The coronation of King Henry III: is the Magna Carter a warning to radicals? Photo: British Library
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Not so radical: Jesse Norman on Magna Carta's conservatism

Here, as so often in our history, it is property rights that secure individual freedom.

As so often, it is Tony Hancock who puts it best: “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”

Admittedly, for Hancock, Magna Carta is “that brave Hungarian peasant girl, who forced King John to sign the pledge at Runnymede and close the boozers at half past ten”. But briefly at least, it must have looked as though the real Magna Carta did die in vain. After all, it was annulled by the pope within three months, on the grounds that it was exacted under duress. Little more than a year later the king himself was dead.

Yet Magna Carta has its own genius, and it has evolved into an idea that sits above the petty politics of left and right. Its magnificent articles 39 and 40 – which forbid seizure or imprisonment without lawful judgment, and the sale, denial or delay of justice – are rightly celebrated as cornerstones of the British constitution, and so of the modern international rule of law.

Today Magna Carta is claimed by many on the left of politics. For them it is a radical document of popular opposition to tyranny, a pioneering statement of human rights and the foundation of our parliamentary democracy. Similar views are held by some Americans, who see in it revolutionary fervour and a proto-constitution akin to the “Miracle at Philadelphia” of 1787.

Unfortunately, this is a misreading. The Great Charter was not the product of extended reflection but put together in haste. It nowhere mentions democracy, nor anything close to it, and it pre-dates the establishment of full democracy in this country by more than 900 years. King John was not a tyrant and parliament did not exist at the time. One can hardly imagine a group further removed from radical populism than the bishops and noblemen who signed it. The “free men” whose rights it declares were barely one in seven of the (male) population.

In fact, Magna Carta is a profoundly conservative document. That moment at Runnymede was an extraordinary one, without doubt. Yet the charter was not a novelty. Rather, it codified and repeated rights that had long had currency; and its influence derived from later demands that each new sovereign repeat, and perhaps extend, them.

These rights arose from the common law, the law of the land not of the rulers, a body of law that arose piecemeal and gradually evolved in reaction to particular cases and particular demands for justice. This is not the statute law beloved of radicals, and its rights are not abstract generalities but specifically derived and enunciated. Far from being a radical bill of rights, the hallowed text of Magna Carta deals with fines, fees and land – and is all the stronger for it. Here, as so often in our history, it is property rights that secure individual freedom.

But the genius of Magna Carta lies not merely in its embodiment of the common law, but in its separation of personal kingship from the institution of the monarchy and its demand that the king may only levy taxes through his council. No man is above the law, it insists, and with power must come accountability. The charter’s “security” clause is a pioneering attempt to enforce these principles.

However, the story of Magna Carta also carries an implicit warning to modern radicals. Understanding our constitution requires a careful reading of British history; it cannot simply be imported from America. There is no constitutional Year Zero. Changing the rules by which we are governed requires particularly careful thought. To codify our constitution would be to destroy it.

Jesse Norman is the MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, and the author of a biography of Edmund Burke

Now read Owen Jones, Melvyn Bragg, 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 future of the Left is London

Far from debating it and arid pamphlets, local politicians in City Hall and across the country are bringing change today, says Fiona Twycross. 

Broadly, London is viewed as a left-wing city. This is an assumption backed up by polling. That same city, however, has twice voted in Boris Johnson defying tribalism and defining a new order in which politicians will be defined less by the colour of their rosette and more by their pragmatism and how they make you feel about the world.

With the concepts of left and right as inaccessible and irrelevant as ever to most members of the public, the future of political ideas will be understood and judged by voters less by their ideological purity and more by their actions and effectiveness. On a recent canvass session on a housing estate in Outer London, it was a change to the bus route not Trident the people I spoke to wanted to discuss.

The future of the left – and of the Labour Party – isn’t something that will be shaped in the future. The future of the left is being shaped now. It is being shaped wherever those of us who define ourselves as left of centre are using whatever power we have to directly or indirectly effect change. In Labour run town halls, in Select Committees, through carefully worded press releases – however, we can. Limited by the budgets and rules laid out by central government – with the Tories in Westminster, politics is a game in which the dice are loaded against the left but in which we can sometimes win a round.

At the London Assembly, we have played a part in shaping the direction. We have won the occasional round. London Assembly Members have proven that shaping the debate is not only reserved for those who wield power. The banning of water cannon, the promotion of universal free school meals, the Government’s climb-down over devastating cuts to the police budget and not least exposing the Mayor’s vast record of vanity projects. As the largest party in City Hall, Labour has achieved sometimes small but often fundamental victories against Boris Johnson. Victories that have allowed the public to better understand the alternative we could provide as politicians who stand with their communities and protect the services they rely upon.

City Hall offers a challenging yet pragmatic forum to shape policies. With just 25 members in total, and no party having a majority, you really have to be able to work together to get anything done. The electoral make-up of the Assembly, including groups from minority parties as well as the two main parties requires a much higher degree of pragmatism, collaboration and in the end compromise than Parliament. As a result, policy - particularly that coming out of City Hall’s scrutiny committees - often commands cross-party support and a certain degree of legitimacy that political point scoring rarely achieves.

However, while we can change things round the edges; highlight injustices and propose alternatives that may sometimes be adopted, we must never lose sight of the fact that you can do immeasurably more if you are in power. Winning power to enact positive change, should be the guiding aim of any centre left politician.

With the next general election still likely to be more than four years off, the first major electoral challenge since 2015 comes in the shape of this May’s elections in local councils across the country, in devolved countries and in London.

The upcoming Mayoral election means throwing off the abstract and painting an image for Londoners of what a left wing alternative in London would look like. That picture will resonate far beyond London - the future of the left really is being shaped today.

That is exactly what we are doing and what Sadiq Khan is offering. Standing up for hard pressed Londoners who are increasingly forced into poverty or priced out of the capital altogether.

From building affordable homes to tackling London’s air quality. From freezing fares to protecting neighbourhood policing. All of these are policies with mass appeal but at the same time, all are ones which disproportionately benefit the least well off in our society. The left, if anything has to stand for a fairness.

But voters don't want just abstract vision, they want tangible change. Sadiq Khan is putting forward ambitious, progressive policies for London, but to implement them as Mayor, with the Conservatives in power nationally, he will have to not just argue with government but make the arguments for London to get the best deal he can. 

With high levels of child poverty in Conservative run boroughs like Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea, he knows he can’t afford only to be able to work with Labour boroughs if he wants all young Londoners to have better life chances. What matters isn’t just what works it is working with all those you need to build and deliver change.

From City bankers to environmentalists, a Labour Mayor will need a range of allies. In charting his own course, having his own voice and putting London and Londoners at the heart of his policies. What works for London won't necessarily work everywhere, that will mean a necessary element of independence, that's not disloyal, its the job. 

Whether in London or beyond, the left needs a message relevant to people like those I met on that housing estate in outer London. Authenticity and independence matter. In a world where tribal politics has broken down ensuring you don’t look like you put your party before the people you represent matters. But you can do this and still stay true to your values.

Our opponents like to paint a horror story image of what the country would look like under Labour. A win in London offers the chance to dispel that myth and will show the success to be had with a Labour politician who is willing to govern in the interests of the majority rather than just the few.

A win in London will show the progressive left has a future, here and now. A future that delivers.