Helen Kennedy argues that the Magna Carta was influenced by the French. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
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French Kissing: Helena Kennedy on Magna Carta

As we congratulate ourselves on Magna Carta, let us remember that it came into being 150 years after the Norman Conquest and was probably greatly influenced by the French.

Magna Carta is all about power. During the anniversary celebrations we have had politicians and judges wax lyrical about this important foundation stone in our democracy, which reined in the power of the king and asserted the principle that no one is above the law. Sadly, it is not true. There are still those who seem to enjoy impunity.

The question that immediately begs an answer is whose power now needs constraint. Who seems to enjoy power without much consequence or restraining? Who operates above the law? The straight answer is that arms of governments still act in ways that ignore the law. We saw it when the Snowden revelations showed that our intelligence communications headquarters, GCHQ, was involved in intelligence-gathering that was outside the law.

There are large tracts of British society that are significantly beyond the control of parliament or the courts. In our globalised world, there are many entities that float above the nation state and its legal constraints. This is made possible because law is still largely located within the nation state. The large corporations have been able to surf the globalisation wave much more effectively than governments. So the big question is: how do you restrain or even manage companies and financial bodies that transcend national borders?

The most visible example of our failure to do so is the fallout from the financial crash of 2008. Financial institutions are extraordinarily powerful. What makes them almost untouchable is that they are engaged in activities most people do not understand. They rely on deliberate complexity to defy investigation and accountability, so that British policing and prosecution authorities are not up to the task and most politicians are befuddled by the whole business.

Prosecutions for evasion of tax, the creation of shell companies and the fiddling of interest rates do not happen because the bank processes are impenetrable for most investigators. If you are prepared to go head to head against large banks, you have to be prepared to face an onslaught of resources against you. It is classic abuse of power, where one side has far more information and resources to outgun the other. In these battles, Goliath always wins. We need the will and the funds to make the law effective.

If you look at the global economy, half the world’s largest economies today are not states, but companies. Walmart is the 28th biggest economy in the world. Such companies are able to transcend national law and regulatory barriers. They have the power to make or break economies so there is rarely the political will to take them on.

Most of the greatest challenges facing the world span borders – international terrorism; environmental damage and climate change; trafficking in people, arms, drugs, human organs; financial chicanery and tax avoidance on a vast scale; issues of migration. The very advances in technology and communications that enable markets to function also enable dysfunction and black markets. Then there are the endemic human rights abuses such as violence against women that involve challenges to patriarchy. They are collective-action problems, requiring collective-action solutions. But international institutions and law are still inchoate. We need more collaboration to create systems of law that can confront wielders of power and secure just outcomes. However, too many powerful vested interests stand in the way.

And if western developed nations with comparatively robust legal systems cannot take them to task, what chance have new democracies with fragile legal infrastructure, as well as weak or corrupt government?

Yet, although we know that we have to create effective international law to deal with these problems, there is instinctive suspicion and resistance to courts beyond our borders. We sign up to treaties and international conventions but do our damnedest not to ratify them or whittle away at their edges to soften their impact. Our nation states play fast and loose with international law. We see it in the current political manoeuvring around the European Court of Human Rights, with the Conservative Party declaring in its manifesto that it will withdraw from its jurisdiction. The spectre of foreign courts and foreign justice is an easy prejudice to stir and it will have wretched consequences.

The interface between national law and international law is an area in need of serious work and political commitment or we are destined to chaos and conflict, as well as ever-growing inequality. So, as we watch the spectacle of self-congratulation around Magna Carta, and hear proud claims about this being an English invention, let us just remember that it came into being 150 years after the Norman Conquest and was probably greatly influenced by the French. Miscegenation makes for better law, and if ever we needed some legal cross-border collaboration, we need it now. 

Now read Owen Jones, Melvyn Bragg, Jesse Norman and Tom Holland on Magna Carta

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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