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

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Jeremy Corbyn may be a Eurosceptic, but he still appeals to the values of many Remainers

He reassures Labour MPs defending majorities in heavily pro-EU areas that things will be OK.

There are two facts about Brexit that everyone seems to forget every few weeks: the first is that Jeremy Corbyn is a Eurosceptic. The second is that the first fact doesn't really matter.

The Labour leader's hostility to the European project is back in the news after he told Andrew Marr that the United Kingdom's membership of the single market was inextricably linked with its EU membership, and added for good measure that the “wholesale importation” of people from Eastern and Central Europe had been used to “destroy” the conditions of workers, particularly in the construction industry.

As George Eaton observes on Twitter, Corbyn voted against the creation of the single market in 1986 (and the Maastricht Treaty, and the Lisbon Treaty, and so on and so on). It would be a bigger shock if the Labour leader weren't advocating for a hard exit from the European Union.

Here's why it doesn't matter: most Labour MPs agree with him. There is not a large number of Labour votes in the House of Commons that would switch from opposing single market membership to supporting it if Corbyn changed his mind. (Perhaps five or so from the frontbenches and the same again on the backbenches.)

There is a way that Corbyn matters: in reassuring Labour MPs defending majorities in heavily pro-Remain areas that things will be OK. Imagine for a moment the reaction among the liberal left if, say, Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock talked about the “wholesale importation” of people or claimed that single market membership and EU membership were one and the same. Labour MPs in big cities and university towns would be a lot more nervous about bleeding votes to the Greens or the Liberal Democrats were they not led by a man who for all his longstanding Euroscepticism appeals to the values of so many Remain voters.

Corbyn matters because he provides electoral insurance against a position that Labour MPs are minded to follow anyway. And that, far more than the Labour leader's view on the Lisbon Treaty, is why securing a parliamentary majority for a soft exit from the European Union is so hard. 

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