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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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.