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.

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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.