What does Magna Carta mean today? Text detail from the charter at Salisbury Cathedral. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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What does Magna Carta mean? Anthony Barnett responds

Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy and New Statesman contributor, writes a fiery response to our recent magazine package on Magna Carta.

Read the original contributions here from Melvyn Bragg, Helena Kennedy, Owen Jones, Jesse Norman and Tom Holland. We are crossposting Anthony's piece, "From King John to Baron Bragg: celebrating Magna Carta", with the kind permission of openDemocracy.

The New Statesman’s recent cover feature on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta is, in every meaning of the word, hopeless. If this is the best the official magazine of Britain’s left can do in the form of critical engagement with the country’s official history then bunker down for another century of lost opportunities, if not eight of them. It is particularly telling because the magazine's editor, Jason Cowley, is encouraging long-form journalism, reportage and reviewing, without the usual Labourist contempt for ideas or Conservative scoffing at being serious. Also, with his exemplary Scottish coverage, the weekly glimmered with some genuine interest in democracy in Britain, rather than its ghastly Westminster simulacrum. But cometh the constitutional symbol of our system as a whole, cometh the ghosts of clichés past. Cowley’s predecessor Anthony Howard would be proud - the mental decline he presided over at the paper’s home Great Turnstile and which he later sought to inflict on the rest of the country as the official steward of the celebrations of 1688, dribbles on.

Bragg

When it had to take a measure of 800 years of the status quo to whom does the left’s ‘foremost weekly’ first turn? The Right Honourable Baron Bragg of Wigton. This is the Labour Peer who passes himself off as Melyvn on the Today programme and BBC Radio 4.  Baron Bragg never publically opposes a Labour Party policy, hence the recent excitement when he denounced its proposal of a Mansion Tax. He warned that any levy on Baronial dwellings in his native constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn would lose the seat for his party (Labour in fact won with an 11 per cent swing).

In the Statesman, Baron Bragg is particularly exercised by the fact that when he attended a recent public meeting on Magna Carta “a well-known public intellectual, leaned forward and to a packed room pronounced with a world-weary confidence: ‘The fact is that Magna Carta was a squalid little deal. . . Moreover, it did not mention women’. It is difficult to think of a more politically correct, less historically accurate and more impoverished view of history than this”, Bragg continues, “yet I was the only one who (publicly) protested.” In fact both allegations are simply incorrect. Squalid or not the Magna Carta was never a “little deal” as the copies sent across the country with the King’s seal make clear. With respect to women, section 7 of the Great Charter stipulates that on the death of her husband a widow has the right to her dowry “immediately and without difficulty”; section 8 that widows cannot be forced to marry “while they wish to live without a husband”; and section 54 says “No one is to be arrested or imprisoned through the appeal of a woman for the death of anyone other than her husband”.

Perhaps the Baron was discomforted by his own responsibility for such inappropriate talk. He can be a brilliant populariser of obscure or difficult topics. But when it comes to British history where, like any Lord of the realm, he has his own vested interest, Bragg shunts away relevance and turns our history into chat. At the start of the year he presented a four-part BBC series on the Magna Carta with an approach so low key that it asphyxiated the possibility that listeners might see in Magna Carta a symbol of the need to challenge despotism, an inspiration to fight for liberty, an example to codify our rights, an assertion that all must have access to justice (when legal aid is being shredded), or a foundational document for a shared claim to the commons. Throughout January he was given the power to set the scene for the 800th anniversary year on Radio 4. He did so with a casual uninterest that prepared the way for the ridiculous sneers he now protests against.

Indeed, he continues his contrived populism writing in the Statesman: “after many close escapes since then the Big Charter helped create civilised society, and its journey goes on”; and that the two famous clauses of Magna Carta “hit a nerve in societies all over the world. They have become sacred tablets”.

Look past the dreadful clichés to his description of the Magna Carta as “the Big Charter”. Geddit? The Baron can talk peasant like the rest of us. But his attempt to tell us that ‘Magna’ does not refer to a choc ice but means “Big” is a howler. Every account of Magna Carta except his programmes relates how it came to be called the Magna Carta because it is the greater of two “charters of liberties”, the other being the Charter of the Forest issued two years later in 1217. The two were linked from that year and were published together in the first scholarly edition of both, William Blackstone’s famous The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest in 1759. As Peter Linebaugh, successor to E P Thompson, demonstrates in his wonderful The Magna Carta Manifesto, subtitled “Liberties and Commons for All” (published in 2008), the popular claim to rights mythologised thanks to Magna Carta is extended and intensified by the Charter of the Forest.

It is shameful that the narrow scholarship and banal broadcasters of our own sad moment should snuff out this wonderful widening of the Magna Carta, fought for in its own time, echoed across centuries and etched in its name.

Read the rest of Anthony's rebuttal at openDemocracy.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit