A portion of the first ever printed copy of the Magna Carta. Photo: British Library
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On the eve of Magna Carta’s 800th birthday, the British legal system is being ripped apart

A protest march against the Global Law Summit reminds us that the charter is still relevant today.

At midday on Saturday 21 February perhaps 70 of us, warmly clad, some carrying banners, gathered at Runnymede alongside the River Thames in Surrey. We were accompanied by an enormous, terrifyingly lifelike puppet of the UK’s Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, dressed as King John.

We met in the car park of the Magna Carta tea-room, then set out in the cold sunshine across the muddy, sweeping water-meadow, with the river bending away to our left, to the memorial donated by American lawyers that marks the founding moment of the modern concept of the rule of law.

There, we listened to three short speeches. Susan Matthews described how her son Alfie Meadows had suffered brain damage after being attacked by police in 2010 and been wrongly charged. What a battle it had been to clear his name against the fortune spent to convict him. And how justice would never have been secured without legal aid. She was followed by Ruth Hayes of Islington Law Centre, who let us know with detail after detail how access to justice is being prevented. Then I said a few stirring words about why we were there.

After this the organisers set out to march the 42 miles down the winding Thames Path to Westminster in protest against the Global Law Summit – and the less stalwart of us joined them part of the way.

 

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The so-called summit was a monstrous jamboree of corporate law, tax avoidance, networking and global business, legitimised by phoney celebration of Magna Carta’s forthcoming 800th birthday.

The rally was organised by Justice Alliance: its plan, wonderfully executed, was to walk against the fading light to as close to Hampton Court as possible. Then to use Sunday 22 February to carry a copy of the two defining clauses of Magna Carta, the famous numbers 39 and 40, to Putney. There, the marchers met on Monday morning outside St Mary’s Church, scene of the historic Putney Debates, when the New Model Army clashed over the purpose of the English civil war. Thomas Rainsborough famously argued, “. . . the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest hee” – the earliest claim for modern democracy. With the spirit of Rainsborough walking among them, they set out for Old Palace Yard in Westminster.

 

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Justice Alliance is a network working across the waterfront of the UK’s legal system as it hits the poor, the weak and the dispossessed. The alliance is witnessing at first hand the dismantling of legal aid, the destruction of the probation service, the privatisation of court services and, I would add, even the marketisation of Britain’s once outstanding forensic service.

The agent driving forward this destruction of the rule of law in Britain is the one-time management consultant and Tory attack dog Grayling. At the concluding rally outside the Commons, the criminal defence lawyer Greg Foxsmith led the crowd of by then 300 protesters, whom he generously described as “the people”, in a mock-impeachment of Grayling for “misleading the House of Commons”, the “obstruction of justice” and his “abuse of power”.

There was a wide range of other speeches showing how we are on the edge of returning, as Robin Murray, a solicitor working with the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, put it, “to the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s and their miscarriages of justice”.

 

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The rally was a first skirmish in the battle for Britain’s constitution that will hot up through the course of this year, across the election in May and the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta on 15 June.

Three great issues are symbolised by what happened then. First, the example of holding arbitrary and despotic power to account, bringing it to the table and forcing it to concede. Second, the claims of those two celebrated clauses – that no one shall be imprisoned or destroyed except by judgment of his peers and the rule of law, and that no one will be able to buy justice, and “to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice”. Of course today we add “she” to “he” and also what we possess has altered, as the rights to privacy and now to our personal metadata become central parts of our lives; and we can say for sure that the rule of law does not exist if the wronged cannot afford access to the courts.

Third, it was called the “magna” or “great” charter because another charter soon accompanied it, the Charter of the Forest: the first claim to what we can now see as our environmental commons.

 

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The Global Law Summit had none of these issues as its themes. Lord Green was to have addressed it on supranational activity until the bank he once ran, HSBC, was exposed as having indulged in rather too much supranational activity. One excited tweet on the first day told the summit’s followers how to exchange business cards, another how to get updates on the role of private equity.

The corporations have stolen our political parties, they are stealing our media, they are robbing us of our government, they are suborning the law and now they are stealing our history, making it a plaything for networking. Such were my reflections as we walked beside the Thames, the pure branches of its oaks massed in the bright, cold sky, witnesses to a resistance that is once again girding itself for battle.

Anthony Barnett is the co-founder of openDemocracy

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

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Google’s tax worries, Oxford’s race dilemma and the left-wing case for leaving Europe

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong.

As a Gmail user and a Google searcher, am I morally compromised by using the services of a serial tax avoider? Surely not. Google gets roughly 95 per cent of its revenues from advertising and much of that from clicks on the ads that surround its offerings. I have long observed a rule never to click on any of these, even when they advertise something that I need urgently. Instead, I check the seller’s website address and type it directly into my browser.

Taking full advantage of its services without contributing to its profits strikes me as a very good way of damaging the company. More problematic are pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca (zero UK corporation tax in 2014) and GlaxoSmithKline (UK corporation tax undisclosed but it has subsidiaries in tax havens), which makes many prescription drugs and consumer products such as toothpaste – I chew it to stop me smoking. To boycott all such companies, as well as those that underpay their workers or pollute the planet, one would need, more or less, to drop out from the modern world. Consumer boycotts, though they have a certain feel-good factor, aren’t a substitute for electing governments that will make a concerted effort to tax and regulate big corporations.

 

After EU

David Cameron is finding it hard to get changes to EU rules that he can credibly present as concessions. But the talks that would follow a vote for Brexit would be a hundred times more difficult. Ministers would need to negotiate access to the single market, renegotiate trade deals with 60 other countries and make a deal on the status of Britons living in the EU, as well as EU citizens living here. All this would create immense uncertainty for a fragile economy.

With a current-account trade deficit of 4 per cent, the dangers of a run on sterling would be considerable. (This apocalyptic scenario is not mine; I draw on the wisdom of the Financial Times economics editor, Chris Giles.) But here’s the question. If the UK got into the same pickle as Greece – and George Osborne had to do a Norman Lamont, popping out of No 11 periodically to announce interest-rate rises – Jeremy Corbyn would walk the 2020 election. Should we lefties therefore vote Out?

 

University blues

Hardly a Sunday now passes without David Cameron announcing an “initiative”, either on TV or in the newspapers. The latest concerns the under-representation of black Britons at top universities, notably Oxford, which accepted just 27 black students in 2014 out of an intake of more than 2,500. As usual, Cameron’s proposed “action” is risibly inadequate: a requirement that universities publish “transparent” data on admissions and acceptances, much of which is already available, and a call for schools to teach “character”, whatever that means.

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford – with its disproportionate numbers from a handful of fee-charging schools, such as Eton – would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong. Cameron rules out quotas as “politically correct, contrived and unfair”. But quotas in some form may be what is needed if young people from poor white, as well as black, homes are ever to feel that they would be more than interlopers.

In the meantime, Cameron could tell elite universities to stop setting ever-higher barriers to entry. As well as demanding two A*s and an A at A-level, Oxford and Cambridge are introducing tests for “thinking skills” and subject-specific “aptitude”. Whatever the developers of such tests claim, it is possible to coach students for them. State schools don’t have the resources to do so or even to research the complex requirements of the various colleges and subjects. Oxbridge admissions tutors must know this but evidently they don’t care.

 

A fine balance

The latest government figures show that, despite the former education secretary Michael Gove introducing £60 fines for parents who take their children on term-time breaks, the days lost to unsanctioned holidays are up by 50 per cent to three million in four years. This was a predictable result. Previously, the sense of an obligation to respect the law and set their children an example of doing so persuaded most parents to confine absences to school holidays. Now a modest price has been placed on term-time holidays. Parents do the sums and note that they save far more than £60 on cheaper flights and hotels.

A similar outcome emerged in Israel when daycare centres introduced fines for parents who arrived late. Previously, most preferred to avoid the embarrassment of apologising to a carer and explaining why they had been delayed. Once it became just a monetary transaction, many more happily arrived late and paid the price.

 

Minority report

Here in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, we are dancing in the streets. Well, not quite, but perhaps we ought to be. According to an analysis by the Policy Exchange think tank, Loughton is the third most integrated community in England and Wales, just behind Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands and Amersham, Buckinghamshire, but above 157 others that have significant minorities. We are well ahead of fashionable London boroughs such as Islington and Hackney, where residents obviously keep Muslims and eastern Europeans out of their vibrant dinner parties, whereas we have bearded imams, African chiefs in traditional dress and Romanian gypsies dropping in for tea all the time.

Again, not quite. I’m not sure that I have met that many non-indigenous folk around here, or even seen any, except in the local newsagents. Still, I am grateful to Policy Exchange for brushing up Loughton’s public image, which was in need of a facelift after the BNP won four seats on the council a few years ago and a TOWIE actor opened a shop on the high street.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war