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

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.