DAVID Cameron has spoken of the need to reform UK human rights to “safeguard” the Magna Carta’s legacy as the historic document’s influence over the past 800 years was celebrated.
The Prime Minister’s words came at a major international event, attended by the Queen and an audience of thousands, marking the groundbreaking accord’s role in helping to define concepts such as the rule of law and equal rights for all.
On the site at Runnymede where King John, on June 15 1215, accepted the historic document that limited the power of the Crown, Mr Cameron said it remains “sewn into the fabric of our nation, so deep we barely even question it” but complained that the notion of human rights in Britain has been “distorted and devalued”.
Among those at the celebration were senior members of the Royal Family, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls and chairman of the Magna Carta Trust.
Lord Dyson said in a speech to guests: “Magna Carta has had its ups and downs. But it was a hugely significant step on a journey which led to the building of a society where everyone has equal rights and nobody is above the law.”
The Conservative Government has controversial plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and assert the role of the UK’s Supreme Court over the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg - leaving open the option of withdrawing from the European Convention of Human Rights if reforms are blocked.
Here in Britain, ironically - the place where those ideas were first set out - the good name of ‘human rights’ has sometimes become distorted and devalued.David Cameron
Mr Cameron said in his speech: “It falls to us in this generation to restore the reputation of those rights - and their critical underpinning of our legal system.
“It is our duty to safeguard the legacy, the idea, the momentous achievement of those barons. And there couldn’t be a better time to reaffirm that commitment than on an anniversary like this.
“So on this historic day, let’s pledge to keep those principles alight.”
Although just three of its clauses remain law in the UK, Magna Carta set a precedent which saw it influence later works domestically and abroad, including the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the post-Second World War UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Mr Cameron said Magna Carta had been “revolutionary - altering forever the balance of power between the governed and the government”.
Down the years it had inspired the fighters in the English Civil War, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the founders of the first American states, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and “anyone challenging injustice or checking arbitrary power”, he added.
He said: “Magna Carta takes on further relevance today. For centuries, it has been quoted to help promote human rights and alleviate suffering all around the world.
“But here in Britain, ironically - the place where those ideas were first set out - the good name of ‘human rights’ has sometimes become distorted and devalued.”
Though more later versions remain, just four known copies of the original Magna Carta (Great Charter) exist today, from an estimated 13 that were made.
Two are held by the British Library, with Salisbury Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral holding the others. They are written in Latin on sheepskin.
Urging everyone in Britain to take pride in Magna Carta, Mr Cameron went on to say: “Its remaining copies may be faded, but its principles shine as brightly as ever in every courtroom and every classroom from palace to Parliament to parish church.
“Liberty, justice, democracy, the rule of law - we hold these things dear and we should hold them even dearer for the fact that they took shape right here, on the banks of the Thames.
“So on this historic day, let’s pledge to keep those principles alight. Let’s keep Magna Carta alive.
“Because as those barons showed, all those years ago, what we do today will shape the world for many, many years to come.”
The Queen did not give a speech but wrote a foreword to the official programme for the celebration, in her role as patron of the Magna Carta Trust.
She said: “The story of the British Monarchy is intertwined with that of Runnymede and Magna Carta.”
She added: “The values of Magna Carta were not just important to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, but across the world. Its principles are significant and enduring.”
In his address to the audience, the Archbishop of Canterbury highlighted how his medieval predecessor Archbishop Stephen Langton played an important role in the Magna Carta, and how archbishops Alphege and Anselm may have lived before the document was drawn up but embodied its principles.
But he also acknowledged the “failings” of the Church in the past to support those fighting for social justice.
Justin Welby said: “Archbishop Stephen Langton was mediator between the King and his barons, counsellor to both and an advocate of civil harmony, cohesion and goodwill.
“His great legacy was this remarkable document, the spring from which so much of the human quest for political liberty has drawn, here and abroad, especially in the USA.”
He added: “Langton was not alone. His was an age of giants at Canterbury. Alphege, whose love for his people led him to give his life to save them from paying a crippling ransom. Anselm, the wise scholar and yet brave counsellor, whose advice cost him years of exile. In such self-giving and courage, Magna Carta found fertile soil to grow. It sets the bar high for all of us today.
“In the centuries since, how often the Church has failed to uphold these most noble qualities, to be an advocate for those members of our community for whom the rights and liberties of Magna Carta have remained a distant hope.
“From the support for enclosures to the opposition to the Great Reform Act, to the toleration of all sorts of abuse, with humility, we recognise these failings.”
The Princess Royal and her husband, Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence, were among the royal party and, after the Queen, Duke and William had left, Anne rededicated the American Bar Association’s monument to Magna Carta.
She told the gathered US lawyers: “The Magna Carta provides us with one of our most basic doctrines - that no person is above the law.
“In recent history and even today we see in many parts of the world that power without the rule of law can lead to human suffering of terrible proportions. But it takes all of us to stand up for these principles.”
Among the guests was US Attorney General Loretta Lynch who a few weeks ago was the public face of America’s corruption case against Fifa officials.
She said: “This social contract between a monarch and his people codified, however imperfectly, notions that would one day stand at the heart of our own system of justice.
“The idea that no power is unconditional and no rule is absolute.”
Ms Lynch added: “For those that drafted the US Constitution, the significance of Magna Carta was clear - it’s influence helped shape a political system that enshrines separation of powers, due process and the rule of law.”
Earlier, William launched the day’s events by unveiling an artwork commissioned for the occasion called The Jurors, in the form of 12 bronze chairs representing the jury system, which grew out of Magna Carta.
The chairs feature 24 stories relating to justice, including those of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Oscar Wilde’s Ballad Of Reading Gaol.
Details on the chairs include the key to Mr Mandela’s jail cell, the key to the Bastille and black-eyed Susan flowers, which are traditionally associated with justice.
The Duke sat in one of the chairs as the artist, Hew Locke, and 10 performers filled the others to form the first gathering at a place where Locke hopes people will sit to contemplate and discuss the principles of justice.
He said: “The Duke was quite fascinated by it. My impression was when we started talking about the Mandela chair he got interested in that. He was the easiest guy I have talked to all day.”
Next William met children operating giant puppets of people who have played key roles in advancing human rights.
Children from Thorpe Lea Primary School in Egham were operating an 8ft (2.4m) tall puppet of Edward Coke, architect of the Bill of Rights in the 17th century.
Karl Newman, 55, from Surrey Arts, who was inside the puppet, said: “I’m not sure if the Duke had heard of Edward Coke but he was interested to know who made the puppets and I told him they were made for the 799th anniversary last year and we kept them until now.”