Thursday, 11 June 2015

Celebrating the Spirit of Magna Carta 800 Years On: Human Rights, Runnymede Tories and Beyond

Tomb of King John I - Worcester Cathedral
© Dr AST Ridge-Newman
‘Men in our kingdom shall have and keep all these liberties, rights and concessions… for ever.’ (Magna Carta – Clause 63)

It is 800 years since King John I (1166-1216) begrudgingly set his seal to Magna Carta (Great Charter) at Runnymede, 15 June 1215, which, following a baronial rebellion, executed the principle that no one is above the law – not even the king. Since then, the charter has represented the principles of equality, liberty and justice. Although in itself it did not provide rights for all, Magna Carta has come to symbolise freedom under law and impact across the world in countries like America, Australia, China, India and Mexico.

In 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers carried copies of Magna Carta from England on their voyage to the New World. William Penn (1644-1718), English Quaker and founder of the Province of Pennsylvania, published the charter and encouraged readers to ‘take up the good example of our ancestors’. In the 1780s, Magna Carta influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States in the development of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, especially observed in the Fifth Amendment: ‘No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law’.

King Charles I did not learn the lessons of English history and his attempt to rule as absolute monarch resulted in civil war, Parliamentarian victory, abolition of the monarchy and resurgence for the principles set out in Magna Carta. Following the Restoration, further tussles between Parliament and Monarchy led to the Bill of Rights 1689, which set out the rights of Parliament and the powers of the Monarch. Magna Carta was the foundation of habeas corpus, which was later enacted in the Habeas Corpus Act 1679 – making it illegal to detain a person without due cause, thus safeguarding individual liberty.

Magna Carta has been used in campaigns to emancipate, liberate and free peoples from oppression and inequalities. In the 19th century, British parliamentarian William Wilberforce and US President Abraham Lincoln used Magna Carta in their campaigns for the abolishment of slavery. In the 20th century, Nancy Astor, Britain’s first woman Member of Parliament, used Magna Carta in the campaign to extend voting rights to all men and women irrespective of class.

Historic global figures like Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid revolutionary and former South African president; and Mahatma Gandhi, who stood up to Britain, the world’s largest empire, in leading the campaign for Indian Independence, have cited the principles of Magna Carta in their crusades for freedom. In Gandhi’s case, he used the symbolism of Magna Carta as a peaceful weapon in his fight against the country of the charter’s origin. Before independence, the Americans also employed the symbolism of Magna Carta in order to send a message to the British. 

In 1775, shortly before the Revolutionary War, in which the 13 British American Colonies claimed independence from Great Britain (largely because of imposed taxation without representation in the British Parliament), a 3-shilling bank note, ‘issued in defence of America Liberty’, featured Magna Carta. Magna Carta is depicted on the doors of the US Supreme Court and the pulpit of Washington National Cathedral. In 1948, the UN General Assembly, Paris, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt, first person to chair the Commission on Human Rights, called it ‘the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.’ It was the American commitment to the legacy of Magna Carta that led to its memorial being erected at Cooper’s Hill, Runnymede, 1957. It was the American Bar Association that made the most significant contribution to the creation of the memorial. 

In 2011, US President Barak Obama said:

‘It was the English who first spelled out the rights and liberties of man in the Magna Carta.’

As the first American president of African descent, Obama is himself historically symbolic in being the head of state of a country in which, just 50 years ago, black people had restricted rights, including inequities in voting rights, and experienced significant day to day discrimination from their white countrymen. Today, in Obama’s America, the freedoms, rights and recognitions in law for same-sex couples to marry have been hard fought on both sides of the debate.

Over its 800 year history, where there has been discrimination, injustice and subjugation, the spirit of Magna Carta has simultaneously provided a symbol of hope for the oppressed and a sobering smack in the face for the oppressors. Americans might refer to the latter as ‘a wakeup call’. The weight of Magna Carta’s legacy is powerful and a great example of a positive English contribution to the world. Therefore, it is right that we celebrate it. 

But does Magna Carta, or rather the spirit of Magna Carta, hold any relevance in contemporary Britain? Ironically, as we celebrate eight centuries since John I unknowingly performed an act that would go on to have great global significance, Human Rights in Britain has come into question.

David Cameron, UK Prime Minister, has charged Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Justice, with the task of drawing up a new ‘British Bill of Rights’, which is intended to replace the Human Rights Act 1998. The current Act of 1998, was a New Labour project under Tony Blair, former Prime Minister, which enshrines in UK law the principles of the post-WWII European Convention on Human Rights that is enforced by the European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg, France. Groups like Liberty, led by Shami Chakrabarti, are campaigning against the repeal of the Act.

Since 2005, the Conservative Party has been troubled by the ways in which the Human Rights Act has been seemingly misused in some cases.

A number of Conservatives are torn. The Government plans seem to invoke strong feelings about two Conservative agendas simultaneously: (1) the campaign for the sovereignty of the British Parliament and courts, over those on the continent (i.e. British freedom from European interference); and (2) the maintenance of and fight for individual liberty and protection in the form of fundamental rights and freedoms from governments abusing and interfering in the daily lives of law abiding British people. Many contemporary British Conservatives would support both principles, but it is a difficult balancing act for this Government to get right and get through Parliament.

This has created powerful debates both inside and outside of Parliament and within the Conservative Party. Those in the Conservative Party who oppose Cameron’s plan to scrap the Human Rights Act have been dubbed the ‘Runnymede Tories’. However, as Daniel Hannan rightly points out, there is already an official group of the Runnymede Conservatives, who form an overwhelming majority on Runnymede Borough Council. They are certainly not defined by their views on the Government’s Human Rights policy. (I have a first-hand perspective on this being a former councillor for Virginia Water on Runnymede Borough Council. (For more information, there is a chapter on the Runnymede & Weybridge Conservatives in my book: ‘Cameron’s Conservatives and the Internet’.))

Human Rights is an important issue and should indeed be addressed in line with the spirit of Magna Carta. Although there are legitimate questions about the Government’s Human Rights policy, for some it might seem unfitting to politicise Magna Carta celebrations and/or miss-label the Runnymede Tories. (The Runnymede Conservatives have much more to do with celebrating 800 years of Magna Carta than Human Rights policy.) That said, the fact that these debates are current in contemporary Britain means that the spirit of Magna Carta remains extant to this day. Moreover, is there any better way of celebrating its eighth centenary than putting the principles of the Great Charter to use in the campaign to maintain and secure the rights, liberties and freedoms of ordinary people in Britain and beyond?

‘Maintain justice, and do what is right.’ (Isaiah 56:1)

Sources: British Library and Worcester Cathedral

As a Briton who has spent a lot of time in the United States, I feel a strong connection to the upcoming Magna Carta celebrations. Furthermore, Worcester Cathedral, my former place of worship is where John I is interred. My home City of Worcester is where The Battle of Worcester (1651) saw the Parliamentarians win the Civil War over the Royalists. Notwithstanding the fact that I have lived in Egham, a short walk from the Magna Carta Memorial and served the people of Runnymede as a politician, I conducted my doctoral research at Royal Holloway, University of London. The college itself is very close to the Magna Carta Memorial. In partnership with Runnymede Borough Council, American Bar Association and Magna Carta Trust, Royal Holloway College will be playing a significant role in the celebrations, as will the local Runnymede & Weybridge Conservative Association – the official Runnymede Tories.

‘Give justice to the weak and the orphaned; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute.’ (Psalm 82:3)