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Let there be a Runnymede Left

As 800th anniversary celebrations loom, it's time for the left to reclaim the Magna Carta.

the Magna Carta memorial at Runnymede

On June 15, the Queen and hordes of establishment personalities will crowd into the meadow around Runnymede by the Thames to celebrate the signing of the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215, even though it was not signed or the Magna Carta. It is likely to be an exercise in hypocrisy. If so, one hopes it rains hard. There is still time and hope for something better.

The reason is that there are two perspectives on the Magna Carta, and one fears only one will be celebrated on June 15. The first perspective is consistent with so-called Runnymede Tories, lauded by Matthew D’Ancona recently (Guardian, May 18). Most of those rushing to Runnymede will be paying lip service to this libertarian perspective. It deserves some respect, although it is woefully incomplete and ultimately intellectually dishonest.

If you go to Runnymede at any ordinary time, it is a quietly thrilling experience, with its 2,500 year old yew a silent witness. Situated between Windsor and Heathrow, the first sensation is likely to be one of disappointment or a feeling that one must be missing something. There is little there.

You come off the main road, running parallel to the Thames, and walk about 200 yards to the only monument, a non-descript rotunda. It was erected by the American Bar Association in 1957. That is it. This is supposed to be a piece of British history. Why is there only an American monument in the heart of our historical place?  

When that has stirred the mind, you retrace your steps, passing a slab of stone laid in 1994 by the Indian Prime Minister. Back through the little gate, you turn left and walk a few yards before entering a copse, “an acre” given by the Queen to the United States, in which a path leads up to a block of stone displaying excerpts from John Kennedy’s inaugural speech in 1960, rhetorical platitudes said just before he sanctioned covert interference in the freedom of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs invasion and the build-up to the Vietnam War in which millions of innocents were deprived of their freedom to live.

What about something British, you might find yourself muttering, even if you are no nationalist? What about something from 1215, 1217 or 1225, as the original Charter of Liberties evolved to become the Magna Carta? What about something on the great British figures connected with it, such as Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who went from exile to being the arbiter between King John and the barons as architect of the Charter of Liberties on June 15, 1215? Or Edward Coke, who resurrected the Magna Carta in the 17th century, in the face of life-threatening opposition from the King, and who initiated the 1628 Petition of Right regarded as the next development of Magna Carta’s principles?

As if that vacuum was not enough, you can walk back to the two modestly splendid houses straddling the road built by Edwin Lutyens, where excerpts from the Charter are on view. You enter the only café, to see a statue in the entrance, just one. It is of Franklin Roosevelt.

Americans are entitled to be proud of symbols of their country, it was kind of the folk of Jamestown to send an oak, and it was very kind of Mr. Rao to lay a stone among the trees where legend has it that the Charter of Liberties was sealed. But the great radical tradition that it and its progeny, the Charter of the Forest, represent is entirely absent. In the distance is a monument to those who died in action with the Royal Air Force but have no known grave. That is scarcely enough.

It is the second perspective that is omitted by the symbolism on view. That is based on seeing the two charters as an integrated whole. It is the ethos of the Magna Carta as a defence of the commons, against the grabbing of common land by devious means by the upper classes over the centuries, through illegal and legally sanctioned seizure. Let there be no doubt that much of the country’s common land was taken over the ages, not earned.  

Walking in Runnymede, you will appreciate that the meadow, a “commons” of the common man and woman. Remember that the Charter of Liberties only became the Magna Carta in 1217 when issued alongside the Charter of the Forest, which took several sections from the original Charter and expanded them into state commitments to preserve space and resources for the citizen to use to achieve subsistence, to reproduce themselves and their community, to use as places to roam and as places of refuge from failure in market society.

The Charter of the Forest was a constitutional commitment to limit private property rights and to curb commodification. That is why the political right, most notably Winston Churchill, ignores it when referring so reverentially to the Magna Carta, and why the government only sends all schools the Magna Carta, not the other part. The two were equally significant, as Edward Coke recognised in rescuing them from virtual oblivion after the Tudors had overseen the enclosure of so much of the commons, depriving the working class of the means of subsistence and social rights.

By contrast with the Magna Carta, the Charter of the Forest did more for the advancement of women's rights and liberties than the Magna Carta itself, and, unlike the Magna Carta, the Charter of the Forest can be construed as the first ecological charter, for the preservation of resources and nature.

As Peter Linebaugh (2008) has emphasised, the two Charters reflect the tension between community and commodification, which has underpinned the evolution of capitalism in the ensuing eight centuries. The Charters did not permit full private property rights; on the contrary they were intended to limit them. In that regard, there is a further irony about Runnymede.

In 1921, a coalition government, eager to cut public debt without taxing the rich too much, quietly put it up for sale by auction to property developers as “Lot 8”. By chance, the UK’s first woman barrister spotted the trick and mobilised what became an occupy movement that would have made Geci Park and other modern occupy groups proud. The people won; the piece of commons is still part of public wealth. But the Tories and Liberals of the day did their utmost to prevent it.

Under the latest Coalition, and probably under the Tories soon, there have been plans to privatise another part of the Magna Carta legacy, Sherwood Forest, along with parts of the Lake District and woodlands run by the Forestry Commission. It was in Sherwood Forest, of course, where Robin Hood kept alive opposition to the state’s privatisation measures.

Today, the second perspective on the Charters must be used to roll back privatisation of the commons. Today, the ecological erosion that should concern all of us is complemented by privatisation of the intellectual commons, through patents, copyrights and trademarks, which Thomas Jefferson rightly condemned as an embarrassment. Ideas should not be private property. The commodification of ideas is one of the most corrosive features of neo-liberalism.

Similarly, we must fight the commercialisation of the cultural and spatial commons, epitomised by the closure of public libraries, the selling of wonderful sculptures left to the public, and the steady commercialisation of parks, turning them from spheres of common leisure and interaction into areas for commercial profit. They are chipping away at the allotments around the country, forcing sales, sometimes disguising them as shifts of sites, knowing that this abuses the very idea of permanency that underpins the commons.
If we have yet to mobilise in defence of the commons, we have also yet to react coherently on another principle that has stemmed from Magna Carta. The first perspective on show at Runnymede will wax lyrically about democracy. They should be reminded that the Tories gained 36.6% of the votes cast, and because of a low turn-out, which reflected the lack of appeal of what was on offer, gained support of only 24% of the electorate.

Those who did not support them constitute the vast majority. Let us campaign under the slogan, “We are the 76%.” Shame them by demanding real democracy. Shame them to desist from stealthy privatisation, commodification and commercialisation of the commons. Did the 76% vote for all that?

As emphasised in these pages in an earlier article, a related principle tucked away in the Magna Carta (article 12) that is abused with impunity by today’s political establishment is the link between taxation and representation. Today, there is representation without taxation.

The election was won, as every other election since 1983 has been won by a party and candidate supported by a foreign-owned media chain. Most of the media is in his hands or in the hands of a Russian oligarch (The Independent) or a billionaire non-dom who has been allowed to escape the taxation of citizens (the Fourth Viscount Rothemere, owner of The Daily Mail et al). The Tories’ strategist is an Australian PR salesman, and the Bank of England, the Royal Mail and the Royal Bank of Scotland are now all run by foreigners appointed by the minority Tories. The Tories are also funded by people who have not been paying British taxes, giving them representation without taxation. When will we hold our Boston tea party? 

Let us leave that as a nice idea. The main point is that the first perspective will be subject to much hypocrisy in those establishment speeches on June 15. There will be chatter about the rule of law, conveniently forgetting that both the USA and UK have recently indulged in illegal rendition of suspects, have at best condoned torture, and must live with the continuing shame of Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of people convicted of nothing have been languishing for many years.

Nearer home, they will not spend breath on the fact that millions of people are subject to life-threatening sanctions without any pretence at due process, without trial by equals, without representation and now effectively denied legal aid. One of the principles enshrined in the Magna Carta is that punishment should be proportionate as well as only imposed after due process procedures have been observed. Our government abuses both principles.

People who have lost benefits without trial for allegedly being fit enough to “work” have promptly died or killed themselves in hopelessness. In denying people the right to subsistence, enshrined in the Charter of the Forest, government offends three principles that those Runnymede Progressives should be championing – due process, proportionality and the right to live in dignity.

In short, successive British and American governments, Democrat as well as Republican, New Labour as well as Coalition and Tory, have abused the right to due process, encompassing the famous clauses 20, 38, 39 and 40 of the original Charter of Liberties. It was elaborated in the Bill of Rights of 1689, which declared that “grants and promises of fines or forfeitures” before conviction are void. It is a weak underbelly of the neo-liberal paradigm, because whereas libertarians do not believe in a collective commons they say they believe in the rule of the law, on which due process is the foundation stone.

While we wait to see if Runnymede Tories will be true to their principles, it is the silence of what should be Runnymede Progressives that should be more worrying. On June 15, we must hope that all the principles established in the two Charters of 1217 will he heard. Don’t hold your breath; you might run out of puff.    

Guy Standing, author of A Precariat Charter, will be speaking at Runnymede at the eco-village, unless the eviction order succeeds against the occupiers before then, which is unlikely. Join to celebrate the progressive perspective there. Guy is also speaking on the Magna Carta in Durham on June 9 and in Salisbury on Magna Carta day, June 15.           

The Runnymede Festival for Democracy is running from Friday 12 June until Monday 15th June at the eco camp in the woods above Runnymede meadows. The festival is a collaboration between the eco camp, Occupy Democracy and New Putney Debates. It is timed to coincide with three year anniversary of the camp and the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta on Monday 15th, as an alternative celebration of democracy, land rights, ecology and community. We will be have a range of workshops on those themes.
About the author

Dr Guy Standing is Professorial Research Associate, SOAS University of London, Fellow of the UK Academy of Social Sciences, and co-founder and honorary co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). Subjects of recent books include basic incomerentier capitalism and the growing precariat.

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