial break on the US television show. When the pair were back on air, Mr Letterman told viewers: ‘Magna Carta literally means great charter’.”

There is something odd about this exchange. There are only two possibilities. One is that Cameron was under strict spin doctor instructions not to appear like a snobbish Brit who knew better than Americans, and therefore he feigned ignorance; the other that he actually had not the faintest idea what Magna Carta meant. Either way he was unable to express enthusiasm for a historic moment in English history. You can see why: if it was so good, why not write down your constitution? If human rights law has a tap root that goes back to 1215, why so against human rights? Were the Barons right to raise arms against the monarch? Two years ago I set out six reasons why the Magna Carta makes the current denizens of Westminster very uncomfortable. The puffed up celebration and self-congratulation Helena Kennedy rightly scorns (with its suppression of the Charter of the Forest and popular rights to the commons) will, I predict, attract little attention, none of it lasting. It would not suprise me if in a year's time Prime Minister Cameron defaults back to his state of ignorance.

At the same time, however, all kinds of modest protests alongside the sound of derision can be heard. For example, a local Surrey paper reports that a

“bronze statue of the Queen will be placed at Runnymede Pleasure Grounds, despite public objections calling the piece ‘utterly bizarre and ridiculous’. The four metre high statue of the monarch in full garter robes, will be placed on an octagonal plinth inscribed with the names of sponsors who have contributed towards more than £300,000 in funding.”

Once the erection of a statue of the Monarch herself would have been reported by the local paper with solomn respect. Today, it goes out of its way to fully quote the opposition, such as the citizen who complains,

“I find it utterly bizarre and ridiculous that a statue of a monarch should be erected near land which has so many connotations with democracy, justice, liberty and the rights of the ordinary person, all of which have been vigorously opposed by royalty since before 1215.”

Not only bizarre and ridiculous, juding by the photographs its artistic quality suggests it will vie with the Edstone as the most inappropriate monument of the year.

The new statue of the Queen at Runnymede

In London on 13 June, an Alternative Magna Carta Festival is being held with Suzanne Moore, Paul Mason and many more. At Runnymede, Diggers2012 have set up an eco-community at Runnymede and are holding a four-day festival on the last day of which they face an eviction hearing on what will be the morning of Magna Carta day itself, the 15th of June. The Queen will make an appearance to bless the official celebrations (along with fully tamed Barons from today’s Westminster).  But in the afternoon Occupy Democracy are holding a Folk-Moot at the ancient Ankerwycke yew tree (where I will be speaking along with Guy Standing and David Graeber). In Lincoln Castle, which holds one of the four existing originals, Peter Linebaugh himself will be lecturing (but ten days after a sold-out black tie event in the Cathedral nave). Later on the evening of the 15th the Egham Museum (Egham is the township closest to Runnymede) will be hosting a debate with Tim Hancock of Amnesty International on Human Rights and the Magna Carta.

While it does not make up for the drooping hegemony of Lord Bragg, the BBC's Radio 3 ran a documentary about John Arden’s Left-Handed Liberty commissioned for the 750th anniversary.  The programme's maker, Andrew Dickson explains, “the grandees preparing to join the queen on the meadows of Runnymede… would do well to acquire a copy of the script. At a time when the Human Rights Act is under threat and anti-extremist legislation gets ever more draconian, its message could not be more urgent”. And the BBC’s World Service broadcast an imaginative drama of the creation of a great internet charter for the world in 2025.

Oppositional activity was pioneered by the Justice Alliance who gathered at Runnymede in February to march on London in protest against the corporate corruption of our legal system. More than an argument, although still far from a movement, something democratic is stirring that is not orchestrated like the official celebrations (and is not being reflected in the old Statesman). Many of the arguments are hosted here in openDemocracy's Great Charter Convention debate edited by Stuart White (see his important article on Sovereignty and a Constitutional Convention). Maybe the most notable single publication of the 800th anniversary celebrations is not the catalogue of the British Library exhibition but rather the drafts for a new constitutional settlement in A New Magna Carta? published by the House of Commons after lengthy consideration by the all-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. And what was the response of the new Tory government (surreptitiously aided by the Labour Party)? As Nick Pearce and Mathew Lawrence report, it was to close the whole Committee down. Some people, somewhere, do not think that the spirit of the Magna Carta – of holding despotism to account - is harmless costume drama.

In a new article for Red Pepper, Peter Linebaugh sums up the radical history of the Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest:

“the great charters of English liberty began as an armistice (1215), quickly became a treaty (1217), developed a legislative appearance (1225), became the first statutes of law, and mutated into something constitutional, clipping the wings of Stuart despotism, partaking of revolution (1649) and enabling the Enlightenment project of American independence (1776)”.

He rightly stops there. Capitalist industrialisation generated the epoch of imperialism, nation states and class politics with which we are familiar – including the fatal embrace of Fabianism and Marxism by working class movements, the one taking the State for granted the other dismissing legal, national and religious traditions as mere superstructures. In this context the broadly republican arguments of liberty did not flourish. Is this changing? Driven by capital’s embrace of the staggering powers of the micro-chip, a further transformation is underway dissolving the old political forms, conservative as well as socialist. Today we face an imperative need to secure our capacity for livelihood from environmental destruction and corporate despotism aided by the deep state. Which in turn calls for a modern, inventive, networked rather than centralised political culture that can make effective demands for a shared commons, individual liberty and justice for all. Any such transformative, planetary humanism must draw on and share our different histories - for humans are historical animals. And as we turn to our history in this country we are fortunate to find a compelling resource in the battles for the charters of liberty.   

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