Recently, Runnymede in Surrey saw the political and ruling elite of Britain descend upon its tranquil countryside yet again. They were there to commemorate and mark 800 years since another group of ruling elite had curbed the power of a monarch, and in doing so set out certain rights due to all the people.
The Queen was also in attendance- at the same place where her ancestor had signed a peace treaty with his nobles so long ago, and had altered the relations between ruler and ruled. Also in attendance was Dr Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury: it was a previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, that had been instrumental in drawing up the document they were commemorating.
Magna Carta in itself is a remarkable document. Taken in the context of the medieval time that it was signed in, it is quite revolutionary and very much ahead of its time. In a stratified, hierarchical society, dominated by an Anglo –French elite, with the feudal system linking land ownership, duty and loyalty, and all layers society together, the very rights that it presupposes are enormous. The rights and freedoms we take for granted today are indeed often set out in Magna Carta or subsequently, and would have been unheard of by our medieval ancestors.
Although many of its 63 clauses have either been repealed, or become irrelevant over time, several clauses still remain significant today. Notably and famously, Clauses 39 and 40:
39. No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.
Much of the charter is essentially a peace agreement between the King and his barons. Provisions are also made for those affected or disposed by the fighting, and redress and restoration made. The Church also received protections under its terms- and justice and the rule of law is championed and upheld:
38. No bailiff for the future shall, upon his own unsupported complaint, put anyone to his “law”, without credible witnesses brought for this purposes.
45. We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or bailiffs only such as know the law of the realm and mean to observe it well.
63. Wherefore we will and firmly order that the English Church be free, and that the men in our kingdom have and hold all the aforesaid liberties, rights, and concessions, well and peaceably, freely and quietly, fully and wholly, for themselves and their heirs, of us and our heirs, in all respects and in all places forever, as is aforesaid. An oath, moreover, has been taken, as well on our part as on the art of the barons, that all these conditions aforesaid shall be kept in good faith and without evil intent.
Even 800 years on, such is its impact that Magna Carta is still very much relevant today. The freedoms it sets out, its efforts to uphold the law, and the charter’s essential sense of democracy are as relevant today as they were back in 1215.
In 1215, a council of barons had presented the document to King John to sign. In 2015, the Prime Minister merely delivered a speech. In his speech, Prime Minister David Cameron expressed his praise for Magna Carta- and his hopes for the future. That future- following on from the Queen’s Speech- involves the new government (now with a majority, and not sharing office space with another party) consulting upon a British Bill of rights. The Conservative plan is to eventually supersede the current Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. The government points out the Human Rights Act (which they often pointed mention was introduced by Labour), based as it is on the European Convention on Human Rights, although worthy and effective in upholding human rights, has resulted in some interesting results.
Not only have the European courts called the UK to account over human rights issues previously, but many say that those European courts have strayed into areas of UK law that are best left to the UK courts to decide- such as prisoner voting. Further, strict application of the Human Rights Act has led to some legal verdicts and decisions that rights and proper under law- but morally and ethically questionable. In court, human rights arguments are regularly use by both sides, and on appeal. At law, lawyers regularly use and abuse human rights provisions to advance their client’s case, clearly oblivious to the deeper meaning of the legal clauses that they use so freely.
It is of course a typical British irony that the same Queen’s Speech that set out plans for consultations of a Bill of Rights also set out plans to debate a new laws (such as an Extremism Bill, inter alia) that would in some situations curb civic rights, and allow the state to eavesdrop and conduct surveillance upon the British people.
Further to that, the Queen’s Speech set out plans to debate such Bills– bit only referenced a consultation on a Bill of Rights. This reflects the fact that there is opposition (even amidst the Conservative back benches) to such a Bill, particularly amongst what is left of the Labour and Liberal Democrat benches. Many civil rights campaigners are even more vocal at any efforts to repeal the Human Rights Act in favour of such a Bill. The Prime Minister knows that consulting, debating and then pushing through such a Bill will prove to be an uphill struggle over the next few years. Indeed, he would probably find more consensus, and make better progress, with Chancellor Angel Merkel and President Francois Hollande concerning the UK’s exit from the EU, than with his own government and opposition concerning a UK Bill of Rights.
With that in mind, the Prime Minister would do well rot recall that we actually have a Bill of Rights, dating from 1689. This came into being following the Restoration of the Stuart monarchs, and sought to address King James II’s actions. The Bill called for free and open elections, sought to uphold the supremacy of the rule of law, amidst other provisions.
If the Prime Minister’s memory does not stretch that far, then maybe he should look back at one of his own speeches (quoted from above). He should recalls that we already have a system of rights in place, a system which has been referred to, and copied around the world. It has ben called the ‘cornerstone of liberty,’ and sets out the freedoms and rights of citizens.
The Prime Minister should save himself the trouble he will face with a Bill of Rights, and look to Magna Carta instead. Although the parchments it was written on are faded, tattered and torn 800 years on- it still looks good for its age.