At midday on Saturday 21 February perhaps 70 of us, warmly clad, some carrying banners, gathered at Runnymede alongside the River Thames in Surrey. We were accompanied by an enormous, terrifyingly lifelike puppet of the UK’s Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, dressed as King John.
We met in the car park of the Magna Carta tea-room, then set out in the cold sunshine across the muddy, sweeping water-meadow, with the river bending away to our left, to the memorial donated by American lawyers that marks the founding moment of the modern concept of the rule of law.
There, we listened to three short speeches. Susan Matthews described how her son Alfie Meadows had suffered brain damage after being attacked by police in 2010 and been wrongly charged. What a battle it had been to clear his name against the fortune spent to convict him. And how justice would never have been secured without legal aid. She was followed by Ruth Hayes of Islington Law Centre, who let us know with detail after detail how access to justice is being prevented. Then I said a few stirring words about why we were there.
After this the organisers set out to march the 42 miles down the winding Thames Path to Westminster in protest against the Global Law Summit – and the less stalwart of us joined them part of the way.
The so-called summit was a monstrous jamboree of corporate law, tax avoidance, networking and global business, legitimised by phoney celebration of Magna Carta’s forthcoming 800th birthday.
The rally was organised by Justice Alliance: its plan, wonderfully executed, was to walk against the fading light to as close to Hampton Court as possible. Then to use Sunday 22 February to carry a copy of the two defining clauses of Magna Carta, the famous numbers 39 and 40, to Putney. There, the marchers met on Monday morning outside St Mary’s Church, scene of the historic Putney Debates, when the New Model Army clashed over the purpose of the English civil war. Thomas Rainsborough famously argued, “. . . the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest hee” – the earliest claim for modern democracy. With the spirit of Rainsborough walking among them, they set out for Old Palace Yard in Westminster.
Justice Alliance is a network working across the waterfront of the UK’s legal system as it hits the poor, the weak and the dispossessed. The alliance is witnessing at first hand the dismantling of legal aid, the destruction of the probation service, the privatisation of court services and, I would add, even the marketisation of Britain’s once outstanding forensic service.
The agent driving forward this destruction of the rule of law in Britain is the one-time management consultant and Tory attack dog Grayling. At the concluding rally outside the Commons, the criminal defence lawyer Greg Foxsmith led the crowd of by then 300 protesters, whom he generously described as “the people”, in a mock-impeachment of Grayling for “misleading the House of Commons”, the “obstruction of justice” and his “abuse of power”.
There was a wide range of other speeches showing how we are on the edge of returning, as Robin Murray, a solicitor working with the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, put it, “to the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s and their miscarriages of justice”.
The rally was a first skirmish in the battle for Britain’s constitution that will hot up through the course of this year, across the election in May and the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta on 15 June.
Three great issues are symbolised by what happened then. First, the example of holding arbitrary and despotic power to account, bringing it to the table and forcing it to concede. Second, the claims of those two celebrated clauses – that no one shall be imprisoned or destroyed except by judgment of his peers and the rule of law, and that no one will be able to buy justice, and “to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice”. Of course today we add “she” to “he” and also what we possess has altered, as the rights to privacy and now to our personal metadata become central parts of our lives; and we can say for sure that the rule of law does not exist if the wronged cannot afford access to the courts.
Third, it was called the “magna” or “great” charter because another charter soon accompanied it, the Charter of the Forest: the first claim to what we can now see as our environmental commons.
The Global Law Summit had none of these issues as its themes. Lord Green was to have addressed it on supranational activity until the bank he once ran, HSBC, was exposed as having indulged in rather too much supranational activity. One excited tweet on the first day told the summit’s followers how to exchange business cards, another how to get updates on the role of private equity.
The corporations have stolen our political parties, they are stealing our media, they are robbing us of our government, they are suborning the law and now they are stealing our history, making it a plaything for networking. Such were my reflections as we walked beside the Thames, the pure branches of its oaks massed in the bright, cold sky, witnesses to a resistance that is once again girding itself for battle.
Anthony Barnett is the co-founder of openDemocracy