Magna Carta goes on display in the Houses of Parliament. Photo: Getty Images
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Celebrate Magna Carta, yes: by defending the Human Rights Act

Upholding that European Convention of Human Rights would be the best commemoration of the events of 1215, not dismantling it.

The Prime Minister is notoriously weak on history.  He thought the Americans were fighting the Nazis with us in 1940 (they didn’t join up till December 1941).  He thought America was our oldest ally (rather than Portugal).  And Jon Stewart caught him out on the simplest of questions: what does Magna Carta mean?  Far more worrying than these schoolboy off-the-cuff errors, though, is the pre-prepared speech he made yesterday to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.  Dripping with sentimental British self-aggrandisement, it was more an exercise in nostalgia than in historical analysis and it showed that his ignorance extends far beyond the meaning of the Great Charter’s Latin title.

Not that I buy into the mass glorification of Magna Carta.  For the most part it is a dull, poorly drafted and notoriously ambiguous document.  Its role in British history is regularly and preposterously overstated.  Those who claim it as the founding document of British democracy and moderated monarchy, for instance, seem to forget centuries of our history.  It is a barons’ charter, not a people’s charter.  It says nothing at all about parliament or democracy.  Far from establishing the right to trial by jury and the rule of law or indeed the right to a trial at all, Magna Carta, insofar as it adumbrated these concepts, was systematically ignored for century after century.  The very fact that angry and rebellious subjects were constantly calling for it and its sister the Charter of the Forests to be republished is not proof (as some seem to think) that it was respected or that it was the bedrock of our modern constitutional settlement, but that it was systematically disregarded.  Just as Hamlet thought the Danish habit of drinking to excess should be ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’, so generation after generation of British rulers concluded that Magna Carta was best ignored.   

Take one apparently unambiguous clause, ‘the Church shall be free.’  It may be the main reason that the Church and King John’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, devoted so much energy to promulgating the Charter in 1215 and 1225.  The clause might be clear, but when was it ever adhered to?  Successive monarchs tried to impose their preferred candidates as bishops and archbishops, they left lengthy vacancies so as to seize episcopal incomes and they told the Church what to read, what to believe and how to pray.  Long after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, his son closed the chantries, his two daughters recast the bench of bishops to their own liking and the Stuarts sought to impose a catholic-seeming faith on the Church of England, Winston Churchill forbade the appointment of George Bell as Archbishop of Canterbury because of his campaign against the aerial bombardment of civilian Germany. 

Just so the concept of a fair trial.  Political imprisonment and summary executions were a standard part of the British system long after King John was dead and gone.  Acts of Attainder saw parliament vote to outlaw, exile, deprive and execute political opponents without anything approaching a proper trial well into eighteenth century, with the Jacobite leader Archibald Cameron of Lochiel despatched as late as 1753 and Lord Edward FitzGerald in 1798. 

Likewise taxation.  If only those great Whig politicians who had trumpeted the idea that thanks to Magna Carta the Crown could not tax England without consent could have seen half an inch beyond their pince-nez to spot that ‘no taxation without representation’ might apply equally to the colonists on the other side of the Atlantic as to freeborn Englishmen.  Or to the people of India.  Or South Africa.  Or any one of the British colonies where fair trial and free elections remained a pipedream for many until we departed the scene. 

Indeed many basic human rights took a great deal longer to become standard in this country than elsewhere.  Just take the law on buggery.  Here, it was a criminal offence punishable by death from 1533 to 1861 and homosexuality (or ‘gross indecency’) was outlawed from 1885 up until 1967, but in France homosexuality never appeared in the criminal law after the Revolution.  It took a judgement in the European Court of Human Rights for British homosexuals to be allowed to serve in the armed forces.

So yes, Magna Carta is to be celebrated, but let’s not get dewy-eyed and overly nostalgic about British history.  And let’s not fall for this Etonian sleight of hand that bizarrely suggests that the European Court of Human Rights and its incorporation into UK law in the Human Rights Act has somehow dismantled our historic rights.  At nearly every stage of our history the Tories and Conservatives have defended the rights of the monarch over his subjects, the crown over the country and the status quo over change.  They opposed the chartists, the suffragettes, the trades unionists and the constitutional reformers even as they waved Magna Carta in their face.  The one moment when they broke that habit was after the horrors of Nazism, when Winston Churchill and David Maxwell Fyfe sought to encode British concepts of freedom in a rule of law that would hold indefinite sway across the continent.  Upholding that European Convention of Human Rights would be the best commemoration of the events of 1215, not dismantling it.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.


Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.


The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.


Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”


European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.


Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage