Why we should celebrate the Magna Carta anniversary in 2015

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Magna Carta is among those historical texts that are frequently cited, rarely read, and even more rarely understood. Like many, I came across it at school, where it was taught by our dour old teacher as “a historic text of immeasurable constitutional importance”. I dutifully wrote this down and then quickly forgot it.

But wait! In 2015, the Magna Carta celebrates its 800th anniversary.This grand old charter’s making a return to fashion – so it only seems right that we should dig out those old lessons, to see what this matriarch of democracy is all about.

Bad King John

John was a rather unlikeable King. But in his defence, he was born into a rather unlucky period of English feudal history, one of European power struggles, brutal crusades, exploitative taxation, and papal domination. When the unpopular King threatened to impose another round of crippling taxes, the Barons could stand no more, and launched a rebellion to assert ancient individual rights and freedoms.

When the rebels took London, things were looking bad for John. By mid-1215, the King had no choice but to grant the Barons’ demands.

The Grand Charter

The Magna Carta was sealed by King John on 15 June 1215, as a solemn undertaking to observe certain liberties granted to the Church and free men of England. To ensure that its guarantees could not be undone, copies were sent to all corners of the realm.

Among the historic curiosities of the Magna Carta, is that many of its provisions refer only to local vexes of the Barons, that are of little significance today. Elsewhere, however, it offers glimpses of general principles of fundamental importance which have since become crucial to the relationship between the State and its people.

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, save by the lawful judgement of his peers and by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."
Magna Carta, Clauses 39 & 40

Habeas corpus, or the right to be brought before a court to argue against unlawful imprisonment, is among the principles that are given early recognition in the charter. The presumption of innocence, due process, and equality before the law, are also hinted at in the document, even if they are not secured in mainstream law until centuries later.

The Human Rights Committee (of Barons)

Before the Magna Carta, it was common for coronation charters to include oaths to rule according to grand principles of law and justice. Typically, such promises were quickly forgotten. To avoid the King flushing away all they had worked for, the Barons sought a more radical method to bind the King to his promises. The Magna Carta established a committee of 25 barons to oversee the peace and liberties granted therein. The very existence of this committee strikes at the heart of the divine right of kings; the Barons might take action to force John to honour the charter, thus making a king accountable.

Unfortunately, the Barons never achieved this ambitous objective, and the clause was later stuck from the text.

Sometimes, the old lessons are the best

Following the Magna Carta, English kings learnt that even though they make the law, they must also answer to it. A rule by law requires that the King, State, and all of its organs, submit before the law. Nothing is more sovereign than a law that protects us all.

Nevertheless, several States have recently asserted that security justifies holding people indefinitely without trial or judicial supervision; detainees have been unable to challenge secret evidence used against them; and victims of torture and other abuses have been unable to seek redress or demand accountability. Thus today, the Magna Carta takes on renewed significance.

Almost by accident, the Magna Carta started a process of human rights recognition of which we are all beneficiaries today. It is with some irony that one of the most unpopular kings in English history bequeathed such an important humanitarian legacy.

My dour teacher was right. Magna Carta is a lesson we should all revisit. Its ancient principles of liberty and freedom are never more important.


Illustration: King John signing the Magna Carta at Runnymede on June 15, 1215