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

Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons
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Donald Trump brings home his dark vision of America at the Republican convention

The Presidential nominee pledged: "Safety must be restored."

Donald Trump brought home the Republican convention Thursday night with a dark vision of contemporary America – a darkness he claimed only his leadership could lift. It was a lengthy, tightly-scripted speech framed around polarities – insiders and outsiders, criminals and victims, the United States and the rest of the world – and infused with righteous anger. And yet against the darkness, he offered not lightness but “greatness” – a bombastic, personalistic vision of how through sheer force of will he could right the American ship before it plunged irretrievably into the depths. “I alone can solve,” he famously tweeted earlier in the campaign. This was the 80-minute version.

Any presidential challenger, of course, has to lay out a set of problems they believe need fixing and a case for why their leadership might make a difference. It was the breathtaking scale and intensity of Trump’s diagnosis, and the lack of optimistic alternative to counterbalance it, that was notable compared to other acceptance speeches. He portrayed the United States as a country riddled with crime and corruption, a “rigged system” in which politicians like Hillary Clinton can evade justice, while police officers trying to protect its citizens become targets; a fearful country, its economy sluggish, its infrastructure crumbling, its security an illusion, and its international stature in freefall

For a candidate who has mocked the soaring rhetoric of President Obama (the “hopey-changey stuff,” as Sarah Palin once called it), it was perhaps not surprising that Trump’s speech would be short on uplift. It was at least more disciplined than his other campaign speeches, if in keeping with their tone and content – the much-maligned teleprompter rolling a script to which he largely stuck. (“He sounds presidential,” a lady behind me remarked, though his press conference Friday morning marked a reversion to free-wheeling form).

It was short on substance too, though acceptance speeches aren’t designed to be policy laundry lists like a State of the Union. Still, there were few specifics, beyond a pledge to revise tax laws which inhibit religious groups from political advocacy, and a newfound concern with student loans. It was daughter Ivanka’s speech that had the greater substantive heft, promising her father would push for new labour laws to help working mothers, and for affordable childcare in the US. Neither are traditional Republican positions, but the crowd seemed on board for anything Trump might offer.

He even had them cheering for LGBTQ rights, after recalling the tragedy in Florida last month, and the need to protect gay Americans from a “hateful foreign ideology” in radical Islam. “It is so nice as a Republican to hear you cheering for what I just said,” he commended the delegates in an unscripted moment. But whether they had really embraced this unexpected message – or if it was the anti-terror chaser that really got them on their feet – remains to be seen. In either case, it was a rare grace note in an otherwise bruising speech.

Presenting himself repeatedly as the candidate of “law and order,” Trump evoked Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. At a time when American cities were erupting in race riots and protests over the Vietnam War, Nixon had pitched himself as the face of stability and security. Likewise Trump has reacted to the simmering racial tensions and terrorist attacks this summer with a hard-line stance on “lawlessness.” “Safety must be restored,” Trump said, in one of the eerier lines he delivered. Yet in his convention speech, Nixon had balanced his tough talk with a positive message – speaking of love, courage, and lighting a “lamp of hope” in partnership with the American people. 

Trump channeled another president in his speech, too, when he promised to give voice to “the forgotten men and women of our country” – drawing on the language of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt had promised to aid “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid” during the 1932 campaign. But Roosevelt’s solution to the forgotten man’s distress was economic internationalism – tearing down tariff walls and trading freely with the world – which the Republican Party then opposed. Trump’s solution is the protectionist policies Roosevelt had railed against.

Trump’s economic and security philosophy is encapsulated in another, more notorious phrase associated with that era: “America First.” A rallying cry for isolationists seeking to avoid US entanglement in World War II, it acquired an anti-Semitic taint. But Trump has employed it nonetheless, capturing as it does his core argument that America must do more to protect its own citizens against threats from within and without – from illegal immigrants, from radicalized Islamic terrorists, from the downsides of free international trade. Little wonder that former George W.

Bush staffer Nicolle Wallace announced that the Republican party she knew “died in this room tonight.” In embracing elements of isolationism, protectionism, and nativism, however, it is perhaps truer to say that Trump’s Republican party reverted to an earlier form.

Often disconcerting, at times mesmerizing, the question remains how effective this speech will be. The delegates responded enthusiastically to Trump’s fierce rhetoric, but many prominent Republicans had stayed away from the convention altogether. Combined with Senator Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement, Trump goes into the general election campaign without a fully united party behind him. For both partisans and the public, Trump’s speech offered a cast of villains to rally against, but no positive, unifying vision to rally behind – beyond the much-touted yet elusive “greatness,” of course. In a typical election year, that would seem a critical flaw in a campaign – but Trump loves to confound the naysayers. As his convention speech showed, he thinks the formula that got him this far - showcasing his fame and fanning Americans’ fears – can land him in the White House.