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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.