People look at the four surviving original parchment engrossments of the 1215 Magna Carta. Photo: Matt Dunham/WPA Pool/Getty Images
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Owen Jones on Magna Carta: a striking example of useful myths

I’m no Magna Carta fanboy, but many revolutionaries appropriated the document to legitimise their causes.

First off, I’m no Magna Carta fanboy. ­Before I’m castigated as a traitor to all that is sacred and English, let me explain: rather than the valorised establishment of individual rights, the document had more to do with feudal barons who resented being subjected to the arbitrary whims of the reigning ­monarch. Most of the English were serfs who were left without rights and freedom. The document wasn’t a lasting settlement, either, and the barons – themselves tyrants on their own patches – launched a revolt against the Crown. But Magna Carta is a striking example of useful myths. Opponents of British ruling elites – such as the 17th-century revolutionaries who fought Charles I – appropriated Magna Carta to give legitimacy to their cause.

Whatever your views on Magna Carta, it is clear that political, economic and social rights were wrestled from the most powerful classes at huge cost. The great tradition of struggle and dissent is all too frequently – and conveniently – scrubbed from the ­history books, but it built this country. The Peasants’ Revolt; the English Revolution, with the Levellers and Diggers; the Chartists; the trade unionists; the suffragettes; the anti-racist, feminist and LGBT movements; the postwar Labour government; the peace movements; the anti-poll-tax movement – all confronted the determined opposition of ruling elites. The sacrifice of our ancestors was often immense, which is why it is an act of disrespect to allow their victories to be chipped away.

Democracy is continuously imperilled and threatened by those above. In the 19th century, the ruling elite resisted granting universal political rights because they rightly believed that democracy would challenge their economic and social power. And indeed the welfare state, workers’ rights, increased taxes on the rich, state intervention in the economy and civil liberties all followed. But this settlement was resented by Britain’s dominant elites, and the economic crisis of the 1970s proved an excellent opportunity for a power grab – to annex back some of the wealth and power that had been lost in the advance of democracy.

Now, workers have fewer rights than they did a century ago. Trade unions are hobbled by what Tony Blair described as “the most restrictive union laws in the western world”. With the rise of zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment, workers can be treated as commodities to be hired and fired. With housing treated as an asset, not a right, tenants are often at the mercy of their unregulated landlords. Basic needs such as water and heating are run by profiteering corporations. Universal access to justice is curtailed by legal aid cuts.

Political power is colonised by wealthy private interests: accountancy firms that facilitate mass tax avoidance skewing our tax laws; MPs disproportionately drawn from privileged backgrounds and the financial sector; a “revolving door” between ex-ministers, civil servants and the corporate world; the Tories funded by City firms, hedge-fund managers and even legal loan sharks; private lobbyists representing the mean and the greedy. Our media are the playthings of self-serving moguls, rather than democratic counterweights to power. While the poor are victimised for benefit fraud or smoking a spliff, bankers can plunge the country into economic calamity and corporations are permitted to avoid tax on an industrial scale.

In the tradition of our ancestors, we have to reclaim power from these unaccountable elites. Free-market capitalism has left our society a racket for a tiny few. Instead, we have to build a society run to meet the needs and aspirations of working people. Easy? No. But our ancestors fought far more insurmountable odds and they still won in the end.

Now read the rest of our Magna Carta coverage here.

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.