The coronation of King Henry III: is the Magna Carter a warning to radicals? Photo: British Library
Show Hide image

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

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage