This week, it was announced that celebrations are to commence in their embryonic stages to prepare to mark the 800th anniversary of the issue of the Magna Carta. It is therefore a worthwhile moment to muse on the continued significance and relevance of the document, its pivotal position in our cultural heritage and the nature of our freedom now in light of the document.
It is abundantly clear that in times in which legitimate concern for our sustained sovereignty have risen to the fore, the Magna Carta’s national significance as one of the tenets of our unwritten constitution is a potent force. One particular debate into which Magna Carta has entered recently is the discussion about History teaching in British schools. Simon Schama, the Government’s main school history advisor, has recently made suggestions for a rather prescriptive and presumptive list of ‘What Children Should Learn’. The list entirely omitted the document and the surrounding events, causing Dan Hannan and England Expects’ Gawain Towler to passionately argue the case for the Great Charter as part of what is presumably a prospective Unit of Work on ‘The Roots of Our Rights’, as Hannan so succinctly titles it.
But what of the document in the modern sphere?
Called ‘the keystone of English liberty’ by Henry Hallam, the document was considered by Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy to have installed the following notions into English law:
“(1) The government of the country [is] by an hereditary sovereign, ruling with limited powers, and bound to summon and consult a parliament of the whole realm, comprising hereditary peers and elective representatives of the commons;
(2) That without the sanction of parliament no tax of any kind can be imposed, and no law can be made, repealed or altered;
(3) Trial by jury;
(4) That justice shall not be sold or delayed.”
Those four statements would constitute an effective and concise answer that one would give if asked the question ‘What defines the political system of the United Kingdom?’ Such notions also underpin the Westminster style of Government across the Anglosphere and the world, and thus, the Magna Carta’s influence extends across the world. It is well-known that the residents of New England, and later the wider United States, used the key concepts of the treaty to shape their own systems of governance and the notions of freedom that have informed democratic government for hundreds of years.
It is perhaps unfortunate, therefore, that so many would seek to claim this emphatically English, and in many senses, sacred, document for their own purposes. See, for example, the following ludicrous and unfounded claim on the website of asinine platitude funnel euronews:
The Magna Carta, the world’s most “influential secular document” is closing in on it’s 800th anniversary.
A falsehood and fallacy. How can a document with an opening gambit of ‘John, by the grace of God, King of England’ which also refers to
… having regard to God and for the salvation of our soul, and those of all our ancestors and heirs, and unto the honour of God and the advancement of his Holy Church, and for the rectifying of our realm, we have granted as underwritten by advice of our venerable fathers…
… and which goes on to refer to the freedoms which have been granted by God, possibly be described as a secular document? It has secular relevance, but to disconnect the document, which had thirty-two Christian witnesses, from Christianity is to falsely represent its constitution.
The document in its myriad forms remains fascinating, with one particular aspect that would raise a smile on the face of a modern English nationalist being the recognition of the sanctity of the individual laws of the constituent nations of what is now the United Kingdom, making reference as it does to the restoration of Welshmen who had been removed by the King, and conciliatory agreements regarding the King of Scotland.
The wider significance of the document- the notion that a previously almost impervious, untouchable and unaccountable authority could be held to the rule of law above any perceived ‘Divine Right’- was the true measure of its influence. The colonial subjects of the British Americas took heart and courage from this notion, their interpretation of Magna Carta informing the very fibre of their freedom. The Puritans who sought to assert themselves over the arrogance of their Stuart Royal House took strength from it even before then. It is one of the fundamental tenets of the strength of our ancestors that I spoke of in my previous blog.
What of the conditions of Magna Carta’s origin? England was a nation clearly divided by the history of feudalism; a place where individual liberty was inhibited by feudal government that was determined by right of class; where foreign agents with their own agenda and mercenary intent strode the land; where the ways of the forest were under dire threat; where the rich were able to achieve their own justice for crime and the poor were dealt no such lenience.
So. No similarities with modern England at all…