Magna Carta: what prospects for a Precariat Charter?

The events surrounding the signing of Magna Carta 800 years ago may sound more familiar to readers than they might expect...

Guy Standing
22 January 2015


This year, a good TV quiz question would be, “This is the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. True or False?” Contrary to what children are taught, the answer is false.

Contestants could receive bonus points for identifying the two errors in the statement. First, King John did not sign anything; he merely affixed his seal to the document. Second, the document agreed on 15 June 1215 at Runnymede by the Thames was called the Charter of Liberties, not Magna Carta, and was a peace treaty between the King and rebellious barons. Within weeks, both sides were again at war. It was not agreed, in revised form, until late 1216, by when John was dead and it was sealed by the regent for nine-year-old King Henry III.

The Magna Carta as such only came into being in 1217, when the wording was changed and when parts of the original were extended in a Charter of the Forests, perhaps the first ecological charter in history, which covered liberties granted to the common man. Only then did the Charter of Liberties become the Great Charter. To complicate matters, a new version came out in 1225. Of the original 63 clauses of the Charter of Liberties, only four are still enshrined in English law. But the principles it espoused have filtered through the ages.

The 800th anniversary will be marked with much fanfare and chest-thumping. David Cameron, who admitted on a US TV show that he did not know what ‘Magna Carta’ meant, has already tried to take ownership of its heritage, with jingoistic talk of British values. He should be careful. There is much in the two Charters that the Left can and should use, particularly those of a Green disposition.

In The Guardian last year, Owen Jones, after criticising Cameron for his remark on British values, claimed the Magna Carta “means diddly-squat to average English subjects”. But it set a precedent as the first class-based set of demands for liberties, to be followed by the Bill of Rights in 1689, the Chartists of the 1830s and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, on the way inspiring the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 and the US Constitution.

Each embodied a manifesto of the rising class of the time, with new priorities. That is why we need a Precariat Charter in 2015, one driven by the insecurities and desired liberties of the precariat, including a revival of civil, cultural, social, political and economic rights of citizenship. 

The Magna Carta must always be seen in combination with the hard-to-read Charter of the Forests, which guaranteed rights to the commons for grazing, fishing, water, firewood, and the like, all vital for ordinary folk. It was a radical assertion of the right to the commons and reproductive work. Today, we need a campaign to revive the commons, rolling back the privatisation that successive governments have introduced.  

However, more importantly than anything else in it, the Magna Carta enshrined a principle of British justice that recent Labour and Conservative governments have treated with disdain and abused with impunity. Consider Article 20, replacing the ancient word ‘amerce’ with the modern ‘sanction’:

“A free man shall not be sanctioned for a trivial offence except in accordance with the degree of the offence… but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood…and none of the aforesaid sanctions shall be imposed save by the oath of reputable men.”

The later Articles 38-40 are a commitment to due process, proclaiming the right to a fair trial and judgment by independent equals before any sanctions are applied. That is sometimes called “a British value”. The Articles were reinforced by the 1689 Bill of Rights, which stipulated that fines or sanctions were null and void without prior conviction.

Those articles must be re-asserted at the heart of a Precariat Charter, for the precariat suffers most from sanctions applied without respect for due process, in employment and in the welfare system, including workfare. The principle of proportionality in punishment has been lost – witness the lengthy prison terms handed out in the wake of the August 2011 city riots, in one case for the heinous crime of stealing a £3.50 case of bottled water.

Yet both New Labour and the Coalition have multiplied acts deemed to be criminal or sanctionable, introducing a regime of unaccountable discretionary decisions that blight people’s lives. Rights of legal aid have been cut by successive governments. And social, cultural and economic rights of migrants and asylum seekers have been whittled away.

The anniversary should be used to launch a campaign to overthrow the tactics used by Iain Duncan Smith and accepted by his Labour shadows. They are building an edifice of sanctions against the most vulnerable members of society without any respect for due process. 

How dare a government cover itself with the cloak of Magna Carta when it is doing such things? And it is pathetic that Labour plans to remove entitlement to social rights by the young unemployed, who have done nothing proven to be wrong other than to come out of school in the wrong place at the wrong time. Collective punishment is unjustifiable.

Similarly, steered by populist prejudice, migrants and the Roma have been hounded and penalised without any semblance of due process. Those speaking up for them and for disabled people are dismissed. Many people have been driven into suicidal despair, which anybody with any social empathy should understand.

Since my books on the precariat were published, I have received numerous emails, most sent in confidence, from people who have been sanctioned without understanding what they have done wrong or without being able to contest claims made by local bureaucrats.

Many may have answered incorrectly awkward questions put by what should be called the claimant police. Is there any reader who has never answered questions incorrectly? No doubt, some supplicants have felt so humiliated or intimidated to “lose it”, only to be sanctioned by unaccountable bureaucrats, who may belong to the precariat themselves and fear that by not sanctioning enough they may be penalised or lose their job.

So let us have a campaign in this momentous year. Every time a government minister or spokesperson lauds the Magna Carta let us hiss or boo.[1] And let us celebrate what the Great Charter really means to our history: the ability of an emerging class to make demands against the state for new liberties and rights.

Those liberties will not come about without struggle. Collective action remains the best way to renew the march towards the Great Trinity of Liberty, Equality and Solidarity. The Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forests set a wonderful precedent.

2015…and all that          

Ironically, while Magna Carta is regarded as an English achievement, most of those involved were migrants or their descendants. Perhaps UKIP should stay away from Runnymede in June, though Nigel Farage, with his Huguenot and German ancestry and German wife, should not mind. Meanwhile, some intriguing parallels augur well for a new Charter this year.

A grudge of the barons in 1215 was that the ruler was relying on foreign advisers and strategists. So are ours. King John relied mainly on French migrant Peter des Roches, whom he made Bishop of Westminster. David Cameron is paying Australian migrant Lynton Crosby £500,000 to lead the Tory election strategy. He is being supported by an American, Jim Messina, also paid a baron’s ransom, who ran Obama’s 2012 campaign. His day job is chairing Organizing for Action (formerly Organizing for America), which should ruffle the feathers of any British baron.

Meanwhile, the Coalition has chosen Canadian migrant Mark Carney to run its central bank; he is being paid handsomely plus £250,000 a year for “relocation” costs. Could one imagine a foreigner being appointed to run the US Federal Reserve? And Vincent Cable, Tory mutton dressed as Liberal lamb, recruited another Canadian, Moya Greene, to dismember and privatise the Royal Mail; paid £1.2 million a year, she was given £250,000 (which she later agreed to repay) to help with “relocation” costs. One can move a lot of furniture for that sort of money. King John might have lost his head if he had paid his migrant advisers anything like that.

The alternative rulers waiting in the wings are no better. For Ed Miliband, the role of des Roches has been taken by American David Axelrod. He has come from being enriched for advising a Ukrainian Presidential candidate, an oligarch, leading in the polls when he took over, who then lost heavily against a twice-convicted criminal.[2] As she ended up in jail, Ed should be mildly concerned.

Axelrod, author of Obama’s ‘Yes, we can’ campaign, is being paid £300,000 by Labour, but does not need a relocation allowance; he has difficulty finding the country. To the annoyance of his clients, he failed to turn up at the Labour Conference in Manchester, and has rarely visited. His one memorable piece of advice so far is that Ed should “follow his North star”.[3] As we shall see, that is ominous. Fortunately, Ed has hired other Americans to help.

While our rulers prattle about the need to cut migration, they insist on bringing in migrants themselves. Like John, our leaders clearly distrust British citizens. They rely on foreigners who know little about the country, its people or its culture. That is what the barons said about King John. Does Ed Miliband not know any Briton who could tell him how to find the North Star – Gordon Brown, for example? British advisers for British parties![4] 

Similarly, the Magna Carta emerged when the ruler was being funded by a clique of rich counsellors. Today’s Tory party relies for funds on a circle of foreign oligarchs, hedge fund managers and media barons, including one Russian migrant billionaire wanted for tax fraud abroad, given asylum in a fraction of the time most asylum seekers have to wait for consideration.[5] What a coincidence.

Moreover, the King’s counsellors did not receive tax cuts worth £145 million before they gave him over £21 million to help him stay in power.[6] And he did not convene a fund-raising ball, with jousting to determine who obtained a dead queen’s picture for twice the annual income of a commoner.[7] Or auction a tennis game between himself and a Russian oligarch for thousands of pounds to help fund his bid to stay in power. So, one could say the situation is worse today.

Magna Carta’s Article 14 enshrines the principle that there should be no taxation without representation. This should be complemented by one saying there should be “no representation without taxation”. Plutocrats, oligarchs and corporate moguls who do not pay British taxes like the “little people” (everyone else) should be barred from funding political parties.

In another parallel, those who led the discontent in 1215 charged that many of the ruler’s officials were unfit for office. So, Magna Carta’s Article 50 banned some, including a certain Philip Mark, better known as the Sheriff of Nottingham, along with his brothers. A list of modern equivalents could be drawn up in 2015.

Let us start with those MPs caught fiddling expenses. And throw in Iain Duncan Smith for having to write off vast amounts of tax-payers’ money on a hare-brained scheme that will penalise the poor, while being among the country’s biggest recipients of welfare and voting against capping the amount he and his friends could receive.[8]

Another parallel concerns the role of the church. King John exiled the Archbishop of Canterbury for criticising him. Cameron would probably like to exile Stephen Langton’s successor, Justin Welby, given his justified condemnation of public policy for spreading homelessness and hunger. Cameron should be careful. The piqued Archbishop returned to become the Magna Carta’s ringmaster. Today’s Archbishop is surely on standby to reprise the role.   

Another parallel is discontent with arbitrary sanctions and taxes. One spark of the uprising was the King’s imposition of swingeing penalties on users of northern forests. Such was the protest that it had to be rescinded. When was the bedroom tax passed?

Here we come to another parallel that David Axelrod might care to ponder. The group leading the rising class in the run-up to the Magna Carta was called “Northerners”, which included Scots. They demanded liberties, insisting in effect on no taxation without representation. That led to the Magna Carta’s Article 14. The American colonists were later to cite it, throwing tea into Boston Harbour to emphasise their point.

Those Northerners may not have demanded a referendum, but in response to their agitation King John rushed north with all his hawks and hunting dogs to display his majesty. Historians have claimed this was a sign of panic. Well, is that not what commentators said when David Cameron’s court rushed to Scotland in September, with Miliband and Nick Clegg in tow? Rumour has it that they are still searching for their hawks. In Clegg’s case, they are still looking for his parrot, which seems nailed to its perch.

Then there is sex, an under-appreciated driver of historical events. In this respect John made two big mistakes. First, just before the upheavals, and in an age when men viewed women as their property, to be treated as such, he obliged the Earl of Essex to marry his ex-wife, Isabella of Gloucester, and required him to pay a huge sum for his generosity, an amount he had no hope of paying in several lifetimes.[9] One could not make that up. Perhaps it was not surprising that the Earl joined the disgruntled barons, especially as he might have regarded his new wife as long in the tooth. Had Isabella been thirty years younger, pretty and fecund, history might have been very different.

There is no parallel there, yet. However, there is a more promising one linked to the ruler’s use of other people’s horses. King John caused himself problems by insisting on taking five of the best horses of the most powerful baron, Robert de Vaux, in return for which he said he would “shut his mouth” about the fact that the baron was sleeping with another baron’s wife.[10] If he had just taken just one horse, he might have got away with it. As it was, the baron became a leader in the revolt.

Recall David Cameron borrowing a fine horse from Rebekah Brooks, aka Baroness Flaming Hair? The public has a right to know on what conditions he rode that horse. Was Squire Coulson in attendance? If that court case last year established anything, it proved that the Squire was more than close to the Baroness.[11] If Cameron knew anything, he certainly kept his mouth shut. One predecessor sent gushing emails of support to the Baroness.

Another analogy is dependence on foreign protectors. The barons in 1215 were upset by King John’s acceptance of foreign ‘papal’ rule. This was what most irked Shakespeare when he came to write his play, King John. Well, today’s protectors are in Strasburg, not Rome. But they are foreign, aren’t they?

Early in 1215, some London commodity traders, who had suffered from expensive illegal wars, costing the Exchequer a huge “deficit”, seized London while the King’s foreign supporters were idling. The traders promptly threw their support behind the barons and demanded self-government, or what we might call devolution. King John had made a mistake in allowing devolution to one of his foreign towns (Bayonne, to be precise).

Again, we might draw parallels with the panicky concessions to Scotland and the subsequent UKIP uprising in Clacton, led by that ex-commodity trader with a foreign name and a German wife, perhaps one of those migrants cited by Nigel Farage as responsible for clogging up the M4 to Wales.[12] If the traders in 1215 were fed up with all those foreigners running the country, should we not be?

If our rulers showed consistency, they might start with the City itself. It is the sixth largest French city, with 400,000 French people living there. Theresa May, willing to let migrants die in the Mediterranean, should be ashamed of her feeble efforts to do anything about migrants closer to her doorstep.  

Another analogy might be stretching it a bit. In July 1212, a fire burned London Bridge, which was interpreted as indicating the sinfulness of the time. Does nobody see parallels with the fires that hit London in August 2011, which Cameron attributed to “moral decay”? Today’s rulers acted more harshly than King John, offending the ethos of Magna Carta by imposing disproportionate summary sentences, meting out hundreds of years of prison for such offences as stealing bottles of water, while taking over two years to investigate the shooting of an unarmed man that had triggered the riots. They clearly had not read Article 40 of the Magna Carta, banning the law’s delay. 

Another parallel should be constructed without delay. The Magna Carta only became legal when a nine-year-old child became king. Those of a superstitious disposition might like to know that about a century later, in 1319, Sweden’s equivalent to the Magna Carta was  accepted by a king who was only six. It seems the ruler must be a child for us to have success. Could it be arranged that the Queen abdicate in favour of her great-grandchild?

Another event has a contemporary parallel. Prior to the Magna Carta, and a source of inspiration to the barons, the unruly people of Catalonia were demanding independence from Aragon’s King Pedro. Today’s Catalonia’s independence movement should be followed with interest, as should Podemos, the precariat party currently leading Spanish opinion polls.

Another parallel should have the government quaking in their hunting boots at this time of year. The Magna Carta was the first legal document to recognise the right of an emerging class to wage war on its rulers if they did not respect its needs. Perhaps this is the only possible justification for the American Constitution allowing a right to bear arms. Since our rulers are riding roughshod over the needs and aspirations of the emerging class, the precariat, we have a right to rebel, thanks to those thirteenth-century barons. What is diddly squat about that?

Owen Jones should also be cheered by the fact that the Magna Carta was the first piece of legislation issued in a language the working class could vaguely understand. Although originally written in Latin and translated into baronial French, it was eventually issued, some 40 years later, in something close to English. The Magna Carta can thus claim to be the first, rare law written in English.

Whereas Owen Jones dismissed the Magna Carta with words that few readers understand, Oliver Cromwell was more scatological. When informed it could be used to justify a constitutional monarchy, he changed the C to F. Today’s Speaker of the House of Commons would rule his language un-parliamentary. But Cromwell’s ire is shared by some of us today.

One last point. Over the centuries it has often been proposed that June 15 should be a national holiday. If the Magna Carta is dismissed as diddly squat, how can that demand be justified? Don’t be a spoilsport, Owen. Elsewhere, I have proposed a national Deliberation Day (Article 27 of the Precariat Charter) to be put aside for political engagement and assemblies in village or town halls. June 15 would be an ideal day for that too.

One last question: Where exactly is the Archbishop of Canterbury?


This article is part of our Great Charter Convention series.

[1] One who deserves opprobrium is Michael Gove, Parliamentary Sponsor of the Magna Carta Club for Conservatives and business, who, as Anthony Barnett pointed out, chose his constituency party as the charity supported by the Club:  

[2] Axelrod’s consultancy was hired at vast cost to steer the campaign of Yulia Tymoshenko. At the time, Victor Yanukovich, a twice-convicted thug, had 4% in the opinion polls. The rest is history.

[3] As reported in The Financial Times, December 9, 2014.

[4] This refers to Brown’s statement, “British jobs for British workers.”

[5] Andrei Borodin, wanted in Moscow for £220 million bank fraud but granted political asylum in Britain , while being a donor to the Conservatives’ election campaign.

[6] These are figures given in The Guardian, July 2, 2014, p.8. See also  George Osborne, the Chancellor, gave hedge funds £145 million by abolishing stamp duty on hedge funds in 2013. They rewarded the Conservatives with over £21 million for their re-election campaign.

[7] This refers to the auction of a signed photo of Thatcher at a fund-raising ball, attended by Russian oligarchs.

[8] This refers to the fact that he has received over a million pounds from the Common Agricultural Policy, and the fact that the Government vetoed a Commission proposal to cap what anyone could receive from the CAP. 

[9] Isabella  was auctioned to Geoffrey de Mandeville for 60,000 marks, about £40,000. She was supposedly unable to have children, but by then she was over child-bearing age anyhow.

[10] The baron was Robert de Vaux. The ‘shut his mouth’ was actually the term used in a written document.

[11] Brooks admitted to an affair with Coulson, who went to work for Cameron, who was lent Brooks’ horse.  

[12] This refers to Farage’s claim that he was four hours late for a political meeting due the M4 being overrun by migrants. He was a commodity trader. 

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