People look at the four surviving original parchment engrossments of the 1215 Magna Carta. Photo: Matt Dunham/WPA Pool/Getty Images
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Owen Jones on Magna Carta: a striking example of useful myths

I’m no Magna Carta fanboy, but many revolutionaries appropriated the document to legitimise their causes.

First off, I’m no Magna Carta fanboy. ­Before I’m castigated as a traitor to all that is sacred and English, let me explain: rather than the valorised establishment of individual rights, the document had more to do with feudal barons who resented being subjected to the arbitrary whims of the reigning ­monarch. Most of the English were serfs who were left without rights and freedom. The document wasn’t a lasting settlement, either, and the barons – themselves tyrants on their own patches – launched a revolt against the Crown. But Magna Carta is a striking example of useful myths. Opponents of British ruling elites – such as the 17th-century revolutionaries who fought Charles I – appropriated Magna Carta to give legitimacy to their cause.

Whatever your views on Magna Carta, it is clear that political, economic and social rights were wrestled from the most powerful classes at huge cost. The great tradition of struggle and dissent is all too frequently – and conveniently – scrubbed from the ­history books, but it built this country. The Peasants’ Revolt; the English Revolution, with the Levellers and Diggers; the Chartists; the trade unionists; the suffragettes; the anti-racist, feminist and LGBT movements; the postwar Labour government; the peace movements; the anti-poll-tax movement – all confronted the determined opposition of ruling elites. The sacrifice of our ancestors was often immense, which is why it is an act of disrespect to allow their victories to be chipped away.

Democracy is continuously imperilled and threatened by those above. In the 19th century, the ruling elite resisted granting universal political rights because they rightly believed that democracy would challenge their economic and social power. And indeed the welfare state, workers’ rights, increased taxes on the rich, state intervention in the economy and civil liberties all followed. But this settlement was resented by Britain’s dominant elites, and the economic crisis of the 1970s proved an excellent opportunity for a power grab – to annex back some of the wealth and power that had been lost in the advance of democracy.

Now, workers have fewer rights than they did a century ago. Trade unions are hobbled by what Tony Blair described as “the most restrictive union laws in the western world”. With the rise of zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment, workers can be treated as commodities to be hired and fired. With housing treated as an asset, not a right, tenants are often at the mercy of their unregulated landlords. Basic needs such as water and heating are run by profiteering corporations. Universal access to justice is curtailed by legal aid cuts.

Political power is colonised by wealthy private interests: accountancy firms that facilitate mass tax avoidance skewing our tax laws; MPs disproportionately drawn from privileged backgrounds and the financial sector; a “revolving door” between ex-ministers, civil servants and the corporate world; the Tories funded by City firms, hedge-fund managers and even legal loan sharks; private lobbyists representing the mean and the greedy. Our media are the playthings of self-serving moguls, rather than democratic counterweights to power. While the poor are victimised for benefit fraud or smoking a spliff, bankers can plunge the country into economic calamity and corporations are permitted to avoid tax on an industrial scale.

In the tradition of our ancestors, we have to reclaim power from these unaccountable elites. Free-market capitalism has left our society a racket for a tiny few. Instead, we have to build a society run to meet the needs and aspirations of working people. Easy? No. But our ancestors fought far more insurmountable odds and they still won in the end.

Now read the rest of our Magna Carta coverage here.

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.

Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.