Monday, November 02, 2020

Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?

Magna Carta has been trending on Twitter today because some people have decided that it gives them the right to ignore the new Covid-19 lockdown.

It doesn't.

As the leading lights of legal Twitter never tire of telling us, Magna Carta was repudiated by King John the year after he signed it and very little of it is to be found in English law today. Besides, even in 1215 its provisions applied only to a tiny minority of the population.

But as this interesting video from Greg Jenner of Horrible Histories tells us, there is more to it than that.

Medieval kings after John all acknowledged Magna Carta, it was cited in the prosecution of Charles I  and had a strong influence on the drafting of the US Constitution.

The idea that Magna Carta gives all English or British citizens rights that the government cannot take away may be a myth, but it seems to me a healthy one.

We Liberals tend to write off history as being intrinsically Conservative and feel we must look to the future, but we have not always been like that.

Classical Athens was a great inspiration to many 19th-century Liberals, while others took inspiration from England's Saxon history.

Today the latter is hardly mentioned and I came across an interesting theory on why this has come about in a rather unlikely way - through watching Dr David Starkey on Richard and Judy's afternoon programme:

Starkey said the idea that 1066 is the most important date in British history is a recent one. In fact it dates from 1914 - the year when all things French became good and all things German bad. German Shepherd Dogs turned into Alsatians and the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha turned into the House of Windsor.

Until then we had been very aware of our Saxon heritage and believed that the roots of our democracy lay in that era. After 1914 the Norman Conquest became almost a Year Zero and the Saxon kings were relegated to become a faintly embarrassing pre-history.

And the Norman kings are not inspiring figures for any Liberal.

As Boris Johnson's government is reminding us, it is Liberals who worry about arbitrary government power and Conservatives who rather enjoy wielding it. So it's helpful to us for there to be a national myth that holds this is not the way we do things.

If we just tell people they are wrong about Magna Carta without understanding its appeal we risk adopting the unattractive lecturing tone that is worryingly characteristic of so much anti-Conservative social media.

History is too important to the Tories and Magna Carta matters. Don't let her death have been in vain.


John Hemming said...

Magna Carta 1297 is currently in force, but most of its clauses have been repealed.

David Evans said...

All well and good, but what do you suggest/propose/urge that the lib Dems do/start to do to make sure her demise is not in vain?

Jonathan Calder said...

Can I get back to you on that one?

nigel hunter said...

We LibDems do not believe in centralised govnt,Tories do.Yes we should go back to the Saxons who forged a country from Alfred who developed a legal system, encouraged education and gave women responsibilities. Scandanavian influence then entered the country. We should develop that history with the Magna Carta ideals to push a new future,not give the Tories all the credit ad influence.