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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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.