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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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.