Magna Carta was more tomorrow's fish and chip paper than as British as fish and chips. Photo: Getty
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No, Prime Minister, Magna Carta is nothing like fish and chips: here's what it really says

David Cameron wants children to be taught about Magna Carta in his drive for “British values”, but here are some things the revered document actually says that may not come under that banner...

The Prime Minister is very concerned about Magna Carta. It’s as if he was suddenly repeatedly BBM’ed by a load of impatient feudal lords who want their bite out of the political news cycle for once.

So, despite having infamously admitted in 2012 that he didn’t know what the name of the document meant, David Cameron has now decided it’s time to break that cycle of ignorance and teach school children of all different backgrounds about the great charter of 1215. He’s also invited guests to a Magna Carta reception at Downing Street. Sadly, the invitation read “Magna Carter”. He’s right; it’s time for teachers to step in.

Next year is the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the original charter by King John at Runnymede (“between Windsor and Staines”, as the original, pre-Google Maps source helpfully explains), and the PM wants to use this as an opportunity for children to learn about it, and for Britain to celebrate it.

He wrote this in the Mail, in a piece responding to the "Trojan Horse" furore engulfing some schools in Birmingham. In the article, he suggests that "British values" such as Magna Carta's legacies – the rule of law, rights, liberties, etc – are as important as the “Union flag, as football, as fish and chips”. Good, honest, old-fashioned English fare – as Gordon Ramsay would probably describe this new curricular vision.

But here are parts of the country’s favourite crusty old scroll, taken from the British Library’s translation, which the PM may think twice about teaching as part of “British values”:


You can inherit through marriage, but not if you’re a pleb

(6) Heirs may be given in marriage, but not to someone of lower social standing. Before a marriage takes place, it shall be made known to the heir's next-of-kin.


All those debt-collecting Jews should lose out

(10) If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands. If such a debt falls into the hands of the Crown, it will take nothing except the principal sum specified in the bond.

(11) If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to the size of his holding of lands. The debt is to be paid out of the residue, reserving the service due to his feudal lords. Debts owed to persons other than Jews are to be dealt with similarly.


A woman appealing doesn’t really count – unless it’s about her husband

(54) No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband.


Obviously we can’t expect historical sources to care one jot about sexism, anti-semitism and class divides. Everything, however unpalatable, should be taught for a reliable picture of the document’s context. But these archaic little clauses in the charter point to a bigger flaw in Cameron's contract to educate Britain. Talking about Magna Carta in reverential, patriotic terms – as if its handful of enlightened ideas is unique to Britain – will help no child develop a proper understanding of its historical significance. Not least because weeks after it was sealed, the king renounced it and the barons revolted. Identifying its flaws, and tracing its mutations, and disappearances under future rulers, rather than passively viewing it as something as innocently “British” as fish and chips, is a more honest approach.

But in his response to potential "extremism" in our schools, it’s clear the PM is looking to placate some unruly barons of his own.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.