A portion of the Magna Carta, which Melvyn Bragg says is the foundation of modern freedom. Photo: British Library
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It made us free: Melvyn Bragg on Magna Carta

Parliamentary democracy, trial by jury or habeas corpus - it can be argued that all these flowed from this document.

Is it rather stupid and dangerous to take Magna Carta so much for granted, as many of us seem to do, and to think of this attitude as “very English”? Or would it be better to connect it with the present as resolutely as possible, to show the distance travelled in these past 800 years, the achievements despite the setbacks, its uniqueness? Perhaps to take our history too much for granted can be a way of diminishing both the past and the present, especially in this case.

At a recent public meeting about Magna Carta, a member of the platform panel, a well-known public intellectual, leaned forward and to a packed room pronounced with a world-weary confidence: “The fact is that Magna Carta was a squalid little deal.” A few sentences later he added: “Moreover, it did not mention women.” It is difficult to think of a more politically correct, less historically accurate and more impoverished view of history than this, and yet I was the only one who (publicly) protested.

David Carpenter, who has just finished writing a 600-page book on Magna Carta, said that it asserts “for the first time in world history a hugely important constitutional principle of the foundation of liberty, which is that the ruler is subject to the law”.

King John, who sealed (but did not sign; there is no evidence that he could write) Magna Carta appears to have been as the conteporary Benedictine monk ­Matthew Paris described him: “Foul as it is, hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John.” It has proved impossible to launder King John’s reputation. The barons and earls, the archbishop and bishops, men to a man, stopped a tyrant in his tracks; and after many close escapes since then the Big Charter helped create civilised society, and its journey goes on.

The charter spoke through the king to God and to the liberties of the Church. It enhanced the liberties of London, which the earls and barons had just captured. It bundled together a package of laws, most of which are of their time and have fallen off the page. Sadly for some, it said nothing about the rights of women, the welfare state, the trade unions or the euro.

Nor did it say anything about the right to parliamentary democracy, trial by jury or habeas corpus. But it can be argued that all these flowed from and were triggered by this document. And not only in this country, but as time went on, most powerfully in America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and as a foundation stone in the constitution of India and elsewhere. After the Second World War, the UN set up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Eleanor Roosevelt called a “Magna Carta for all mankind”.

Magna Carta has 63 clauses in abbreviated Latin. Two of them that are still on the statute book, numbers 39 and 40, could be said to have changed the way in which the free world has grown. “No free man shall be taken, or imprisoned, or disseised [his lands taken away], or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way ruined; nor will we go against him nor sin against him except by the lawful judgment of his peers, his equals and by the law of the land.” And, “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.” These two clauses have so far proved to be indestructible, though often defied. They came to apply to all men and then all women, and have elasticated their earliest purpose to become universal with a legendary, even mythical aura to them.

Soon after the treaty was sealed, King John broke his word. The pope, on his bidding, annulled the charter. This provoked the invasion of England (the first since the Conquest) by the son of the king of France. But after John’s death in 1216 the earls and barons booted out the French invader, rallied round his son and once more the charter was reissued. It went under the statute books in 1225 and was revived in one political crisis after another: 1253, 1267, 1297 . . . From the very beginning it was brandished in the local courts by peasants who saw it as their defence against tyranny.

The great lawyer Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) brought it face to face with the Tudor and the Stuart autocracies. In the English civil wars its time of greatest influence was seen and branded on the English conscience. Sir William Blackstone took it up in the 18th century. Lord Woolf speaks to China on it today; and in the argument about 42-day detention in 2008, Magna Carta was headlined in some of our newspapers.

Magna Carta has become totemic. It is in the comedy of Tony Hancock, in the poetry of Kipling, never far from the front pages in a constitutional crisis. It was copied out by hand. Four copies are remaining and although one is badly damaged, there is not a blot on any of them. Those two clauses hit a nerve in societies all over the world. They have become sacred tablets.

The monuments at Runnymede, where it was signed, both modest, are funded by American lawyers. It is curious that just up the river at Windsor Castle, which King John made his base during the negotiations, we maintain one of the splendid palaces of monarchy – while downriver the ­English have erected a narrow road that belts through those meadows where thousands met for the treaty 800 years ago. And there’s an English tea shop. With a small car park.

Now read Owen Jones, Helena Kennedy, 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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.