Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. The coincidence of the British Library’s magnificent exhibition with a general election campaign is bound to tempt political parties to claim a particular affinity with Magna Carta, or more precisely with what they believe it embodies. As David Carpenter’s new Penguin Classics edition demonstrates (together with the review of it that Peter Linebaugh contributed to this series) - this is a subject still wide-open to contest.
Yet this in no way diminishes the significance of previous interpretations, especially those that helped shape past political movements. That great popular movement of the early Victorian period, Chartism, naturally springs to my mind as someone who has devoted much time to its history. This was a movement that explicitly took Magna Carta as a foundational text. (See also the contributions to this series by Peter Evans.)
There was nothing new about the People’s Charter, published in 1838, except, crucially, its title. Its six points for parliamentary reform (universal male suffrage; no property qualification to become an MP; payment of MPs; equal sized constituencies; voting in secret; and annual parliaments) had first been proposed as a package in the 1770s by John Cartwright. However, The People’s Charter did more than merely reassert established radical demands. The punchy title was massively significant. The allusion to Magna Charta (Chartists always inserted the ‘h’, subtly emphasising the affinity between the two documents) was one which almost all would have understood. Indeed, interest in ‘the Great Charter of Liberties’ of 1215 had grown over the previous quarter of a century, fuelled by an explosion of radical reform publishing during the Regency years.
King John (1167-1216) Signing Magna Carta by Staffordshire Pottery. © National Trust / Catriona Hughes. All rights reserved.Many an early Victorian mantle piece boasted an earthenware figurine of King John, pen in hand, signing Magna Carta. The clothing and the tent in which John was depicted were no less anachronistic than the concept of him having signed the document: but such anachronism only reinforced the contemporary resonance of Magna Carta. At the French Revolution of 1830, France’s new Declaration of Rights was widely referred to in England as ‘the new Charter’. The 1832 parliamentary reform act itself was referred to as ‘The Great Charter’. More typically radicals called for a ‘New Charter’ as a substitute for the bill enacted in 1832. Chartism was born out of popular frustration at the socially restricted franchise it imposed. Magna Carta alone was the great charter: it constituted the foundation stone of English liberties and the People’s Charter would complete the edifice.
To understand why the Chartists were so abundantly confident that the People’s Charter would remedy much more than just the yawning democratic deficit left after the 1832 Reform Act, we need to appreciate that annual parliaments were just as integral to their demands as universal male suffrage. Annual general elections were envisaged as offering a genuinely representative democracy in which MPs would be the mandated delegates of their constituents, rather than unaccountable and subject to re-election as infrequently as every seven years.
Cartwright’s insistence upon annual parliaments was a riposte to the celebrated declaration made by Edmund Burke to his Bristol electorate in 1774, that a Member of Parliament’s ‘unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you … Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion’.
Burke’s conception of an MP’s relationship with his constituents may have worked within a parliamentary system that respected the independence of MPs, that lacked hard demarcations between parties and where the function of whips was to nurture rather than discipline supporters. However, radical reformers’ adherence to the principle of annual parliaments swelled against the background of hardening party lines, ever more apparent after 1832.
For the Chartists in particular there was the additional conviction that a working-class electorate would increasingly be an educated one – not necessarily schooled in a formal sense but able to refine its political judgment through access to a free press and the increasing prominence of the public platform in daily political life. Our image of nineteenth-century political debate is one dominated by a handful of extraordinary public speakers – Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, Disraeli, Gladstone. We too-easily overlook how routinized public debate was in the culture of even small communities.
Annual parliaments are no-less incompatible with the maximum span of parliaments set at five years, than they were with the Septennial Act in force until 1911. At issue was not only a fundamentally contrasting concept of democratic procedure, but also the extent to which electors could trust the members that they sent to Westminster. The Chartists certainly did not valorise the barons who forced John to seal Magna Carta. They believed that Parliament had grown to be dominated by aristocratic families, its members incapable of passing any measure that was not in their direct interests. The Reform Act had changed nothing.
Annual parliaments were about creating a democratically elected assembly that could be trusted to govern in accordance with the popular will, just as Magna Carta sought to subjugate monarchical will to parliamentary authority (as the Chartists confidently believed).
The professionalization of politics
For us, as for the Chartists, Magna Carta can still be a powerful tool to think with. And similarly the 1838 People’s Charter should not be shelved as purely a historical document. It is tempting to do so when the suffrage for which it argued was so uncompromisingly male. Those who drew up the 1838 document explained that the decision to exclude women was a tactical one, made to maximise its chances of acceptance. It was not a matter of principle and, indeed, women supported Chartism in large numbers. However, wherever in the movement one looks, women’s involvement was thinner – both numerically and in intellectual substance – towards the end of the 1840s, than it had been in the late 1830s.
There’s an important lesson here for those who care about democracy. Chartism was at its most potent as a political force when it was socially most inclusive. Even in the brief compass of the two decades in which there was formally a Chartist movement, the professionalization of politics can be observed, raising walls between ‘grassroots’ supporters and leaders, just it has in modern times between the electorate and the elected. Reflecting on these times in the light of Chartism, one ventures to suggest that there are processes at work within political organizations that are leading to the same end.
In this connection it is important to reiterate that the sixth point of the Charter, annual parliaments, was central to the Chartist vision of what democracy should be. It was never realized and very few – especially with media coverage of a general election ringing in their ears – would wish it otherwise.
The sixth point
However, it is worth recalling the honest intentions behind the sixth point as we ponder declining election turnouts, the diminishing base of unpaid party activists, and the distance that remains between the Westminster parliamentary system and those to whom elected representatives are ultimately accountable. A new Magna Carta should concern itself not just with a new constitutional settlement for Britain but with building a culture and processes to ensure that such a settlement was not something played out before a largely passive audience.