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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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

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A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.