January 11, 2015

CHARTER SCHOOLED (profanity alert):

1215 and all that : Magna Carta, symbol of freedom : On 15 June 1215, King John cut a deal with the barons at Runnymede, near Windsor. 800 years later, the thirteenth century document known as the Magna Carta is of global significance where the nurturing of democratic ideals is concerned. (John Crace, Eurozine)

With the original Magna Carta having lasted barely three months, there were some who reckoned they could have saved themselves a lot of time and effort by topping King John rather than negotiating with him. But wiser - or perhaps, more peaceful - counsel prevailed and its spirit has endured through various subsequent mutations. That is, most notably, the 1216 Charter, The Great Charter of 1225 and the Confirmation of Charters of 1297. Subsequent to which it has widely come to be seen as the foundation stone of constitutional law, both in England and many countries around the world. It was the first time limitations had been formally placed on a monarch's power and the rights of citizens to the due process of law and trial by jury had been affirmed. [...]

The survival of clause 39 of the original Magna Carta has been rather more significant for the rest of us. "No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right." Or in layman's terms, due process: the legal requirement of the state to recognize and respect all the legal rights of the individual. The guarantee of justice, fairness and liberty that not only underpins - well, most of the time - the UK's constitutional framework, but those of many other countries as well.

Britain has no written constitution. Not because parliament has been too lazy to get round to drawing one up, but because one is already assumed to be in the lifeblood of every one living in Britain. Queen Mary may have had "Calais" written on her heart, but the rest of us all have "Magna Carta" inscribed there. It can be found on the inside of the left ventricle, for those of you who are interested in detail. Other countries haven't been so trusting in the genetic inheritance of feudal England and have insisted on getting their constitutions down in non-fugitive ink.

That Magna Carta has also been the lodestone for the constitutions of so many other countries, most notably the USA, is less a sign of the global reach of democratic principles - much as that might resonate with romantic ideals of justice - than of the spread of British people and British imperial power. After the Mayflower arrived in what became the USA from Plymouth in 1620, the first settlers' only reference point for the establishment of civil society was Magna Carta. The settlers had a lot of other things on their minds in the early years - most notably their own survival and the share price of British American Tobacco - and they hadn't got time to dream up their own bespoke constitution. If they had, they might have come up with something that abolished slavery and gave equal rights to black people sometime before the 1960s. So they settled for an off-the-peg version of Magna Carta, with various US amendments. And some poor spelling. In 1687 William Penn published the first version of Magna Carta to be printed in America. By the time the fifth amendment - part of the bill of rights - was ratified four years after the original US constitution in 1791, Magna Carta had been enshrined in American law with "No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law."

The fact that the American idea of Magna Carta was not one that would necessarily have been recognized in Britain was neither here nor there. For the Americans, the notion of the rights of a people to govern themselves was more than something that had been fought for over many centuries - a gradual taking back of power from an absolute ruler - that had been ratified on paper. They were fundamental rights that pre-existed any country and transcended national borders. And even if there was no one left alive on Earth, these rights would remain. 

Posted by at January 11, 2015 8:23 AM

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