A portion of the first ever printed copy of the Magna Carta. Photo: British Library
Show Hide image

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.

 

****

 

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.

 

****

 

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”.

 

****

 

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.

 

****

 

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.