This year marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. It’s a landmark that brings together my three favourite subjects: law, history and politics. It has also caused me to reflect, as we enter this year of celebrating our unwritten constitution, on what we really ought to draw from these celebrations.
Festivities surrounding the event range from the production of tea towels, mugs and beer all bearing the Magna Carta ‘brand’ to an exclusive London global legal summit with tickets at around £1,500 a go. Is this really the way to celebrate this iconic document? Might we instead, in this General Election year, not draw something from the political process which gave birth to it to help us to heal our current political disconnect between people and politicians?
But what can a series of medieval encounters fought out between king and barons tell us about political parties and disenchanted citizens in the 21st century? Well, let’s have a go. Firstly, those barons took a leap in the dark. If they had been true to form rather than championing a charter limiting the king’s power and initially subjecting the king to control by a committee of 25 barons, they would have looked around for a replacement monarch.
Instead they did something quite extraordinary. The creation of the enduring concept that no one, not even a king or, as more recently, a US President in the form of Bill Clinton, can be above the law was groundbreaking. The committee of 25 barons might not have survived but the fact they had the temerity to put it into the original charter says a lot about their courage and innovation.
What disturbs me about our contemporary debate is the reticence to be brave about political and constitutional change. If we discuss it at all we discuss it in terms of what we know. Fiddling around the edges mainly, such as talking about English votes on English laws. The problems are much more fundamental. When discussing this issue with law students I was struck by how many dismissed the move towards a written constitution, not because they did not see it as a desirable aim but because they feared the process would be abused by vested interests and current politicians or political parties.
Their distrust in our political system is such that they cannot contemplate change; how sad is that? John’s barons took ownership of the political process. Maybe not in a manner we would advocate today, but it means there is a precedent for the drafting of a new constitutional settlement in the UK that belongs to the people and not politicians. We have been given a glimpse of what modern political engagement can look like in Scotland. Who says a proper debate about our constitutional and political arrangements could not be equally exciting? It surely won’t be if conducted within the confines of the current Westminster slanging match. We need to find the contemporary equivalent of cornering our politicians in the way the barons trapped King John. Or indeed working around them.
Perhaps one of the problems is that we ourselves have lost our own sense of what Magna Carta was about. Its central concept of freedom under the law, which the English exported around the globe via revolution and empire, has lost its meaning in its homeland. We talk about our ‘rights’ with little or no understanding of what they actually are or mean.
In some ways that has been Magna Carta’s strength down the years, quoted by political left and right; marshalled to underpin opposing philosophies. We learn very little constitutional legal history these days, even in law schools it has become a rather exotic option. So we leave constitutional discussions to others when really it should be for us all. This was the point of Magna Carta. It was (as are many modern written constitutions) a short, simple document. It was widely publicised, read out in churches. It became known and resonated, even down to us today. The sadness is that we have no such sense of connection or ownership with our current political processes and governance. They have become almost unintelligible and foreign to us, taken over by a Westminster based political class.
It is instructive to see where the ‘barons’ came from. They were not London based – a large proportion were ‘northern’. It remains the case today that the North feels ignored or under represented by central government and its London-based preoccupations. Might this again not be the spur for action, the catalyst for the call for a new constitutional settlement and allocation of powers within the kingdom?
A simple call from the North – or defined historical areas within it like Yorkshire – has the potential in the year of Magna Carta to provide the celebration with meaning and action. A charter for devolved power and more self-government, but like the barons, Yorkshire will have to fight for it. Do we have the stomach for a political fight, for a new progressive politics or will we just sit and take what is offered?