Time for Magna Carta 2.0

A campaign for liberty from an over-mighty state looks back to reach forward
ourKingdom editors
13 May 2009

Guy Aitchison, Thomas Ash & Clare Coatman: Few legal documents resonate in the collective consciousness like Magna Carta. Imposed on King John at Runnymede in 1215 by a consortium of feudal barons, the Great Charter has come to symbolise the idea that collective action is a proper and successful way to protect our rights and freedoms from arbitrary and unaccountable power and the ambitions of an over-powerful, self-seeking and avaricious state. Nearly eight hundred years on, it is an idea we aim to draw inspiration from in an open and democratic way. It is time for Magna Carta 2.0.

We want to make Magna Carta 2.0 a call to people and organisations of all political persuasions across the country to put a stop to the threats to our liberty, clean up the way we are governed and ensure that the state respects the people. We want to do this now and engage with parliamentary candidates ahead of the next general election over the dangers and what they intend to do about them. We believe such dangers manifest themselves in at least six ways.

  1. The corruption and suborning of parliament as a check on the executive which accelerated after its support for the Iraq invasion now exposed by the Lords cash for amendments scandal and MPs on the make.
  2. The rise of a surveillance society, from the blanket logging of all our electronic communications to CCTV to travel scrutiny
  3. The sharing of personal information on official and commercial databases: the rise of the so-called database state
  4. Growing police autonomy, both nationally - the Association of Chief Police Officers, for example, is an independent corporate entity not a public body - and internationally, especially within the EU
  5. Exploitation of the threats of crime and terrorism to excessively enhance state power and undermine our fundamental rights often accompanied by encouraging populist fears and alarms
  6. The exercise of arbitrary and unaccountable power by government agencies and quangos

An important step in overcoming these threats is to educate politicians, ourselves and the wider public on their real nature and significance. In February the Convention on Modern Liberty showed there is both a clear need and a hunger to connect the issues and to debate them in an intelligent and democratic way. This is especially true of our generation, which has come into politics since 1997 and feels alienated from a political system and culture that is contemptuous of democracy and regularly exposed as being corrupt and venal.

The time is right for a renewal of our democratic self-confidence. The coming general election is unusual in that issues of democracy, modern liberty, and human rights will figure alongside the acute economic circumstances. This makes it an ideal moment for a cross-party educational campaign promoting widespread open-minded, public debate, research, education and understanding of the threats to fundamental human rights and freedoms, and how they can be countered. This is what Magna Carta 2.0 aims to be. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries members of parliament replaced the barons as representatives who would hold power to account. The question we want to take to the public is this: isn't it time to stop relying on barons and start relying on ourselves?

We want to launch with an event at Runnymede on Sunday 14 June this year; inviting people to bring picnics and enjoy - if it can be arranged in time - a modest public meeting. At the same time we want people to hold their own Runnymede meetings at pubs, bars and tea-rooms across the country.

On June 14th we will launch a campaign for people to pledge to meet with their local candidates, engage them in debate on these issues and educate them on what people think. Ideally, across a fortnight in November. We will aggregate written, video and podcast feedback. The aim will be a Parties and Candidates Audit across the whole civil liberties and human rights agenda before the next election, conducted by local meetings. After the election we aim to hold a convention or similar event in June 2010 to debate the commitments of the incoming government on these issues.

We do not want to create a long-term campaign or duplicate demands already being made by existing organisations. Our distinctive approach will be to connect the issues, amplify the arguments, and draw people, many of whom are already deeply concerned in private, into public discussion in an open and non-partisan way. Our emphasis will be on the 2.0 aspect; on networking not centralising, making use of the opportunities offered by the distributed and participative energies of the web and above all we want help and encourage people to self-organise, forming their own groups or alliances. If this happens we will work out ways of making Magna Carta 2.0 accountable to those who to take part.

We will run Magna Carta 2.0 as an independent campaign with as many allies and media partners as possible, such as Liberal Conspiracy. We will borrow the facilities of openDemocracy. We will fund-raise where we can. If you would like to help, have any suggestions or ideas, or want to receive updates on Magna Carta 2.0 and how you can be involved please subscribe to our mailing list on the website we have started to create.

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