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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The New Statesman Cover: The revenge of the left

A first look at this week's magazine.

22 - 28 September issue
The revenge of the left