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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear